Unhook your imagination to create new terrific fish-catching flies.
Admit it—at one time or another you have gone off the page and tied something you thought was completely unorthodox, against all the rules, or absolutely strange. You may have shown these flies to some of your closest angling allies, but most likely you have them in a box for no one else to see. Well, here’s a secret: we’ve all tied some strange flies at least once.
We spend most of our time copying the proven patterns. These flies have survived because they are successful, yet there is always some new twist in material application or tying technique that will intrigue even the most dedicated purist. Having read or looked at literally hundreds of tying books over the past 30 years, I can honestly say that anything I have tried at the vise has been done before. Well, maybe I can find some slight differences, but not enough to say that I’ve come up with anything truly original. Books are wonderful things: they provide knowledge and dampen one’s ego all in the same swoop. I’m not saying this to burst any bubbles out there, but to encourage you to close the books once in a while and experiment.
We all like to tinker. It is evidenced in the most complex of married-wing salmon flies to the simplest soft hackles. In fly tying, like everything else, the development of a pattern is an ongoing evolution. We can mentally visualize a new fly: the hook, tail, body, wing, throat or legs, and head. We see it in our mind’s eye, and sit down and tie it. Anything out of the ordinary, however, is considered queer and will take a while to be accepted, and sometimes these unusual flies never catch on.
Regardless of the evolution of other tying materials, hooks have always been a common ingredient in tying flies. The tail of the fly is usually placed at the bend of the hook and the head is put at the front; nothing much has changed in this regard. In the quest to improve established flies or invent something totally new, however, tiers have experimented with different ways of using hooks. For instance, if you want a fly that does not snag the bottom, you could simply turn the pattern upside down and place the wing on the bottom of the hook and the throat on top.
In J.E. Willmarth’s little pamphlet, Fly Tying for the Beginner, published by the Willmarth Tackle Company in Poosevelt, New York, about a century ago, the author says “Bass flies are often desired weedless. This feature is obtained by putting the wing on upside down, that is, so the tips of the wings come on each side of the point of the hook. These fend off grass, and so forth, to a certain extent and yet are pliable enough not to interfere seriously with the strike.” This technique worked, of course, but the use of the large bass patterns common at the time did not survive.
In The Trout Fly Dresser’s Cabinet of Devices, or, How to Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing, which was published in 1898, H. G. McClelland documented the same technique of reversing materials on the hook. This time it was a dry fly, and the author placed the hackle at the end of the hook and the tail at the eye. George Herter and Lee Wulff also promoted this style of tying. This wasn’t rocket science, just a simple modification.
New Hooks—New Flies
While most hooks have always had straight shanks, historically, other innovative hooks led to new styles of tying. For example, in the late 1960s, keel hooks were promoted as the hooks of the future. Keel hooks had bent shanks that distributed the weight of the patterns so the points would ride on top and not snag the bottom. But alas, keel hooks never sold very well—straight-shank hooks remained king—and the manufacturers stopped making them. Mustad stopped making the last keel hooks a little more than a year ago, so grab them if you see them in your local fly shop.
Sometimes you can tie a pattern using a variety of hooks. Professional fly tier Mike Bachkosky gave me a couple of his deadly Hendrickson Emergers with instructions to use them at the onset of Hendrickson season. This pattern is tied on a long-shank curved nymph hook and looks quite interesting. One day in early May, when I wasn’t having any success with my own patterns, I tied on one of Mike’s. The success was immediate: five nice browns in five casts. This changed my thoughts on tying emergers on traditional straight-shank hooks. I took it one step further and tied Mike’s unique pattern on a swimming-nymph hook and had even greater fishing success. I don’t know if it was the pattern or the hook, but if it was fresh enough for Catskill trout, it was fresh enough for me. Since then Mike sent more of his deadly Hendrickson emergers as well as some tied on swimming nymph hooks. I have been tying a variety of mayfly emergers and suspending patterns on these hooks.
Swimming-Nymph Hooks for Dry Flies
If you examine the swimming-nymph hooks available on the market, you’ll discover that they are made of fine wire instead of the usual heavy wire used to manufacture straight-shank nymph hooks. Given the fact that green drakes, coffin flies, and other extremely large mayflies hatch later in the season, I had an idea to try something different: use swimming-nymph hooks to tie large dry flies in reverse. The bentback shank provides a great base for a naturally shaped body that sits on the water perfectly with every cast.
Yes, extended-body mayfly-dun hooks are available, but I feel that the length of swimming-nymph hooks provides a more continuous base for constructing these realistic flies. The swimming-nymph hooks also weigh less. (I do like to use the extendedbody mayfly hooks to tie spinners and other spent-wing patterns.)
I have found another use for swimming-nymph hooks: tying two flies on the same hook. Tying two caddis emergers on a swimming-nymph hook creates a great effect on the water; it looks like one hell of a hatch is coming off. When a fish strikes, it thinks it is taking in two insects at the same time. Adding beadheads also entices fish that are seeking more submerged insects. My ultimate combo creation is an adult caddis tied with cul de canard next to the hook eye and a less buoyant emerger tied at the hook bend. I call it the Suspender Caddis because the adult remains on the surface while the emerger is suspended below the surface film. This fly works well with a drag-free drift and even better with a slow strip retrieve. I use this duo to create my own mini-hatch, and you can use the concept to imitate the adult and emerger stages of your local insects.
Different hook styles have come and gone; others have gone the distance and are found on most fly-tying benches. Examine the hooks in your own tying kit, and check out the unusual hooks in your local fly shop. Be willing to experiment and try new ideas. Who knows what fish-catching flies you will create?
Jim Krul is the executive director of the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum. He lives in Connecticut