I usually fish for stripers twelve month a year, but somehow January and February escaped me in 2013. March nearly got away, too. But I took care of that last night.
Met old fishing buddy Dr. Griswold to catch the bottom of the tide at one of our old haunts. The conditions were certainly favorable. A strong moon tide, good water level, and a water temp of 46. But alas, no stripers for either of us. I swung. I greased lined. I nymphed. I stripped. I jigged. I fished deep, on top, and all points in between. But, you can’t catch what isn’t there.
On a positive note, Bob didn’t lose his Christmas gift. Every year I tie some flatwings for friends as a present, and every year Bob loses his fly on the bottom or in a tree within the first five minutes of fishing it. Not last night. Well done, Bobber.
What Santa brought this year: the Rock Island flatwing
I was also able to coax ninety minutes out of an E.P. Carillo Golossos while on the water. Terrific cigar.
And when I got home, the choir was singing. Spring peepers. Their first performance signals that the over-wintering bass in my local rivers are getting ready to move.
No, no. Not the kind you eat. The kind you use as an excuse to avoid that pitfall of adulthood: Responsibility.
Back when I had a salaried job, I was fortunate to work within short driving distance of two Class 1 WTMAs. Many were the warm spring days when I’d take an elongated lunch to wet a line. Well, just because I’m working from home now doesn’t mean I couldn’t do likewise. And so today, I did.
I hadn’t been to either of these streams in years. “Hello, old friend,” I said to the first as I stepped out of the truck. The water was a perfect height, clear, 44 degrees, and there were midges and small grey stones flitting about. After last summer’s drought I wasn’t sure what to expect. So I decided to hedge my bets by fishing a size 14 beadhead white mini-bugger. I never met the wild trout who didn’t like a flashy streamer in early spring.
Hello, Mr. Stone. You successfully navigated to this rock without falling prey to Mr. Trout’s jaws. Fly and be free!
It felt both familiar and comforting to cast, mend, and swing that fly across my old stomping grounds. Nothing in a few of my favorite pools, then – bump – was that a fish or the bottom? Next cast I’m on with a lovely little brown, about five inches long. A fish to hand is currency, and with that trout my trip was bought and paid for. More nothing as I waded downstream. Then, near the tailout of a languid pool – was that a rise? You betcha. Small fish, smutting, and the best solution I had in my box was a size 20 Winter/Summer caddis. First drift, up he comes, but the hook point found no purchase. And that was that. Try as I might, I couldn’t coax a reprise.
With my time budget melting like the remaining snow pack, I motored over to WTMA number two. Fished a run where I’d had some early season success before, but drew a blank. I was just getting ready to leave when I talked myself into venturing about 50 yards downstream. There, in some shallow riffles, I hooked another small brown who liberated himself as I pulled him out of the water. Then, in the run below, bang! Classic hit on the strip. A stunning brown about ten inches long, his tummy the color of aged cheddar and pectoral fins the size of kayak paddles.
Ever heard of a guide fly? In case you haven’t, guide flies have two qualities: They can be tied quickly, and they are high-confidence fish magnets. The Ginger Caddis Larva is such a fly.
It’s one of those flies that, if you saw it in the bins at your local shop, you might not give it a second look. But the trout certainly will. Angora goat is one of my favorite tying materials. It takes on a translucency underwater, and the fibers trap miniature air bubbles much like an emerging or diving caddis might.
The Ginger Caddis Larva is a quintessential fuzzy nymph; I fish it as nymph, bouncing it along the bottom, then as a wet, letting the fly swing up toward the surface. I’ll also fish it as a straight wet in a team of three flies. If I don’t get a strike, I let the fly sit there at swing’s end.
This pattern lends itself to dozens of variations. Try it in Insect or Highlander Green. Get some black or brown Angora and make it a little stonefly. Add a soft hackle (like partridge). Give it a bead head. Swap out peacock herl for the hare’s ear thorax. You get the idea.
Back to the guide fly thing. Two years ago I passed this fly out at one of my wet fly classes. It was a slow day on the river, but what little action we saw came on this fly (we were fishing teams of three flies, so the trout had a choice). A few weeks later, I ran into one of my students outside the local fly shop. “Steve,” he says, “I need some more of those Ginger Caddis Larvas and I can’t find them anywhere.”
He bought every single Ginger Caddis I had in my box on the spot.
Hook: 2x strong, size 10-18
Weight: 8-12 turns undersized wire
Body: Ginger Angora goat, very spikey
Thorax: Dark hare’s ear
Tying notes: To make it spikey and rough, try chopping the hairs up with scissors and winding them on a dubbing loop. Angora goat has long, unruly fibers that become problematic on smaller flies, so the chopping remedies that. I use high tack wax with Angora, like Loon Swax. I like to underweight this fly. Underweighting doesn’t mean that you’re putting wire under the body – you are – but rather, it refers to using lead wire that is thinner than the diameter of the hook wire. The goal is to help the fly sink, not suck the life out of it.
Long before breathable waders and UV-cured resins, fly anglers began fishing the salt for stripers. They brought with them their corpus of freshwater knowledge – and also their flies. Saltwater fly fishing (and therefore saltwater fly tying) was in its infancy. So it only makes sense that they would borrow tackle and tactics and flies from whence they came.
I have a particular interest in traditional fly fishing and tying methods, whether for trout or stripers. For several years now I’ve been tying and fishing these legacy striper patterns, and I’d like to share one of my favorites with you: the Magog Smelt Bucktail.
The Magog Smelt Striper Bucktail
The Magog Smelt is an old landlocked salmon fly. It takes its name from Lake Memphremagog, located between Vermont and Quebec. It was the favorite striper fly of an old Rhode Island sharpie named John Abrames, who taught his son, Ken (you may have heard of him) to fish for striped bass with it. Ken in turn told me about the Magog Smelt, and now it’s one of my favorite bucktails and color schemes.
Hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0
Body: Silver braid
Throat: Red marabou
Wing: 30 hairs white bucktail, under 2 strips silver flash, under 30 longer hairs yellow bucktail, under 25 hairs longer purple bucktail, under 5-7 strands peacock herl
Cheeks: Teal flank tip
Tying notes: I tie the Magog Smelt Bucktail the Ray’s Fly format, from three to five inches long. The fly here is about 3 ½ inches. Keep each group of bucktail nice and sparse, and make each progressively longer. I treat the teal almost as a veil over the body braid. Back in the day, the old-timers painted white eyes with a black pupil on the head, but you could use jungle cock or leave it blank as I did here. I’ve never tied this fly with eyes, and the stripers love it au natural.
The best time to go fishing is when you can, and all that. So even though I wasn’t stoked about overnight lows well below freezing, snow showers, and a NNW wind of 15mph, I made the command decision to ignore the piles of work on my desk and head to the river. Surely two hours on the Farmington beats the tar out of eight hours behind a desk.
Given the forecast and the fact that it was a weekday, the river was fairly crowded in the Upper TMA. Water was 35 degrees, clear and running about 435cfs. I had ice on my guides for the first hour. Then the sun came out, and with it some midges and an unidentified mayfly that looked to be about a 20 or a 22.
My suspicions about the weather knocking the bite down were confirmed. None of the other anglers I spoke with today had so much as a tap. Saw only one trout caught in two hours, and I’m delighted to report that it was at the end of my line. A standard-issue holdover brown who found my bead head, fur-hackled caddis nymph to his liking. Funny thing: I had been watching all my drifts up to that point like a hawk. On the one drift where I’m daydreaming, the indicator goes under. How often has that happened to you?
In a few weeks, the air and water will be warmer. And so will the fishing.
In a vast Sargasso Sea of opaque, doll-eyed baitfish patterns, the R.L.S. Herr Blue shines as an understated alternative. This is my favorite fly when the bait is juvenile herring.
Sparse construction and impressionistic design are hallmarks of the R.L.S. bucktails, outlined by Ken Abrames in Chapter 2 of A Perfect Fish. There are 14 flies listed. You’re probably familiar with the most famous of them, the Ray Bondorew classic, Ray’s Fly. There are enough color combinations among the R.L.S. Bucktails to match many of the baitfish stripers favor – or match or contrast the color of the sea and sky on any given day. (Think I’m crazy on that last one? Tie up an R.L.S. Easterly on a grey, foul day when the wind is blowing 20 knots out of the east and see what happens.) Size-wise, you’re only limited by the length of the bucktail you have on hand.
Like Ray’s Fly, the Herr Blue embraces the philosophy that less is more – with only 66 total bucktail hairs, you can easily read the newspaper through its body. It’s also a fascinating exercise in color blending, with no less than nine different bucktail colors that create all kinds of secondary and tertiary hues.
Herr Blue is the kind of fly that doesn’t get a lot of attention on internet forums or in flyshop bins. That’s easy to understand. When it comes to popular perception of saltwater patterns, impressionism always takes a back set to realism. That’s a shame, because flies like this reveal to you just how low on the intelligence scale fish really are.
But now, you’re in on the secret. And you’re going to love the look on other people’s faces when you show them the fly you’ve been catching all those stripers on.
Ich bin ein Herr Blue (click on image to enlarge)
Hook: Eagle Claw 253 or Mustad 3407 (this is the EC 253 size 1/0)
Body: Silver mylar braid
Wing: Bucktail, 15 hairs white, 5 ginger 1.5x hook length, mixed, under 8 violet, 4 pink, 10 light blue mixed 2x hook length, under 2 strips silver and 2 strips purple flash (I only use one of each for the smaller versions) under 10 dark blue, 4 emerald green, 6 smoky blue/grey, 4 orange mixed 3x hook length.
Topping: 5-7 strands peacock herl a half inch longer than the longest bucktail
Eyes: Jungle cock (optional)
Tying notes: This fly is 3½” long. I usually tie it from 2½” to 6”. In the smaller sizes, I use only one strand of flash per color. You don’t have to make yourself crazy trying to calculate bucktail lengths for different sizes; sometimes I just make each section about a half-inch to an inch longer than the previous one. The jungle cock eyes are a nice touch, but most of the time I fish this fly neat – no eyes. One question I get a lot is, “Do I have to actually count the bucktail hairs?” Today, my answer is yes. Two reasons. One, I’d like you to see just how few 66 bucktail hairs really is. Two, you are embarking on adventure in controlled color blending. Think of it as a custom color you order in a paint store. They take the base and add precise shots of pigment to it to create the same color over and over. Same thing here. This fly was created by a painter with an exceptional eye for color. I trust his judgment, and I want to try to see what he envisioned when he specified this blend. Having said that, the universe will not implode if you use 12 violet, 6 pink, or 15 light blue bucktail hairs. So, do it by the book, then improvise to your heart’s desire. Try to keep things sparse, though. A little bucktail goes a long way.
An exquisite jewel of a Farmington River brown, taken on a tiny soft-hackled bead head pheasant tail nymph. Although I was nymphing under an indicator, I was letting the flies swing up at the end of the drift. That’s when this fish hit. What a gorgeous creature.
Last week, someone used the search term “wet flies tied with jungle cock” to find currentseams. I found that intriguing because I had never tied a wet fly with jungle cock in my life. Sure, I’d done classic steelhead patterns. And untold numbers of flatwings and bucktails for stripers. But not a single wet with that most enchanting of feathers, the enameled nail from the cape of the male junglefowl.
Well, if someone took the trouble to navigate all the way to my humble site, they must have been disappointed when their search came up empty. And so, lonely internet sojourner, I took to the vise just for you. I have no idea who you are. But I hope you come back some day and find the little gift I left for you. And I thank you for the one you gave to me.
Here are four wets from Bergman’s classic, Trout. Clockwise from upper left: Silver Jungle Cock, Dr. Burke, Lord Baltimore, and Secret Pool No. 1. They are all tied on a size 8 1x short, 2x strong hook, the Orvis 1641.
Silver Jungle Cock
Tail: Golden pheasant crest
Body: Silver tinsel
Shoulder: Orange floss, palmered with grizzly hackle
Wing: Jungle cock
Tail: Peacock sword
Body: Flat silver tinsel with oval silver tinsel rib
Wing: White with jungle cock
Tail: Black quill
Body: Orange floss with black floss rib
Wing: Black with jungle cock
Secret Pool No. 1
Tail: Golden pheasant tippet
Body: Peacock herl butt and shoulder with gold tinsel center
Wing: Slate with jungle coc
Tying notes: Some tie the Silver Jungle Cock with a longer shoulder; I kept mine more thorax-like. I think this would make a great steelhead fly. It was the easiest of the four to tie.
You can tie the Dr. Burke with as many or as few peacock sword hackles as you like. I chose four for this size. Trivia: Dr. Burke is Dr. Edgar Burke, the man who painted all the files in the color plates at the beginning of Trout. Dr. Burke is credited with creating the Secret Pool No. 1 pattern.
The Lord Baltimore is the first Bergman-style wet I tied with a quill tail. It was far less intimidating than I imagined.
I didn’t have any claret hackle for the Secret Pool, so I used wine marabou. I also tend to use more golden pheasant tippet fibers in my tails; again, that’s an individual choice for each tyer. No matter how many fibers you use, I like to show the second black band.
My name is Steve Culton, and I’ve been fishing Connecticut’s Farmington and Salmon Rivers for nearly 50 years. My areas of specialization include wet fly fishing, dry fly fishing, streamer fishing (fresh and salt), and indicator nymph fishing. Small streams are also a passion, as they give us an opportunity to catch wild trout in a natural, more intimate setting. And let’s not forget those cantankerous Housatonic River smallmouth bass. My approach to fly fishing for striped bass is quite different from most other anglers’: I use a floating line, traditional trout and salmon presentation methods, and sparse, impressionistic flies like flatwings and soft hackles.
I am a teaching guide. (I have had many clients ask me if I am a teacher for my regular job. The answer is no, but I am flattered by the question.) We all like to catch fish, but if your immediate goal is sheer numbers you’ll probably be happier with another guide. If you’re interested in learning new methods, building your skill sets, fishing new flies, expanding your general knowledge, or exploring a river, small stream, or salt pond, I might be the right guide for you. Of course, I will do my best to put you onto fish. I think you learn more when you’re catching.
My teaching philosophy is pretty straightforward. There are no experts — we all have something to learn. I’m really just a guy who loves to fly fish. I’ve done a lot of it, read a lot about it, written a lot about it, and I’m very enthusiastic about sharing what I’ve learned with others. I sometimes take a spiritual, zen approach to the lessons of the day. Fly fishing has a soul, and I encourage my clients to explore and expand upon whatever that means to them. There are many, many ways to catch fish on a fly rod. People fish best when they use methods and flies they have confidence in. Since I am a self-taught fly fisherman, I know the struggles of learning the game. When you’re fishing with me, there are no such things as dumb questions – or for that matter, too many questions.
Above all, we’re out to have fun. James Leisenring wrote, “We fish for pleasure; I for mine, you for yours.” It is important to me that you enjoy yourself during our time on the water. Before any outing, I like to talk to my clients so I have a clear understanding of what their goals and expectations are.
So – let’s go fishing. You can reach me at 860-918-0228 or at swculton (at) yahoo.com.
For information on striped bass guiding and lessons, click here.
Due to other commitments, my weekends are almost always booked. The good news is that weekdays usually mean far fewer anglers.
2022 Rate Schedule (Subject to change. Does not include gratuity.) Rates may vary for non-Farmington River outings. Clients are responsible for their own gear (rod, reel, leaders, waders, boots, etc.), food, and drink. For lessons, I strongly suggest half-day sessions.
Half day (4 hours) Full day (7 hours)
One person $325 $425
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It would be pretty fair to say that I’ve got a jones for the Magog Smelt. The Magog Smelt is a classic landlocked salmon streamer that originated in Maine. It sports a striking color palette: white, yellow, and purple bucktail. Silver flash accents. Flowing red marabou, offset with barred teal flank and iridescent peacock herl.
Up until a few years ago, I’d never heard of the Magog Smelt. Then one day I was having a conversation with Ken Abrames about old time striper flies, and he told me the Magog Smelt was his father’s favorite fly for Rhode Island bass. So I looked up the pattern and tied a version based on the Ray’s Fly design. The first time I fished that that fly was at night in a breachway, and when I caught a striper on it, I could almost picture Ken’s dad standing on the shore, nodding in approval.
I started playing around with the color scheme of the Magog Smelt in different formats, from soft-hackle to single feather flatwing. They all worked in the salt. Then I got ambitious and tied up a 10” long, nine-feather flatwing. A substantial morsel to tempt the stripers when the big bait is in. Bold. Daring. More of a caricature of a herring than a formal portrait.
And here it is.
The Super-Sized Magog Smelt
Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Platform: White bucktail
Support: White neck hackle
Tail: 3 white saddles, under 2 strands pearl flash, under one yellow saddle, under 2 strands pearl flash, under 2 yellow saddles, under 2 strands silver flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands silver flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands red flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands purple flash.
Body: Silver braid
Collar: a 2/3 veil of long white bucktail one hair thick
Throat: Full tip of red marabou
Wing: 30 strands purple bucktail
Topping: 7 long peacock herl strands
Cheek: Teal flank feather tip
Eyes: Jungle cock
A closer look at a fly that fishes big, casts small.
Tying notes: Since I didn’t have the darker purple the original calls for, I used lavender saddles and some deep purple bucktail in the wing. There’s something magical about the effect created by placing the jungle cock over the teal flank cheeks. This fly is tied Razzle-Dazzle style with the flash about an inch longer than the saddles.
You can see the stiff, white neck hackle I’m using for a support along the arm of the vise. A properly constructed big flatwing like this will not be prone to fouling.