Steelhead Flies

Published in Fly Rod & Reel, Jan. 2009

By Jeff Mishler

The first steelhead fly that fell from my vice into my ten year old palm was a standard skunk tied on a 2x heavy Mustad, down turned eye, sproat, size four hook. The tail was an irregular clump of webby red neck hackle fibers, tied in too short, like the tail of the green wooly worm I’d finished a few minutes before. The body was medium black chenille over wrapped with oval tinsel, one size too thin, followed by a thick black saddle hackle so spiky that the first four wraps were about four sizes too small, but the fifth and sixth wraps grew progressively to two sizes too big. The tips of those last wraps lay back beyond the ragged red tail when I preened them to clear a space for the wing. An unstacked Calf tail wing was tied in directly on top of the wraps of hackle. I ran out of room on the shank long before, making a clean trim of the tags impossible. After about ten wraps of 3/0 silk to hide the mess I made, I added my best whip for the finish and coated the pea sized head with fingernail polish. This first skunk looked more like a dense black twig than anything natural, dead or alive.

Two years later, hunkered down behind a large river rock, I struggled to tie the ugly, ill-proportioned skunk to ten-pound test mono with trembling hands while a mint bright ten pound female summer run steelhead quietly fined below the cool mix of a small feeder stream twenty feet away. She hovered there, perfectly, almost motionless, suspended about a foot under the surface while I forced the tippet through a half expose eye packed with thread, calf hair and hardened nail polish. For some reason, I decided to wake the fly over her head. That the little brick of a fly could float after half a bottle of Gink was a miracle. That the steelhead decided to eat a waking brick, well…Which just proves any pattern will catch a steelhead in the right conditions; that being the rare time when for no apparent reason a fish is so aggressive that it would attack a dog turd on a rope.

Today, when I sit at the vice, my hook and material options are unlimited. Every combination I choose produces a fly with specific physical properties that affect how the fish sees our presentation and subsequently responds. We should be aware of these properties as fishermen. Just because the book says that a particular material should be used, doesn’t mean that it possesses the best qualities for its purpose. Often it does. But we need to visualize what the fly will look like in the environment we intend to use it. We should consider the finished fly’s shape, silhouette, swimming qualities, opacity, density, balance under tension, balance without tension and inherent movement in strong or light currents, reflective properties and durability. We can help solve this paradox by narrowing down the number of patterns one chooses to fish. Still, the selection of materials is critical. Synthetic? Natural? Blended? When we stand before the wall of two hundred dubbing choices, what qualities do we consider important to determine that choice?

I consider one quality above all others. Translucence. Nothing in the natural world swimming around as fish food has a dense quality too it. Even a large dark stone fly nymph has a certain quality of translucency. Though insects have an exoskeleton, that hard shell is almost always semi transparent. Small fish have such reflective properties that they often appear invisible in the current unless they bolt one direction or another and the ambient light bounces of their sides creating a glint…These reflective qualities mirror the marine world back onto itself, rendering the small bait fish transparent or nearly invisible.

Shrimp and squid are also transparent to a point.

So considering this, I try to tie flies with three dimensional properties, or depth, which require materials that are partially transparent while retaining dies well to maintain certain reflective qualities. The materials I have settled on are mostly natural, though some modern synthetics are almost as good. Derek Fergus’ dubbing is the best seal imitation I have found. I suppose a good polar bear substitute doesn’t truly exist because the fine tips at the end of each fiber are difficult to manufacture. Rabbit is too dense for steelhead flies, Arctic fox works well when tied in a dubbing loop behind a hackle collar to keep the hackle flared while swimming under tension. Try this behind a collar of marabou. Experiment. That’s the fun part…

You cannot use mylar tinsel enough. I prefer it as an under-wrap. If the transparent material is dubbed over the tinsel, your fly is suddenly translucent, as opposed to a fly that has the black stick silhouette of the hook shank showing through the seal substitute.

You can create the illusion of depth by palmering light colored hackle over a tinsel-only body or a body of tinsel under-wrap and light colored, opaque, dubbing over top. Add your collar of darker hackle last. When the fly moves in the water, the darker hackle will undulate, giving a peak into the space you created with the palmered hackle. The body of the fly, by design, appears transparent.

The patterns I tie are comprised of structural elements from three of four different designs. I implement techniques and materials used in tying traditional spey patterns, tube fly patterns, standard and classic steelhead patterns. My flies are amalgamations. While you might find its cousin some where in a tying book, that little blue wet fly at the end of my tippet with the red tail and arctic fox collar doesn’t come with instructions.

Before earning a place in my fly box, I check each fly I tie in a tall glass that I have filled with clean water. I tie the appropriate sized tippet to the fly, soak it under the faucet to get all the air out of the materials and dump it in the glass. I hold the glass to the sky and check how everything lines up. If you’ve missed a wrap, used the wrong colors, or skimped on the materials, you’ll see it.

Then, to check the balance fore and aft and the overall movement of the fly, I go fill the bathtub and with the tippet, pull the little guy around for a lap or two. When you take tension off the fly it should sink with the shank of the hook horizontal to the bottom. It should not sink bend first.

Most commercial flies are not tied in this balanced manner. I believe it’s a critical element of fly design. Out on the river, after the cast, a take often comes when the fly is drifting down with the current under little tension. A fly sinking with a horizontal orientation looks much more natural than one sinking butt down. If you use lead eyes in your patterns, and the eye are tied in up front, all the better because there is nothing more enticing to a fish than the up down undulation of a fly swimming across the current under light tension. The water medium, moving through the fly as it swims through micro eddies in the current, imparts that action naturally. Lead eyes and Marabou are a steelhead killer under the right conditions.

Increasing the number of responses to the fly in a day’s fishing is why we modify our equipment and techniques. I modify my flies to make the total fishing experience more pleasurable. My flies are less bulky and more transparent than commercially available flies because I’m very judicious with the amount of material I use. They absorb less water so they’re easier to cast.

So why not make a simple modification in your fly box? When contemplating your next tying session, consider transparency and how that quality could make your favorite pattern look more lifelike and natural to the fish.

At the very least, you’ll nail the one looking for a dog turd on a rope…