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:

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