Friday, December 5, 2014

Trigger Flies For Pre-Spawn Rainbows

     Yes, I mean these as trout flies. Sure, they may look like salmon or steelhead flies, & I wouldn’t hesitate to fish them thus, but they are new recruits into my line-up of attractor wets for swinging on winter pre-spawn rainbows. I suspect I might be a born anarchist. Boundaries have sometimes been ambiguous I admit. And I hate trends. I like to work from tried & true core principles, so I am a fairly disciplined anarchist. I respect tradition & endeavor to tweak it lovingly. I figure that’s what it’s for. Are these over the top? O probably. But they were fun to tie & I like looking at them. I’m hoping the trout will too. They are small lures, really, smaller than, say, the doll-eyed, articulated streamers currently trending in trout fishing (when wet they have less mass than a small ¼ ounce spinner or spoon), so fill a niche during those times when trout might be triggered by something fanciful but not too large. These are tied on TMC 200R #4 & #6 hooks, but a fancy approach can be reduced to a #10, smaller than that the fancy flies start to look clunky with too much bulk at the head & the materials (appendages) not draping properly.

For fishing.

Flyfish NE Washington withSteven Bird        

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Squirrel & Brahma Muddler

     As a nearly universal food item of stream trout, & larger trout, I can think of no more important form than the freshwater sculpin, or muddler. Don Gapen tied the original Muddler Minnow in 1937, to simulate the sculpin big Ontario brook trout were feeding on. Gapen’s muddler patterns were entirely innovative, tied with a heavy squirrel tail topping extended well beyond the hook bend, & a turkey quill over-wing nearly as long. It looked like something the cat dropped on the porch & was not the neat, trimmed, bullet-headed rendition popularized by Dan Bailey, the version common in catalogs today, short winged & nearly or altogether devoid of the trailing squirrel tail. Bailey wanted to give the fly more floatation so that it would fish as a grasshopper, the story goes. Gapen did not pack or trim the deer hair head, which no doubt aided in sinking the fly. The original Muddler Minnow, in form, more closely resembles the creations of Kelly Galloup than it does the neat, sparse, Dan Bailey version.

A few of the things I think contribute to the effectiveness of Don Gapen’s original Muddler Minnow:

It is not overly large, generally tied in #4 & smaller. Using traditional wetfly standards of proportion, more or less, a #4 3xlong hook produces a one & three quarter/two inch long fly, the size of many species of freshwater sculpin at maturity. That & smaller are the sizes most often eaten by foraging trout. O sure. You’ll catch a big brown on that four inch long doll-eyed bunny version, put in the time, or you live in Big Trout Paradise. But in the places most of us fish, most of the time, a less invasive muddler will catch everything, while still possessing enough ju-ju to entice the big boys – & is a lot more pleasant to cast.       

The simple gold tinsel body of Gapen’s design is genius, the designer understood that, in this case, the sum of the components, altogether, comprise the actual ‘body’ of the muddler. The tinsel wound hook shank adds flash, & also becomes the lower flank lateral coloration, which is often pale gold through shades of yellow/bronze in natural sculpin – & less bulk to buoy the fly, helping it sink & stay down.

Excellent material choices & coloration withstanding, probably the most effective feature of the Muddler Minnow is its profile. The squirrel tail hairwing of the original provides action & mass, as well as the barred pattern displayed on naturals. The broad pinto pattern on the turkey quill overwing (which used to puzzle me, for want of something to better match the sculpin of my home water), perfectly matches the girdled patterns found on many sculpin species, & probably the one Gapen meant it to fish for. But the prime element is the flared deer hair head, which, when wet, serves to give the Muddler Minnow the characteristic sculpin profile, which I believe, is the key to the success of the muddler-style patterns.

I love tying, looking at, & fishing muddlers. The style is effective in a number of variations, & in colorations ranging from realistic to fanciful. I would elect Don Gapen’s Muddler Minnow as one of the most out-of-the-box, influential fly patterns of all time. Though the Squirrel & Brahma Muddler featured here is a departure from the original, it remains true to the original design values. I’ve had very good results with this one – UC redband, steelhead & smallmouth bass too.

Squirrel & Brahma Muddler

Hook: #4-#6 3xlong or up-eye salmon/steelhead style (I like TMC 200R as well)

Thread: Tan UNI 8/0

Tail: Two coq de leon hackle tips

Body: Copper tinsel with a short thorax of dubbed squirrel – then add a turn of dubbing after the toppings are tied in, which is essential to flare the hackle collar for the muddler profile

Topping: Olive bucktail topped with squirrel tail, a bit shorter than the bucktail – then two coq de leon hackle tips tied in as a cheek, one on both sides of the wing             
Head: One brown pheasant rump hackle, then four brahma hen hackles, then a nose of dubbing taken from the base of a squirrel tail, dubbed in a loop of the tying thread ~ & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Green/Blue Spider

     Those of us who like to swing flies are fortunate that pre-spawn salmonids, even if not actively feeding, develop the propensity to attack fancifully sexy fly designs – so our tradition of creative salmon & steelhead flies. And as it is with salmon & steelhead, so it is with landlocked trout, though that is an angle many of us don’t often consider.

There was a time when highly detailed quill winged attractor patterns served a trout fly tradition as rich as the anadromous side of things, & those flies worked well on pre-spawn trout – & that is the baby in the proverbial bathwater, I think, the fact that those flies worked very well at certain times of the year. Yet the development of attractor flies for trout fishing has been mainly truncated since the late 1950’s, as the imitative wave rolled in to sweep away the old wetfly patterns of Ray Bergman & those who came before us. Sadly, in the process, it even became tacitly understood (in some circles) that the imitative approach was somehow morally superior to other methods, & that served to diminish an artful branch of our sport, & a useful, fun approach as well, as any steelheader can tell you.

There is a lot of room for good lures in our trout fly boxes, as the purpose for them still exists.  

Fortunately, creative anglers are always showing us a new direction to take the classic concepts. Hairwing attractors are finding popularity among those who like to fish flies that do not resemble jigs, & we are seeing designs from both East & West that are simply exquisite. Along with hairwings, the wingless ‘spider’ designs popular for sea-run cutthroat & skinny water steelhead are showing good potential as trout lures. Anywhere trout will strike a tiny spoon or spinner, they will find a swung & stripped fancy spider irresistible. (The fancy ‘low water spider’ style of the PNW & Great Lakes should not be confused with the smaller, extremely simple ‘north country spider’ designs originated in Britain, another effective soft-hackle style that we’ll eventually get to.) The elegant, wingless LW spiders afford us infinite room for creative design, & these patterns fill the bill when a larger streamer is just too much.             

Green/Blue Spider

Hook: #10 TMC 200R

Thread: black UNI 8/0

Body: green tinsel-blue tinsel-peacock herl

Hackle: golden plover

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Dark Cahill ~ Morphogenesis of the Western Hairwing Wetfly

     Some writers seem fond of theorizing that the popularity of hairwing designs in the West came about as the result of the unique demands of “big, brawling Western freestones”, holding “big trout”, & the need to imitate “big Western insects”. Sounds good, at first, yet just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It is true that a clump of hair exhibits more action & will take more abuse than a paired quill wing, & that is a thing that was known before flyfishing arrived in the West. But, if hair has more action than quill, then wouldn’t it follow that hair is not a necessity of swift freestones, & in fact might even be a better choice than quill for quieter water as well? And isn’t it true that there are big freestones in the East & upper Midwest, & baitfish & large insects as well? Nope. Not buying the ‘big brawling freestone’ theory.

As one who has lived quite a few years in a remote region of the PNW, beyond the power lines for a time, I’m fairly convinced the hairwings came about out of necessity & convenience. Sure, there are wood ducks in the West, but they are elusive & seldom around when you need one, & the West is a big place. However, the country abounds with cow tails, buck tails, pine squirrel tails, ground squirrel tails, skunk tails & the tails of hairy critters of all types. In 1900 there were no cars & few roads in the West & even fewer places to buy exotic feathers shipped from London & New York. Sure, rich sports from the East visited the Far West, but the pioneer Western flyfisher had to make most of his own gear, & I’m fairly certain there were few who could afford to spend money on fancy quills &, instead, worked from the lush indigenous palette regarding toppings – fur was near to hand, easy to tie with & most importantly, effective, & the hair wing eventually became a distinguishing feature of the Western style.          

The 1973 edition of the old Veniard’s Fly Dresser’s Guide (already more historical than current at the time of the 1973 revision) lists twenty hairwing wetflies as trout flies, & out of that number about half might be considered steelhead flies, though at the time of original publication most trouting in America was done using #6 wetflies, so there probably wasn’t much distinction in the old days, the attractor-style patterns used for both sea-run & landlocked trout in the Far West. Most of the patterns listed are hairwing conversions of old favorite quill-winged wets, & most are of the fancy attractor type; yet there are a few drab patterns representing flies originally meant to fish for specific insects, & among these the Cahill, & the recipe given in Veniard’s not in the least resembling the original tied by Don Cahill of Port Jervis, New York, in 1887, to simulate the Pale Morning Dun & Pale Evening Dun mayflies of the Catskill region. Yet the pattern given in Veniard’s exactly matches a variant I found in a Colorado fly shop in 1973 – which I think is interesting, as Veniard does suggest that hairwing trout flies are mainly indigenous to the American West, & I now suspect that all the hairwing patterns given in the Fly Dresser’s Guide are actually patterns that were in general usage for trout fishing in the West in the early through mid-1900’s, as that appears to be the case.

I can see the possible genesis: The original Don Cahill pattern, with its characteristic wing & tail of lemon wood duck, became very popular in the East, so popular that a version with dark tan body, the Dark Cahill, soon joined the original tied with a light cream body, & then there were more offspring, including variants with gray or pink bodies. Pioneer flyfishers carried these patterns west, fished them, & morphed them to the Western hairwing style.  

The Dark Cahill with its universally buggy coloration is one of those nondescript patterns that mimics a broad spectrum of insects, add a wing of squirrel tail & it serves to simulate both emergent & drowned mayflies, a stillborn or drowned stonefly, or an egg-laying sedge, or maybe a terrestrial. This  pattern, with its natural coloration, may have filled an important niche in the West during an era dominated by fanciful attractor patterns, & worked well enough to remain in general usage in the Rocky Mountain region into the early 1970’s, an era when the old wetflies were increasingly replaced with evolving, species-specific type nymphs & dryflies. The ones I purchased in Colorado worked well on the small mountain streams west of Denver, where I spent one year. And also turned the trick on an incredible stream that we crossed in the wasteland of Wyoming traveling from Colorado to Washington, & then again on the Clearwater in Idaho during that same trip. Later, the Dark Cahill hairwing proved useful during upper Columbia spotted sedge hatches.

Veniard gives the instructions thus:

Tail. Brown hackle fibres.
Body. Grey fur.
Hackle. Brown *cock.
Wings. Barred brown squirrel tail.

*Most of the old wetfly patterns called for cock hackle, & it should be noted that the cock hackle of the old days was not the stiff, spiky dryfly hackle that we see today from birds bred for the purpose. The cock hackle of the old days was more similar to the bred hen necks available today. Winged wetflies were meant for fishing freestone streams, & the cock hackle was thought to be superior to softer hen. Theoretically, it would maintain its flare in faster water. But the problem I have with barnyard cock is that it often has a soft webby center which causes the hackle to hinge at the base, laying back over the fly while otherwise maintaining its stiffness. To my mind not as good as a soft hackle undulating & flared over a short thorax of dubbing. I’ve found the Whiting Hebert Miner hen to be a better choice for hackling winged wets.  

The example featured here is tied as Veniard describes it – with hackle installed in-the-round, same as the ones I found in 1973 Denver. A #12 is as small as I generally go. The previous posts in this hairwing series have featured some of the larger patterns I tie & fish for trout, so now I’ll post some of the smaller ones. I found some old Mustad 3906B wetfly hooks that I bought back in 1973, which is what the Dark Cahill is tied on.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:         

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Low Water Spider

     I’ve been posting a series of hairwing patterns lately & will continue, as I’m planning to post some smaller versions, but while I’m in the groove featuring mostly larger hairwing attractor patterns, I thought to put up a wingless type most often seen on streams holding sea-run fish, yet, like the hairwing wetfly, mostly overlooked as a trout lure. But spiders can be good when swung on pre-spawn trout that are not in the mood for anything fat yet inclined to bite something fancifully sexy – the same as their sea-run kin. I love tying low water spiders. They are like soft-hackle nymphs on hallucinogens. The possible creative variations are limitless. The pattern featured here is the basic formula. Typically, I use two contrasting hackles for the collars. I usually tie these in #6-#8 for fishing smaller coastal streams & upper Columbia trout, but the concept can be scaled down to as small as #12 (reasonably) to meet smaller streams holding smaller fish. Freestone brookies & cutthroat love these in the smaller sizes.

Low Water Spider

Hook: #6-#10 TMC 200R

Thread: Orange UNI 8/0

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet

Body: Orange Pearsall’s tying silk underbody & butt, copper tinsel, peacock herl twisted with the orange silk

Hackle: Orange guinea hen / gadwall ~ & finish with jungle cock nail cheeks. 

