Lil’ Dorothy’s Riffle

1.  Late morning on a wild trout stream flowing through old farmland. The sky sun-bright and cloudless; the air getting warm. The water summer low and tight with vegetation, not exactly promising for the fisherman… And the brown trout? Spooky as hell.

flowing through old farmlands…

The fish wouldn’t rise to my assortment of tiny dries, nor to my presentation of nymphs. When I decided to try one final pool, I thought of my late friend’s special fly created for the Sulphur hatches of the Genesee and similar rivers. Mark Libertone’s masterful creation, the Lil’ Dorothy, was one of several soft-hackle patterns originating in his vise and proving popular among his many friends in the upstate and international trout fraternity.

I had tried the small yellow fly on several previous occasions but hadn’t yet achieved success. I wasn’t seeing any Sulphur mayflies on the water, but since I often follow my nose when rambling past the confines of society, I attached a self-tied specimen of the Lil’ Dorothy to my leader.

Lil’ Dorothy & wild brown…

It should come as no surprise, now, to hear that I finally found success there in the last pool of the morning. I guess if I hadn’t caught a well-earned brown trout in that pool, I wouldn’t have much to contemplate or to mention here… The Lil’ Dorothy pulled through.

2.  Mid-morning on a favorite trout stream in the Pennsylvania highlands. I began my casting on a feeder stream pouring from a culvert underneath a gravel road. I placed the dry caddis with a long cast to a shimmering pool. A seven-inch brook trout quickly came to hand.

mountain water…

Then, fishing from the shaded, larger stream, I tied a dropper to the floating caddis– yep, a Lil’ Dorothy, the yellowish emerger pattern, the soft-hackle with an orangish abdomen and a Hare’s Ear thorax perfected by my late friend from the Genesee. Tandem flies, a dry fly and a nymph/emerger, make an excellent combination for an angler eager to explore the feeding preferences of trout.

After my initial brook trout taken at the feeder stream, each native that came to hand and got released (at least five or six) favored the submerged soft-hackle (Lil’ Dorothy) over the floating Elk-hair Caddis. My faith in Libertone’s creation was reaffirmed, at least for now.

hemlocks shade the trout stream…

The bergamot, or bee-balm, flowering at streamside, caught my attention– a poetic distraction, like many that will come to us while hiking or fishing…


Ragged, handsome heads–/ tubular and red/ with mint-square stems/ growing near upland streams.// Bees won’t touch them/ but hummers will–/ this balm for human/ aches and pains.// Bartram, the naturalist,/ found it coloring/ Ontario’s shore,/ this “Indian plume,”/ Oswego Tea, a mountain/ mint with names/ like blossoms/ on our history.// Only now do I find it,/ wondering what degree/ of chance/ brought us here–// What stroke of luck/ or natural motion/ drives our roots/ instinctively down–// What share of bee-balm life/ is human life,/ is always/ ours to tell.

3.  Mark Libertone succumbed to a long-fought illness back in 2013, but the memory of his work and spirit here in Genesee country remains solidly alive. Mark was an artist, a family man, living in Wellsville, N.Y. on the Genesee River, and he was popular on the fly-tying forums where he shared his flies and knowledge with many students of the fly-fishing world.

fine water for dries and soft-hackles…

The renowned European tyer, Hans Weilenmann, published photos of Mark’s creations and listed a recipe for Mark’s Lil’ Dorothy, the soft-hackle fly created to imitate Ephemerella dorothea, the sulphury and diminutive mayfly:

Hook: Mustad 3906 or 3399A; Thread: Cream or white. Abdomen: Pale orange embroidery thread, #722. Thorax: Cahill-colored Hare’s Ear dubbing. Hackle: Cream or pale ginger. [see photo below, by H. Weilenmann]

On the origin of the pattern, Mark once wrote: “This fly originated years ago when I found a good hatch of E. dorothea coming off the water in my home river, the Genesee. It was late May… I had nothing that came close to the color combination, and the trout were feeding on them regularly….”

The hatching flies had a distinctive orange cast to their abdomens.

Mark experimented with various colors and material but nothing seemed to match his vision for the fly until, browsing through Wal-Mart’s sewing and crafts department, he was struck by one shade of embroidery floss. He bought a pack of the “very pale creamy orange” embroidery. The soft-hackle pattern he developed used a single strand of orange floss for the abdomen, with a bit of Hare’s Ear dubbing for a thorax tightened by a wisp of pale ginger hackle… So, Lil’ Dorothy was born.

She did the trick for me in the riffles of two trout streams, one fine weekend close to home.

