Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail

Consider the humble Pheasant Tail. Basic brown. Unpretentious. Traditional. Looks like nothing specific and a lot of things in general. Add a bead head — copper, if you please, which feels more understated than gold. But let’s not stop there. Let’s give our fly the breath of life. A soft hackle will do. Webby brown hen that pulses and moves and whispers to the fish, “I’m alive.”

If you told me I had to choose one fly to fish for trout for the rest of my life, it would be a soft-hackled bead head Pheasant Tail.  You can fish it like a nymph, fish it like a wet, or do both. All on the same drift. Woo-hoo!

Hook: Orvis 62KC size 8-12 (steelhead), 2x strong/2x short scud size 10-20 (trout)
Thread: Brown 6/0 or 8/0
Bead: Copper, sized to hook
Tail/Abdomen: Pheasant tail
Rib: Small copper wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Soft brown hen
When I first tried to catch a steelhead with a fly that used all-natural materials and drab colors, I chose this pattern. Mission accomplished, and now it’s a staple.
The Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail Rogues’ Gallery:
Late winter Farmington brown, size 18.
3-10-14 Brown

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.


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:


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.

Steve Culton has a great face for radio

The press release might read “Catch Farmington River guide and outdoor writer Steve Culton on this week’s Yankee Fisherman program on HAN Radio. Steve talks about all things wet fly fishing, covering topics from wet fly styles to presentation.”

Also appearing on the show is my friend Steve Zakur from CVTU. Thanks so much to host John Kovach and HAN Radio for having me on. As its title suggests, Yankee Fisherman focuses on the ample fishing opportunities found in the Connecticut area.

Here’s the link to the show: or

Episode 3.


New article in American Angler: Wet Fly 101

Check out the current (Nov/Dec) issue of American Angler for my latest article, “Wet Fly 101.” Wet flies have been fooling trout for centuries, and the fish aren’t getting any smarter. This piece serves as a broad introduction to wet flies. It covers basics like fly types; building a traditional three-fly team; what kind of water to target; and presentation. For those looking to take the ancient and traditional path to subsurface success, it’s a fine place to start.


Farmington River Mini Report 9/27/13: Like going into Wisconsin

I had just over two hours on Friday afternoon to scout some locations for Sunday’s gig. So I zipped in and zipped right out again. Speed fishing, if you like. Four different spots, all of which held fish that were eager to jump on the wet fly.

I’ve been seeing some creamy mayflies on the river the last couple weeks. A good size, about a 12, late afternoon. Apparently this fellow has been seeing them, too. 


As usual, I was fishing a three-fly team of wets. Today’s selection consisted of a size 10 Catskill on top dropper; a size 12 Pale Watery wingless wet in the middle; and a size 12 Hackled March Brown on point. I took trout on every fly. With the most recent stocking just weeks old, I was expecting to find plenty of newly released wards of the state. But no. It was all wild and holdover browns along with a few juvenile salmon sprinkled in.

I did have a curious catch, a silvery brown that looked unlike anything I’ve ever caught in the Farmington. At first its color suggested a juvenile salmon, but when I got it to net I saw that it had a flat tail and the eye/jaw placement of a trout. Few spots, but large and haloed like a brown. Could this be a sea-run trout? The sensible side of my brain said probably not. But the side that likes to dream swirled the notion around and tasted the possibility that it could be.

Notes: cloudy skies, air temps near 70. Water temp 60. A strong Isonychia showing. A few caddis, a few of those creamy mayflies, lots of midges. Little to no surface activity. The water levels are lower than normal; they’re drawing down the dam to complete an every-decade inspection of the pipes.

It’s getting to be peak color time on the Farmington.


The Alexandra Winged Wet

Ray Bergman described the Alexandra as, “A fancy pattern that often proves surprisingly effective.” Fancy, yes. But in appearance only. The Alexandra is a very easy pattern to tie. As to its effectiveness, the fly is said to have been so deadly that its use was actually banned on some fishing beats.

The pattern was created in Great Britain in the mid 19th century. It was also known as “Lady of the Lake,” suggesting that it was intended primarily as a stillwater fly. I’ve only fished it rivers. So, is the Alexandra truly ban-worthy? In my experience, no. That is, you should not expect trout to blithely hurl themselves at the fly just because it is tied to your leader. But yes, you can expect to catch with it. I think it makes a fine tiny baitfish imitation, and what’s there not to like about silver, red, and the rainbow iridescence of peacock sword? I tend to fish this fly in the fall, early season, or when the water’s a little off-color.

The Alexandra


Hook: 1x short, 1x stout wet fly (this is the Orvis 1641) size 6-12
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail: Peacock sword fibers
Body: Flat silver tinsel
Throat: Red webby hackle
Wing: Peacock sword fibers

Tying notes: I tie this fly two ways: heavily dressed (like the one pictured here) and much sparser. Both work. Peacock sword is easy to work with; I use between 3-6 fibers on the tail, and between 5-16 fibers for the wing. Sometimes I’ll make the wing a little longer than the hook bend, as I’ve done here. In Trout, Bergman lists scarlet hackle as a tailing option. I have a love-hate relationship with tinsel. It’s a pain (for me, at least) to wrap, unlike braid which is basically idiot-proof. Sadly, I have a traditionalist streak that often compels me to honor the materials of yore. Some pattern variants include an oval tinsel rib on the body and a scarlet floss tag. For the throat, color options include deep wine, claret, or black. I think any of those would look spiffy. Some listings of the Alexandra include a dash of scarlet in the wing, and I’ve seen people use a strand of red holographic tinsel for that step. I’ve finished the head here with a coat of Griff’s Thin, followed by three coats of H-A-N.

