The Templeton

The unedited version of Greg Fitz’s article that made its way into the Fly Fish Journal…..A buddy of mine has recently become completely obsessed with bass fishing. It is notable because he is from the pacific northwest and has spent a lifetime being spoiled by year round steelhead and trout fishing, but smallmouth got under his skin last year. I’m from Minnesota originally and I adore those bronze devils. For years they defined my summers and autumns. During the long, deep freeze of winter, I would often catch myself daydreaming of warm evenings and bass taking topwater bugs in a swirl.
The last time I saw him, we drank some beers and talked about bass flies. New fisheries mean new patterns and along the way of his smallmouth journey he has accumulated an impressive collection of balsa and foam poppers, deer hair frogs, Dahlberg Divers, sliders, gurglers, bunny leeches, crayfish, hellgrammites, murdich minnows and, of course, piles and piles of clousers. His bursting fly boxes looked like the Warmwater section of every fly shop I’ve ever visited. The only flies missing were the meticulous, blue foam dragonfly patterns I always see in stores and catalogs, but have never seen anyone actually use.
I own the same bundles of flies, more or less, but when he asked about my favorite patterns I had to admit that if I’m bass fishing, odds are I’m running a chartreuse Templeton. He didn’t know the pattern and started to Google it on his phone. I wasn’t sure he’d find much information online. Like many of the best patterns, the Templeton is a bug developed in a specific geographical region for specific water and a specific species. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work great elsewhere, or that it wouldn’t get eaten by fish besides smallmouth bass (I happen to know it works great on northern pike, too), but it means the pattern hasn’t made the leap to catalogs, fly tying blogs and fly shop bins yet. I don’t know that it will, or that it should. The Templeton isn’t some groundbreaking innovation, it is a working guide’s fly that just happens to function ideally in the scenario for which it is intended.
More importantly, in my mind at least, the Templeton is a talisman immediately recalling short summers, tannic water, the intersticial boundary between the eastern deciduous forest and the boreal forest of the north, and the bright red eyes of hungry smallmouth bass prowling their native rivers. Just thinking about the pattern makes me homesick.
The Templeton is the creation of my friend Bob Bickford. Bickford been fishing and guiding for smallmouth bass on the St. Croix River, along the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, for decades. It is fair to say the Templeton is one of the foundations of his program. And while the fly fishes remarkably well on nearby stretches of the Upper Mississippi River as well, the Templeton was made specifically for the steep, grassy banks of the St. Croix.
Rising from the bog, lake and flowage country of northern Wisconsin, the St. Croix is a quintessential tea-stained northern river. It was among the first rivers named in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and has been, at least upriver of the gorge at Taylor’s Falls, largely protected from development because of that wise designation. Smallmouth prowl its shallow banks, cruising for bait gathered among waving emergent vegetation or corralled by rock, granite walls and downed timber, or opportunistically pouncing on whatever hapless terrestrial creature slips into the water.
Along these thin shorelines, a hard body popper can be too loud and a Sneaky Pete slider can be too quiet. The Dahlberg Diver is perfect, but deer hair it too much of a pain in the ass to spin and trim for a guide whose clients are going to launch some percentage of his fly collection into bank side trees every day. Not to mention flies lost to the saw blade teeth of occasional muskies and pike. Deer hair will start to waterlog and sink once it is saturated with water and fish slime, too.
Bickford would tell you that a Templeton is simply a generic diver made with foam, flash and marabou. Maybe a collar of crosscut bunny. Easy to mass produce at the tying bench, durable and they’ll float all day long. But the magic happens when an angler smacks the Templeton down inches from the bank and starts to swim and twitch the fly back to the boat. The Templeton’s pop, dive and bubble gurgle is the perfect smallmouth bass predatory trigger. Not too obnoxious to scary spooky fish, not too quiet to go unnoticed in big water. Simply perfect. Everytime I scoot a Templeton along, hearing and feeling that gentle chug and push of water, I am astounded if it doesn’t get attacked.
I’ve watched cruising fish turn and chase a Templeton from yards away. I’ve seen them destroy it the second it lands and shark out from underneath sunken logs to crush it. It is the only fly I’ve seen catch fish all day long when nothing else would work. On that particular day, I caught bass for hours while a friend burned through his roster of dependable patterns and remained skunked. It was uncanny. When I finally lent him a Templeton to use, he immediately caught three nice bass in the hundred yards before we reached the boat landing. You’d better believed he fished a Templeton the next day when we did the float again.
I let him keep the fly. It was a karmic debt I owed the universe. Bickford had given me the Templeton, told me how to cut the erlenmeyer flask shaped piece of foam, and explained how to best fish it on the St Croix. It was an act of fishy generosity and I think of it every time a smallmouth devours the Templeton as it desperately swims from the bank.
Objectively speaking, the Templeton is a goofy looking fly. I don’t think its creator would deny that. Because of its resemblance to a rodent face, Bickford had often joked that it was named for Templeton the Rat, a character in Charlotte’s Web. I asked him about it and he laughed. It turns out it was named for a longtime client who was among the first to fish the new fly when Bickford was tweaking the first generation of the pattern years ago. The client examined the fly after Bickford tied it on his line and promptly gave it back, telling him it was the “stupid fucking thing he’d ever seen.” He went on to describe the fly as having a marshmallow head, but using additional, colorful adjectives to express how he didn’t consider that association to be a positive.
They fished other flies for most of the day, but Bickford was eventually asked to demonstrate the pattern to the skeptical client later on that trip. The proto-Templeton caught a fish immediately. The client grudgingly gave it a try and was soon won over. The design got finalized soon afterwards and has been catching smallmouth on the rivers flowing out of the Northland ever since.