Know Your Pattern – The Royal Coachman

Not everyone likes the Royal Coachman. According to Paul Schullery, one angler called it “an act of aesthetic vandalism, a grotesque violence perpetrated on a fly box.”

But I am rather fond of this fly. Actually, I am rather fond of couple of its modifications — the Royal Wulff and the Royal Trude. The following profile will help you appreciate this dry fly pattern and use it more effectively:

1. How it originated

Paul Schullery’s essay, “Royal Coachman and Friends” (found in his book, Royal Coachman: The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing), tells the story of this magnificent pattern. John Haily, a professional fly tyer in New York, first tied this pattern in 1878. He simply created a more flashy version of an older British pattern, the Coachman. He added some red silk in the middle and a little sprig of wood duck feathers for a tail. Then, he mailed his sample fly to L.C. Orvis, the brother of Charles Orvis, who founded The Orvis Company.

Yes, the Orvis rod or waders or vest you may use comes from that company.

The rest is history.

2. How it has been modified

Legendary fly fisher Lee Wulff famously modified the Royal Coachman in the 1930s by replacing its wings and tail with white calf hair. Dan Bailey promoted this fly to western anglers in his fly shop in Livingston, Montana, and through his mail-order business. He gets the credit for suggesting the name “Royal Wulff.” The calf hair makes this fly float well in rough water of western rivers.

According to The Orvis Company, the Royal Trude originated even earlier in Island Park, Idaho (near Henry’s Fork of the Snake River). Apparently an angler in the early 1900s tied it as a joke. But it turned into a serious pattern.

The Royal Trude has a long wing of white calf hair which runs the length of the fly. A friend swears by this pattern on the Yellowstone River. He is a one-fly kind of guy, and he has used it successfully during the salmon fly hatch and during hopper season.

3. Why it works

Who knows?

It is definitely an attractor pattern. Paul Schullery notes that fly fishers “want to believe it looks like something — a dragonfly, a moth, a crippled hummingbird, a lightening bug; there is a desperation in these efforts to label the fly. And it’s unnecessary. Trout take flies for lots of reason we know and for some we’ll never understand.”

4. When to use it

The Royal Wulff or Royal Trude is a great pattern to use when you are trying to coax a trout to the surface when there is no obvious hatch in play.

For awhile I stopped using The Royal Coachman and its derivatives because they were so popular. I feared the trout would get tired of seeing them. So I gravitated more towards Humpy patterns and even an Elk Hair Caddis for those times when I wanted an attractor pattern that would stay afloat in choppy water.

But I have a hunch that the “Royals” have a lot of life left in them. Trout may see fewer Royals these days due to the myriad of other patterns available. So I’m predicting they will make a comeback as they give new generations of trout a fresh look.

I do hope the comeback happens. After all, as Schullery points out, “the Royal Coachman is the first great American fly pattern.”

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3 thoughts on “Know Your Pattern – The Royal Coachman

  1. Royal Trude is one of my go-to patterns for a top fly, with a beadhead dropper. I’m not sure why it works … perhaps the Maclean curiosity theory. The fish take a look at the Trude, just because they’re curious, and then realize that there is some authentic looking food just below. Nonetheless, I’ve had quite a bit of success with a Trude top fly, and a strike on the dropper!

    • That’s a great point, Ted. Use a dropper with the Royal Trude. That’s a good practice with any attractor pattern. I hope you still get to do some fly fishing even you’re no longer in Montana.

  2. In my years as a fishing biologist I’ve shied away from the “attractor” category. I certainly don’t include the coachman series in that list. The reason is there are times when that “attractor” works better than what the fisherman “thinks” should be working. Think about that for a moment. The fish has a real reason to go for that coachman in late summer when you think a hopper should be the right bug. What a person needs to do is think about what sort of hatches (even those sparse hatches) that happen when the coachman magic happens. The answers become more clear at that moment.

    In the west we have the October caddis beginning to appear in late summer along with termites and flying ants. A dry coachman is not an exact match, but it is close enough at size 8-10 to work as a generalist or impressionist. So those are the categories I use to describe all of the coachmen. They don’t have the exact color, but they do have a decent outline. The size is also a temptation to the trout that are starting to feed heavily and aggressively as they feel the water cool towards winter and that need to bulk up to survive a long cold spell.

    These are the sorts of things I talk about when I am hosting a group of fly fishing friends. It makes great dinner conversation! Cheers!