The heat of summer is dwindling, it's nearly time to start thinking about pennant races in the American and National Leagues, and anglers everywhere know its about time to get after those rowdy Pacific Northwest steelhead as they sniff their way back home from a few years in the salt. With the majesty of a trip to the Umpqua looming, perfecting the classic PacNW hairwing steelhead fly has become the ultimate pursuit of late.
One of the late-summer/early-fall classics is Brad's Brat, a hairwing or "bucktail" steelhead fly designed in by Enos Bradner, a name synonomus with steelhead. This fly boasts the oranges and reds of an indian summer and is traditionally tied with a high-profile wing of long bucktail fibers secured in a neat bundle just behind the hook eye of a traditional Sproat or Limerick hook.
In Ian McNemar's quick version of the Bronze Brad's Brat (above), a David McNeese creation that took its design cues from Bradner's original hairwing, a lesson in substitution shines through.
McNeese's fly is a feather wing design rather than a bucktail and calls for exotic materials such as jungle cock, blue eared pheasant, and gadwall flank. It's an elegant Spey-style that smacks of the traditional restraint incorporated in many Spey and Dee flies.
In this version, Ian looks to his fly tying bench for some clever pinch hiting from more standard tying materials like ringneck pheasant and long orange-dyed saddle hackle fibers in place of the gadwall flank and blue eared pheasant. Ian dropped the jungle cock out of the line up entirely; the wing is constructed of two long orange-dyed hackle tips and artfully married bronze mallard feathers.
Substitution is an integral part of the deep and artistic language of fly tying and fly design. Just because a fly recipe calls for a certain material doesn't mean you can't construct a successful fly if you don't happen to have said material at hand.
Evan LeBon is a regular contributor to beyondthebug.com
photos and fly provided by Ian McNemar, a regular contributor to beyondthebug.com
At first glance it may look like one of Jim Henson's Muppets gone amok, but Keith's Black and Blue is a fantastic all-purpose steelhead fly that cleans house when swung through the rich watersheds of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
The inspiration for this cutting edge fly pattern came from a visit to Leland's San Francisco shop by Paul Miller, a professional fly tyer, fly fishing consultant, and steelhead fanatic. Over the years, Paul has mastered the art of traditional steelhead fly tying. More recently, he's become one of the world's more innovative modern steelhead fly designers, employing carefully selected materials and design principles in his flies.
The Black and Blue's success is primarily dependent on its architecture, a spun and trimmed anvil head and a whack of long, wispy tail fibers. According to Paul, the secret is in this design. He says, "You've gotta have a hard head, soft tail construction to push the water and attract that big holding steelhead. Get the fish out of its lie."
Well, pushing water and attracting big steelhead is the Black and Blue's specialty.
From Drawing Board to the River
To achieve the "hard head, soft tail" action that makes the Black and Blue such a bomber fly pattern, you've got to examine at the components of the design separately. The fly is designed to be hard and heavy up front and long and wispy in the back, so why not start from the ground up?
The Black and Blue is constructed on a large 1/0 Tiemco TMC 7999 salmon and steelhead hook. It is a stinger-style fly, so a looped length of 50-pound Fire Wire, Power Pro, or monofilament line (in a pinch) is secured at the hook bend to accept a short Gamakatsu Octopus stinger hook. Upon completion of the fly's construction, the TMC 7999 is clipped at the hook bend, leaving just the "backbone" and trailing Octopus. Stinger flies are useful because they allow quick, pure hook sets. The added ability to quickly change out a stinger hook can also increase the life of the fly significantly, while allowing an angler to dial in the proper hook size on the river.
So how does the Black and Blue's tail seem to explode behind with long, incredibly active fibers? Such a dramatic flowing tail is developed by tying two stacked sets of rhea feathers 360-degrees around the hook shank. Rhea fibers are quite similar to those found on ostrich plumes, but they are much more durable and typically display slightly longer fibers.
Paul Miller has teamed with Kate Davidson of Siskiyou Aviary to market a line of the very best rhea: the Paul Miller Super Spey series. The entire line is available at LelandFlyTying.com, but if rhea feathers are unobtainable, long ostrich feathers will do the trick.
The Black and Blue's water-pushing noggin is constructed by stacking and spinning hollow deer hair around a set of dumbbell or bead-chain eyes. This triangular mass at the front of the fly creates attractive disturbances in the water column that many steelhead can't resist. It also helps the fly look tough, which always satisfies a hard-working fly tyer's modern aesthetic.
Hard Head, Soft Tail, Heavy Action
Paul Miller has found great success with this fly design, especially in British Columbia, because of its ability to move lots of water and create lots of attractive motion. When swung or stripped below the surface, this fly's ability to disturb the water column and follow with tremendous undulation steals the show. Fish are attracted to this design's double-threat and will often leave their holding positions, follow the fly through the length of the swing, and slam it at the end of the run.
Evan LeBon is a regular contributor to beyondthebug.com
photo courtesy of www.flyfishingoutfitters.com and www.lelandflytying.com