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird    

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Camp Dog ~ Hairwing Wetfly

     Though there are some stand-out examples from the Northeast & upper Midwest, there is no doubt that hairwing flies have earned their place in the West, where they flourish & their development still ongoing. We see two distinct lines in the West: the Trude style of the Rocky Mountain region, tied with cock hackle, a sort of combination pattern fished both wet & dry; & the Western salmon/steelhead hairwing style, with roots in the Atlantic salmon traditions. But it is interesting, I think, that the style/approach hasn’t been widely applied to trout flies, & for no good reason, in my own experience. Probably due to trends. About the time quill-winged wets were vacating fly boxes in the 1960’s, they were replaced with wingless nymphs of all types, popularized by writers at that time. And now the bobber & bead-head trend. The style has not been abandoned altogether, but its development has been truncated somewhat in the trout fly department, most anglers busy concentrating on the presentation they know.

The Camp Dog & other hairwings posted here are swinging flies, & come into their own when that presentation is called for. Trout like the swing & dangle every bit as much as salmon & steelhead do. At times, it is all they want. These are perfect for delivery with two-handed trout rods on larger freestones; filling a niche where large streamers don’t fit the bill &, in my own experience, more often than not the more demure hairwing will out-fish a big streamer, while being more pleasant to cast.

I mean the Camp Dog as a lure. Combinations of copper, orange, red, yellow & black work as a trigger on my home water, as evidenced by the success of the Thomas Buoyant spoon here, in copper with red, yellow & black spots. No, it’s not the action. The same model & weight in another color doesn’t work nearly as well. I played with the colors, arriving at this version, which killed UC redband & cutthroat for us this Fall after October caddis faded. I hope somebody will try this one on sea-run cutts & give me a report.

Camp Dog

Hook: #8-#12 3x wetfly style (I tie these in mostly #8-#10, on TMC 200R or salmon/steelhead style hooks)

Thread: Orange UNI 8/0

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet

Body: Tag of orange tying thread; copper tinsel; a short thorax of red fur dubbing

Topping: Stacked: yellow calf tail; squirrel tail; red yak underfur (fox or calf tail may be substituted) -- apply a drop of Loon Hard Head or thick dope to the thread wraps holding the wing

Hackle: Natural black/bronze hen ~ & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:                     

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October Caddis Hairwing Wetfly

     This is the basic Western hairwing wetfly that I tie for October caddis. It is an indigenous fly in both function & form. I developed this one to fish for October caddis on the upper Columbia, but it travels well, & is also a basic for coastal cutthroat & steelhead. 

Unlike the last few hairwings featured in this series, it seeks to imitate a certain insect, covering two stages of October caddis: either a winged emerger, or a drowned spinner. I find this style most useful in simulating the emergent phase of drake mayflies & October caddis, larger insects that rise from the bottom fully winged or wings unfurling. Particularly October caddis & black quill (Leptophlebia), an important large mayfly in the Columbia drainage which unfurls its wings prior to emergence, the large black wing a standout feature of the natural. 

A hairwing, in the right size & color, functions as an effective emerger when fishing over black quill, in fact, essential, in my own experience. I spent a lot of frustrating seasons unable to conceive a satisfactory emerging nymph pattern to meet the great black quill hatches of my home water. Until I met some fisheries biologists setting traps for sturgeon larvae. Sampling in about ten feet of water, the traps, set on the bottom, kept plugging up with large nymphs, & the crew showed me their haul & asked me if I could identify the nymphs. They were mahogany all over in coloration, with a striking yellow banding between the abdomen segments, & I was able to identify them because they looked just like the adults. I was surprised that the nymphs were found so deep, but most surprising were the wings unfurling from the distended, black wing pads of the fully mature nymphs. 

Dayum… I thought to myself, they’re swimming up from ten feet deep! trailing that big ol’ black wing! 

Needless to say, I was fishing a winged version of the nymph the following evening, & immediate results let me know I was finally on the right track. Wasn’t too unlike my experience with October caddis. Much as I love wingless patterns, sometimes there is no ignoring the wing as a stand-out feature that must be dealt with.      

October Caddis Hairwing

Hook: I tie these on a #8 steelhead style or TMC 200R

Thread: Rust-brown UNI 8/0

Rib: Copper wire

Abdomen: Umpqua Sparkle Blend October Caddis dubbing (rusty orange) on a loop of the tying thread

Thorax: Mixed, 3/4 natural bluish-gray rabbit with guard hairs, 1/4 Orange Sparkle Blend – don’t over-blend – dubbed on a loop of the tying thread   

Wing: Pine squirrel tail – tie in one mottled turkey tail feather fiber as a cheek on each side of the wing

Hackle: One turn of orange hen or saddle ahead of the wing, then to the hook eye with furnace hen ~ & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: