The Purple Heron by Charlie Dickson

Articles, Fly Patterns, Step-by-Step Tutorials — By on June 10, 2010 9:41 am

I’ve always been a fan of the spey flies tied by the late Syd Glasso.  Glasso is considered by many to be the father of the steelhead spey fly.  He was probably the first person to design a spey style fly specifically for steelhead, and in doing so, he started a trend that continues to this day.  He may well be one of the most influential fly tiers in North America.  His flies were beautiful and elegant, yet simple in their construction.

Glasso himself died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 77.  He was born at a place called Mud Creek in Washington.  His father ran a fish hatchery so he was brought up fishing.  He eventually went to school at Pacific Lutheran University and became a social studies teacher.  He ended up living in Forks, WA., where he taught and fished the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.  This is the place he started tying the flies he is famous for.  He also tied full dressed atlantic salmon flies, and at the time of his death, he was considered to be one of the best fly tiers in the world.

The Purple Heron, while not an original Glasso pattern, is a variation of his Orange Heron and is a widely used fly for steelhead in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes.


Hook: Up-eye Salmon Hook
Tag: Oval Silver Tinsel
Rib: Flat Silver Tinsel and Oval Silver Tinsel

  • Rear Half: Purple Floss
  • Front Half: Purple Dubbing

Body Hackle: Dyed Purple Blue Eared Pheasant; or, Dyed Purple Ring-neck Pheasant Rump Hackle
Throat: Teal Flank
Four white hackle tips
Black Thread

Start your thread on the hook.  I like the Daiichi Alec Jackson style hooks for this type of fly.

Run the thread back to a point just in front of the hook point.  Tie in some oval silver tinsel

Wrap the tinsel forward to create a small tag.  Tie it off and trim the excess.

Tie in the rib materials.  I am using a multi part rib made up of flat silver tinsel and a piece of oval silver tinsel.  Run the materials the entire length of the hook to avoid lumps.

Tie in some purple floss for the rear half of the body.

Wrap the floss about half way up the hook shank and tie it off.

Select a hackle for the body.  In this case I am using a blue eared pheasant feather (dyed orange).  Ring-neck pheasant rump feathers also make very good spey hackles if you can find them in larger sizes.

Stroke the fibers of the feather back and tie it in by the tip. Clip off the excess.

Spin some purple dubbing on the thread for the front half of the body, then wrap it forward.  Leave enough room for the throat and head of the fly.

Next wrap the flat silver tinsel foreword, tie it off and trim the excess.

Grab the body hackle by the stem and hold it straight up.  Stroke the fibers in the direction of the back of the hook and pinch them so they are fixed in that position.

Now wrap the hackle towards the front of the hook keeping it between the rib.  Tie it off and then clip off the excess stem.

Wrap the oval silver tinsel forward in the opposite direction of the rib and body hackle.  I usually use a dubbing needle when wrapping it through the hackle so I don’t trap any hackle fibers.  This rib will protect the hackle from breaking while you are fishing with the fly.  Tie it off, and trim the excess.

Select a Teal feather (or similarly marked feather) for the throat and strip off one side of the feather as shown.

Tie the hackle in by the tip and wrap it at the front of the fly.

Next select four white hackles for the wing of the fly.  I have found that the best type of hackles for the wings on this type of fly come from inexpensive Indian Cock necks.

Cut off the tips of the hackles so that once they’re tied in, they will form a wing extending slightly past the end of the body but not passed the bend of the hook.  Strip off about 1/8″ (~3mm) of hackle fibers from the stem of the feathers and flatten the stems lightly with a pair of flat blade tweezers or pliers.  This will make them sit better on top of the hook when you tie them in.

Tie them in on top of the hook shank.  This can be done one at a time, in pairs, or all four at once.  Keep in mind that the concave sides of the feathers should be facing each other.

Apply enough wraps of thread to finish the head nice and evenly and then whip finish.

Apply several coats of head cement to complete the fly.  (Click HERE to read a Hatches Magazine article on how to create beautiful wet fly heads)

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Rating: +6 (from 8 votes)
The Purple Heron by Charlie Dickson, 9.4 out of 10 based on 5 ratings


  1. While this is a lovely fly that is nicely tied it is not tied as Syd Glasso tied his Spey flies. Most notably, Mr. Glasso tied the Spey hackle over the complete body from tag to shoulder, the wings were not tied on top of the fly but tented exactly like a traditional bronze mallard winged Spey fly, and Mr. Glasso tied the floss portion of the body, which was silk floss, over flat silver tinsel to make it glow and keep its true color when wet.

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  2. Cruncher says:

    Wonderful tie and keep them coming!

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  3. Paladin Flys says:

    I give this baby a thumbs up. Everyone knows that variation is the key to attraction and this beauty would serve up many takes I’m sure. I would swing this killer in clear water behind a Soleduc boulder anyday.

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  4. Dan Gracia says:

    Now, if you really want to get carried away, you can do a trick that I learned from renowned Salmon Fly-Tier, Steve Gobin:

    • Before you even start tying the fly, hold the hook of the eye over a gas flame until it turns red. this will anneal (soften) the steel hook and make it easy to unbend they eye

    • Being careful not to touch the eye of the fly, immediately use a pair of smooth needle-nosed pliers or forceps to straighten out the hook. This will turn it into a long-shank blind-eye hook which is PERFECT for tying Spey flies. Besides making the fly longer and more graceful looking, it also makes it track straight in the water without flipping over like this style of fly often does with shorter shank hook.

    • No need to dowse the eye in water to harden it as there will be no real pressure at the eye when you are finished. Just leave it bendable.

    • Now take a length of either 20-lb or 30-lb braided Dacron backing, make a loop eye out of it; and attach it to blind eye leaving the traditional nubbin of the shank exposed (will be covered entirely by the head of the fly later. 20-lb Dacron is thinner and works fine on smaller flies but looks out of place on larger flies. I use 20-lb on any size 6 or smaller flies and 30-lb on anything larger.

    • When you attach the Dacron backing to the shank of the fly, it needs to extend all the way to the bend of the hook if you are going to fish it. Otherwise, it may pull off the hook when fighting a fish. Also, you will want to stagger the ends and fray them to avoid a noticeable bump where the Dacron ends on the hook. Otherwise you will see a noticeable bump in the floss part of the body. This is the same staggered fraying method that is used when applying twisted silkworm gut on a classic Atlantic Salmonfly.

    One note I might add is that it is really important to attach the Dacron along the entire shank of the hook. When I tied a Black King Spey fly at a class with Steve Gobin, I only tied it half way down the hook because I thought that was plenty. Later when I tied them at home, I tied them all with the backing all the way to the bend.

    I was fortunate to go to the Umba River Lodge on the Kola Peninsula about a year later to fish for Atlantic Salmon and this was one of the flies I used. I hooked and landed about a 12-lb. Salmon on it but had to retire the fly after the one fish because it pulled almost half the body off the front of the blind-eye hook. Luckily I had more and since they had all been tied with the backing all the way to the bend, I didn’t have that problem with any of them. So….be SURE to attach the backing all the way to the bend of the hook!


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  5. Dan Gracia says:

    One more tip on Spey as well as salmon and steelhead flies:

    If you want to make a dubbed area that has little bulk at the hook but makes a good profile, use 6/0 FLAT thread. Counter-spin the thread to flatten it out, split it with your dubbing needle and while holding it open, put your dubbing material inside the split in the thread.

    If you want to make long fibers with a translucent profile down to the shank of the hook, use Angora Goat or other long-fibered seal substitute sparsely and set the fibers in at 90° to the thread. Then spin the thread tight and you have a surprisingly sparse spun-fur dubbing that will give you large a profile with lots of movement even in subtle currents. Conversely you can use short fibers for as small a profile if you prefer.


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  6. Dan Gracia says:

    One final comment and then I’ll go away. The head on the fly tied is a nice classic, round, head. But it is not the head profile Syd Glasso used and after seeing his flies even once, a head like this looks out of place on this fly.

    To make a very small and short head, there are a few tricks you can use:

    • The first trick is to use feathers with thin stems and never tie down more than the length of stem between the fibers. Do NOT tie down any hackle fibers down at the head – only the stem.

    • The second trick is to flatten the stems of the feather wings and then nick them between your thumbnail and soft pad of your index finger. That will allow you to align the easily and the bend makes it easy to attach the thread in the right place.

    • The third trick is the “old three on and two off” thread-wrapping trick that every Atlantic Salmon Fly Tier should be familiar with. To put the most amount of material in the least amount of space, or to put any material on with the least amount of bulk, tie a piece of material in with three tight wraps. Then, keeping tight thread tension, unwind two of them off before putting the next piece of material on with three more tight wraps. This is how you get the short bulbous heads typical on a full feather-winged Atlantic Salmon Fly. Each material ends up being held firmly in place with just one wrap. Three on – two off, repeat as necessary finishing with three tight wraps.

    This avoids the long ramped head that tying multiple groups of materials on would normally result in. If you do it right, the resulting head will be miniscule, in the style of Syd Glasso. A good friend of mine from the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club by the name of Gary Kaplan pretty well turned this into an art form. He absolutely makes the smallest (almost non-existent) heads on Salmon and Steelhead flies I’ve ever seen.

    Try these on tricks on your Spey flies and any sparsely tied fly you make and I think you will be pleased with the results.

    I’ll go away now…


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  7. Dan Gracia says:

    Please don’t let any of my previous comments and suggestions detract from the great job Charlie Hickson did on this fly-tying tutorial. The pictures are supberb and the instructions are nice and clear resulting in a great-looking fly. Very well done!

    Good Fishing,

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  8. Trond Paulsen says:


    Is there anybody who knows the pattern for tying the flie “Purple job”?

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