How to built a wet fly leader for a team of three flies

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “How do you build a wet fly leader?” This material originally appeared in my article “Wet Fly 101: Take the ancient and traditional path to subsurface success” (American Angler Nov/Dec 2013) but I wanted to give it its own place here on currentseams.

At first glance, building a multi-fly dropper rig looks complicated. But basically, you’re just tying three triple surgeon’s knots. You’ll need a 9-foot, 3x or 4x tapered leader for the butt section, and some 4 or 6-pound Maxima (I prefer Chameleon [AUTHOR’S NOTE: I used UltraGreen four-pound in 2014 and it worked just as well as Chameleon]) for the droppers. I’ve tried a lot of different leader materials, and Maxima is by far the best because of its stiffness. I use the 4-pound in lower, clearer flows. 

Wet Fly Three FLy team

Here’s a pdf of the diagram: Three-fly wet fly leader

Step 1: Cut off the bottom three feet of the tapered leader. Discard this bottom section.

Step 2: Knots are not worthy of your trust. Wet every knot before you pull it tight, and test every knot by giving it a good tug. The heat of battle with a trophy trout is a bad time to discover you tied a substandard knot.

Step 3: Tie just over a foot of Maxima to the tapered leader with a triple surgeon’s knot. The bottom of this section will form the first dropper. Trim both tag ends.

Step 4: The ideal length between wet flies is somewhere between 18 and 24 inches; I prefer my dropper tags between 4 and 6 inches. If you’re going to build a dropper rig with the flies 24 inches apart and the tags 6 inches long, you’ll need a 30-inch section (24 + 6 = 30) of Maxima for the next step.

Step 5: Take the first, shorter section of Maxima (the one you tied to the tapered leader) and hold it 6 inches from the end. This will be your first dropper. Join the 30-inch section to the shorter section at this point with a triple surgeon’s knot.

Step 6: Trim the excess of the second section above the knot (the part you trim is on the butt side of the leader). You should now have a dropper tag about 6 inches long, pointing away from the butt, and about 30 inches of Maxima below it.

Step 7: You’re in the home stretch. This is basically a repeat of step 5. Grab the second section of Maxima 6 inches from the end, and join another 30-inch section of Maxima to it with a triple surgeon’s knot. As with Step 6, trim the excess above the knot.

Step 8: You should now have a rig that looks like the one the diagram: two shorter tags, to which you’ll tie dropper flies, and a longer end section, to which you will tie the point fly.

~

Good things happen when you give the trout a choice.

20

Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackle

Some more production tying last night at currentseams HQ. Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackles. So simple. And so effective during an emergence of the creamy mayflies we get on late spring evenings on the Farmington. A size 12 or 14 will do nicely. Hold on, now. Trout get reckless during this hatch.

When I started tying wet flies, I made two full rows of Partridge and (insert Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk color here) in my box. Later, on a whim, I bought some Uni Light Cahill thread and tied up a few of these soft-hackles. They sat unused for at least one season. I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but I do know that the first time I fished this fly, I cleaned up. I still have one of those original Partridge and Light Cahills; I fished it last spring, caught a trout on it, then retired it. It barely had any hackle left, but it still worked.

Such is the power of the impressionistic soft-hackle.

Filling corks with Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackles. These are tied on a 1x strong, 1x long size 14 hook.

Partridge and Light Cahills

Filling some corks with soft-hackled flies

A little production tying here at currentseams HQ — as much as I can be said to be a production tyer, which is very little. But stocks need replenishing for personal use, guide trips, and maybe a few to sell here and there. First up was the Squirrel and Ginger, my favorite caddis emerger from April through mid-summer.

You drink the wine. You save the cork. You stick a dozen wet flies into it. You win twice.

Squirrel and Ginger cork

~

People tend to use far too much fur to hackle the Squirrel and Ginger. Think sparse. Think less is more. Like this. Dust the thread with fur. Your next step is to form a dubbing loop, then wind the hackle, stroking the fibers toward the bend of the hook.

Fur hackle dubbing loop prep

~

The same fly, ready to whip finish. Note (again) the imperfect head. Guess what? Trout don’t care about neatness. In fact, I think they like messy wet flies. Yeah, I’ll clip away that schmutz under the eye, but this fly is basically good to go.

S&G ready to finish

Second “Wet Flies and Fuzzy Nymphs for the Farmington” class added

Wow. My 2/8/15 class filled up in two days. So we found time for a second, at UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford, CT, Saturday, January 24. Same blurb as the other class:

“Join outdoor writer and Farmington River guide Steve Culton as we explore tying buggy, impressionistic wets and nymphs geared toward fishing the Farmington. The class will place an emphasis on using natural materials to create flies for specific hatches, as well as attractor patterns. From classic North-Country spiders to some of Steve’s own creations, you’ll learn to tie high-confidence patterns that have been battle-tested and proven on the Farmington. Steve will also discuss wet fly methods for each pattern. Participants will need a vise, thread and tools. All other materials will be provided, including a pattern recipe sheet. The class starts at 9am and will run between four and five hours. Space is limited to six people. Tuition is $75.”

