It's nothing much to look at. Gray. Drab. A little fuzzy.
Anybody can tie it, which means it turns up in various stages of gray, and in various stages of quality. There's solace for even the ham-handed tier, however. Even in its finest condition, the Adams is a bit underwhelming.
But not to trout. To trout, it's a magical meal that doesn't match exactly anything on the water, but it sure appears to be close enough to a lot of food sources that it gets plenty of looks. It's a classic attractor. A fly for all seasons.
Oddly enough, it was tied to match a hatch, but, according to fly fishing historian Paul Schullery, it was never actually used on the water it was created to fish. The first Adams was tied by Michigan's Leonard Halladay, who created the fly based on a description by Charles Adams in the 1930s. Adams saw the "natural" on a pond in Halladay's yard. The natural? Nobody knows, but it was likely a mayfly — perhaps a March Brown or just a big gray drake.
After tying the fly for the angler who “discovered” it, Halladay handed it over to Adams, who took the fly to the nearby Boardman River (not the pond), where he determined the fly to be a "knockout." Halladay promptly named the fly the "Adams" in honor of the first man to put it through its paces. And, to this day, the Adams and the Boardman River are often mentioned in the same breath. Unfortunately, its creator, Leonard Halladay, is hardly ever mentioned at all.
The Adams occupies a prominent spot in my dry fly box. Unlike the Elk Hair Caddis or the Blue-winged Olive, the Adams is always in the box. It's not seasonal. It's not situational, if the Adams did have a season, it would, of course, be summer. It's a necessity. In smaller sizes, it'll pass as a midge or a baetis. Bigger, and it'll work during a caddis hatch. It's a great generic mayfly match, for, when it gets wet, the gray dubbing used to craft the pattern doesn’t really stay gray, but turns a dark, buggy shade of wrought iron.
To the fish, it’s likely the silhouette that matters, and I’ve used the Adams to reasonably imitate big Green Drakes on the Oldman River of Alberta and to ably match a March Brown hatch on Montana’s Rock Creek one spring as the rest of the dry-fly anglers that day eagerly awaited the seasonal arrival of the sqwala stonefly. On Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake, tied in size 20, the Adams fools trout keyed in on Blue-winged Olives — but I hate fishing an Adams so small.
On smaller water, where wild trout are more opportunistic than cautious, an oversized, bushy Adams — like a size 12 or even a size 10 — should be the first choice of any blue-lining angler. It's easy for both angler and fish to see in varied light and fast water. It floats well and has a buggy look to it, both from above, and, presumably, below. It might well be the perfect dry fly. I certainly think so.
I’ve often thought, in moments of whimsy that I think fly fishers are often prone to experiencing, that, on the arrival of the solstice, I’ll start a summer fishing the Adams, and, no matter what, I won’t change patterns until the season dies. I might change flies — backcountry trout can turn even the sturdiest Adams in a fuzzy mess after a time — but, I tell myself, I’ll always just fish the Adams. I even had a book idea on the topic — “Adams Summer,” I was going to call it. But, I’ve come to realize, those are the books written for the writer, not necessarily for the reader.
And then the whimsy goes away, only to come back on melancholy winter days when bare tree branches are visible through the office window and the landscape is generally white. Oh, to be fishing a big Adams, I think on days like that. For that would mean the trees would be green, the skies would be blue and the water around my ankles would be flowing free and not locked in the wintry grip that I’ve come to despise so much as I grow older.
And, of course, as I get older, I get more … crotchety. Like the old man who is constantly yelling at the neighborhood kids to “get the hell off my lawn!” That’s when my thinking gets more and more rigid — and why wouldn’t I, under that strident mindset, spend more time thinking about fishing nothing but an Adams over the course of summer?
And then I’ll sit down at the vise and tie up a dozen flies to satiate the “Dark Passenger” that just wants to fish one fly, dry and upstream, all the damn time.
Honestly, it could be done, and I bet the trout of the Rockies would be just as happy if I elected to solely fish one pattern over the course of a season. I’m guessing, too, that I’d catch plenty of fish, because in the creeks and streams where I spend the bulk of my time, the Adams seems to work, regardless of what’s hatching and what flavor of trout is swimming in the water at my feet.
Clearly with age comes a measure of stubbornness, and I’m channeling more of that trait these days. Not only am I needlessly bitter about the change of seasons and the passing of the “Adams Summer” in favor of the unsettled weather that’s finally taken over after a brilliant Indian summer, but I’m more inclined to wonder openly about the little things, like, “Why the hell did Halladay name the fly after Charles Adams?”
That would be like Kelly Galloup naming the Circus Peanut after the first dope who dredged one through the Madison below Quake Lake. What’s better? The Circus Peanut or the Jones streamer? So let’s do a solid to old Leonard, and maybe make a notable change in how we reference this storied fly. Let’s just call it the Halladay from here on out, if for no other reason than to mourn the passing of the season where the Adams — er, Halladay — is most prominently fished.
After all the fish the fly has managed to catch for us over the years, much like it did for Mr. Adams, that's the least we can do.