No fly has ever reminded me more of a natural bug than the Pheasant Tail nymph. Frank Sawyer achieved fly-fishing immortality when he invented it. It’s a very clever insect imitation that catches lots of trout. It’s also a very simple fly, especially the way Sawyer tied it: nothing but pheasant tail feather fibers, copper wire and a hook.
I included the Sawyer Pheasant Tail in my book, Simple Flies: 52 Easy-to-Tie Patterns That Catch Fish. A few weeks ago, I was honored to learn that a well-known figure in the fly-fishing world, Harry Murray of Edinburg, Virginia, had read the book and liked it. It turns out my cousin by marriage lives close to Murray’s Fly Shop and showed Harry the book.
Not long after that, Harry sent me one of the coolest fly-fishing things I’ve ever had: a set of Grey Goose nymphs – a close relative of the Pheasant Tail – tied by Sawyer’s widow, whose name I understand was Margaret. They’re beautifully slim, buggy in a very understated way. They’re dainty 16s, great Blue Winged Olive or Sulfur nymphs. In fact, they resemble many little insects trout snack on all day long. Like the Pheasant Tail, they’re minimalist: copper wire underbody & rib, goose wing feather fibers for the tail and body.
I find it interesting that the bellies of the thoraxes on the Sawyer nymphs aren’t covered with goose; they’re just naked copper wire. I think trout really like copper wire. The Sawyers’ neighbor across the road, Oliver Kite, was a celebrity fly-fisher in England in the 1960s and sometimes fished with what he called the Bare Hook Fly, which consisted of nothing more than a ball of copper wire on the front half of a hook.
He caught fish with it. I’m not sure what to make of that. But I’m proud to possess Mrs. Sawyer’s nymphs. The Grey Goose and the Pheasant Tail exemplify what I admire about simple flies. Their design includes everything that’s necessary – a slim, segmented body in insect-like earth tones, with muted flash from the wire – and nothing more.