Tag Archives: Fly

We’re Up All Night to Get Lucky

It was 10 p.m. on Father’s Day at the Nissequogue River, and five-pound striped bass were rising like trout in a Hendrickson hatch for as far as I could see in the dim ambient light.  I landed five,  and I left ’em biting because I had to work in the morning. The fly was… what to call it? A Woolly Bugger with a tail of olive-dyed grizzly saddle hackle instead of marabou, tied flatwing style.

What they were rising to, I have no idea. There were tiny baitfish around, but the bass were rising, not rushing bait schools. The stripers’ behavior made me wonder if there was a worm hatch, but when I shined my light on the water I didn’t see any. All I know is the wide river was full of fish grabbing stuff that drifted down to them on the outgoing tide.


The bass were big enough to put a hell of a bend in my 8-weight and pull off lots of backing. But once they had made their point, they grudgingly allowed me to drag them over, switch on my headlamp and pluck out the hook.


This wasn’t a blitz. It was individual bass feeding at or near the surface, and the tide made it easy to swing a fly over the rises. Rising or swirling at the the surface isn’t unusual behavior for schoolie bass, but you seldom find so many doing it so consistently. It’s nice to hit it just right once in a while.



How I Learned to Relax and Love Tenkara Flies

I admit it: As much as I like the whole tenkara thing, I’ve never had much confidence in the flies. But that is starting to change.

Embracing tenkara fishing – Japanese-style, fixed-line, 12-foot telescoping rod fly-fishing – requires accepting things that strike American anglers as odd.

The lack of a reel is the strangest thing, and it does take some getting used to. Your left hand keeps reaching for line that’s not there. Your whole line, all 15 feet of it, tippet included, is attached to the rod tip.

But I’ve gotten used to using my left hand to hold my wading staff, or a cigar, while snapping crisp, tight-looped casts with my right. I no longer mind collapsing the rod and winding up the line when moving from spot to spot. I’ve gotten pretty good at playing and landing fish despite the lack of a reel, and I strive with Zen-like focus to make my casts land fly-first – or, for true enlightenment (and superb presentation), fly-only.

Tenkara flies, however, have always struck me as odd. I’ve been fishing with wet flies whose hackles lean back toward the tail of the fly for nearly 30 years. These tenkara flies – sakasa kebari, they are called – with the hackles leaning forward, over the eye of the hook, never looked right to me.

It may be because when a natural mayfly or caddis fly is drifting or swimming underwater, its legs and antennae tend to hang rearward. But the more likely explanation is that western wet flies have always been made this way and I’m just used to it.

Of course, the advantage of forward-leaning hackles is that when the fly is given a little pull, or when it is swinging below the angler against the current, the hackle fibers will move and wiggle but will not fold down over the body and practically disappear, the way they do on western-style soft hackle wets. The fly’s helpless, frantic limb-waving remains plainly visible and, presumably, signals “easy meal” to trout.

I’ve given sakasa kebari the occasional try, but have usually given up quickly and gone back to my western flies. Then I saw one tied by a Scotsman, Davie McPhail, that gave me the confidence to tie it on and leave it on all day. And leaving your fly on, instead of compulsively changing to other patterns, is the difference between tenkara fishing and western-style fishing with a tenkara rod.

McPhail’s fly has a body of turkey biot, which gives a beautifully segmented look, and a small thorax of dubbing just aft of the forward-leaning hackle. I think he used furnace hackle for his fly, but I use grizzly hackles from a low-grade cape, which are stiff enough to stick out but still soft enough to wiggle. The grizzly feather looks good with the grey biots I use.

I write this a few hours after fishing the whole day with this fly on my tippet. I caught four trout, which isn’t bad for me, especially when the fishing is slow, as it was today. And today was not the first time I’ve caught fish on this pattern. It’s earned a spot in my starting rotation.

First published in The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y., May 19 2011.

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.

Remembering Fran Betters, Sage of the Ausable

Fran Betters, champion of the West Branch of the Ausable in the Adirondack Mountains and inventor of some of the most popular and effective fishing flies, died Sunday.

Betters had been in poor health, and had acknowledged on his Web site that he hoped to “hang on a bit longer in hopes of finding the right person to buy my shop.”

It was Betters who in the 1950s came up with the idea of using one propped-up clump of deer hair as both the wings and legs of a dry fly – a simple, sturdy pattern known as the Haystack that suggested an Isonychia mayfly bobbing on the Ausable’s brawling currents. The same construction using snowshoe hare’s foot fur instead of deer hair became the Usual, a generalist emerger/dun that has caught trout from coast to coast, while the basic structure of the Haystack was tidied up to become the Comparadun and Sparkle Dun – slim, flush-floating flies that catch trout where traditional hackled dry flies won’t.

Betters pretty much considered the West Branch of the Ausable the best trout stream in the world. Advancing age and old injuries from a car accident kept him off the water in recent years, but he could still be found from morning until night cranking out Picket Fins, Ausable Wulffs and other signature patterns at a messy tying station in the middle of his shop.

betters 2

Fran Betters and Bob Mead at Betters' shop, the Evening Hatch, in 2007.

“No self-respecting fly rodder, on a pilgrimage to the West Branch of the Ausable River, would even think of putting a wadered foot in its storied waters without first stopping in at the Evening Hatch to pay homage to the High Peaks gatekeeper,” said longtime friend and renowned tier of ultra-realistic flies Bob Mead.