Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dabblers for Trout Spey

Dabbler-style Platte River Special

     Anybody who has been fly fishing since the 1950’s, or is familiar with the beautiful winged wetfly designs of Ray Bergman, knows that we once had a tradition of beautiful trout flies meant for swinging. And I’m not saying that has disappeared (that evidenced in the winged wetflies of Davy Wotton & Don Bastion) just diminished quite a bit with the popularity of nymphing, which has spiraled American fly fishers toward the bobber & jig as the preferred subsurface method. 

Sulfur Variant
Been faffing around at the vise lately, working up a batch of lures for swinging in early Spring before the hatches get going. I’ve lately become enamored of the ‘Dabbler’ design frame popular in Ireland, Wales, & Scandinavia, as it allows for some elegant & effective trout flies, incorporating all of the essential elements of good soft-hackle design & good fly design in general.

Olive Chieftan

This will probably cost me even more readers than my politics, but I’m gonna say it anyway: In our market (& writer) driven hustle to get onboard with the latest & greatest, Americans have a singular propensity to throw some damn nice babies out with the bath water. Just sayin.

That said, lets: Make Fly Fishing Great Again.

Coachman Variant
Indigenous fly-design frames are fractal, allowing for infinite variation within the proven effective frame. The ancient design frames, or ‘patterns’, are ancient for good reason, providing tyers a reliable frame of reference to start with when considering good baits for swinging. A basic shape. The broad palette of materials available invites the tyer to get recklessly imaginative dressing the frame.      

Camp Dog
The basic design frame of a Dabbler fly is thus, back to front, roughly in the order tied in: Usually a tinsel tip. Tailing is often composed of more than one material & often golden pheasant tippet in the mix, particularly in the Irish flies (traditional Irish anglers use this design pattern for everything from wee mayflies to Atlantic salmon flies). Bodies might be anything, commonly tinsel or dubbing, a bit of dubbing built up behind the hackle collars to provide body mass & flare the hackle. Dabblers are generally tied with more than one hackle & palmered over the body. Saddle hackle or shlappen make a good palmer for these. I tie in behind the hook eye (leaving room for the hackle collar) & make three or four turns before winding four or five turns down the length of the body then winding wire or tinsel forward to cinch the palmered hackle down. Generally, two hackle collars are wound, the rear hackle known as the ‘wing’. This is usually a longer hackle, extending beyond the hook bend. Barred waterfowl flank is often used for this, wound, & sometimes the upper portion of the hackle gathered up to form a clump wing over the body. Pheasant rump, marabou tips, longer partridge spades, whatever you may have that is long & soft will work for the rear or wing collar (a good use for those nice but too-big hackles at the end of a cape). The front hackle can be anything the tier thinks fit. The Irish seem very fond of the various church-window feathers taken from pheasant (& these may be dyed with a pen).

Though one may go smaller, Dabblers for trouting are generally tied on #4 to #12 hooks. They may be tied drab to simulate stream food items, but I think the design’s greatest value is in tying attractor patterns that fill the gap between wee flies & big streamers – that place winged wetflies used to fill.

Swing Clown

 The Dabbler designs are a perfect choice for Trout Spey, though a two-handed rod is certainly not essential for delivering them. These can be fished with a sink-tip or full-floating line, & in all the ways wetflies & streamers are presented, drifted, swung, & stripped.             

Monday, January 15, 2018

Spade Flies for Trout

Rootbeer Spade ~ Henry Loiseau
     So what do you get when you combine elements of the soft-hackle styles with the classic salmon/steelhead styles? Well, yeah, something that looks a lot like a low-water steelhead fly – & the low-water patterns do provide a good design frame for wetflies meant to be swung for trout.

The ‘Spade’ low-water steelhead design is an excellent example. Northwest angling legend holds that the Spade design was originated by Bob Arnold, who needed something less invasive than the popular standards for meeting finicky low water summer steelhead on the Stillaguamish.  Bob Arnold’s Spade was composed of a deer hair tail, black chenille body, & grizzly spade hackle tied in-the-round. The deer hair tailing (which produced an underbody when tied in) was meant to give the fly some buoyancy, & the flared tailing aiding in deflecting the hook bend from catching the bottom. Yet, while Mr. Arnold’s purpose of the deer hair in this design may have been original to him, a look at sea trout designs from Europe evidences that the wingless design frame is not. The defining characteristic of the American Spade designs is that they are tied with the spade hackle taken from a hen’s back. And Bob Arnold’s greatest contribution beyond his original pattern is the name he gave it, which has now come to define a recognizable design frame.

Alec Jackson Spade ~ Jeff Cottrell
Word swiftly got around that Bob Arnold’s Spade pattern was killing, & this was not missed by Alec Jackson (ironically) a native of Yorkshire, transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. Hailing from the Yorkshire Dales, the Mecca of soft-hackle flies, the Spade design no doubt resonated with Alec Jackson, & he set about refining the style, tying & fishing a number of the wingless designs, which he called ‘Spade’ flies, firmly defining & putting a stamp on the style. And it wasn’t long before Northwest steelheaders started taking the design frame even further, & I’ve seen some examples that approach Atlantic salmon designs in detail (fun!).  

The Spade design may have come full circle, having origins in trout fishing, been expanded upon & defined through anadromous fishing, then come back to trouting as a nattily dressed attractor pattern. To my mind, the Spade design frame holds the potential for creating wetflies just as elegant, yet more effective, than the old paired-quill wing lures that have all but disappeared from modern fly boxes (& way easier to tie). Spade flies are designed for swinging, which makes them a good choice for soft-hacklers wanting to swing something when no insect activity is apparent, & a perfect choice for Trout Spey.             

Black & White Spade ~ Jeff Cottrell
 Though drab colorations may serve to simulate the larger natural food forms – sculpin, crayfish, stoneflies, drake nymphs – generally Spade flies are tied as attractor patterns (lures), dressed on #6 through #10 hooks. Although there have always been wee attractor-style spiders used for trouting, in the Spade designs we see the frame expanded both in hook size, and the creative potential a larger hook size presents (not exactly a new concept in soft-hackle flies for trout, the venerable Carey Special is an example of a big one that’s been in service for a long time). Most often, I tie Spade flies on #6 to #10 TMC 200R or low-water steelhead hooks. In any case we want a straight or up-eye hook for best tracking. To some soft-hackle purists that might seem like a big fly, but compare a #6 fly to the wee spoons & spinners used to fish even the smallest streams, & we see that a #6 is at the smallest end of the lure spectrum, & a #10 seems tiny in comparison. This is the size range the old winged wetflies were most often tied in, for perspective. The Spade designs fill the size gap between streamers & wee soft-hackles.   

To ensure good surface penetration, tracking and hooking, the bodies of Spade trout flies do not crowd the hook, ending adjacent to or just ahead of the hook point. Typically, a thorax of dubbing is built to flare the hackle collar and create profile and body mass. Hackle collars are full. A spade hackle from a hen back has fatter barbs than hackle taken from the neck. On larger flies, #6 & #8, I’ll wind up to four turns of hackle.

The Spade design frame is perfect for those tiers prone to fanciful creations, or those who would like to branch out from tying & swinging drab wee flies meant to simulate insects, applying the same principle & method to tying & fishing attractor patterns.  

Rootbeer Spade ~ Steven Bird
Rootbeer Spade

Hook: #6 - #10 TMC 200R

Thread: rust-brown UNI 8/0

Hackle: craw (rusty-orange) hen

Tip: copper tinsel

Tail: rusty-brown deer hair; bit of rust-brown flue taken from the base of the hackle; nub of pink yarn

Rib: copper wire

Body: peacock herl; thorax: 50/50 mix of Hareline UV Pink Shrimp & dark brown antron dubbing

Horn: 4 or 5 bronze waterfowl flank fibers tied in as a ‘wing’ before winding the hackle ~ & finish.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Fly Line for Lake Dredging

   Easily entertained & happy to fish, I like it all. Though there are some things I like better than others.

I love lake fishing. But admit I’m no big fan of the bobber-midging approach so popular on the Northwest lakes I fish. Sure, that does have its day, but I don’t like staring at a bobber all day, my attention focused there while the world happens. If I look away for a moment (which I’m often prone to do) sure-nuff that’s when the bobber goes under. Attention deficit aside, I prefer to dredge, most of the time fishing a big Leech, Dragonfly Nymph, or Carey Special. These usually bring a smashing take while stripped, & I like that. Also, dredging seems to bring a better grade of trout than midging does, generally (though certainly not always).

Luckily, the lakes I fish most often harbor wall-to-wall populations of dragonflies & leeches, so one can seldom go wrong with these. My favorite lakes drop off quickly from shoreline weed beds. As long as the water is cool enough, the drop-off in front of the weeds is the favored hunting zone of ‘gators’ (big trout) routinely cruising the lush zone seeking edible critters. There on the weedy drop-offs is where I like to intercept them. Do some gator hunting.
Carey Special

In early spring, then again in late fall when the water cools enough, trout are in shallow, so I go with a full-floating line rigged with a 15’ fluoro leader. When employing the floating line I use flies weighted with wire under the body. A bead may be used, though take care it isn’t so heavy that it sinks the fly too quickly or tips it off the horizontal plane. I cast the fly to the weed line, let it sink a bit, then retrieve it very slowly with a hand-twist retrieve, pausing often to let the fly sink as it fishes down the drop-off. Trout will take the fly during a pause, & the floating line acts as an indicator, suddenly surging ahead, signaling the take. You watch the floating line when you’re operating with this method. If I can’t get a visual on the drop-off, I’ll cast & count down before starting to work the retrieve, starting with a 10-count, then going ten seconds deeper with each cast until finding the sweet zone. I like the ease of the floating line set-up, as it allows me to meet the chance calibaetis or midge hatch (yes midges without a bobber) without the need to change lines or carry an extra rod. But that early & late season fishing might be better met with a slow-sinking line, which will accomplish the same result, while allowing for a faster retrieve without lifting the fly out of the strike zone, as the floating line will if the fly is retrieved rapidly – & sometimes they want it moving fast. So…

As the season proceeds & the water warms, the fish move deeper. Though a sink tip line with a slow sink-rate will cover the shallows, there comes a point in the season when a faster sinking line gets the first nod. I’m currently using the Cortland Compact Sink lines with 28’ sinking heads, in Type 3, 6, & 9. The Type 9 has a 9ips sink rate; & if I could only have one it would be the Type 9 (I would miss the Type 6) – but each will have its day as ideal, & all three would pretty much cover the spectrum of still-water situations a serious dredger might encounter. Each Compact sink-rate is a different color for easy identification, & all have a black, sinking head section. All feature a moderate sink-rate running line, which helps to keep the fly down in the zone when stripped. The 28’ sinking head gets down & fishes like a full-sinking line, yet casts a helluva lot better. The fairly aggressive (yet forgiving) head configuration turns over & lays out heavy Bugger & Leech patterns with ease. I think anybody considering a good dredging line for the lake would be more than satisfied with the Cortland Compact Sink lines.

When fishing sinking lines I like my flies non-weighted for better suspension. Even with an innocuous black sink-tip, when fishing lakes I like at least an 8’ fluoro leader. A longer leader doesn’t hurt in clear lakes, particularly if the trout are seeing some pressure – & if the line bellies down onto the weed tops, the longer leader & non-weighted fly are less likely to get dragged through.

Here's a catalogue of the Cortland Compact lines: