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April 1, 2011 / flogginwater

A Fly Fishing Primer – Part Three

This is the third part in an on-going series written for beginning fly anglers, or those looking to get in to fly angling. I don’t claim to be an expert, but as a fly fisherman for 18 years, I feel I’ve got something to offer. This text is copied from my original post on the Oregon Fishing Forum. Keep checking back for more updates, as this series is no where near done! Be warned – this post, and the others before it are pretty picture intensive.

So if you’ve read parts one and two – you probably have an idea about what you want to fish for, and the kind of rod, reel, and fly line you want to use for them, along with some of your other basic gear. Now we’ve got to figure out how to connect that big, fat, plastic fly line to those itty bitty hook eyes, so we can catch a fish!

To do that, we need a leader. Every fisherman should know what a leader is – it’s that length of line tied to the hook. In fly fishing, the leader connects the fly line to the fly or flies.

Leaders can be simple – a short, straight piece of monofilament or fluorocarbon line, or they can be intricately made hand-furled or braided leaders made from thread, monofilament, or even horse hair, if you want to rock the oooooold school ways of doing things.

More often than not though – you’ll run into the two most popular types of leaders – factory made knotless tapered leaders, which is one single strand of line that starts out fat, and tapers down to a smaller tippet section. The other most popular leader type is the hand-tied tapered leader, which is made by tying multiple lengths of varying diameter line together to form a tapered leader.

Before going further, lets talk about why tapered leaders are so popular. Tapered leaders transfer casting energy to the fly in a much better way than level leaders do – most of the time. For most of our fishing – assuming we’re going to be fishing for trout or panfish – you’re not going to be chucking flies the size of a baby rabbit, that require 20lb line to turn over. We’re going to be fishing flies typically from about a size 6, down to size 18 or 20. Tying a piece of 2, 3, or 4lb line that’s measured in thousands of an inch, to a fly line end that is maybe 1/32nd to 1/16th of an inch in diameter isn’t going to work terribly well at turning the fly over and giving you a good presentation. So we use a tapered leader, that starts out similarly in diameter to our fly line, and tapers down to an appropriate diameter to attach to our fly. A well designed taper facilitates a smooth transfer of power, and allows you to turn over even the bushiest or heaviest of flies.

Knotless tapered leaders are popular because they pick up less debris in the water – this is especially nice if you’re fishing weedy waters. They also don’t have knots which can, if not properly done, act as hinge points, causing loss of energy in the cast. Ideally with a knotless tapered leader, there will only be three knots to worry about in the system – the connection to your fly line, the knot where your tippet is tied on, and the knot from the tippet to the fly. “Wait a second” – you may be thinking, “you just said knotless was good, so why would you go and knot on another piece of line to the end?” While you *can* fish with just the connection of the fly line and the fly as the only knots in the system – you’ll soon find that if you change flies much, that knotless leader that ended in a 4X or 5X tippet is soon more like a 3X or 4X – and the line will be too fat to fish the flies you’re using. So we knot on a length of tippet material that allows us to change flies without destroying that fancy knotless leader. Usually you’ll either knot on a tippet of equal diameter, or one size smaller, than the rated tippet size of the knotless leader. When you wind up with a tippet that’s too short from frequent fly changes, or snags – you just snip the tippet off at the knot, and replace it with a new one. This lets you extend the life of that knotless leader greatly.

Knotless tapered leaders are pretty good for most things – but they’re not always ideal, or at least, they’re not always made of an ideal taper for the way we might cast, or fish. Or maybe you just like tinkering with things, or have issues with ‘modern’ technology. Who knows. I generally fish knotted tapered leaders I make myself. Partly because I’m cheap – but mostly because I can customize a leader to suit *my* style, and my needs.

For $20 or $25 in leader material spools, I can tie up 50 or more leaders, depending on how long they are, and what diameters they are. A decent knotless tapered leader will run you $3-6 a piece, which means for $25 you could wind up with 6 or 8 leaders.

section (the end that connects to the fly line) if I’m making a leader primarily for fishing wet flies and nymphs – which can then serve not only as a leader, but as a strike indicator. I can tie hard, stiff line to supple, limp line for that perfect dry fly leader.

I can also adjust my leader lengths from short 5′ leaders to 16 feet – and still find a taper that turns over with ease. Its harder to find such short, or such long leaders on most store shelves. I won’t get into precise leader formulas in this post – maybe in one down the road. There are a number of good fly fishing sites on the internet, if you don’t want to wait around for me to post up my favorite leader formulas.

Another option for leaders – and possibly the best, nicest casting options – are furled leaders or braided leaders. Furled leaders are made by twisting different sections of monofilament or thread loops together, to form multi-stranded tapered leaders. These leaders act much more like an extension of your fly line in how they turn over. A well made furled leader is not only a work of art in itself, but can be the most delicate casting leader you’ll ever fish. Braided leaders fish similarly – but furling and braiding are not the same. For one – furled leaders have no hollow core – as the line is twisted together. Braided leaders, on the other hand – start with multiple strands that are weaved together. They normally have a hollow core section, as well as knotted sections where they taper down to fewer strands – whereas furled leaders are basically knotless – they’re made of sections of loops that are then twisted together. The furled or braided leaders require a straight, single strand tippet or tippets be attached in order to fish, but they will turn over your tippets and flies like nothing else. They also act like shock absorbers – allowing you more cushion when fishing delicate tippets for bigger fish. The biggest downside to a furled or braided leader comes when you snag a tree or rock with the leader itself. They will be springy, and difficult to break or unsnag, and if you can’t wade or walk to where they are snagged – should you pull them free, they are going to coil up like a mad snake and turn into a mess of knots. That’s because of that extra stretchiness they have – the stretching and contraction of the line causes them to do this. So just be careful about not fishing for Red Breasted Sparrows instead of red band trout, k?

I have, over the years, tried my hand at home made braided and furled leaders – and they’re time intensive, and especially when talking about braided leaders – they can be hard on the wrists and hands if you’ve got carpal tunnel (I do). Check your local fly shop for a good, production made furled or braided leader.

That last type of leader – the straight hunk of mono – is not always a bad thing. When fishing larger flies, such as bass bugs, big ugly articulated steelhead flies, and big streamers for trout/steelhead – a short length of mono attached to a sinking or sink tip line can be just the trick. Delicacy is rarely the name of the game in such ventures, and the thicker, stronger mono is usually a good thing to have.

Now we’ve got our leader, we need something to attach to it to catch a fish, right?

Flies can be broken down into two very basic catagories:

Floating flies, and sinking flies.

From there we can break them down into sub catagories, for floating flies – you’ve got dry flies and bugs (bass bugs, panfish bugs). For sinking flies you’ve got traditional wets, nymphs, streamers, and salmon/steelhead flies (which are basically variations on wet flies and streamers).

Dry flies are meant to imitate the adult stages of an insect. These can be either species specific flies, or general attractor patterns that are just generally bug-like, and don’t necessarily look like a specific insect. The Elk Hair Caddis, for example, imitates a small caddis fly. The Adams, on the other hand, is an attractor – and isn’t meant to be a specific bug – unlike say, the Blue Winged Olive -which imitates a small olive colored may fly. Flies like the Stimulator or Sofa Pillow can be used to imitate anything from a caddis fly to a stone fly, to a big moth. If you get really huge ones, you could probably imitate small birds with these flies – when fishing for Tasmanian Zombie Trout.

Here’s one example of a caddis imitation – a variant on the Goddard Caddis

When dealing with the may fly imitations, you’re generally going to be fishing duns or spinners (duns are the just-hatched adult bugs, whose wings need to dry out before they can take flight and mate) – spinners imitate spent adult bugs – those bugs that have mated, thus fulfilling their role in the cycle of life, and like the noble pacific salmon – simply die after passing on their genes to the next generation.

Below are some examples of different types of dries – parachute style dries that imitate mayflies and sit low in the water, down wing dries with no hackle that fish the same, traditional upright wing & hackle mayfly imitations, and caddis imitations

Below is an example of a hackle-less spinner, tied in a down-wing fashion. It floats right at the very surface of the water. This imitates a dead adult may fly.

Below in this next photo is a Bivisible style, or palmer-hackled dry fly. This is a generic bug imitation, or it can pass off as a group of small insects (like midges). These float well, and are my go-to flies for most stream fishing dry fly needs. They’re easy to tie, and they are killer on trout.

A short list of some of my favorite Dry Fly patterns:

Parachute Adams
Elk Hair Caddis
Goddard Caddis
Irresistible (aka Rat Face McDougal)
Blue Wing Olive
Parachute Blue Wing Olive
Foam Hopper
Royal Coachman
Royal Wulff
March Brown
Griffith’s Gnat

Bugs – namely bass bugs and their panfish sized counterparts – are generally made of spun deer hair, shaped cork, or shaped closed cell foam. They also tend to incorporate live rubber, wound hackle collars, and saddle hackles – long feathers, and other wiggly, flashy material to get a fish’s (and more likely fisherman’s) attention. You could say these imitate wounded baitfish, frogs, small birds, small children, mice, or they could imitate nothing at all, but bass (and panfish) still eat them, because well, those fish will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first. Any way you look at it, they’re most fun to fish for, and watching a fish explode on a surface bug is one of the most fun things you can do in fly fishing.

Bugs are normally broken down into poppers, sliders, and floater-divers. There are also a few animal imitations – mice, frogs, and snakes. Poppers have conical or cylindrical shaped bodies, and they’re designed to pop and gurgle, and throw water when twitched or pulled across the water’s surface. They’re noisy attention getters. Sliders normally have a reversed conical shape – with the point toward the hook eye, instead of away from the eye like a popper would have. They’re less noisy than poppers, and they tend to wiggle and jiggle their way across the surface. Floater-divers incorporate features of both poppers and sliders – when pulled or twitched, they will dive a ways under water with a loud popping noise, or with a more subtle retrieve, they wiggle across the surface. Frogs are usually either spun deer hair or foam. They usually include either knotted hair legs, or live rubber legs. They tend to be very popper like in how they’re fished. Mice are almost always spun deer hair – and they can look very real, they normally include a long, thin leather tail, and fish best with a twitchy retrieve like a slider. Snakes are usually made of a bunch of saddle feathers, and when pulled across the surface, the feathers bunch together and wiggle, just like a snake’s body. Bass bugs can be killer top water trout lures when fishing very early or very late in the day, near or in the dark (where legal) when the BIG fish move shallow and begin eating anything that moves. If you ever find yourself in Mongolia, with say, a 10 weight flyrod, you can toss lemming “flies” for Taimen (which look like nuclear-mutant brown trout that grow to 6 feet long, their favorite snack are rodents the size of small dogs, and small children whose parents don’t love them enough to keep them out of the water inhabited by these shark sized salmonids). I hear the locals in Mongolia just skewer actual rodents on piano wire, and hand line these beasts. Genghis Khan would be proud, I’m sure.

A short list of some of my favorite patterns are:

Dahlberg Diver
Deer hair popper
Gurgle Bug
Pete’s Gurgle Popper
The Fruit Bowl
Gaine’s Pan Pop
Gaine’s Popper
Rainy’s Bass Pop

Getting back to normal flies, we find ourselves in Sinking Fly territory. Sinking flies, as I mentioned earlier, get broken into Wet Flies, Nymphs, and Streamers as the main categories.

Traditional wet flies can be tied to either imitate drowned adult insects, and thus have subdued, natural hues to them – or they can be tied as attractors – and made from bright, flashy materials. Both are excellent at catching fish. They can be fished dead drifted, or swung, fished alone, as a dropper from a dry fly, or in “Casts” – 3 or more flies (where legal) tied on droppers from your leader, and swung or dapped.

Below is an example of a soft hackled wet fly, which can imitate a drowned insect, or be fished like a nymph.

Here’s another soft hackle wet:

My favorite wet patterns:

Partridge & Orange
Adams Softhackle Wet
Hare’s Ear Soft Hackle
Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle
Parmachene Belle
Red Ibis
Royal Coachman
Leadwing Coachman
Blue Dun
Adams Wet
Blue Wing Olive Wet

Nymphs are just that imitations of the nymphal form of aquatic insects. They are the juvenile bug – before they transform into adult insects capable of reproduction. Depending on what and who you read – and if you believe it – nymphs make up upto 90% of a stream trout’s diet. Makes sense – they’re under water, rooting around the bottom, where current is usually the easiest for trout to hold. They’re packed with protein. What trout wouldn’t like them that much?

Nymphs can be tied to be attractors, generic bugs, or specific species imitations.

Below is a simple dubbed hare’s mask nymph. It can imitate a scud (fresh water shrimp), or a caddis pupae, or a small worm.

Compared to this next picture, which is a stone fly imitation, complete with dyed goose biot antennae and feelers.

Nymphs are often fished in a dead drift style, like a bug that becomes dislodged from the stream bottom and caught up in the current. Other types of nymphs imitate the emerging stage of the insect – where it rises to the surface of the water and breaks free from it’s nymphal shuck and crawls out of it’s old skin to become an adult insect. Talk about a major life change!

Emergers can be drift fished, then allowed to swing upward with the current, like a bug actually swimming to the surface. Or they can be cast on an unweighted or greased line, and fished right at the surface film with the occasional twitch, like a real insect struggling to free itself and become a real adult.

Some of my favorite nymph patterns:

Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear
Pheasant Tail
Gary’s Caddis Pupae
Copper John
Zug Bug
Flying Chainsaw Demon (my own tie)
The Flashback
AP Emerger
B i t c h Creek
Peeking Caddis
Blood worm
Bead Head Adam’s Softhackle (my own tie)
Micro Bugger

Streamers imitate things like bait fish, leeches, and worms. They imitate what bigger fish like to eat more of. They can be tied with a myriad of materials from marabou to rabbit fur to the hair of baby seals (okay, not really the baby seal fur). They are flashy, lively flies, they can be drifted, or cast and retrieved with varying action. These flies make fish strike violently, they imitate food that has the highest concentration of nutrients, making expending the energy to get them worth it for the fish.

My favorites are Woolly Buggers and rabbit strip leeches. These flies are lively and just broadcast “EAT ME!” to the fish. They will often produce when other flies fail.

My favorite streamer patterns:

Woolly Bugger
Posse Bugger
Seal Bugger
Muddler Minnow
Marabou Muddler
Micky Finn
Black Nose Dace
Clouser Minnow

In the next section, we’ll cover some useful, basic knots for connecting backing to the fly line, the fly line to the leader, and for building your own leaders, attaching tippets to your leaders, and attaching your flies to the tippets.

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