Thursday, May 23, 2013

Flatwings - Soft-Hackle Streamers

Brown Bait Flatwing tied by Steven Bird
Top: Pacific Mackerel; Bottom: Spanish Jack tied by Steven Bird
Top: Spanish Jack; Bottom: Pacific Mackerel tied by Steven Bird

“In nature most things are dynamic, and dynamism and motion combined equals life.”    ~Barry Craig

     We seek the perfect illusion.

There is no telling when the first angler received the notion to tie a horizontal feather to a hook creating a flat wing intending to simulate a baitfish. The idea has been around for a long time, flatwing style Spey flies were popular in the 1700’s & savvy New England tiers have been catching trout & landlocked salmon on them since at least the mid 19th century, yet somehow this is a style that has been a long time developing, confined mostly to the Northeast, despite its effectiveness – & I suspect there are several reasons for that, foremost, I’m guessing, is the radical departure from the conventional & a perceived difficulty to tie. That & the fact that it seems, at first glance, that a feather  viewed front or back in profile looks a lot more like a baitfish than a feather viewed from the side.

But what happens when feathers are laid horizontal, perpendicular to the hook shank & stacked to simulate a baitfish’s layers of color?

Magic. Or at least an illusion that approaches magic in its subtlety.

Not satisfied with the conventional streamers used for striped bass, it was Ken Abrames, an artist/writer/angler from Rhode Island, & author of the books ‘A Perfect Fish’ & ‘Striper Moon’, who in recent times has done much to refine & redefine the traditional New England flatwing style toward broader popularity.

Form follows function.

In the creative crucible of the Pacific Northwest, canny Puget Sound anglers seeking better baits to match the slender baitfish of the Sound picked up on the flatwing design approach & adapted it to suit the native baits, producing high art in the process.

In my article on the Soft-Hackle Sculpin I mention tailing as the simplest way to impart articulation to a fly. The flatwing style takes that notion a step farther, with nearly the entire fly tied as a ‘tail’, the sum of its materials fully articulating & breathing, blending with reflected light & light passing through in exquisite obfuscation to create the almost perfect illusion of a baitfish swimming.

Flatwing streamers are the philosophical match to soft-hackle nymphs. As with soft-hackle nymphs, the approach relies mainly on the superior virtues of natural materials to create motion & subtlety of coloration. Other than a few strands of flash, flatwing patterns utilize very little synthetic material. Ironically, the flatwing style harkens to things I said about ‘tradition’ in ‘Spey-Inspired Trout Flies’ just prior to this post, as the break from conventional tradition that flatwing streamers represent is actually packed with tradition in its purist reliance on natural materials, & even down to the jungle cock eyes, the result decidedly ‘classic’ in appearance – tradition reincarnated.          

Flatwings might be 1 to 15 inches long & tied with one to four, or more, rooster saddle hackles, though smaller neck hackles may be substituted in tying smaller patterns, if you lack the saddle tips in desired colors.

The basic tie:

Hook: Straight shank, 1x long or up-eye salmon/steelhead hook for baitfish patterns, longer shank for squid imitations.

Thread: Your choice -- I like 3/0 uni for larger saltwater patterns. Many Puget Sound tiers prefer  clear mono. Mono can be used for tying the entire fly, but I’ve found it easier to tie with thread & switch to mono for tying in the topping material & finishing the head – the dark topping & white thread will show through the mono to create a realistic head coloration. A good alternative is to use white thread, coat the head with Loon Hard Head, then darken the top with a marking pen & apply another coat of Hard Head over that. Makes a slick, realistic head.   

Base: White bucktail tied in even with the hook point. Press into it with your thumbnail to make it spread to the sides in a V.