Bee-balm blossoming on the banks….

flashback from Alpine, Wyoming, July 2018

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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24 Responses to Lil’ Dorothy’s Riffle

  1. Dan says:

    Very nice Walt. Thanks

  2. You’re welcome, Dan. Glad you liked it.

  3. Bob Stanton says:

    Lil’ Dot strikes again! I need to fish with you soon.

  4. Brent says:

    Any thoughts on what weather-related, water temperature, or other factors might have led to Lil’ Dorothy pulling through here? Or is it often no more than just dumb luck?

    • Good question: when attempting to use the pattern earlier in the season when the natural seemed to be hatching, the water was high & cooler & perhaps the trout were less inclined to feed. Now the streams were lower & slightly warmer & the fish were less inclined to take the larger dry fly. Environmental factors seem to be at work, but we might as well throw in the “dumb luck” factor as well. Fly-fishing will never be completely scientific, and that’s what makes it fun.

  5. JZ says:

    I like the looks of that pattern when it comes to fishing for brooks. I often throw wets while fishing small streams, but also larger creeks too. I remember, quite vividly even, I fished Kettle just above Sliders on a sleet driven cold blustery day in late November. Nothing seemed to work great because of the front that had just moved in. Small streamers saved the day in most of the tail-outs. Eager fish are still there for those fisherman who voyage out. Although tactics surely change from stream to stream and different seasons. Glad you found a pattern that worked Walt and great to hear the story behind it. Hey, I’ve seen that bee-balsam before while fishing. Never new the name or that its a remedy of what aches us. Funny that bees won’t touch it given its name, but hummers do..

    • I agree with your angling insights for our headwaters region, JZ. Thanks. I’m glad you liked the story behind the fly pattern’s creation, and especially that you connected to the bee-balm flower from your own experience and from reading of the poem. It’s a beautiful blossom & has some interesting background, with a touch of irony, as well.

  6. plaidcamper says:

    Really enjoyed this, Walt, bergamot flavoured bittersweet memories and Lil’ Dorothy keeping you connected to what matters.
    Wonderful lines, images, and that’s a great shot of hemlock over stream.

  7. tiostib says:

    A delightful tale, taking my imagination back to river wanderings and nights at the workshop bench trying to create the perfect fly. Thanks much!

  8. UB - Marion says:

    I think many fly fishers will be able to relate to your connection to Mark Libertone. I know/knew a man from Archbold, Ohio who had shown me how to tie a foam extended body at the Midwest Fly Tying show many years ago (but that’s a whole ‘nother’ story). Remembering our connections to those that come before us – who contribute stories and information that passes down to others – is simply invaluable! Great story and attribution Walt!

    • Marion, I’m glad you, too, appreciate those who come before us, in this water or in that field, who have passed along their knowledge and their kindness, and who help keep the fine traditions alive. I agree, all of it together is invaluable. Thank you for your input!

  9. Bob says:

    The Bull Moose Lodge & Saloon on the Snake…It’s amazing the places we’ve both been. My Mom’s name was Dorothy, I’ll tie a few and the next time up in the Allegheny National Forest
    I’ll tempt those little jewels – I’ve got a feeling they’ll be a favorite of both the brookies & I.

    • Hey Bob (M.), it does seem amazing that we’ve covered each other’s tracks in so many different trouty locales… Yeah the Bull Moose… Did you have the chance to fish up on the wonderful Greys River, too? As for the fab Lil’ Dots, I’ll bet our PA brookies will appreciate them. Good luck!

  10. Bob, It’s a good one… would love to revisit.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Although I’m not a fisherfolk, I so enjoy your blog. The wonderful photos pull me right in – pun intended. The meditation on bee balm was lovely, although I’ve seen many bees and butterflies both on those in gardens here – Chester county, PA. I love the subtle scent of the flowers when the sun warms the air.
    Have you ever checked out David Carroll’s beautiful book on trout? He’s a wonderful artist and writer.

    • Great to hear from you, Mary. Thanks so much, especially for your notice of the bee-balm. I’m gonna have to some homework to recall why I said the bees won’t touch them (not sure why I was thinking that) and, of course, on my long overdue neglect of the David Carroll book. I’ll look him up right away!

  12. Jet Eliot says:

    A wonderful adventure on the Genesee, Walt. A beautiful read of your tributes to Mark Libertone, bee balm, and your passion for the outdoors and fishing. Great photos too. I am always in awe of how beautiful the trout are, something I never knew until I started visiting your posts. Thanks for bringing this beauty into my life.

  13. loydtruss says:

    It takes an accomplished angler to land trout when they won’t take a dry and nymph; congrats on finding success. Awesome images of the Bee-balm!! Thanks for sharing

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