Segmented Legs On Steelhead Flies

One of my tasty steelhead flies marked up for movement.

Marking up that Ostrich

By Jeff Mishler

I’m always thinking about how to add realism to a presentation. What entices the fish to respond? If we knew that, I’d run out of things to write about. When I watch predators hunt one thing is clear, predictable behavior settles the predator into predicable pursuit. I can then assume that when prey is fleeing with fear, feeling vulnerable, the predator’s instincts are peaked.

Steelhead flies, particularly in clear water, can look blocky, or static, depending on the materials used to tie them. Ocean swimming Squid or Krill move through the water with seemingly little effort, using propulsion or small but rapid oscillating appendages to zip about. One of the most effective patterns I’ve ever encountered for steelhead is a General Practitioner. The stiff, long tail provides stability in the water column and guides the fly around like the tail on a kite, much that Krill or Squid.

But there is something about wiggling parts, spider-like legs or tails that make a static presentation look like food. And since most of the success realized by anglers relates directly to confidence in the offering, I work to put as much movement, or the illusion of movement, into the steelhead flies I plan to fish as the water clears.

During the production of the Skagit Master series I was able to observe many tying techniques. Across the board, the fly tiers spinning ostrich into a loop and then wrapping the loop as a hackle created a profile with transparency, shrouded by a veil of movement. And when I observed those flies in the flow tank, I was able to pick the designs apart and add my two cents. After a lot of experimenting, I realized that the illusion of movement could be enhanced by adding segmentation to the lighter shades of ostrich. A multi-pack of sharpies was all I needed.

Marking up the ostrich takes a bit of prep, consistency and dexterity. Firstly, the tips of each strand of ostrich must be lined up after I cut them from the stem (very close to the stem). I usually work with about 20 fibers. Lining the tips up requires a clean surface and dry fingers. I suggest you watch the fly tying segment in Skagit Master Volume One where Ed Ward describes in detail how to work with ostrich. He is a master at this technique. Go to:

Once I’ve lined up the tips, I gather them into a group and I choose the color of sharpie that best represents the color contrast I’m looking for. Pink body, pink ostrich—purple sharpie. Blue body, light ostrich—Blue, Black or Purple sharpie. Of course the color of the ostrich matters. Have fun with this because it creates variety in your fly selection and just one for thing to ponder, as if we don’t think too hard about all of this, already. I recommend that you use the barring sparingly. Just mark the gathered group of fibers three times or so along their length. I place a sheet of clean white paper beneath the cluster of fibers to avoid the marker from seeping into the surface of my tying desk. Sharpies are permanent.

I prefer lighter colors for most flies incorporating ostrich. White ostrich, over any lighter color looks best. One of my favorite chinook patterns incorporates a silver tinsel body, collared with a flashy green dubbing, healthy wraps of white ostrich barred with either a green or blue sharpie and a final collar of ice blue raccoon. This fly pops in clearing water conditions. And chinook like green. And blue. And pink…you get it.

The hardest part of this process is the spinning of the fibers in a loop. You will need some sort of spinning tool. You choose. There are many products and each one takes practice to handle consistently. The reason I like a spinning tool with a handle is that I can hold the tool horizontally, parallel to the table surface, and let the fibers hang vertically when I spin the tool. The weighted tools that you spin while holding the loop until it’s time to release have a tendency pile up the fibers because gravity is pulling them down and into each other. The fiber above wants to wrap on the fiber below. If the loop is held out to the side, the fibers spin into the loop more cleanly and I don’t have to spend as much time pick them out of the tangle before I wrap. This will take practice, but you’ll get it.

Before you spin, take time to set the length of the fibers. With the tips matched and the barring from the sharpie complete, lay the bunch along the fly to set the total length of the finished wrap. Noting the length, place the fibers into the waxed loop of tying thread. Waxed thread is key.

With the fibers in the loop, you will need to keep the loop under tension as you work to spread the butts evenly in the loop using a bodkin or other pointed tool. You will know by this point whether you have dexterity or not. Spread the fibers out evenly with tiny spaces between each. Keep the tension on the loop as you trim the butts with your sharpest scissors. I like to leave about 1/16 of an inch on the trim side. Pull the tool out to the side so the fibers fall perpendicular to the thread, keep the tension on, and spin. And spin. You should have a nice and tightly wound hackle to wrap in front of the collar of dubbing. Fold the fibers towards the back of the fly making sure that the leading edge of the wrap is clean from any strays and wrap onto the shank like any hackle. The short butts you left before you spun everything up creates a nice bulge to wrap my final hackle or hair over to finish the shape and silhouette.

Have fun.