Sunday, September 22, 2013

Soft-Hackle Yellowjacket – Sympathy for the Devil

     Late summer & fall, the terrestrial patterns come more into play. It’s grasshopper season, up until the first frost knocks them out of commission. And where grasshoppers are scarce, ants & beetles fill the bill for many of us – & that while the most ubiquitous insect of the season orbits our sweaty heads or fishy hands menacingly, or perhaps, landing on our exposed calf to incise a V-shaped chunk of meat & delivering a painful sting on top of the wound when swatted.

     I suspect it might be the devilish nature of yellowjackets, & our stand-offish attitudes toward them, responsible for the wasp’s lack of consideration as good bait. We don’t like to think about them. Most of us see no poetry of grace embodied in a fat insect sporting electric prison stripes, an aggressive attitude, working mouth parts & a stinger. That’s not to say we ignore the yellowjacket entirely, we don’t. The McGinty, a cute rendition in most of its incarnations, is still fairly well-known, though I doubt it gets nearly the play it got in the last century. In their writings, Ray Bergman & Roderick Haig Brown noted the importance of yellowjackets as trout food, & offer imitations, as have other observant writer-anglers  – yet the yellowjacket still remains largely unconsidered & absent from fly boxes, & that may be due to those nasty habits I mentioned, I don't know. I want to say I think them the most reliable trout stream terrestrial to imitate, while I (regularly) struggle to avoid those kind of empirical remarks reflecting no other but my own experience.    

     (The largest trout I ever caught on a dryfly was on a floating yellowjacket imitation.)

     Yellowjackets are common around water, particularly in late-summer through autumn, pretty much everywhere trout are found. They hunt other insects over the water & the wind knocks a lot of them down while they struggle to fly holding their prey. Periodic checks of stomach contents show evidence that trout like to eat yellowjackets & do so whenever the opportunity shows itself. I’ve often found multiples, indicating the wasps are fairly available in the water at times, particularly when it’s breezy. And yellowjackets have a long season, so no doubt trout are used to seeing them.

     Being heavy, wasps don’t float well, usually breaking the surface tension while struggling on the water, & drowning, making them available to trout throughout the water column. I suspect trout eat more drowned yellowjackets than they do live ones. Though I fish both wet & dry versions, the wet version presented here gets the nod as a staple pattern for fishing the water in fall, East or West, September into October. I tie these unweighted & fish them with a floating line, most often cast upstream & drifted, high-stick style, but also quartered & swung.


Hook: #8-#10 I prefer a #8 caddis style, which imparts the characteristic bend of a disabled wasp

Thread: yellow

Ribbing: black 3/0 uni-thread

Abdomen: I build a tapered ‘dumbell’ shape with yellow sewing thread, then tie in with yellow tying thread & wind to the tip of the abdomen well down the hook bend, form a little stinger, then tie in the rib & yellow floss, finish shaping the abdomen with the floss, then wrap the rib forward, seven turns, over the abdomen – once the rib is formed, I continue, solid through the girdle area & onto the thorax hump with the black thread. Coat the abdomen with two or three coats of Loon Hard Head for a durable, realistic abdomen.

Thorax: black rabbit dubbing

Wing: a tiny clump of puff taken from the base of a dyed-brown mallard flank feather, CDC or marabou – when wet, this reduces to just a hint of color, simulating the brownish coloration we see at the base of yellowjacket wings – the glassy puffs found at the base of mallard flank feathers are my favorite material for imparting the hint of wings or creating miasma – bags of dyed mallard flank are available at low cost & have a lot of uses

Hackle: soft grizzly, dyed yellow

Head: black dubbing in front of the hackle – & finish

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Wetfly Leader For Trout

    Pretty much always a good rule-of-thumb, ‘simplicity’ should ever be the core principle of rigging terminal gear for trout fishing -- & simplicity means minimal clutter. 

I've come to prefer store-bought tapered leaders over knotting my own together, as they turn over nicely, & fish cleaner with fewer tangles minus the multiple knot connections.  And the cost of a good tapered leader is not much of a factor if the leader is made semi-permanent with the addition of a rigging ring. These are catching on, & may be available at your local fly shop. The ones I’m currently using are the #2 rings from Feathercraft. These are tiny, about the size of a #8 hook eye – & smaller models are available, though I can’t imagine dealing with anything smaller than the #2 ring which is plenty obscure.     

Here’s my leader: a store-bought 7-1/2 foot tapered fluorocarbon leader, tapering to 4x (6 or 7lb test), as a butt, to which I fasten a #2 metal rigging ring. Now I’m never cutting into my tapered leader to splice in a new tippet – I tie the tippet to the ring, quick & easy. The 7-1/2 foot tapered butt is good for leaders from 9 to 12 feet, fishing 3 to 6lb test tippets, or down to as light as you like. If I want to go longer, say, 15 feet, I splice a 2 foot section of 4x or 5x to the ring, then splice the tippet to that.

If you generally fish shorter &/or lighter leaders, purchase a 7-1/2 foot leader tapering down to 5x, cut a foot from the 5x end – making a 6-1/2 foot butt, tapered to somewhere in the neighborhood of 4x – tie the ring to that, & add as light a tippet as you want to make an 8 to 10 foot leader.

To make a high-stick nymph rig, attach a second fly to the ring with a short length of tippet. And the ring makes a good stop for a bit of sink putty, if needed.

The extremely lethargic aside, anglers knowing they don’t have to cut back & re-splice the leader to freshen tippets are less apt to neglect that necessary chore, as, wah-la, it only takes a moment to tie to the ring – no cutting back & splicing, & no fly-snagging tippet loop-loops. 

I keep the rings stored on a snap swivel, which holds them for tying & drawing tight to a leader. I like a Palomar knot for attaching the ring, second choice, a Uni or San Diego knot – either of these is stronger than a clinch knot & won’t crinkle the leader. 

The tiny rigging ring is undetectable & does not interfere with presentation in any way that I can discern. The ring is so small & light that it will float on the surface film, so I use them with mono dryfly leaders as well.

I get impressive mileage out of my tapered leaders by adding a rigging ring, with one leader now in service for four years, cut back only a couple inches each year for a fresh knot – & that rig gets used almost daily in summer.

I’m not crazy about handshake loop line/leader connections on terminal rigs meant to fish trout with dryflies & soft-hackle wetflies. Loop to loop connections are clunky things. Double nymph set-ups snag on them, and they add bulk. More bulk means more stuff for trout to notice & be suspicious of. Noisy suspicious bulk: lines them down. I fish a lot of small soft-hackles pot-shooting surface feeding trout & want the softest delivery possible, so I prefer to nail-knot the leader butt to the flyline – which is better for high-stick nymphing too, as loop/loops hinge, & also deaden the transmission of subtle takes. (Short-line, high-stick nymphing is an intuitive art, in which the practitioner wants the cleanest connection to the fly possible.) And the nail-knot connection is practical with the semi-permanence a rigging ring provides. The leader butt will generally outlast normal wear & tear on the first couple of inches of flyline above the connection, so no need to freshen the connection any more often than you would with loops.

I like a fairly stiff material for the leader butt, which aids in creating open loops while casting, keeping double-nymph rigs from tangling; & a softer material with as much stretch as possible for the tippet section[s]. Pull & stretch the leader before fishing -- if it doesn't straighten out & remain straight until you wind it back on the reel, don't buy that kind anymore. Some that work for me are the Orvis Super Strong; Umpqua; & Cortland, the least expensive & usually available locally.            

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Black Hole Caddis Emerger

Black Hole Caddis tied by Steven Bird  

     In my last post we considered the addition of a color spot or ‘hot spot’ to create a stand-out feature that might make our nymph more visible & attractive to trout. But color is not the only way to gain visibility. Sometimes fussy trout demand a more subtle form of obfuscation in a stand-out nymph.

     The #12-#16 spotted sedge (Hydropsyche) emerging from June into August are the heaviest of the caddis hatches on my homewater.  Spotted sedge concentrate trout & afford a long season of opportunity to experiment with new patterns, a thing I look forward to doing every summer at the river. The yearly rounds of fishing & observing & tying & binge thinking have led to some interesting discoveries that, more often than not, serve to tilt or even shatter notions gathered from past years.

Trout prefer the emerging pupae of spotted sedge above all other stages; & drifted & swung soft-hackle nymphs work well. At maturity, the natural pupae are chestnut-brown with black wing holsters, & abdomens ranging from cream through shades of tan & darker to chestnut brown. Many individuals exhibit an olive coloration on the abdomen, making them nearly identical to grannom pupae at emergence. (Spotted sedge are often mistaken for grannom, though more abundant than grannom in the Columbia drainage.) Quite a few years of my search for better spotted sedge patterns were belabored with the notion that nailing the colorations of the naturals was a prime objective in creating a good pattern, right up there with correct size & shape. And I did nail the natural colorations, at least to my own eye, & came up with some decent fly patterns that have proven reliable, & even, at times, taken with stupid abandon by trout – yet still I’ve not found any one pattern to be reliable at all times & under all conditions. I discovered early on that no one imitation would prove the be-all-end-all I wanted. No perfect world. There are just too many nuanced variables influencing our quarry’s momentary whims. And always subthemes running through.

Oh, & those bag-like creations based on the theory that sedge pupae rise from the bottom inside a bag of gas?...  Phfft. But hold on, you who are gas-theorists, I don't want to lose you, stay with me, I think you might find some sparkling gaseous merit in the Black Hole patterns presented here.  

A longtime mystery to me was the reliable effectiveness of dark nymphs like the Partridge & Peacock or Leisenring’s Black Gnat, which seemed to trick selective trout feeding on emerging spotted sedge pupae as well, & often better, than any of the more ‘imitative’ patterns I could come up with. I hate to admit it now, but that was a mystery to me for years, & I couldn’t explain it, so I shoved it into the ‘Unexplained Anomaly Department’ of my mind, where it needled, while I blithely pursued the color/material problem while missing the important lesson contained within the overly-dark nymphs.  

     Then one day, at last, I began to consider the prevailing light conditions, & what trout might be really seeing. I finally got around to considering that spotted sedge emerge in low light – The Gray: early morning, overcast days, & most importantly, evenings, after the sun leaves the water, until dark. It came to me that I spend very little time fishing in light bright enough to show my natural-colored patterns off to best advantage. I reasoned that trout feeding on emerging pupae near & on the surface were, for the most part, looking up at a gray background & actually seeing very little color at all, but rather, acting on more subtle cues like size, movement, & profile. I laid a sheet of gray construction paper on the table & laid out my favorite sedge emerger patterns on it. In light, the LBG & the P&P stood out starkly, like ink blots, like black holes, while the natural colorations tended to blend into the gray background. With distance, the ‘naturals’ faded more into the gray background, while the dark patterns remained very visible, as silhouettes. I picked up the paper with the flies laying on it & held it under the table in the shadows – & noted that the dark patterns remained more visible, & still visible when the ‘natural’ colorations disappeared from view.

The observation led me to believe that the Partridge & Peacock & Leisenring's Black Gnat work as emerger patterns for spotted sedge because: they provide movement by virtue of their soft hackles, & the dark (black, lack of) coloration is readily visible as a sharp silhouette in low light. There is good reason the simple Black Gnat was Leisenring’s favorite fly. And we’ve all heard some version of that well-founded bit of angling wisdom: ‘If you’re not sure what color, black is always a good choice.’ I think fish are used to seeing their prey as a colorless silhouette, so are less apt to refuse a black imitation of the right size & shape than they might an imitation of the ‘wrong’ color. Black is a reliable form of obfuscation, perhaps the most perfect form.

When fishing over a heavy spotted sedge emergence, or any hatch, you need an edge. Your imitation is competing against bazillions of naturals & must get the trout’s attention without being offensive, & the harder profile a darker imitation affords is an unobtrusive way to accomplish that.

But, of course, a fly tier can’t resist sullying the purity of plain black.

Looking at my nymphs in the shadows under the kitchen table, I noticed that the wire ribbing glows, reflecting light to near darkness, & that got me wondering if flash might be applied as an effective body material for a nymph, beyond simply ribbing, a sort of ‘hot spot’. I wondered if I might somehow get hi-vis profile, flash & color into the fly through incorporating colored tinsel, which would be a quick & easy tie &, I determined, would reflect some color in any available light while providing a hard silhouette in lack of light. Flash as the body material for a nymph is not exactly a new idea, of course, the 24 Carat, a soft-hackle, & the popular Copper John are a couple that come immediately to mind. Experiments, some ill-conceived, some not, led me to the low-light sedge emerger variants featured here, which caught trout & show promise. I started to play with the metallic designs at the end of the season this year so haven’t had a full season to try them out, though results so far are encouraging & I plan to fish them a lot next year, along with some other tinsel-bodied nymphs (including a damselfly nymph & midges) designed to fish for insect species other than caddis.

Black Hole Sedge

Hook: #10-#18 Daiichi 1150 or caddis style

Thread: black

Rib: (choice) fine wire wound over the abdomen & thorax

Abdomen: (choice) mylar tinsel – weight through the thorax area with about six turns of copper or lead wire & shape the body with thread or floss before winding the tinsel – after winding the rib over the tinsel & thorax, I coat the finished abdomen with Loon Hard Head to keep the rib in place over the slippery mylar tinsel & form a sturdy light-diffusing miasma over the abdomen which serves to blend the tinsel & wire colors, creating a juicy segmented effect

Thorax: peacock herl (attractive in light, turns black as light dims)

Hackle: Black hen or choice 

Head: a few turns of black rabbit dubbing in front of the hackle – & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hot Spot Pheasant Tail Nymph – Parti-Color Riffs

Pheasant Tail Nymph tied by Steven Bird

     Though I mention the Hot Spot style Pheasant Tail Nymphs in my last post on PTN's, it struck me that the idea of the design is a notable departure from the venerable takes of Skues & Sawyer, & the ancient designs before them. I think the Hot Spot version/idea deserves its own post, as it is a fairly significant nymph design, representing the shift in thinking away from older observations & theories concerning how & what trout see, & how they react to color. 

As with the PTN, the origin of the Hot Spot PTN is difficult to pin down, though the visible genesis of the idea hints that evolution rather than outright creation is at work. Some say the idea of a color spot or ‘hot spot’ began with George Skues’s version of the Pheasant Tail Nymph, which he tied with orange silk, resulting in an orange head.  Later, some unchronicled British angler liked the orange head, decided the orange head contributed to the fly’s effectiveness, so he expanded on that theory to include an attractive orange thorax, a “hot spot”, resulting in a variant of the Pheasant Tail Nymph that is now universally popular. The French & other European anglers are credited with picking up on the British pattern, experimenting with the color spot, & eventually incorporating the idea into other nymph patterns.   

We know that fish will react favorably (bite) when presented with certain colors they are not likely to see in nature. Colors that trigger an attack response -- ‘trigger’ or ‘attractor’ colors. ‘Firetiger’, for example, a color combination which one could argue looks like a yellow perch on acid, seems to have a universal appeal, effective where no perch exist & on a spectrum of species, including trout. It is a thing that is broadly known, though few can explain exactly why. And there is much in this that will remain unknown until fish start talking. In the meantime, we accept ‘attractor’ colors as the staple paint jobs of lures & streamer flies. And not coincidently (there is no such thing as coincidence) the basic colors of the ‘firetiger’ combo, red-orange/chartreuse-yellow, are colors essential for creating reaction baits designed to fish sea-run salmonids not really in the mood to eat. And consider the most popular salmon, steelhead & trout ‘attractor’ colors – the tried & true colors used wherever those fish swim – what do those colors have in common? Those colors reflect the basic unsullied color spectrum & its overlapping wave lengths – they are colors that will maintain visibility over greater distance & in lesser light than those colors we have come to think of as ‘natural’ colors, those muddied colorations which actually function as camouflage in nature. Simply put, trigger colors comprise the basic colors, the visible light/color spectrum, & are visible & attractive to fish over a greater distance in the low visibility conditions we often meet while fishing: off-color water; deep water; overcast days; tree shadows; early morning & late afternoon low light. And fluorescent versions of these same colors will remain even truer in lower light. 

So, won’t including psychedelic colors on nymphs meant as imitations of specific insects make them look clownish in the eyes of selective trout?...

I am still convinced that natural colorations get the nod, if conditions be such that our quarry has the advantage of visibility clear enough to detect the coloration of an average sized nymph at about a 4-foot distance or depth, the visibility we might encounter in a spring creek or mountain pond in good light. Trout living in slow, clear water are notoriously canny, & that due to their ability to see well in their crystal environment. Yet that’s not to say trout in such environments won’t eat a nymph sporting a parti-colored thorax, they will, but as with any imitation offered such fish, the imitation will, usually, need to approximate the size & shape of the current bill-of-fare & be presented well.  In recent years I’ve had good results fishing color spot nymphs over blizzard sedge hatches & selective trout on my homewater. Some evenings, the incredible abundance of naturals pouring from the river can be humbling if not downright discouraging to a flyfisher having to compete with them. It’s a matter of having to wait your turn. However, with the addition of a color spot to an imitation of the right size & shape, those turns come more frequently, the imitation standing out, more visible in the throng. If the color used is a known trigger color for our chosen water, a double advantage might be achieved with both increased visibility & the aggression trigger added to our offering -- a double whammy.  

Hold a traditional #14 Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail Nymph at arm’s length in early morning light & you will notice the coloration in the fly blurs to darkness at the distance. In slightly lesser light the fly may lose its color entirely, becoming a dark silhouette. This exercise serves to illustrate how the color of our nymphs might appear to fish in the low light conditions we often seek trout in. Trout feeding on mayfly nymphs in early morning or at dusk, or in water deeper than four feet, are looking for a dark silhouette of the right shape & size. Assuming our Pheasant Tail Nymph is the proper size & shape to fit the bill, what happens when we incorporate a color spot that enhances visibility & is a known reaction trigger of our quarry? Well, a look at the patterns currently popular with European nymphers seems to indicate they think good things will happen, as a fluorescent hot spot seems the ubiquitous addition to most European nymph patterns nowadays.

But that’s not to say American designers have been idle. Consider a very popular fly that’s been around for a long time, the Montana Stone, a staple, a stonefly nymph pattern meant to fish for P californica, the giant salmonfly. The Montana Stone is tied with a black chenille abdomen & shellback, yet sports an orange or yellow chenille thorax (& I’ve seen them in chartreuse), colorations not exhibited by the natural nymphs, yet it is a killer pattern where salmonflies occur, often out-fishing more imitative patterns. Why? My guess is that the Montana Stone is the right size & shape of the favored prey, & the addition of the color/hot spot increases its visibility in the deeper freestone runs where trout seek the big stoneflies, & may also serve as a trigger color. In any case, there is no arguing the effectiveness of the Montana Stone.   

The color spot is an added trigger. And, as any bass man can tell you, the quarry’s preference of a trigger color can change with the water, the season, variables of light, daily, or within the day, & for any number of ambiguous reasons known only to fish. Preference in trigger color, I think, tends to run in cycles, & I suspect light, & the angles of light, to factor heavily though not solely. I may be wrong, but I don’t think trout are as shifty as bass regarding trigger colors. (And remember, by ‘trigger color’, I mean those colors or combinations of colors not usually found in a fish’s diet, yet still able to provoke a strike reaction from the fish.)

The trigger colors attractive to trout & salmon are fairly well known, & interestingly, the taste for trigger colors (‘egg colors’ in steelhead circles) increases through their pre-spawn season. And, in my own experience fishing trout, I’ve observed what seem to be over-riding regional color preferences that I’ve not been able to explain or find research that will explain. Under similar light conditions & water clarity, the trout in one river system show a decided preference to chartreuse, while in another river, on the other side of the divide, they like pink. Why? It’s a mystery. And one reason why I carry Hot Spot PTN’s in a variety of color variants.

Though an infinite number of Hot Spot PTN variants are possible with dyed pheasant tail in the mix, I keep the working flies simple, using a basic soft-hackle PTN recipe, natural pheasant tail, just changing the thorax coloration. My thorax material is dubbing made from shredded synthetic yarn, which holds its color when wet. (I generally add some lead under the thorax of my nymphs.) 

“Whoa,” you might say, “this goes against all that stuff you preach about achieving obfuscation.” 

To which, looked at in the strictest sense, I might plead guilty. Call out the firing squad & I insist on a last cigarette. But then, I might stretch to argue that the inclusion of a trigger color may be considered an obfuscation of sorts, in itself, if we define obfuscation as creative flim-flam. So, ladies & gentlemen, I elect we broaden the definition as we gain insight into the way fish see, perceive, & react. Nothing is static, apparently. Not even the classics.

Fly Fish NE Washington with Steven Bird: