Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Pheasant Tail: It’s not complicated

By Morgan Lyle

First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, if a fly is tied with thread or has a peacock herl thorax, a stripe of mylar flash up its back, a bead head or legs of any kind, it’s not a pheasant tail.

I’m on a pheasant tail kick. It’s a great little fly for imitating the nymphs of blue-winged olive mayflies, which are found in just about every trout stream, but it’s also a good general pattern to use when there’s no obvious need to imitate any particular insect.

The pheasant tail’s history is fairly well known and part of its appeal. It was devised in the 1950s by a river keeper in England named Frank Sawyer. His original pheasant tail is strikingly simple: The only materials are a few fibers from one of the long tail feathers of a pheasant and very thin copper wire.

Many other nymph patterns in the same general category include more parts and tying steps, to be more “realistic.” But Sawyer’s simple little pattern has gotten anglers into nice browns on the River Avon and around the world for half a century.

One thing fly-tiers are not good at is leaving well enough alone.

Sawyer’s fly was soon Americanized with a thorax of peacock herl. Someone decided it should have legs, either the tapered tips of the pheasant tail fibers themselves or fibers from a partridge or hen feather. Beads were added at the head for all the usual reasons — to help it sink, to give it a hopping action, to give it flash, etc. Some patterns include a strip of mylar along the wing case.

All these things can be useful additions to nymphs, but whether adding them to a pheasant tail makes it more effective, I don’t know.

The original pattern’s naturally symmetrical yet slightly random segmentation is buggy as all get-out. The copper wire adds not so much flash as glow. The lack of legs is in a sense more realistic, not less, since the real nymph tucks in its legs and swims like a tiny fish. The color of the pheasant tail fibers themselves is the natural grayish-brown of the woods and rocks.

The result is not a carefully constructed model, but an immediately recognizable impression of a common and abundant insect, tasty and humming with protein.

Simple as it may be, Sawyer’s pheasant tail is tricky to tie. Both the wire and the tail feather fibers are very delicate, and a soft touch is required. Attaching the tail is unusually challenging because you can’t wrap up the shank over the butts of the tail — you need the butts for the rest of the fly. And because the entire fly is made from one bunch of feather fibers, those fibers must be long. I find two-inch fibers gives me just enough material for a size 18 fly; for larger flies like size 14s, you need two-and-a-half.

I don’t often bother tying pheasant tails larger than size 18 anyway, because that’s the size of the mayfly nymphs it imitates best. Because the only weight on the fly is the copper wire, it doesn’t sink very well, and if you need to fish it deep you may need to use a split shot or two. On the other hand, this is a very good nymph to fish to rising trout during a hatch of olives or small sulphurs, and its lightness then becomes an advantage.

These ultra-simple flies are really starting to appeal to me. Maybe it’s something to do with the rest of my life becoming ever more complicated.

NY, PA Advocate More Water for Delaware Trout

By Morgan Lyle

Ever since the construction of reservoirs on the branches of the Delaware River created world-class trout streams in the mid-20th century, anglers have demanded that more cold water be released from the dams to make the fishing even better.

Now, the conservation agencies of New York and Pennsylvania have issued an extraordinary report stating the potential benefits of letting more water out of the reservoirs and into the rivers below.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission say in the report, released Jan. 12, that the current system “does not provide adequate year-round flows for habitat protection” and often results in water that’s too warm for trout on the main stem of the Delaware, below the confluence of its two branches.

Here’s how much water is released from Cannonsville Reservoir on the West Branch of the Delaware under the current rules, with reservoirs at normal levels: December through April, 80 cubic feet per second (a very small amount that leaves much of the riverbed exposed); May 1-20, 190 cfs; May 21-31, 240 cfs; June 1 through Sept. 15, 260 cfs; Sept. 16-30, 115 cfs; and for October and November, back down to 80.

Here’s what the two environmental agencies say would be best for the Delaware’s trout: December through March, 150 cfs; April and May, 400 cfs; June 1-15, 500 cfs; June 16 through Aug. 31, 525 cfs; Sept. 1-15, 400 cfs; Sept. 16-30, 300 cfs, and October and November, 150 cfs.

As a result of these releases, the amount of winter spawning and incubation habitat would increase by 33 percent – a huge benefit, since the Delaware’s ability to support wild, stream-born trout with no need for stocking is its primary appeal. There would be 26 percent more cool water for grown-up trout to live in during the summer.

There would be benefits for the East Branch of the Delaware and the Neversink River, too. Spawning and incubation habitat would expand on the East Branch by 39 percent and on the Neversink by a whopping 63 percent.

Water temperatures would never climb above 75 degrees on the branches, and the main stem would hit 75 only about half as often as it does now.

Of course, the most important effect of the releases advocated by the DEC is the impact on New York City’s water supply – because the city can veto any change in the rules, and would do so in a New York minute if it perceived a threat to its stored water. The proposed trout-friendly new flows would result in water levels in the reservoirs dropping to what’s considered drought levels 28 percent more often.

The city is intensely protective of its water supply and may declare the risk unacceptable. But official recognition by two states of the potential benefits of larger releases may make it harder for the city to justify what some critics have described as hoarding.

This is tantalizing stuff for Delaware trout advocates – a report signed by the director of the DEC’s Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, Patricia Reixinger, that says by returning a little more of the 242 billion gallons of impounded water to the rivers, “a robust coldwater fishery commensurate with the potential of the upper Delaware River system will be more fully realized.”

Let’s keep a good thought.

First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y. 2/25/10