Monday, October 29, 2012


Soft-Hackle Sculpin tied by Steven bird

Considering the unconventional tying style of the Swing Clown & thinking about attractor patterns for autumn fishing, led me to thinking about the soft-hackle ‘sculpin’ patterns which are good to fish in fall & winter. Tied in natural colorations the shape is suggestive of sculpin, shrimp, crayfish & large nymphs & also offers unlimited possibilities for creating attractor patterns as well.  

The basic soft-hackle ‘sculpin style’ as I tie it is formulaic, breaking down thus: A pattern constructed with heavy tailing of layered colors; full-bodied; palmered over the body with shlappen or saddle hackle; a collar of soft hackles (3 or 4 feathers for a Sculpin); a full head of dubbing spun on a loop. I often stack or layer tailing materials, treating the ‘tail’ as an articulation of the body. (I believe the Wooly Booger types work so well in lakes because the marabou tailing simulates the articulated, pulsing abdomen of a dragonfly nymph.) ‘Tailing’ is the simplest way to achieve articulation. Trout & salmon like this design, but it is also a good formula for making killer smallmouth bass patterns.  

As with most flies larger than #12, I build the bodies of these on poly sewing thread. Sewing thread builds quicker & takes dubbing better than tying thread. It is stronger & less expensive than tying thread & available in any shade you might want as an undercolor. I cut about 6 feet (a couple arm-lengths) of poly thread from the spool & wrap a layer down the hook shank; wind copper fuse wire over the forward two-thirds of the shank; build a cigar-shaped body; tie in the tailing, ribbing wire & body hackle; then form a dubbing loop & build the body, all with the poly sewing thread. Once the body is wound, I tie in & finish the remaining operations with tying thread.

Soft-Hackle Sculpin
Soft-Hackle Sculpin (natural) 

Hook: #2-#6 TMC 200R

Thread: Black

Tailing: Brownish pheasant rump feather wound as a collar, then tied back & down – two brown partridge, grouse or speckled game hen hackles wound, then tied back & down – topped with a pinch of black marabou or rabbit fur (add a few strands of flash if you like)

Ribbing: Brown or brown dyed grizzly shlappen palmered over the body – reverse wind with copper wire

Body: Patch olive, brown, tan & gray rabbit w/guard hairs onto a yellow dubbing loop

Lateral line: Two strands of copper flash, one on either side of the body

Hackle: Two turns of red, clipped off on top, for gills, then wind a collar of brown partridge or speckled game hen hackles over the front 1/3 of the hook shank

Head: Mix of black, brown & olive rabbit w/guard hairs, wound in a dubbing loop of the tying thread – & finish

The color scheme given here is the pattern I tie for my homewater, though an olive version works better in some places.  

Soft-Hackle Sculpin tied by Steven Bird

Ghost Shrimp tied by Steven Bird
Ghost Shrimp 

Hook: #4-#8 TMC 200R or steelhead/salmon style

Thread: Orange or red

Tailing: Orange dyed mallard flank wound as a collar, then tied back & down – top with a pinch of orange marabou

Ribbing: Orange dyed shlappen or saddle hackle palmered over the body – reverse wind with copper wire

Body: Blood red dubbing, wound in a yellow dubbing loop

Hackle: Orange dyed mallard flank

Head: Red dubbing - & finish.

Ghost Shrimp tied by Steven Bird

I weight these with copper fuse wire wound on the hook shank. Sure, they can be tied with bead or cone heads, but then you have a jig. I want a swinging fly, not a jig, don't want it bumping & drilling the bottom, rather, I prefer it tickling its way over the bottom. I rely on a sink-tip or full-sink line with a short leader to get it down.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012


James Leisenring 1878-1951
Genesis Of A Soft-Hackle Addict

     I started young. The first teacher was my grandfather, who presented me with one of his old bamboo flyrods when I was four, graduating me from the doughball-baited handline I was swinging for bluegills off the family dock on Lake Quinsigamond. Regular hard usage on the lake, ponds & brooks near our family home in Massachusetts & by the time I was eight that rod was destroyed. No purist then, pink garden hackle was my bait of choice on the brooks & I liked nothing better than catching & lip-hooking a live frog, lobbing it among the lily pads & skittering it for pickerel or bass. At the start I was a bait fisher & I’m thankful for that. Gathering & fishing live baits imparted valuable lessons on the natural world, making lasting impressions on my approach to fishing & my ideas about presentation. Though they are made of fur & feathers now, I’m still fishing baits, still a shameless bait fisher at core.

     On my eighth birthday Gramps presented me with a new 8-foot Heddon Pal 6wt glass flyrod, a handful of poppers &, perhaps most affecting of all, a fly-tying kit containing instructions & everything I needed to get going – & my fishing routine expanded considerably with those gifts. The live baits increasingly set aside.

     When I was ten my family moved to Glendora, California, a foothill town at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. To a New England kid used to haunting nearby ponds, woods & brooks, Southern Cali seemed like a dry, alien planet. Fortunately we lived an easy distance from the San Gabriel River where I became a regular, armed with the Heddon Pal (which was living up to its name) & a handful of scruffy flies.

     When I was twelve, more years ago than I care to say, I scrounged & saved enough pop bottles to refund for the cash needed to purchase my first book on flyfishing: ‘The Art of Tying the Wet Fly & Fishing the Flymph’ by James Leisenring & Vernon ‘Pete’ Hidy. At the time, I was still at the fanciful stage, I was an avid fly tier, my soft young mind a sponge, yet my fly selection was, for the most part, a gaudy collection of winged wet flies. I'd never seen anything like the wingless 'flymphs' pictured in the book, but, funny thing, as soon as I laid eyes on them, a light went on. There was something about those flies. They made perfect sense to me. Leisenring's soft-hackle patterns built with natural materials, & his ideas about building movement, obfuscation & subtle color-blending into wetflies meant to simulate particular insects, seemed the tools of an angler who had a deep connection to the natural stream. An angler who knew secrets. I wore that little book out re-reading & absorbing the truths it contained. By the end of the first reading I was onstream with a selection of drab nymphs constructed in the simple ‘in-the-round’ tying style espoused by ‘Big Jim from Allentown’ – the consummate trout bum pictured in his frayed fishing attire. 

     Looking back now, I offer a belated apology to the bright little trout of the San Gabriel, having pierced them mercilessly with those flies inspired by Leisenring’s small book. That book was where my reading began & where my approach to fly design is founded. I blame it on James Leisenring.

     Later on, standing in the same stream as Leisenring, I discovered Charles Brooks, whose work ‘Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout’ expanded & elaborated greatly on Leisenring’s approach to imitation & with some effective departures as well. Prior to reading Brooks I was somewhat of a natural material Nazi, strictly adhering to Leisenring’s preference for natural materials. And it is true that the motion and subtlety of coloration natural materials impart are an integral element in the best soft-hackle patterns. Yet Brooks worked from a wider palette, accepting the fact that not all aquatic insect parts are fuzzy & blurry. He understood that some body parts, say, for example, the abdomens of stonefly nymphs, present a more plastique or hard outline, prominent features that trout might cue on. Charles Brooks was liberating, & as I tied & fished the patterns he presented in ‘Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout’ I found he was also true to his word.

      A lot of water has passed since James Leisenring & Charles Brooks fished & wrote, & other writers since have done much to advance the soft-hackle style. We stand on their shoulders. Every tyer has something new to add based on their own unique vision & experience. The variety of hooks & materials available now affords us an even broader palette to create from. Some might argue that the term ‘soft-hackle fly’ should only be applied to old designs like the Partridge & Yellow & other classics (some, ancient), yet I would maintain that the patterns of Leisenring & Brooks & those writers who came after have already expanded the definition considerably. 

     My purpose here is to explore how the major elements that make soft-hackle designs such effective baits – natural materials, motion & obfuscation – might be incorporated into fresh designs serving to simulate specific forage, & also more effective attractor patterns, streamers & even dry flies. And that gives us a lot of room to create. ~
Flatwing Sculpin - tied by Steven bird

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October Caddis~Soft-Hackle Variations

October Caddis Pupae tied by Steven Bird

If you fish Pacific Northwest streams this time of year, you should have some October Caddis imitations in your box. You seldom encounter heavy hatches of these, but they are a steady presence from late August into November, & even into the winter months on coastal streams. October Caddis are a large bug, & fish get used to seeing them through the autumn months, so the imitation is useful throughout the period.

Some entomologists believe there are at least four sub-species of the big fall sedges distributed throughout the West, & maybe more – with possible sub-species distinct to each drainage, though all very similar. Bodies are ½ to ¾ inch long; & wings 1 to 1-1/2 inches long. Size & coloration of pupae & adult phases will vary slightly according to homewater, with rusty-orange the prevailing abdomen coloration, but ranging through various shades of orange, including bright to faded pumpkin, depending on location. In some localities the orange abdomen will exhibit a faint olive hue. Thorax & legs are rusty-brown. Wings range from mottled chestnut to almost black. Pupae, overall, are lighter in coloration than adults.

October caddis are case-builders, with a 2-year life cycle. Mature nymphs begin to gather along the edges of streams in July, where they eventually anchor their cases to rocks & seal themselves within to pupate. The mature pupa chews through the door & exits the case completely, or partially, to complete emergence. Some pupa crawl out of the water onto streamside rocks & vegetation, while others complete the transformation beneath the water, & some I’ve observed emerging from midstream. Once, in inches of water, I observed an adult emerge from a pupa still partially anchored to its case, which leads me to believe that October caddis pupae don’t ride the flow to emerge, but rather, cling to bottom rocks to complete the final instar, & emerge from the bottom as winged adults; their rise to the surface quickened by their waxy, buoyant wings.        
 Though I prefer to fish dryflies, I must admit that soft-hackle versions of this insect have worked better for me, both winged and not. That could be due to the fact that adult OC are swift, strong flyers & trout don’t like to waste energy chasing them, while exposed pupae, cripples & drowned adults are easier prey.

Over the years, I’ve tied and fished a lot of takes on this insect trying for a workhorse producer, some of them ill-conceived, others ambiguous. Here are a few variations of a design that has proven fairly reliable:

Full Wing Version

October Caddis Pupa

Hook: #6-#8

Thread: Rusty-Brown Uni-thread

Body: Blend dyed sulfur-yellow rabbit with orange & burnt-orange antron dubbing until a pumpkin orange is achieved or to match your local caddis. Some olive fibers can be added. Twist dub on light yellow polyester sewing thread, applying just slightly more than what’s needed to cover the thread, & winding in layers to create a robust body through the abdomen and thorax area. The synthetic fibers will tend to ‘rope’ around the thread, while the rabbit will fuzz out, simulating the fuzzy abdomen of the natural. Dub over the front 1/3 of the body with chestnut-brown rabbit dubbing with guard hairs left in, to form a thorax.               

Antennae: 2 fibers of fine copper flash, one on each side of the thorax. A turn of dubbing after tying in will hold them from splaying out from the sides too much.

Hackle: One turn of reddish- brown, pheasant body feather, tied in by the tip.

Head: 3 natural ostrich herls wound in front of the hackle - & finish

Wingless Pupa
As with most larger imitations, I’ve found that this fly works best tied on the sparse side. Best not to over-wing it if you tie the winged option. Better to have the hint of a wing, rather than one too heavily dressed. Same with hackle, one turn will do it, you don’t want the fly to look like an umbrella pulsing through the water.

The Soft-Hackle October Caddis is a good swinging fly. I fish it dead-drift, swung, dangled, dropped back and lifted. Good pattern for sea-runs too.  

Cripple version with clipped turkey tail fiber wing

Miasmic October Caddis Pupa
Miasmic October Caddis Pupa

Hook: #6 TMC 200R or octopus

Thread: Rusty-brown

Body: Orange dubbing

Thorax: Marabou from the base of a dyed brown mallard flank feather tied around the hook shank as a collar & extending over the abdomen area

Antennae: Two pheasant tail fibers, one on either side

Hackle: Reddish-brown pheasant rump hackle
Miasmic October Caddis Pupa tied by Steven Bird
Miasmic October Caddis Pupa  tied by Steven Bird
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