Monday, August 26, 2013

Pheasant Tail Nymph – Soft-Hackle Riff

Pheasant Tail Nymph tied by Steven Bird

     The Pheasant Tail Nymph, tied with no other materials but pheasant tail & fine copper wire, was developed by Avon riverkeeper Frank Sawyer, who meant it to simulate Baetis species found in the limestone streams of southern England. Sawyer is generally credited as originator of the design, yet interestingly, Sawyer, in his writings & interviews, never seemed to contribute to that popular mythos, instead crediting an ancient Devonshire pattern, the Pheasant Tail Red Spinner, a dry fly, as the inspiration, noting that the fly fished well as a nymph once the hackle was chewed away. Also, as riverkeeper, Sawyer worked for Brigadier Carey who was a friend of George Skues & acolyte of Skue's nymphing methods & fly patterns. George Skues, widely known as 'the father of modern nymphing', was much older than Sawyer &, at the time of Sawyer's 'discovery', was already tying & fishing a soft-hackle version of the Pheasant Tail Nymph, very similar to the one pictured above. Skues tied his version with orange silk which produced the orange head still popular in our time. We in America love to build icons & hang laurels upon them, & fair to say that in many cases laurels are deserved -- there is no question that Sawyer's simple PTN has proven one of the greatest trout flies of all time -- yet, in his own comments, Sawyer, to his credit, points toward the truth of all fly development: We stand on the shoulders of all who came before us & nothing is static. 

Who was first? Well... like hare's mask, references to pheasant tail as a good body material for constructing flies date back to medieval times, so safe to say the name of the first person to catch a fish on a fly made with pheasant tail has long faded to obscurity. We are thankful nonetheless.

Since its creation, the Pheasant Tail Nymph has spawned quite a few variants. Probably the most popular version on our side of the water is the American Pheasant Tail Nymph, an Al Troth creation, like Sawyer's, but with a thorax of peacock herl.  The APTN is one of the most effective patterns I know for meeting baetis hatches, & covers a lot of other mayflies as well – march browns; PMD’s; calibaetis in lakes – the spectrum of  species exhibiting brownish coloration, & there are many. The dark thorax coloration peacock herl provides simulates the darkened wingcase & thorax of mature nymphs at hatch time, making this version a good emerger pattern. Though the APTN is tied with no hackle, I’ve found it to be very effective tied as a soft-hackle, particularly when meeting emergers.

Tying & fishing quite a few versions of the PTN has led me to believe that there are trout tickling qualities inherent in pheasant tail. The combined coloration of the wound swords create a blotchy, nuanced realism & illusion of segmentation, the reddish fuzz contributing breathing, obfuscating motion as well as realistic coloration. Like hare’s ear, a perfect material. (We are fortunate that Nature often repeats its subtle patterns in things fairly close to hand.) Because trout want to eat it, & because it resembles so many types of nymphs, I tie soft-hackle versions of the PTN to cover a variety of insects – mayflies; smaller stoneflies; caddis & midges. A Pheasant & Hare’s Ear version is a good pattern for meeting the prolific spotted sedge hatches of the Columbia drainage. The zen simple Starling & Pheasant is a good midge pattern at my favorite lake, but also works good weighted & rolled on the bottom to simulate smaller cased caddis. The Pheasant Tail Nymph is simple & multifunctional, & no fly box should be without an assortment of them in #12 through #20.
I also tie ‘Hot Spot’ versions that work as attractor patterns, using hot colors like yellow (my favorite), chartreuse, orange, red, purple or whatever, for the thorax. The Hot Spot versions work well for me in winter. A #8 version makes a good steelhead nymph. And those pursuing stocked hatchery trout in the local ponds & brooks will find the Hot Spot variants particularly effective on those fish. Also good tied with more subdued, natural thorax colorations, try olive, tan, gray or cream.
Soft-Hackle Pheasant Tail Nymph

Hook: #12-#20 

Thread: rust-brown or dark-brown

Tail: 3 to 6 pheasant tail sword tips, about 1/3 the body length -- as an alternative, I tie some with barred bronze mallard flank to mimic the tails of natural baetis & march browns in my neighborhood 

Rib: fine copper wire wound over the abdomen & thorax

Abdomen: pheasant tail – 5 or 6 swords for a #12 – before winding, I twist these counterclockwise about half a dozen turns, forming a rope, which blends the colors better & makes a stronger, more segmented body (as fibers get torn out by fish, I just clip off the unwanted appendage & keep fishing) – they will last longer if the swords are twisted into a rope – I’ve found the E-Z Mini-Hook hackle pliers to be the perfect tool for grasping the bundle of swords when winding pheasant tail bodies

Thorax: peacock herl – 2 swords, twisted, for a #12 

Hackle: one turn of brown partridge, grouse or speckled hen, stripped on one side - I apply a bit of black dubbing in front of the hackle when tying versions to fish for baetis (PMD's), red quill, march brown, calibaetis & other species of mayfly emergers that develop a dark wingcase/thorax at maturity - & finish.
Grasping a group of pheasant tail swords with E-Z Mini-Hook hackle pliers.
Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: