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:



  1. OK. I love me some K. Abrames, but have you seen David Nelson's flatwings?


  2. Holy Cow! Thanks for the link Bert! David Nelson's designs are mind-freeing. I posted that link to my post. I've been thinking a flatwing sculpin, & Nelson's designs certainly are informing that thinking.

  3. Fly anglers are an incestuous bunch. The concept of salmon rods from Great Britain and Scandinavia was absorbed by the steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest and then richocheted back toward the Great Lakes and those lucky bastards in New England who were targeting stripers from the beach. After reading A.E.H Woods, Ken Abrames applied two handed rods, floating lines and unweighted flies fished under very little tension to the currents in tidal rivers, salt ponds and beaches of Rhode Island.
    David Nelson is (was?) a young waiter in Manhattan. At night after work he fished the Hudson and East River from pilings and warehouse docks using his own flatwings ala Ken Abrames. And completing the circle of influence, David was also inspired by spey flies, especially Sid Glasso's steelhead speys from the Olympic Penninsula.
    It makes me dizzy. OK, dizzier. Good ideas go round and round the world becoming more interesting and more beautiful with every application. Don't get me started on Steve Silverio using pony hair from Iceland.

  4. There is an Icelandic pony in a field down the road...

    It does spaghetti the brain trying to take in the current Renaissance of design going down (ironically, rooted in the best working aspects of our sport's 'traditions' & in the face of a burgeoning commercial ready-made synthetic craze with accompanying sculpin helmets, jig/beadheads & blow-molded plastic bodies).

    Upstate New York & New England have always produced great fly designers. Abrame's thinking hearkens back to earlier Maine designs, notably the old Nine-Three streamer.

    Happy circumstance: Stripers visit the surf at some of the Central Cali beaches where we winter; I started to fish for them last Fall & nailed it with the flatwing mackerel imitations (posted above). So now, a new love.

  5. got stripahs? from da beach? Damn, now I am jealous. [stomps off to pout]

  6. Yep. Stripers. In the surf (though a couple of the local lakes have them as well). Ancestors of those introduced into San Francisco Bay in the late 1800's. I hate to post hero shots, but maybe I should dribble some out. Fished them a lot as a kid in Mass. & during college breaks working as a deckhand on my uncle's charter boat berthed at Newburyport Mass., but not with a fly until last fall. There's a few small pocket-beaches just south of Big Sur, perfect spots for corralling bait, where they come in summer (when I'm not here) & fall. I caught the tail of the season, but may get on them a little earlier this year. The ones we're catching in the surf average about 2-4 pounds, with the occasional 10-20 pound class fish, though my best was about 6 pounds. Lots of fun & great scenery. And some really nice barred surfperch in the mix. Also caught a salty steelhead & a couple of big, sporty leopard sharks.

    No need to stomp, you have The Sound. Less wind. Salmos. Mo bettah.

  7. Flatwing Sculpin! Oh baby, you stuck the landing on that one. That webby hen hackle up front will breathe like a North Country spider while the long saddle feathers wiggle in the current. I am reminded of the promise on the package of ribbed condoms, " thousands of tiny fingers urging a woman(fish)to let go."

  8. I'd been thinking about the flatwing Sculpin for a month, tied some ill-conceived versions -- then that link to David Nelson's designs you sent me lit the light & unlocked the way. Simplicity itself: Mustad 9174; black thread; 2 natural ginger grizzly saddles (cree might be better); copper tinsel body; 2 strands of copper flash for lateral line; topped with mix of natural ostrich & peacock herl; collar is a couple turns of brown pheasant rump, then a few turns of a big welsummer hen body hackle.

    (wow. it says that on the ribbed condom box? I'm gonna have to pass that info on to Barry C.)

  9. Oops, forgot to list the yellow bucktail base for the Sculpin. Natural would probably work as well.