Ye Olde Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear Nymph
Updated: Jan 31
I think everyone probably has a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear story. Here’s mine:
I used to fish with an excellent spin-guy who’d never touched a fly rod but wanted to learn more about it. We met at a local stream one day and I tied on one of my personal innovations, which was really just a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear with a brown marabou tail. Also, the fly was tied on a size 8, 1x-short caddis hook, and on the right days, it absolutely killed.
That day, I watched my friend land 14 fat, freshly-stocked rainbows on about that many casts before he handed back my fly rod, frowning, and said, “I think I’ll just stick with my spinners.”
For years afterwards, when we fished together, if I wasn’t banging trout at a regular pace, he’d kind of shake his head like I must be doing something wrong. To be honest, I have often wondered the same thing. That’s fly fishing for you. Anybody can have a great experience, but stick with it long enough and it will humble you.
The Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear has accounted for a lot of banner days, and it has also salvaged a lot of lousy days. Despite that, when I start out, the GRHE is rarely my first fly of choice. But as the day progresses, I’ll turn to it at some point. It’s truly one of the most simple yet versatile patterns in my fly box.
The Hare’s Ear can represent any number of insects. Mayfly nymphs, caddis pupa, and even stoneflies. For that reason, it seems every beginner fly tying kit includes a hare’s mask and instructions for tying a Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear. You could probably fish some sort of variation of Hare’s Ear every day, in any conditions, and expect to catch fish.
It’s unknown who, exactly, invented the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph, but according to Ian Whitelaw in his book, The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies, the nymph derived from the wet fly of a similar name. He writes, “The material – originally taken from just the ear of the hare but later from other parts of the face or “mask” – was used from the mid-1800s onwards to form the body of a fly that was mentioned by Francis Francis, by James Ogden (who is sometimes credited as creator of the GRHE) and by Frederic Halford, but in all these cases they were referring to a winged blue dun.”
In fact, the name of that fly was the Hare’s Ear Blue Dun, which had wings made from a starling feather, a tail of three strands of red hackle, and a red hackle beard. Whitelaw writes, “When exactly the winged dun became a wingless nymph is unclear. G.E.M. Skues, a dedicated nymph fisher, is said to have fished the winged hare’s ear, but at a certain point a more ‘buggy’ and nymph-like wingless version made its debut.”
(I’ve mentioned Whitelaw’s book several times here in the past. Truly, if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’re missing out on a modern classic. I highly recommend it.)
Original recipe for the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear:
Hook: Nymph, #10-16.
Tail: Hare’s ear guard hairs or hen feather fibers.
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Wing case: Pheasant or turkey tail fibers.
Head: Varnished brown tying thread.
As with many patterns nowadays, the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear can be tied in seemingly endless variations. Gold beads can be added to the head. Flashback material can be used as a wing case instead of the pheasant or turkey tail fibers. You can do what writer and fly tyer John Gierach did and add a mottled hen or partridge hackle to create his pattern, the Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear Nymph. You can also experiment with various types of tail fibers, such as I did with the marabou. Or, even simpler, try using a different color of thread, such as red, orange, or yellow and create a small hot spot around the bead.
Another slight modification I’ve been doing recently, which I’ve found to be quite effective, is to place a drop or two of UV resin on the wing case and harden it with the UV light. This gives the case a lifelike, hard shell appearance as well as adds a little bit of weight to help it get down in the water column quicker.
Although the original recipe recommends sizes #10-16, I’ve tied the GRHE as large as size 6 to imitate stonefly nymphs, and as small as size 20 when trout are taking midges. For this reason, I often tie this fly on various styles of hooks. For instance, a 3x long curved hook shank is great for stonefly patterns. But if I’m looking to use it as a midge or caddis imitation, a 1x short shank hook is more suitable. Many times, when tying it to imitate a caddis, fly tyers will eliminate the tail, thorax and wing case, so basically you have a gold-ribbed body with a gold bead head, which looks and fishes a lot like a Walt’s Worm – the only difference would be the type of hare dubbing called for in each recipe.
My favorite colors for this fly are natural, black, olive, and cream. In various sizes and styles, they can cover just about any situation I encounter. No matter how you tie this nymph, and regardless of which source you’re using as a reference, one aspect is constant: they all suggest picking out the spiky fibers so that they jut out like legs and give the fly a more realistic appearance in the water.
Fly anglers like to ponder such things as: “If I had only one fly to fish with for the rest of my life, what would it be?” Although I tend to be more non-committal in this relationship I have with fly fishing, I can appreciate the question. Do an internet search for “best nymphs for trout,” “top nymphs for fly fishing,” or any such variation, and no matter what pops up, you’ll find the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear at the top or close to the top of every list of favorites and must-haves in your fly box. It’s simplicity, versatility, and effectiveness on just about any stream or river in the country – and around the world, for that matter – make the GRHE number one. And that’s good enough for me.
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