Winging: This operation can be frustrating to those tying their first flatwings, but with a bit of practice it becomes fairly easy. Hang in there, the result is worth it. For a single-wing fly: choose a straight saddle, pull the fluff from the base of  the feather & dub a small amount onto the thread to create a ‘pillow’ for the feather (this will help to keep the feather from twisting away from perpendicular when you tie it in, which it will want to do -- the cause of that frustration I mentioned). Don't strip any fibers from the stem, simply cut the feather to finished length. Position the feather on top of the hook, concave side up, grasp the feather fibers both sides of the stem between your thumb & forefinger & fold them downward over both sides of the hook shank while applying 2 loose turns of thread. Let go & make sure the feather is still positioned, tweak it if necessary, then wind toward the hook eye with only bobbin tension on the thread until the wind comes just past the end of the feather stem, about 5 or 6 turns from the tie-in point, then add tension while winding back to the tie-in point. Another method is to eliminate the dubbing pillow & simply set the feather in place, apply 2 loose turns of thread, then apply a drop of Loon Hard Head at the tie-n point & let it set for about 15 minutes, then proceed to wind the thread as above. Takes longer, waiting for the Hard Head to set, but it does make it easy to tame uncooperative saddle hackles. If more than one saddle is to be applied, use a rooster neck hackle as the base feather. The thicker-stemmed neck hackle acts as a support for the materials tied in above it. Repeat the above procedure, tying in the hackles concave side down, adding a couple strands of flash between layers, as desired. I add the topping as the final step, after everything else is tied in.

Body: Braided mylar body material. Tie in after the base feather, & wind forward after the other saddles are tied in (except the topping).

Beard/Cheeks: White bucktail (or choice) &/or soft-hackle tied in behind the hook eye.

Eyes: Jungle cock nails are my favorite, though other types of eyes may be used, including dumbbell types.

Hold the finished fly under running hot water for a minute to set the shape. Coat the head with Loon Hard Head -- as it is water based, it can be applied while the fly is still wet -- a couple coats will produce a beautiful, slick head.

I’ve barely touched on the subject of flatwing streamers here. If you’d like to pursue it further, check out these links to some great articles, photos & tying instructions:

Incredible Ken Abrames creations: 

And here's an imagination-cranking take on the style contributed by the ever vigilant Bert. Exquisite streamers by David Nelson: 
Yellow Perch tied by Steven Bird
Flatwing Sculpin tied by Steven Bird
Mickey Finn flatwing tied by Steven Bird
Copper Boss flatwing tied by Steven Bird
Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Spey-Inspired Trout Flies

Copper Boss tied by Steven Bird
Professor tied by Steven Bird 
Royal Coachman tied by Steven Bird 
Coachman tied by Steven Bird

I suspect there are those who are traditionalists simply for the sake of being so. Being a traditionalist gives one the advantage of being able to pull a ready-made way of doing things, an identity, or even a persona, right off the shelf. The traditionalist stands beside all those who came before him; & that can be a lifetime study & review in itself. Flyfishing is packed with tradition for those who want it, & nothing wrong with that.

However, I confess, I’m no traditionalist. Though I do like the idea of tradition. When I break it down, I see that I actually love those authentic utilitarian elements that tradition is founded upon. Those things that have proven to work. Which leads me to consider: every thing that goes into building a tradition was once somebody’s new idea, & probably more frequently, a refinement on an older tradition.  So we see that tradition is really not static, but an unfolding process in which the best of innovations are approved in the court of user opinion, bookmarked, practiced & utilized. As artists, we use tradition as a starting point. Rather than stand beside those who came before us, we stand on their shoulders. We refine. We redefine. 

It's a stream.

One thing leads to another, & as often happens, & I became enamored of tying Spey style flies for salmon & steelhead; which led me to catch bull trout & sea-run cutthroat on them; which got me considering the working elements in the design that contribute to its success, with a mind toward developing pared-down versions designed specifically for trout & low-water summer steelhead, but more specifically the big-water trout of the upper Columbia.

One only has to glance at a catalogue of Spey & Dee flies to note that material/color schemes are endless, the design offering infinite opportunity for riffing. Spey flies were originally meant to simulate shrimp & still retain that basic shape, for the most part, yet the designs evolved to become so fanciful that they now more resemble strange, Kafkaesque shrimp that one might hallucinate while under the influence of a psychedelic enhancement, than natural shrimp. Exquisitely beautiful. These flies are meant to swing. The one working element they all have in common is the inclusion of a long, soft hackle palmered over the entire length of the fly, or through the thorax section, or at least a few turns as a collar. They are not weighted, relying on the weight of the hook to get them down, so for that reason bodies are fairly slim & sparse. (Because they aren’t weighted, they hover & dodge in the current, as a natural bait will, & with the natural movement provided by the ultra-soft hackling, the imitation can be fished slow, not having to rely on constant stripping to impart motion.)  

Rather than start with something fanciful right out of the gate, I decided to modify some classic, tried-&-true wetfly patterns with spey-style hackle, a fairly easy transition &, turns out, a good choice, as these immediately caught trout. When fished, they breath & move through the water with an enticing shimmy & kick, much more active than the fairly stiff, original, winged versions.

I found out a couple things: If you go smaller than a #10, 3x long hook, you will not have enough iron to sink & keel the heavily hackled fly & it will screw through the water inappropriately. All in all, I’ve found that #8 & #10 hooks seem to work the best for trout on most waters. I tie mine on TMC 200R or up-eye steelhead hooks & fish them as a small streamer, swung & stripped.  

Wanting to eliminate the added buoyancy of a wing, I looked for alternate ways of incorporating the wing coloration. For example, instead of winging the Professor I wound the winging material as hackle instead.

Professor is tied with black thread; red shlappen fibers for tailing; yellow floss body ribbed with gold tinsel; hackled with 4 turns of brown, very soft, almost marabou ringnecked pheasant rump feather taken from the base of the tail, fold the hackle back & wind forward, then two turns of natural mallard, wood duck or gadwall flank feather, stripped on one side, wound in front of the pheasant rump.

Coachman is tied with black thread; gold tinsel tag; golden pheasant tippet tailing; peacock herl body ribbed with fine copper wire; hackled with 4 turns of pheasant rump hackle.

Royal Coachman is tied with black thread; golden pheasant tippet tailing; peacock herl body with a red tinsel girdle; ‘wing’ (actually a half-wing) is a white puff taken from the base of a mallard flank feather; hackled with 4 turns of pheasant rump feather.

Copper Boss is my own creation, a color combination that works good on my homewater – tied with black thread; copper tinsel tag; dyed-orange mallard flank tailing; lightly dubbed orange fur, closely ribbed with copper tinsel; half-wing, an orange puff from the base of a dyed-orange mallard flank feather (tie in over the center of the puff, fold back & apply a few turns of thread); hackled with 3 turns of brown, pheasant rump hackle, then 3 turns of dyed orange mallard flank, stripped on one side.

Those who might be interested in the Spey approach to trout fishing, learn more here:
And check out Dave Henry's excellent 2 Handed Trout site, for all things spey trout:

Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:    

Friday, May 10, 2013

Plover & Hare's Lug Soft-Hackle

Plover & Hare's Lug tied by Steven Bird

There are probably as many versions of the Hare’s Ear Nymph as there are fly tiers. Literature traces its use in the British Isles back over 200 years, & I’d guess some version of it predates surviving literature by hundreds of years; & it remains a staple of anglers even now. Whatever the nuance of variation, there is no doubting the effectiveness of hare’s mask as the basic body material of the pattern. Some things are ideal in themselves; & these things do serve to connect us through the generations. Charred oak will always be better than plastic for aging whiskey in.

Our friend Bert sent me a generous gift of the golden plover hackle needed to tie the Plover & Hare’s Lug, an ancient pattern, still fished as an essential by many anglers across the water. The plover is beautiful, with fat hackle barbs that are very soft, gray with golden yellow mottling that translate to gold leg tips when wound. I’ve been tying a version of this hackled with a roughed grouse wing covert, which is similar to the plover (without the yellow tips), but I can’t wait to fish this traditional version.

