Thursday, September 6, 2018

Hair & Hackle Sculpin

      Considering freshwater sculpin (Cottidae) inhabit nearly all trout streams in North America – where they are preyed upon by trout, and especially larger trout – then it stands  as a good idea to carry a few ‘muddlers’, particularly during those times when insects may be scarce, or whenever it might be good to swing or strip a streamer. If you fish big rivers where large trout are likely, then it’s good to have some sculpin patterns in the kit.   

Though there are some species that may reach six inches in length, across the board, the average stream sculpin will be about two inches long. One and a half to about two and a half inches is the size we most often find in trout stomachs. And that size-range of imitations seems generally the most productive, most places we fish in the lower ’48. 

Original Muddler Minnows tied by Don Gapen.
No arguing the effectiveness of Don Gapen’s original Muddler Minnow, maybe the first fly pattern in history dressed to imitate a freshwater sculpin – which Gapen found giant Ontario brook trout feeding on. Unlike the slick, paired-wing version later popularized by Dan Bailey, Gapen’s original was dressed with a natural hair winging (body) extending back beyond the hook bend. 

Gapen tied a lot of versions of the Muddler Minnow, incorporating various types of hair into the dressings – bucktail, bear, squirrel tail, fox – and no doubt the pulse and shimmy of natural hair contributes much to the pattern. Natural hair is formed around a spine which serves as a spring to snap the hair back into place when activated. Natural hair provides more action than artificial hair, which may have a tendency to plaster and mat.

Though a hair body is a good choice in imitating sculpin, I strongly suspect it is the profile of Don Gapen’s pattern, created by the clipped deer hair head, that accounts most for the pattern’s success.  I’ve come to believe that the Muddler’s sculpin profile is more important than matching the natural’s coloration, this evidenced in the fact that the pattern works well dressed as a ‘lure’, in colorations never seen in life yet known to trigger a reaction strike – a blue and purple, or all-black, for example. And I’ve done well on a fire-tiger version.    

The spinning and clipping of deer hair isn’t one of my favorite tying operations, and if I can find a faster and at least equally effective way around it, I’m all in. Having cycled through a fanciful array of sculpin patterns through the years, the one featured here has risen to the top of my favorite list. The simple dressing provides the sculpin profile and great motion, and invites unlimited creativity blending the spectrum of dyed and natural color choices available.  

Basic construction of the Hair & Hackle Sculpin:

Hook: #2 Mustad 3366-BR (this size works for patterns 2” to 3” long).

Thread: UNI 8/0 or your choice.

Gills: Red tinsel wound over the hook shank.

Body: Tied in as winging. I generally apply at least two layers of bucktail, a few strands of flash tied in between as a lateral line. The Natural Sculpin in the photo is dressed as follows, in order tied in: white bucktail, olive bucktail, 4 strands of copper flash, and topped with fox squirrel tail. The Blue/Purple is blue bucktail, 4 strands of blue/copper flash, topped with purple bucktail. Stack one color on top of the other, each tied in with about six turns of thread and head cement applied to the thread turns each time. Tie in the bucktail about a third of the hook-shank length behind the eye, leaving room for the head. Keep bucktail and hair sparse enough that light will pass through (avoid making a stiff shaving brush out of it).

Head: Kip tail. Apply 3 clumps to form a collar – one on top, and one on each side of the hook shank, tips extended to almost half the body length, the top clump slightly longer.  Tie in each clump with 6 turns of thread and apply head cement to the thread at each tie-in. Trim hair butts to a taper, wind over with thread and apply head cement to the thread wraps. Tie in and wind 2 hackle collars ahead of the kip, the first extending back about half the body length, the last, slightly shorter, wound behind the hook eye. The Natural Sculpin is tied with brown kip fronted with hackle collars of brown pheasant rump and dyed rust-brown pheasant church window body feather. The Blue/Purple is the black-dyed-purple taken from the base of a kip tail, fronted with black hen and natural guinea hen.

I like to fish the Hair Sculpin on a sink-tip, swinging, deep, tickling over the bottom. It is a workhorse pattern for Trout Spey on larger streams. Makes a good bass fly too.