Please do not contact me to register for this class. You must enroll by calling UpCountry at 860-379-1952. Hope to see some of you there.

I think we should tie up some Dark Hendricksons. This is a classic American winged wet pattern, and one that I’ve done exceptionally well with during an emergence.

BatchoHendricksons

Fly Tying Class Sunday 2/8/15: Wet Flies and Fuzzy Nymphs for the Farmington River

This class will by led by yours truly at UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford, CT, Sunday, February 8. Here is the blurb from the UpCountry website:

“Join outdoor writer and Farmington River guide Steve Culton as we explore tying buggy, impressionistic wets and nymphs geared toward fishing the Farmington. The class will place an emphasis on using natural materials to create flies for specific hatches, as well as attractor patterns. From classic North-Country spiders to some of Steve’s own creations, you’ll learn to tie high-confidence patterns that have been battle-tested and proven on the Farmington. Steve will also discuss wet fly methods for each pattern. Participants will need a vise, thread and tools. All other materials will be provided, including a pattern recipe sheet. The class starts at 9am and will run between four and five hours. Space is limited to six people. Tuition is $75.”

Please do not contact me to register for this class. You must enroll by calling UpCountry at 860-379-1952. Hope to see some of you there.

North-Country spiders. You betcha we’ll be tying some.

Soft-hackles

What can you catch on wet flies? Trout like this. (Hackled March Brown, size 12)

20%22Brown8:18:13

Housatonic Streamer Report: Party Like It’s 1986

I can still remember that October day almost thirty years ago. I had just been let go from my first job, and since I was still living at home (opportunity), I decided to fish my brains out before my parents starting bugging me (motive) about acting like a responsible young adult. One of my adventures took me to the Hous. It was sunny. The flows were perfect. And I had two containers of mealworms and a can of corn to impale on my Eagle Claw snelled hooks. This was at a point in my fishing life where counting fish was critical to defining success. (Idiot.) The final tally was seventeen trout. I couldn’t wait to get home and brag to my father.

These days, the upper Housatonic doesn’t get nearly as much attention from me as it should. Even today, I only managed two-and-a-half hours. But, oh my goodness, what an amazing little session.

The plan was streamers. Last night I tied up a couple old favorites, soft-hackled versions of the classic Black Ghost and Mickey Finn on #6, 3x long streamer hooks. Since I would be fishing with a floating line, I added a large black brass cone head, seated with weighted wire. Ten minutes in, I still hadn’t had a bump. What was a spotty sprinkle hard turned into a steady rain. I was thinking this might not be my day.

Wrong. Once I moved out of the shallows (I still don’t know the river as well as I’d like) and started delivering the Black Ghost into some deeper runs, the hits began in earnest. They took the streamer on the swing. The dangle. And the strip. Sometimes they’d swipe, miss, and come back for more.

After a half-dozen or so, I switched over to the Mickey Finn. Boom! What a pig of a rainbow. Most of the customers were cookie cutter foot-long rainbows, but this wannabe steelhead went on the reel almost immediately. A few of the rainbows today had those telltale wide pink bands, large intact fins, and the disposition of a feral cat. I really wanted that gator brown, but these fish were keeping me well-entertained. I looked at my watch. Two hours in. I had no idea how many fish I had done battle with.

On the way out, I stopped at one of the name pools to watch another angler cast to rising fish. I only stayed for five minutes. Dozens of trout were feeding in a gentle foam line, sipping tiny BWOs.

When I got into my Jeep, the gas gauge said almost empty.

Bullshit. My tank was full.

Long before I started fly fishing, I knew the Mickey Finn was an effective streamer for fall trout on the Hous. While I’ve made a few changes in materials for my soft-hackled version, the color scheme is the same. Yup. Red and yellow and silver and black are tasty.

10:14 Housy Raindow

Currentseams Q&A: attaching a soft-hackle to the hook shank

Q: When tying soft-hackled flies do you tie in the tip of the feather or the butt?

A: I’m almost always a tip guy. The stem of any feather is more flexible at the tip, and therefore easier for me to wrap. Also, feathers like starling are quite fragile — when I try to grip the tip of a starling feather with my hackle pliers, I often break off feathers to the point of rage. We don’t like rage when we’re tying. Maybe I just need to dial back the wrapping pressure. Or quit lifting weights.

Tying in by the tip is neither right nor wrong. It’s just the way I like to do it. I originally learned from Dave Hughes’ book Wet Flies, and he advocates tying in by the butt. I tried it that way, then tried it this way, and here we are. I encourage you to do the same in your tying and fishing: try different methods and pick the one that suits you. If I am tying a pattern like Stewart’s Black Spider, where I am starting at the head then winding the hackle rearward along the body, I will tie the feather in by the butt. This results in a tapered flow of hackle from large in front to small in back.

These hackles were all tied in by the tip. They look OK to me, and the trout certainly like them. So I must be doing something right.

Soft-hackles

Thanks to TU Croton Watershed for hosting me last night

All I can say is that the bar has been raised. It wasn’t just the great turnout — the room was packed with attentive members who came armed with dozens of good questions. It wasn’t just the welcoming, friendly spirit of the group. No, it was both of those things and the cheeseburger and beer they took me out for before the presentation. A well-fed presenter is a happy presenter.

Last night’s talk was Wet Flies 101. I brought along a selection of a dozen wet flies for their raffle, and left with a Croton Trout Unlimited hat in the bargain. Thanks so much, everyone, for your kindness and hospitality.

Black Caddis Spider

Next up: Eastern Brook Trout at the TU Naugatuck/Pomperaug Chapter on Wednesday, October 1. See you there.

A Drop-Shot Tandem Nymph Rig

I can be as stuck in my ways as the next angler. But from time to time, the curious, adventurous, what if? side comes out to play, and I’ll try something new. I first saw a two-fly drop-shot rigging system on Kelly Galloup’s site. Hmm. Intriguing. After storing it in the back of my brain for several months (and not being entirely satisfied with my regular two-nymph rig with the weight above the top fly) I thought I’d give the drop-shot a try.

There’s much I like about the drop-shot design theory. The weight is at the bottom end of the rig, and, consequently, along the bottom of the river. Because the weight tag is made of weakest link leader material, it should break off on a weight snag before anything else. Six inches above the weight is a nymph-style fly, strategically placed to be at the eye level of bottom-hugging trout. Twelve to sixteen inches above the nymph is a soft-hackle, emerger, or pupa-style fly on a dropper tag. You know from my writing and reports that I am a huge fan of droppers — give the fish a choice — and droppers that can swim freely on a dedicated tag. I especially like the idea of using a soft-hackled wet in this position. I wasn’t crazy about the bottom fly having the weight leader tag attached to its eye — I worried that it might make the fly difficult to eat — but it certainly was a better solution than attaching the weight tag to the bend of the hook. Only one way to find out, and that was to fish it.

There are probably dozens if not hundreds of variations of drop-shot riggings; so here’s one more. I altered the specifics to suit my preferences in leader materials (and also to use what I had on hand). Suffice to say, this thing works.

A simple two-fly drop shot nymph rig.

Drop-Shot Nymph Rig

Here’s a pdf of the diagram:

Drop-Shot Nymph Rig

Construction notes: Construction should be fairly intuitive. I’m an indicator-kind of guy, so I’ve dispensed with the sighter butt section. I’ve been using a six-foot length of Maxima Chameleon 12-pound. You could surely go with ten-pound, or any other butt material you like. If you were going to build in a sighter, you’d still keep the top section six-feet long. I added an SPRO size 10 power swivel because of the disparity in the diameter between the twelve and four-pound material. Maxima is still hands-down the best material I’ve used for dropper tags for trout. I tie an overhand knot four times at the end of the weight tag — I haven’t had any issues with shot coming undone — and I’ve been using one or two BB shot, depending on depth and current speed.  

Yup. Drop-shot nymph systems fished under an indicator work.

Big Rainbow 9-14

 Of course, check your local/state regulations to make sure you can fish two flies, and/or place weight below the flies. I am not responsible for any rules violations.  

Currentseams Q& A: Tying the bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail

Q: Can you give me the recipe for your BHSHPT nymph?

A: You betcha. As a point of procedure, it is not “mine.” People have been tying this fly for generations. I’m just another in a long line who discovered the magnetic mojo of adding webby brown hen to the mix. I’ve really got to do a video of this pattern.

The bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail:

7a34cc32_vbattach314446

Hook: Size 8-16 1x short 2x strong scud
Thread: Tan or brown 6/0 or 8/0
Head: Copper brass or tungsten bead to size 
Tail/body: 6 (less as the hook gets smaller) pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire counterwrapped over body
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Soft brown hen

Tying notes: Old faithful, old reliable. Over the years. this fly has accounted for a significant percentage of the trout I’ve caught. Tying should be fairly intuitive. Lately, I’ve taken to tying in the hackle after I wind the peacock herl thorax. A few stray hackle fibers here and there on a nymph looks lovely to a trout. Once I get down to an 18 or 20 on this fly, I dispense entirely with the peacock herl. I also will use only three pheasant tail fibers on an 18 or 20.