“Wet Fly 101” at the October FRAA meeting

I’ll be the featured speaker at the Farmington River Anglers Association meeting, Wednesday, October 16, 7pm in Unionville, CT. My presentation will be Wet Fly 101, a basic overview of wet flies and wet fly fishing. Wet flies have been taking trout for centuries, and the fish haven’t gotten any smarter. If you can’t make the September Hammonasset presentation, hope to see you at this one. You can learn more about the FRAA at their website, As always, If you’re interested in having me speak at your club meetings, you can contact me through this site.

 A Hackled March Brown


And a big Farmington brown who found it to her liking.


Farmington River Report 8/7/13: Foul language and rank stupidity. Plus some trout.

“Hey, you gotta move your @#$%ing truck!”

Clearly, this fishing trip was not starting well.

I had just turned into one of the many dirt pulloffs that border the Farmington River. This particular one holds at least three vehicles. There already was a car in it, facing south. I had been heading north, so the fronts of our respective vehicles were pointing at each other. To leave, we’d each have to back out the way we came in. You know, like you’d do at any gas station.  Rudimentary Driver’s Ed stuff.

I got out and started gearing up. The occupant of the other car was on his cell phone, and from what I could overhear, he wasn’t having a happy conversation. He ended his call, and that’s when he shouted out his unpleasant greeting.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Move your @#$%ing truck!”

“Really? Are you telling me you can’t back out of here?”

More wrathful profanity, and that’s when I realized: disengage. Now. What if he has a gun? What if he comes back with some friends? What if he vandalizes my truck? Sad to say, but that’s the world we live in. I could back out of the pulloff — and potentially, an even uglier scene — simply by acquiescing. Politely. And keep my dignity in the bargain. So I did.

Still, once I got in the water, I couldn’t enjoy it. I kept looking up at the road, waiting to see if my new friend was coming back to look for trouble. Every sound of an approaching car elevated my heart rate. Thankfully, he never returned.

So, what about the fishing? A slow day for swinging wets. Very little hatch activity, but the water was a perfect height at 321cfs and a delightful 64 degrees, ten out of ten for August. I was fishing a Squirrel and Ginger on point, a Drowned Ant in the middle, and a clumsy deer hair wing/head soft-hackle that suggested a drowned hopper or a big stone fly on top. I had several swirls at the big fly, but no takes.

Finally, on the dead drift, the line stalled, I came tight to the fly, and I had a good fish on. I was hoping for something approaching 20 inches, not only from the size of the fly, but from the fact that the fish immediately went deep and sulked on the bottom. A powerful surge up a whitewater channel, and he went on the reel. In the end, it was a mid-teens rainbow. It was the only trout I took in the 90 minutes I walked the run.

My best trout of the day took this monstrosity, still wet and fresh from the fish’s mouth.


I decided on the spur of the moment to rig for indicator nymphing. The section I fished is a deep run below some riffles. I gave it 15 minutes, and the only trout I took came on the second cast.

A nice little brown who liked the look of Yerger’s Miracle Nymph, size 16.


The day ended far downstream, where I took my largest juvenile Atlantic salmon of the year, about nine inches long. Bright silvery flanks, and fat. No wonder. When I was taking the hook out, I peered down his throat. It was loaded invertebrates to the point of overflowing. It reminded me of a bluefish spitting up bait. Off he went. Then off I went.

I had to get @#$%ing home.

Farmington River Report 8/6/13: Are you still there?

I guided Steven today and we had about the nicest August weather you could hope for: sunny, about 80 degrees, and low humidity. The fishing was pretty fair, too. The river was crystal clear, 324cfs in the Upper TMA, and 64 degrees. Not much in the way of hatch activity, but you take what you get and make soup.

Steven had missed my most recent “Wet Flies 101” class at UpCountry Sportfishing, so we spent the day covering the curriculum. He did an outstanding job. Funny thing: the first run we fished, there was a guy swinging wets. We watched him hook and land a nice trout. Turns out it was Ted, who took my class in May this year.

After Ted left, we waded in and took several fish, including this lovely wild brown that was rising on the edge of a shade line in less than two feet of water:


Next, we headed off to the lower river. Slimmer pickings, with only one juvenile salmon to show. We finished the day in the upper TMA. We fished several very sexy seams and pockets with no love, but then things picked up in the last hour.

“Are you still there?” When my students are fishing wets on the dangle and they feel a strike, I tell them to ask that question before they set the hook. (When swinging flies for Atlantic salmon in the UK, you say, “God save the Queen.”) One of the biggest challenges for a new wet fly fisher is not setting the hook when they feel the tug. It’s a highly challenging reflex to overcome, and failing to do so usually means pulling the hook out of the fish’s mouth. Steven was struggling with it as much as anyone does early on, but by the end of the day, he was proudly announcing, “I waited that time!”

And every time he did, the trout was still there.