Classic Wet Flies and Selective Bluegills

(Note: Photo for this article will appear at a later date.)

In the middle of the previous century, when a gallon of gasoline sold for 32 cents, hardware stores were our primary sources of fishing tackle. Early spring found the eldest of us with nose firmly pressed against the display case glass fascinated by cards of brightly colored flies. A rummage-sale purchased  fiberglass fly rod and several carefully chosen flies were regularly offered to bluegills on nearby waters.

A decade passed before a Field & Stream article announced that those old fly patterns were actually classic wet flies tied especially for trout. Yet another 10 years elapsed before recreating those elegant patterns and once again offer­ing them to bluegills. Initially the old classic patterns were envisioned as a way of connecting with the past masters of fly tying and fly fishing. However, over the years, we’ve contin­ued to fish the classic wet flies for a very different reason.  Plain and simple, they really catch bluegills.

While the origins of some individual patterns can be traced through the works of J. Edson Leonard in his classic book titled Flies (1950) and others, the history of wet fly tying and fishing becomes obscure as it easily predates the 17th century’s Izaak Walton.

Early anglers noticed that when their insect-matching dry patterns became water­logged and sank that they were still taken regularly by the fish. Initially the wet fly was presumed to replicate a drowned surface insect, and at times they are probably taken ¥ such. But upon closer examination it would seem logical that they might also be taken as pupae emerging at the water’s surface, an adult insect submerging to deposit eggs, a small crustacean, a sow bug, a nymph, or perhaps even a tiny minnow hatchling.

By definition a wet fly is any pattern that is fished beneath the surface. Although streamers and nymphs fit that description, they are different and not included in any modern classification of wet flies. Generally “wets” are tied on hooks of standard length as opposed to nymphs and streamers that are tied on a longer hook that is often heavy enough to ensure that the fly sinks. Other wet fly characteristics include sparseness, absorption and profile. Sparsely dressed flies enter the water with little commotion while their hackle, tail and wings move in a natural manner during manipulation or pressure from the current. Materials that absorb water and thereby aid the fly’s sinking ability further enhance its purpose as does a profile that resembles the insect or creature being simulated.

In our book Bluegill Fly Fishing and Flies (1999), we described big bluegills, those exceeding 8 inches, as freshwa­ter’s most selective fish. Anglers who have examined the stomach contents of many fish including trout, bass, crappies and other species, recognize that all frequently swallow an assortment of debris such as pebbles or small pieces of sticks. Bluegills did not. Those who have observed feeding bluegills know that they nearly always hesitate behind their prospective meals to evaluate them before the morsels are eaten. Perhaps the bluegills height­ened selectivity is actually a great recommendation for using classic wet flies to catch bluegills, due mainly to the fly’s subtle movements in the water and suggestive shapes.

On one wet fly outing, we were float tubing a small town’s water supply lake when a young mother brought a car full of neighborhood children to the picnic area above our position. We were still experimenting with various patterns when a brutish 9-inch bluegill grabbed a size 10 McGinty and raced for a nearby brush pile. The action brought excitement and a few shouts of joy from our audience at the picnic tables a few yards away. Observing our half sub­merged position in the water, the young mother grabbed the picnic basket, herded her brood back into the car and drove off in a cloud of dust. Exactly what danger Mom thought we posed is still a mystery to us.

Fishing these colorful patterns can often be as simple as using any of the infinite variations of the strip-and-pause retrieve. Keeping in mind the life-form the chosen fly repre­sents can easily dictate the length of the strip and the length of the pause. If, for example, the fly represents a young minnow the stripping should be frequent and erratic, whereas an insect imitation might only be manipulated to keep it in the fish zone or to activate the materials in the wings and hackle. In the final analysis though, it’s important to experiment with the strip-and-pause retrieve; the fish will definitely indicate what their preference might be.

A second retrieve that has been very effective for us is the Leisenring Lift. It’s easily executed by first allowing the wet fly to settle to the bottom in still water or to cast upstream and allow the fly to acquire depth before “you raise your rod tip with a slow, gradual motion that causes the fly to rise naturally toward the surface.” This quote is according to Vernon S. Hidy in Sports Illustrated Book of Wet-Fly Fishing (1960). In that book, Hidy discusses the techniques of master wet fly angler James Leisenring who was the namesake of the technique he pioneered. The Leisenring Lift causes the wet fly to behave like a nymph ris­ing to the surface to hatch. Of course Leisenring’s intent was that the lift be executed at the end of a dead drift in moving water, but the technique is equally effective in still water for bluegills. Short casts to relatively shallow water with long leaders enable the angler to completely control all aspects of the lift. Wet insect patterns such as Black Gnat, Cowdung and Light Cahill, for example, are best suited to this task.

A third method is an adaptation of an old English trout tactic called “clapping.” With only the leader extending from the rod tip, the angler places the fly gently on the overhang­ing bank grass and allows it to fall softly into the water and be swept into undercut banks. Our modification involves casting onto emergent vegetation such as coontail or milfoil. Then we gently pull the fly into the water and allow it to sink along the edges of the weeds or into pockets in the weeds before imparting action.

Finally, when fishing from a boat, canoe, kayak or float tube, the angler can utilize the wind to push them in a con­trolled drift to help locate feeding bluegills. We find a brightly colored attractor pattern such as Yellow Sally, Royal Coachman or Scarlet Ibis is best for this type of “searching presentation.” Recently at the “Smallmouth Rendezvous” held annually in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, we had a conversation with fellow Federation member and talented demonstration fly tier Toby Vaughn of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Our visit centered on our mutual passion for bluegills and our shared love of the classic wet fly patterns. Vaughn tied the flies pictured above.

There are literally hundreds of classic wet flies from which to choose. Good literary sources include the aforemen­tioned “Flies” by Leonard that lists the recipes for virtually all of the classic wets that predate 1950; McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia edited by A. J. McClane contains color photographs and lists the recipe for 48 classic wet flies in the 1965 edition; and Wet Flies: Tying and Fishing Soft Hackles, Winged and Wingless Wets, and Fuzzy Nymphs by Dave Hughes, (1995) is a good source as well .

RECIPES FOR SUCCESS

Here are the recipes for a dozen of our favorite classic wet flies. Each of them is tied similarly to those in the photograph. Our thanks to Toby Vaughn for providing the flies pictured here.

PROFESSOR

Tail: Strip of red duck quill

Body: Yellow silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel

Hackle: Dark ginger

Wing: Speckled gray mallard flank

 

YELLOW SALLY

Tail: Strip of yellow duck quill

Body: Yellow silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel

Hackle: Yellow

Wing: Yellow duck quill

 

BLACK GNAT

Tail: None

Body: Black chenille

Hackle: Black

Wing: Gray duck quill

 

SCARLET IBIS

Tail: Strip of red duck quill

Body: Red silk floss ribbed with oval gold tinsel

Hackle: Red

Wing: Red duck quill

 

ARKANSAS RED BUTT SOFT HACKLE

Tail: None

Tag: Red thread

Body: Twisted peacock herl

Hackle: Dun

 

COWDUNG

Tail: None

Tag: Flat gold tinsel

Body: Olive wool dubbing

Hackle: Dark ginger

Wing: Gray duck quill

 

GRIZZLY KING

Tail: Red duck quill

Body: Green silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel

Hackle:  Light tipped badger

Wing: Speckled gray mallard flank

 

LIGHT CAHILL

Tail: Lemon wood duck flank

Body: Cream fox fur dubbing

Hackle: Pale ginger

Wing: Lemon wood duck flank

 

ALEXANDRA

Tail: Red duck quill

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Hackle: Black

Wing: Peacock sword herl strands with slip of red duck quill on the sides

 

MCGINTY

Tail: Red hackle fibers mixed with barred teal flank

Body: Alternate banks of black and yellow chenille

Hackle: Red-brown

Wings: White tipped blue mallard sections

 

ROYAL COACHMAN

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet

Body: Divided in equal thirds; first third peacock herl, next red floss, followed by peacock herl

Hackle: Red-brown

Wings: White duck quill

 

PINK LADY

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet

Body: Pink silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel

Hackle: Ginger

Wing: Gray duck quill

 

Published in The Flyfisher, Sandpoint, Idaho, Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc., Spring-Summer 2011.

 

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