Plover & Hare’s Lug

Hook: #10-#18 standard wetfly, or Daiichi 1150 caddis style

Thread: Yellow, orange, brown or olive – hard-core anglophiles & traditionalists will use Pearsall’s Tying Silk    

Rib (optional): Fine wire, & I’ve seen versions tied with tinsel

Body: Dubbing pulled from the ear of a natural hare’s mask – pinch the fur off with your thumb & forefinger – dubbed in a loop, split-thread dubbed, or twist-dubbed on silk

Hackle: One turn of golden plover wing covert – finish with a full, tapered head & apply a drop of Loon Hard Head.
Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Brown Bunny Soft-Hackle Nymph

Brown Bunny tied by Steven Bird
     Back in the day, way back, when I was a young flyfisher sampling the local brook with an old window screen, I couldn’t help but notice that brown is the dominant coloration of most nymphs inhabiting running water. And, of those shades of brown, chestnut-brown (reddish-brown) is a prevalent shade. I needed a basic-brown all-purpose nymph. A nondescript brown nymph to simulate the spectrum of brown nymphs. I tied the originals with some chestnut raccoon that had once been a collar on my grandmother's coat, & those fit the bill & became one of my bread & butter patterns. Then I ran out of the raccoon & acquired a dyed chestnut-brown hare’s mask, tried that, & found the result just as good if not better (good ol' hare's mask). This is a basic anywhere, & it is a good big-fish fly tied in sizes to simulate larger mayflies, stoneflies & emerging sedges. I usually weight this one with lead or copper wire wound under the thorax, & often fish it as a heavily leaded depthcharge (#6-#10), trailing a smaller unweighted nymph -- a potent combination for prospecting freestone streams.

Brown Bunny

Hook: #6-#18 

Thread: Rusty-brown or camel

Tails: 3 or 4 pheasant tail fibers (optional)

Ribbing: Copper wire wound over the abdomen (olive or chartreuse wire make good versions as well

Abdomen: Chestnut-brown hare's mask with guard hairs on claret (wine) dubbing loop

Thorax: Chestnut brown hare's mask    

Hackle: Mottled brown hen, grouse or partridge – & finish

Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird: 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

PMD - Red Quill

     The pale morning dun (Ephemerella excrucians) is the most prolific mayfly in the West, & possibly the most important in North America to anglers. PMD’s inhabit slow to moderate flows; emerging May-September, & earlier in southern localities. The heaviest hatches I’ve encountered in the Northwest are in June, with emergence morning & evening, & throughout the day on mild, overcast days.

In NE Washington we usually begin to see PMD’s on the warmer days toward the end of May, with hatches peaking about late June & then lasting well into July. During the peak season, the river back-eddies hold rafts of sedges peppered with mayflies, making it seem hopeless to drift a dryfly with so many naturals clogging the eddy lines. PMD’s emerge in waves, as if with one mind, cuing trout onto the pulse. Pulse & pause. During the pauses, trout turn their attention to the stuff floating on top, or very near the top, displaying a preference for the small mayflies, PMD’s & the very similar western red quills (Rhithrogena undulata), scattered through the more abundant spent sedges. Trout will nose the sedges aside & eat a mayfly, or an imitation of one, provided it’s the right size & exhibits a sexy profile (not too fat) however splayed.

This version simulates the coloration of an adult pale morning dun or red quill, & tied in #12-#18 it will cover some other mayfly species as well. I fish it in & just under the surface film, or spritzed with a dressing to float on top.


Hook: #16-#18 standard dryfly

Thread: Rust-brown Uni 

Tails: Mallard flank – pale, finely barred, 3 fibers about the same length as the body

Rib: Gray thread

Abdomen: Tying thread

Thorax: Pheasant tail

Hackle: Light ginger or honey dun hen hackle

Ginger/Honey Dun  hackle from the flank of a welsumer hen
Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Friday, May 3, 2013

Soft-Hackle Callibaetis Nymph

Soft-Hackle Calibaetis Nymph tied by Steven Bird

Calibaetis Nymph

The speckled dun mayfly (callibaetis), easily identified by its striking speckled wings, is native to the weedier sections of cold-water lakes & ponds, & is sometimes found in the slower sections of rivers, throughout North America. Western waters, & particularly the lakes of the Pacific Northwest, receive the most prolific hatches. Callibaetis patterns are a staple of stillwater anglers in northeastern Washington, my home region.

