Category Archives: Fly Pattern

Where we fiddle with worms and body armor

With the lawnmower disabled all thoughts of chores and responsibility were discarded in a hurry, and with only a scant few weeks remaining before silvery plankton eaters invade my waterways, I was intent on finishing up my spring project, rerolling the classic Texas worm rig into a fly.

Lake Berryessa being so close – and fish being visible and numerous makes for a good test bed. Clear water allows me to see the motion of the each faux rubber candidate, and visible fish allowed me to think victory as they approached – and defeat once they paused shy of eating the dang thing.

For “Dokter Frankenstein” only mass acceptance would be a surefire sign of a good design, as few tools in a bass angler’s arsenal are as consistent as a big purple jellyroll served with a side of egg sinker …

The wind was blowing a good clip on Saturday, and I’d planned on heavy flies and breeze, opting for a 10.5’ #7 Orvis I had purchased on eBAY some years back. It was a monstrous stiff rod, better suited for an #8, but was just what was needed to keep unwieldy flies from burying themselves in my hindquarters.

I opted for a Type VI sinking shooting head, as my plan was to fish the small coves that occur with regularity along the bank. As a right-handed caster I had to walk left to keep rod and line out over the water, and the cove indent allows me to cast to the other side and “walk” my “worm” down the far bank before stripping it back to me across the belly of the cove.

In these conditions you don’t have to cast far, as most of the fish are within 20 foot of the bank, getting the fly down to them fast enough is the real issue, and a real problem.


The above picture showing a deep cove that allowed me to fish most of both sides, versus (below) a shallow cove that I could fish in a single pass down the bank.


Mud plumes caused by wind and boat wakes keep me a bit less visible than normal, allowing me to splash around as much as needed when the bank is obstructed.

I was reminded of last week’s rib mash when I discovered the silver dollar sized hole I’d torn in the left boot when I slammed into the hillside. It was the shore-facing leg, and bothersome, but not as critical as the right boot which is planted deepest.


Mix 15 turns of 3 amp fuse wire and 5.5mm bead to the front of a #2 wide gaped popper hook, and you’ve got the aerodynamic equivalent of the Spruce Goose, minus a few engines, and no ability to control its flight shy of the full head out of the guides to coerce the lumbering SOB away from an arse cheek.

Every puff of breeze brought an involuntary full-body clench, anticipation of impact shoved knees together, hat down to protect eyes and face, and cork grip white-knuckled knowing one of your limbs was likely in jeopardy.

I remember thinking to stuff my jacket in the rear pocket of the vest figuring it would staunch any bleeding. Arms were left defenseless as I’d be able to pry the hook out by sight, a back wound would have me operating by feel therefore needed additional protection.

While much refinement remains, the liveliness of the fly is without equal. But getting it to the water remains a bit problematic. The fish gave it a great reception, and I managed to catch both large and smallmouth on the fly in its debut.


Five inches of tough polyester ribbon yarn make the tail portion indistinguishable to the action of a rubber worm. I just need to lighten the fly to make it more comfortable to cast. As it is now the last 20 feet of the retrieve the fly is ticking off the rocks as you draw it to you, so it is making bottom early and prone to snags.


The crayfish was a welcome change up for those coves with shallow water. The bright colors make it quite effective in the mornings, and a bit less so at midday. I used both in the morning, and stuck with the muted tones of my Olive “worm” for the bright sun of midday.

The lake is starting to show a few aggressive fish, but the main body of the lake remains docile. All the folks I talked to on the bank mentioned  the visible fish ignoring lures of any type, a condition the locals insist are characteristic of “pre-spawners.”

We’ll continue to refine this beast over the next couple of weeks prior to Shad showing, on the surface the pattern holds some promise.

I am a known whiner and slayer of Rose Bushes

I figure the Fishing Gods ignore whiners even when they’ve paid their earlier dues without complaint. I suppose lucky and unlucky have a minor role, as does Karma, but there must be more than simply the number of times you go fishless that turns their gaze benevolent, rather it’s in the degree of suffering endured and having made amends for being so full of yourself on your last successful foray.

… then again The Gods could simply grow weary of your constant swearing.

I swore my mightiest oath in the face of a pending three day weekend. If by mid morning the fish corpses weren’t piled deeply at my feet, then I’d put that mighty arm to work clearing brush from the backyard, turn that wrist flaccid in the face of a quarter acre of lawn mowing, trimming rose bushes, and the sweaty eternity that is stump removal.

And as each dawn broke I was waist deep in the American throwing heavy and monotone, extra heavy and gaudy, tiny and bright, big and drab, or beaded and eye searing.

… and each noon found me with a pitchfork and a growing pile of organic debris by the curb.

I endured the catcalls from the bankside revelers, stalled traffic from the hordes fleeing civilization, the mounds of sweltering garbage stacked around stuffed trash receptacles, and the stick throwing dog walkers, each intent on exercising “Cujo” – the wet and overtly hostile quadruped ignoring his stick and intent on taking a bite out of my ass.

I managed to land one pair of medium purple thong underwear and a brace of Orange soda, whose misfortune it was to tangle plastic holder with my weighted shad fly.

As I made the lonely walk back to the car each morning I resolved to try it again in a different spot, knowing that eventually my suffering would begat some form of divine intervention …

… which I gratefully used up when that drunk careened out of the ditch and across a couple lanes of traffic attempting to knock me into the center divider. Suddenly it was okay that I hadn’t been bit and my afternoon would be a symphony of pitchforks and dry grass. The welcome boost of acceleration squeezing me between guard rail and  oncoming SUV, just prior to his impacting the rail before caroming back into the ditch from whence he came.

I watched the thick dust cloud from his end over end grow smaller in my rear view, knowing that the Holy Blessed Mother of Acceleration had not failed me in my moment of need, and the matched pair of Orange Soda was the opening benediction of whatever grace was my fate.

I pulled out of the driveway the following morning not sure whether to simply admire the big pile of debris, rub all the aching body parts involved and opt for a donut, instead of making the pilgrimage to the river.

I opted for more piscatorial pummeling, enduring the clammy waders and pin prick hole on the right arse cheek at mid-wallet. Yesterday’s leak now a chill reminder that eventually my luck would meet Karma, and both arrows might eventually point skyward …


… which occurred about 90 seconds after wading in at the new spot, and the initial tangle of chilled Amnesia was undone in time to set hook on a shad intent on surveyor’s tape …

It’s that rare moment when a strip of brightly marked tape fluttering on a surveyor’s stake makes a light bulb flash in the mind of the onlooker, which isn’t genius by any stretch given his propensities for fly tying and hoarding.

… but the shellback on a Czech nymph tied for Shad?

Divine Intervention making anyone look good, no matter how weak of mind, or strained of idea …


This is tied on a blued 3XS (short), 2XS (strong), kirbed hook, giving the impression of a smaller fly but with a bit of extra hooking ability given the offset point. It certainly proved to be effective as even the spin fishermen on the far side started to mutter at my good fortune.

It’ll be their turn next week and I’ll pay for any immediate successes in Spades …


I spent the morning swearing off all forms of tool usage as the blisters they raised interfered with my double haul, especially so given the corpses of “dried grass” accumulated at my feet.

A couple of four pound hens will do that to you.

Proof that for all our collective efforts we’ve advanced fly fishing not at all

I told him, “… you’re not to go into a fly shop without me holding your hand, you’re simply too vulnerable. You need absolutely everything – but you need a Sensei to prioritize purchases, so you don’t blow a couple paychecks on stuff you wad into a vest, yet lack the vest to fill …”

He nods with great sincerity, and we part company …

Later I’m the recipient of an email:

“The budget fisherman went by big 5 on the way home and saw this for 4.99 and had to buy it. You can’t go wrong with FAMOUS patterns. They did not have a holder. Would you have a fly box your willing to sell? Talked to wife and if you are still up for tomorrow I can meet you at work at 3:30 and follow you home. “


I recognize the McGinty, the Parmachene Belle, White Miller, Black Gnat, Yellow Sally, and a host of patterns from the 1950’s, but where is there any evidence of the last seventy years of fly fishing, and why is that so?

Dear Eager-Beaver,

The label says, “Great for every game fish”, but you’re interested in Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, which aren’t game fish. Anything in still water is considered by the fly fishing industry to be a ‘gamey-fish’ – something you toe into the underbrush while no one is looking.

I’ll hook you up with some bass flies this evening, and a fly box, and anything else I’ve got two of …

Stop spending money.


Six hundred things edited out of Fly Fisherman as the Zip Code wasn’t exotic enough No 311 & No 288

Flat tinsel is one of the many thousands of fly tying tasks that are intuitive in concept and unduly difficult in practice. Tinsel in past decades was flat metal, which sliced through fingertips with only slightly more resistance than tying thread.

The switch to Mylar eased the bloodletting and ended tarnish, but had the same problems with its application. Now you had to remember to tie in the color opposite what the body would be, as one side was silver and the other gold, which would result in the only cost savings two hundred years of fly tying has ever produced.


Figure 1: Gold side facing you means the fly will have a silver body

Tinsel bodies are quite common in trout streamers and steelhead flies, and can be tamed with three simple tricks; always use the widest tinsel available to cover the most with the least number of wraps, never overlap turns, and always double wrap the body, never attempt to single wrap the fly.

Tinsel is cheap – there’s little advantage in hoarding it.

Never overlap turns of tinsel

Figure 2: No turns overlap

If even the slightest overlap occurs it will create a “bubble” or air gap that will eventually slip to reveal the thread wraps beneath. Always wrap the first layer so you can see thread color between turns.

Final layer added, no overlap

Figure 3: Final layer of tinsel added

There are no overlaps on the upper layer of tinsel either. Because the two layers are at right angles to one another, no thread is visible despite our leaving rather obvious gaps on the bottom layer.

In the above “Comet” style of steelhead fly, I used an under-the-tail-wrap to change direction and bring the second layer forward to the eye. This makes the change of direction seamless, and lifts the tail away from the hook bend.

As an additional step, one that I’ve been asked about, is how the “tip-first” style of hackling subsurface flies can accommodate a second color.

Comet’s have a mixed orange and yellow hackle, and “folding” hackle so it drapes back naturally, precludes a second color – given that winding it forward would bind the first to the shank.

Instead, treat both feathers as if they were a single feather. Size the hackles by spreading the barbs perpendicular to the stems with your fingers. Place one on top of the other, and using either the thumb (top feather) or forefinger (bottom feather) slide the two along each other until the stroked barbules are the same length, as below:

slide the two feathers until the barbules are the same length

Figure 4: Both orange and yellow fibers match in length

A better view below, showing the two hackles now tied in, yet spread from the stem so you can see they’re of identical length …

A better look at the two feathers barbules

When gripped thusly, the forefinger controls the tension on the bottom feather, and the thumb controls stem tension on the top color. Note how the stroked perpendicular barbules are of the same raw length.

Now all that remains is to keep the stems together under equal tension when you stroke them at right angles with your scissors, or saliva equipped fingers, whatever is your favorite tool for moving the fibers to the same side.

Fibers now stroked roughly to the same side

Figure 5: Fibers stroked roughly to the same side

I use the edge of my scissors scraped towards me to break the backs of all the fibers and push them to a single side. Fingers finish the task, by stroking anything unruly back into line. Note how close the two stems are kept, they might as well be a single stem.

Now wind two forward

Figure 6: Winding both colors forward

This technique ensures the proper balance of colors as one turn of orange yields one turn of yellow, and the mixed color is exactly half of each. Adjust the stems over lumps or bumps using the finger that controls the wayward stem – bring it back in line with the other so they wind as a single object.

The completed comet style

Figure 7: The completed “Comet” style

This style of hackle does away with the overly large head caused by wrapping over the “dry fly style” hackling and forcing it down and over the back of the fly. A fly tied with this style hackle can have a head no larger than a trout fly if done correctly.

Note how the sizing we did at the beginning yields flues of equal length for both colors? No more guesswork needed to pick two hackles, simply slide them around until the flue length matches.

Using the right “style” of hackle for the task is a very important distinction a tyer makes on his path to mastery. When he understands why he abandons “butt-first dry fly hackle” for his underwater flies, it’s a real milestone in his formative process.

We left the beads at home, enjoying the spectacle of “weightless” fishing for a change

Nope, there’s no gaudy beads or feelers, no articulated body parts or rare materials to keep you from owning these killers immediately …

… although there is that trust thing …

Nor will I mention the hair extensions you’ll have to tear out by the roots, or the groans of the feminine members of the household as they watch fashion disappear into the firm grip of your hackle pliers …

Yes, the Boys of Summer – the top killing flies of my recent trip – were all dries.


Most of the fish killing was the result of my earlier experimental the “Hovering Predator.” Little surprise given that it has the mayfly upwing when dry, the downwing of a caddis when wet, and as much deer or elk as a full dress Humpy or Elk Hair Caddis.

The fish above gave it about a microsecond before inhaling the beast deeply.

Fiery Hovering Predator #16

These are so much quicker to tie than a Humpy, and uses only about three turns of hackle per fly, relying instead on all those trimmed deer hair butts to give it a high floating three point stance. I doll it up with floatant to preserve the mayfly silhouette in slow water – and fling it without regard for dampness in the faster currents.

Hat Creek Yellow Sally

Second best was the time honored Yellow Sally I was introduced to at Hat Creek. Bright yellow body and scarlet egg sac, natural elk tips and ginger hackle complete the fly.

The Little Yellow Stone is a summer constant in the Sierra’s – and anything yellowish is sucked down with great glee by fish used to seeing it flutter by. In low light and with old eyes, it’s a welcome spot of white that can be seen immediately, and makes us geezers on equal footing with the younger crowd.

I tied all my dry flies on the fancy barbless tournament steel for the last two years. Not so much a preference as it is research in progress, a future article that may aid you in calculating their value to the casual angler.

Horner Deer Hair with Black Thread, Humpy with Yellow, and Goofus Bug if it’s the red

I’m reminded how much of the skill is in the hands of the tier, and how much of the finished look is in the materials he selects, and for many flies the mechanical attention to proportions simply cannot fix a bad choice of materials and their effect on the final look.

Which is why we spend so much time gazing fervently at road kill and the neighbors Maltese.

The veritable Horner Deer Hair, Humpy, Goofus Bug, or by whatever local name you know the fly, is a poster child for precise hair selection. Too long a tip and the wing disappears into the hackle, and you wind up using Moose for the tail – simply because the black tip and yellow bar are too long for the size you’re tying.

Horner Deer Hair Wing, showing deer hair colors

Unless all of the colors are small enough they won’t fit on a wing which  dry deer_facefly proportions dictate is merely twice gape, and the long black tips will bury the gold bar in the thickest part of the hackle where it can’t be seen.

Deer do possess hair that will tie a Humpy smaller than size 20. The down side is that it’s the muzzle of a deer – the area between eyes and black shiny nose.

You won’t find that at the fly shop, as most of their selection is prepackaged six or eight states distant, but you may be able to find a local taxidermist whose hunter didn’t pay the bill – or some garage sale mount that isn’t too badly moth eaten or brittle and can still be salvaged.

Yellow_Humpy, hiding in all them hair extensions 

It was Big, Awkward & Black last year

As SMJ so eloquently reminded us Monday, “… where them fuggin antz at?”

I have the luxury of fleeing the fishless and flooded creeks in my area for our traditional twice yearly pilgrimage to Manzanita Lake. It’s become ritual at this point; once to mark the opening of the season, once in the fall to mark the close, and the fish always playing second fiddle to the real prize of a year’s worth of bragging rights.

… and with all well known lakes and the best laid plans, it always comes down to “mystery meat” that determines the Victor…

… the puff of breeze that dislodged all them awkward carpenter ants, or the hot midge color is florescent orange (even though last year it was Chartreuse), and while most of the day you’re flinging or dragging everything you thought would be there, the perversity of Mother Nature means every day becomes an episode of Monty Hall’s “Let’s Make A Deal.”

I’m dating myself surely, but as every episode ended he’d glance down at the Grandma squealing in her clown suit and say, “I’ll give you $500 for every clothespin you brought in your purse … Two? Okay, I’ll trade your thousand dollars for what’s behind door #3 …”

A Lifetime of Cheese slices or …

… and has you scrambling for the darkest recesses of your fly box hoping you can cut up something normal to make what you really need.

…kind of like Granny felt when she paid a thousand bucks for a metric ton of CheeseWiz.


A fistful of moose hair tied in and double folded in both front and back to make a comely lump, with the remnants pushed upright and wrapped as a parachute. Moose being tough allows me to dress the fly on a #10 hook without a single fish tearing everything to pieces.

After a couple of fish I should have the rough look necessary, broken fibers trailing under the fly to simulate legs.

Ants are always accompanied with a stiff afternoon breeze, and with the water surface roughened nicely it’s a rare opportunity to fish the dry with OX. Typically by that time you’ve got a few scores to settle and are less mindful of hurt feelings …

I’d craft a few for the box your pals don’t grab

JSON stonefly nymph At some point we all flirt with the individual fibers, knotted legs, and artificial or synthetic everything – mostly because the flies look much too delicious to ignore…

… about our third fly we begin to wonder about synthetic reality and whether something that takes forty-five minutes to tie can outfish something made from a lumpy dog ear and owl feather.

About the half-dozen mark we’re willing to go back to the imprecise impressionism that is the Royal Coachman Fanwing, and we’re the luckier for it …

Not this fellow, I admire his work very much, and admire his resolve even more ..

He’s got quite a few videos as well as the wing burners and tools to speed the realism, always worth an eyeball.

No, the Other Brown One …

There’s the fellow tasked with bringing all the cooking implements, the canisters of propane, the lanterns and mechanical vestiges of civilization, if he forgets something it’s a round of good natured ribbing and a bit of improvisation, like beans warmed in the can. Then its the guy tasked with the victuals; the ice chests bulging with steaks and cold libations, dairy products and lunchmeat, and if he screws up it’s a trip to the store, or salmonella, or both.

But the most feared responsibility is the stalwart supplying the flies. A bit of inattention and the whole purpose of being is lost, a nickname results, and most of the beer consumed while everyone lounges about waiting for your return from civilization and the closest fly shop …

You’d think after fishing the same lake for nearly twenty-five years I’d make this easy on myself. Ear mark a couple of weekends and bang out what worked last year without modification, despite recent lackluster reception, and should anyone disturb my lake-side communion with questions about their validity, feign outrage with the “Candyass” retort…

“Dammit, these flies work fine. Most of the problem is that Candyass rod you’re using, with its Candyass limp butt, complicated further by a stiff breeze and that Candyass open wrist you develop every afternoon.

Try some of the brown ones … Meat.”

This being the second year in a row that everything fit to hold water is swollen to the gills with runoff, we’re retiring to the safety of the Sierra’s and the millions of lakes that will be full – where we can remove the furrows from our brow dallying in the deep end – armed with floating sofa cushions and breadcrumbs for the ducks.

… and while the rest of the fly tying world plays stop-action with the phases of mayfly, we’ll focus on fast sinking, sinking, and Black Hole of sinking…

Three guys, three days, and one beginner. I figure eight dozen to cover the losses; broken branches, busted tippets, and the balance to be loaned long term.


Brass cones, kirbed hook, red for blood and dark purple for great silhouette at depth.


Not as big as the Red Butted, but equipped with a similar heavy bead and lead.


Most importantly is to have plenty of leech style flies the same color as the weed growing up from the bottom, how else to imitate the hide and seek nature of the local chow.


The latest in a long line of damselfly imitations, size 11, the real thing being a large morsel for a fish gaunt from ice out.


… and for the almost sinking, semi top water, you’ve got to have a handful of Calibaetis nymphs should the midday emergence finally come to fruition.


Small trout fry in case nothing else works, slim profile and nothing to impede sinking and stripping past a cruising fish.


If we’re lucky we might encounter some Calibaetis, here are the “predator” flavor of that self same bug.

I’ve got the initial five dozen cranked out this weekend in between largemouth bass and bluegill, which’ll cover the other fellows nicely – yet save all the batter-dipped scented experimentals for my box and the secrecy of open water …

Huh? I got it on the brown one like I said …”

Fling it upstream then mash the button as it goes by

Hovering Predator seen from underwater It was so much easier when I lived on the banks of Hat Creek and could fiddle with the fly before throwing it at the same fish I’d thrown it at the night before. If they ate it, it was success. If they didn’t, we kept fiddling with it.

With no fish visible last night I had to eat my own creation, and absent my glasses, proof of concept is casting the fly rod left handed and upstream, poking the camera into the water as the fly draws near hoping we get a couple of good shots.

At left is proof of landing correctly despite being cast forty times, the fly being soaked, yet I’ve got enough stabilization to keep the proper attitude.

The wings are in the Mayfly configuration, and as the camera lens is bisected by the water you can see the blob of upright dyed gray elk, exactly as planned.

In focus and above the waterline

At right is the view we see, the wings are dry and absent the wax I’d original used to clump the fibers a little more.

Two turns of hackle, a bit of my special dry fly dubbing, some dyed gray elk, and we’re looking at something designed from the ground up to be a really efficient killer.

What determines the best and most effective flies is not how many fish they’ve caught and where, it’s how confident the owning angler is using the fly – and whether he leaves it on for a few casts or a few hours.

As a guide I’ve heard many learned anglers mention the killing qualities of their favorite flies, I’d nod knowingly as each was completely correct in their assessment.

I catch all my fish on the Adam’s …” – and if that’s all you ever put on – it’s a prophecy.