Ray’s Fly Featherwing: A simple, sparse flatwing

Many years ago, I was having trouble with some bass that were feeding on silversides in a Rhode Island breechway. The fish were active, but I couldn’t get them to bite. Ken Abrames recommended that I try the Ray’s Fly Featherwing, a dressed-down flatwing version of Ray’s Fly. I remember him telling me that it was, at the least, another arrow  in the fly box quiver.

That was a long time ago. I remember tying some up, but I don’t know what became of them. I know I caught stripers on them. I think I lost my last one to a bluefish.

Recently, someone on one of the forums asked about a “Ray’s Fly flatwing.” I think the Ray’s Fly Featherwing is the fly he was referencing. I haven’t tied in a couple of weeks, so I went down to the bench this morning and churned out a few. So simple. And sparse. I’d be as inclined to use these for a sand eel as I would a silverside.

All saddles are tied in flat — flatwing style, as they say. Note that the olive saddle is tied in at the head. All you need to do now is add water.

Ray’s Fly Featherwing flatwing

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0
Thread: White
Tail: 30 strands white bucktail under white saddle under 4 strands pearl flash under yellow saddle
Body: Pearl or silver braid
Wing: Olive saddle
Topping: Peacock herl

Soft-Hackled Flatwings, Ready to Swim

Fresh off the vise and ready to be eaten. Grey dun/fluorescent yellow, pink/chartreuse/olive, and white/blue/mallard flank. Of course, endless color variations are possible. Sparse, yet full. These are all three-and-one-half inches long.

SH FW Hybrids

Here’s the basic template:

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0
Thread: 6/0
Platform: 30 bucktail hairs
Tail: Flatwing saddle to match platform color, under 2-4 strands flashabou
Body: Braid
Wing: 30-45 bucktail hairs, under 10-20 hairs contrasting color, under 2-4 strands Krystal Flash or flashabou
Collar: Blood quill marabou, tied in at tip, 3-4 turns; 1 turn mallard flank (optional)
This is one of my favorite patterns for early season stripers.

The Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie Variant

It happens, if you’re lucky, once a season. It does not define you as angler. It makes no promise of future success. Like all glory, it is fleeting. But oh, does it make you feel like the king of the world. It is the moment after a wildly successful session when someone breathlessly approaches you with the words, “Excuse me, I’ve got to ask. What fly were you using?”

The first time I fished the Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie was a humid, overcast June night on Block Island. A substantial school of bass in the ten-to-fifteen pound range was feeding on sand eels near the surface. They had the bait pinned in a three-foot deep trough between the beach and a sand bar that dropped off into deeper water. For the better part of three hours, I took bass after well-fed, rotund bass. They relished the fly, even after it was reduced to two saddles and some frayed bucktail. As I began the walk to my Jeep, the angler to my right hurriedly reeled in his line and chased me down the beach, eager to pop the question.

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As its name suggests, this fly takes the color scheme of Ken Abrames’ Crazy Menhaden and applies it to the template of the Big Eelie. Together, they create an insanely potent brew of form and function.

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Tan
Platform: Orange and yellow bucktail, 30 total hairs, mixed
Tail: (All saddles pencil thin) Pink saddle, under two strands each of red and copper flash, under yellow saddle, under chartreuse saddle, under blue saddle
Body: Gold braid
Collar: 2-3 turns ginger marabou, tied in by the tip

Tying notes: As with all Big Eelies, make the saddles thin. Tie them in flat. I like this fly about four and one-half inches long. Treat the marabou as a veil, not an opaque blob.

Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie Rogues’ Gallery:

(Please forgive the fish-unfriendly photo. This was the only striper I beached to shoot. I lipped the rest).

SatBIBass

Big Eelie Variant: The L&L

While I am loathe to use the phrase “go-to-pattern,” I beg to report that whenever there are large sand eels around, Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is my go-to pattern.

The Big Eelie differs from 95% of other sand eel flies in that it is not an attempt to carbon copy the bait. Those legions of epoxy- and tube-bodied flies with eyes certainly work, but you can get away quite nicely with something far more impressionistic (if that’s your fancy) like the Big Eelie or Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel.

The classic Big Eelie is a four-feather flatwing/soft-hackle hybrid; it’s colors are white, yellow, olive, and blue. I’ve discovered over the years that the Big Eelie works in all kinds of color schemes. One of my favorites is taken from Ken’s three-feather flatwing, the L&L Special. This tart mix of yellow, fluorescent yellow, white, and chartreuse shines on sand flats, day or night.

The L&L Big Eelie

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Chartreuse 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs fluorescent yellow bucktail
Tail: A white saddle, under one strand each of gold and silver flash, under two chartreuse saddles, under two strands purple flash, under a yellow saddle.
Body: Pearl braid
Collar: 2-3 turns chartreuse marabou, tied in by the tip.

Tying notes: Sand eels are a slender bait, so make your saddles about the width of a pencil. You don’t want a flaring broom shape for the platform, so likewise make it slim, and take the bucktail from near the tip of the tail. All the saddles are tied in flat. The marabou adds the magic here, as it veils the body when wet, creating movement and an almost glowing effect. Feel free to play around with different colors on this pattern; some of my favorites are blue/black/purple and white/pink/olive. Stripers love them all. I like to tie this fly about 4  1/2 inches long.

Guten tag cows mit der Herr Blue flatwing

It’s getting to be that time of year: herring moving upriver with plenty of cow bass along for the ride…or at least a meal or twenty. A floating line, a greased line swing, a Herr Blue flatwing swimming broadside or just hanging there, hackles undulating in the current — I can almost feel the sensation of the strike.

To the fly: my nine-feather flatwing translation of the R.L.S. Herr Blue bucktail, tied about 11 inches long. I really like the colors on this one.

The Herr Blue Flatwing, nearly a foot long.

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 4/0
Thread: White
Platform: Ginger bucktail
Pillow: White
Support: White neck hackle
Body: Silver braid
Tail: 2 white saddles under 1 pink saddle under 2 strands pearl flash under 1 violet saddle under 2 strands silver flash under 1 pink saddle under 1 blue saddle under 2 strands light green flash under 1 orange saddle under 2 strands purple flash under 1 olive saddle under 1 blue saddle.
Collar: White and ginger bucktail, mixed
Wing: 20 hairs dark blue bucktail, 15 hairs olive green, 15 hairs grey, 15 hairs orange, mixed.
Cheeks: 3 hairs each of orange, chartreuse, pink, turquoise bucktail, mixed
Topping: 7 strands peacock herl
Eyes: Jungle cock

A closer look:

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And a proven performer. Not quite a cow, but easily into double-digit pounds. The fly is same as the one in the top picture. This striper was taken last spring on a greased-line swing.

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Steve Culton

The Magog Smelt Striper Bucktail

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

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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
Thread: Black
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 R.L.S. Herr Blue

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)

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Thread: White
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.