Adults, when they are showing, are handily imitated with a version of the Adams tied with spread, twin tails of barred mallard or wood duck flank feather fibers, #14 or #16; yet, about 85% of the time, the nymph version gets the nod.

The naturals are strong swimmers, actively flitting & clambering about the weeds, & available to trout year-around, in a variety of sizes, as callibaetis emerge throughout the spring/summer/fall season, so multiple generations are always present. Nymphs, generally 3/8 to ½ inch long at maturity, complete emergence in the surface film. The heaviest hatches I’ve seen have been on mild, overcast days, throughout the day. During hatches heavy enough to get trout going up top, you will notice the rise forms of fish taking the nymph from just below the surface far outnumber the splashy rises of trout chasing duns. Check the stomach contents & you’ll find that trout are eating a far greater proportion of nymphs over winged adults. (I’ve found this to be mostly true of just about all hatches, all species, anywhere.)

When callibaetis are hatching & trout are visibly feeding on top, I’ll fish a 12’ leader with fluoro tippet, grease the leader except for the last foot or so, & fish it dead or with short twitches. Most often I’ll see the take, but if not, there is an exciting tell-tale line wake to act as indicator a happy occurrence is on the hook.

While many are suspending midge larva under bobbers, I’m often fishing a callibaetis nymph. Barring those times when trout are definitely showing a preference for the midge, I think the callibaetis nymph brings a better grade of fish, on average. For fishing the water, most often, I use a floating line tipped with a 15 to 18 foot fluorocarbon leader dressed with a sink compound & count it down until I find the zone, then fish it with short twitches interspersed with long, slow pulls & pauses.

Natural coloration tends toward shades of olive, olive/brown – though checking out the considerable & varied renditions of the nymph in the spectrum of colorations offered by creative fly tiers can be a source of confusion to those anglers who haven’t seen the actual nymphs inhabiting their homewater. You wonder: ‘just what the hell color are they anyway?’ The usual creative fancy aside, the broad array of variations is probably due, mainly, to the fact that the naturals themselves vary in coloration, depending on locality. But it’s not a big problem, really. You might keep a fish for a nice trout supper, clean it as promptly as possible in hopes of finding callibaetis in the stomach still undigested enough to give you a clue as to coloration, or, you might purchase a large aquarium net (which you should have for nymph sampling anyway) lash it to the end of something like a broom handle, poke it down & swipe it through the weeds in about 4 to 6 feet of water. That should get you some samples – & no doubt some other interesting critters as well. But for those who just want to go fishing I’ll offer this: You really can’t go wrong with an olive callibaetis nymph imitation, most locations. Here’s one I call the Eastside Callibaetis, because it works so well on the eastern Washington lakes I fish.

Eastside Callibaetis

Hook: #12-#14 – the one pictured is tied on a Mustad 3906B Ex. long shank hook – the TMC 200R in #14-#16 is also a good choice, particularly if a lighter imitation is desired for fishing on top

Thread: Olive or camel

Tail: 5 or 6 fibers from a dyed olive or natural bronze mallard flank feather, about the same length as the body

Abdomen: Olive, vinyl tubing – I use the Hareline Dubbin/Standard Tubing/Light Olive – wound over the rear 2/3 of the hook shank – which produces a nice medium/dark olive when wound over darker thread (the abdomens of naturals are fairly long in profile)

Thorax: Peacock herl

Hackle: One turn of olive dyed grizzly hen hackle, stripped on one side (best to keep the hackle sparse on these, I’m convinced)

Head: Mix a pinch of olive hares ear or chopped antron fibers with black hares ear to achieve a black with greenish highlights – twist-dub & wind several turns in front of the hackle – & finish

Flyfish the Upper Columbia/NE Washington with Steven Bird: