The Evolution of a Fly by VERN-O

Book Reviews & Excerpts, featured — By on December 13, 2011 9:02 pm

It started as a simple request for some flies. I had been tying a few steelhead flies for a guide who shall not be named on the Salmon River a year or so ago. As the steelhead season was winding down he was gearing up for his guiding season in the New England area for resident stream trout. He who shall not be named asked if I could tie soft hackles? A twinkle in me brightened, and I reassured him that I lived for tying soft hackles. He gave me some color schemes and sizes, and the left the rest up to me. His last point was to be sure the thorax was built up to support the hackle collar. One of the patterns was a gold ribbed hare’s ear (GRHESH) with a dun colored hackle. This for me was a no-brainer, a buggy hare’s ear dubbing with a grayish/brown partridge hackle. I dove into these pulling out my secret blend of hare’s ear dubbing, passed down to me from a former commercial fly tyer.

I was certain there wouldn’t be a huge demand from just one person for these, but I played it safe and blended in some Wapsi Whitlock Fox Squirrel Nymph-Thorax Dubbing to make the most out of my limited secret -stash-supply, plus it added just a little flash. Some time had passed and I hadn’t heard much about the flies, and about a week before Spey Nation I got a call saying that he could use a few more of those soft hackles. Then came a horribly mangled fly via cell phone picture and I had to piece it all together that it was the GRHESH that was needed. These flies were apparently working, and working well. There was another order placed for some to be ready and delivered at Spey Nation in mid June. Again I tried stretching my dubbing blend, but was now running out of the Wapsi dubbing and having difficulty locating more. This batch of flies had yet a bit more flash in them. As summer advanced and things got hot and dry, I got yet another call stating that those GRHESH were working so well that they were the only flies taking fish and saving many a day guiding on the waters of New England. There was even a murmuring of a seven pound brown trout that fell victim to it. I stood on the other end of the phone slackjawed. The fact that there were any fish biting in such conditions not to mention fish of that size was nothing short shocking.

Then came the request for more flies and ideas for the same fly tyed on a Spey hook for steelhead back in New York. A pattern instantly formed and burned into my head and it was only a matter of time to get to the vise and let the idea out. Taking a size eight 1x or 2x long dry fly hook and turning it into a Spey fly is no easy task. There is a lot of hook shank to cover and proportions to keep. I wanted to keep the design the same and still give it the appeal of a traditional elegant flowing Spey fly. Many will view this as merely a soft hackle tyed on a Spey hook. I have to disagree and view it as a blend between soft hackle and Spey styles. Back to the basement I went scraping the last of the Wapsi dubbing, some secret- stash- dubbing, and whatever else that was close in color into the coffee bean grinder to blend it all together.
The first obstacle was a tag. There was no tag on the original trout fly version but many Spey flies don one. I opted to not use three turns of the ribbing as a tag, but instead wrapped some chartreuse holographic tinsel since the dubbing blend had hints of chartreuse in it. Holographic tinsel comes in a slew of colors and changing the color of the tinsel gives you another variable to carry in your assortment of flies. I’ve heard stories of hook colors making the difference in turning fish on to a fly, so being able to switch your tag color may make the difference between a tug and a tug free day. Gold ribbing was a must and it was to be counter wrapped to add durability and help secure any thorax hackling. The body was simply the dubbing blend spun onto a lightly waxed thread and slightly tapered to roughly mid shank on the Size 5 Alec Jackson Spey hook. I then tied in a Coq de Leon rooster saddle hackle for its fine fibers and mottling. I stripped the fibers from one side to make palmering cleaner. The thorax was dubbed with more dubbing, this time spinning it in a loop to help add collar hackle support, a more defined thorax, and that buggy appeal.
The saddle hackle was then palmered through the thorax and counter ribbed with the gold ribbing. The next real hurdle was finding a collar hackle large enough and suitable for the fly. I chose a Coq de Leon hen saddle hackle. These hackles are very large and the mottling similar to partridge. I once again stripped one side and opted for two and a half to three turns of hackle. For me all versions required a brownish red thread for the head. When the first prototype was completed, I knew we had a keeper. Samples went to the Salmon River and the phone started ringing again. “I need more of those flies, and I need smaller ones as well…..I’m losing fish and straightening hooks on the trout fly version”. Back to the vise I went the prototype Spey successful, the trout fly version a staple in any fly box, now it was time to beef up the hook on the trout version to handle low water and winter steelhead. I added the chartreuse holographic tag to a Daiichi 1530 size 6 and we were back in the steelhead game.

My next task was to try tying a version of the Spey fly GRHESH on the larger size 1.5 Alec Jackson Spey hook. I knew right away this was going to be a challenge. The Coq de Leon hackles were not going to be long enough and finding hackles this length wasn’t going to fall out of the sky and land in my lap. My next thought was to try mallard flank and wood duck flank. I was very happy with the looks of the wood duck, but the fly just looked incomplete. I gave the wood duck flank fly to a buddy to try. My rejected prototype fly took his first chromer on a two handed rod. I guess that fly has potential and will certainly be revisited. The next version was the same as the Spey size 5 but instead of the Coq de Leon collar I opted for a sparse dressed light olive wing of arctic fox. This fly was a keeper, but needed to evolve a bit more.
One of the obstacles was consistently finding Coq de Leon saddle hackles that are long enough. I overcame this obstacle by using a grizzly Whiting Spey rooster cape hackle. This really improves the Spey look of the fly. I reintroduced the wood duck flank as a collar. The head and wing portion of the fly still challenged me. I really wanted a soft hackle look. The arctic fox wing really looked streamline and I added a bit of flash as an underwing. I really loved the look and decided that this was the answer though it had taken on a different look. Then after checking a web forum post of a fellow Great Lakes Steelheader a light had clicked on in my head. His patterned incorporated ostrich herl. I thanked him for the inspiration and knew I had my answer. In the vise went a size 1.5 Spey hook, green tag, gold rib, dubbed body, grizzly Spey hackle, wood duck flank collar, and a few strands of ostrich herl spread around the shank to mimic hackle. Sometimes at the vise you just know a pattern is going work and this is one of those flies.

We all know the GRHE nymph is a universal nymph pattern that produces fish around the world. Taking a proven pattern and making it fit a different genre of flyfishing is possible but there are often little stumbling blocks along the way, which often spawn new ideas. As tiers we should explore those options, research and development is the heart of our art. I’ve taken this pattern to Waddington shanks as well and eventually it will find its way to a tube. These flies came into creation to catch fish. They were not designed to be over dressed and complex, but more thought out, adapted fish catchers. Being able to field test your own flies is great, but having a seasoned veteran putting them to the test only reinforces what works and what doesn’t. The beauty of fly tying is molding different ideas and concepts to feel the rewards of that adrenaline-rushing tug on the end of the line.

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  1. Martin Miller says:

    Awesome! Nice work!

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  2. David Swart says:

    Love the soft hackle spey idea,on the west coast soft hackles(#6-8) are the go to flies during the low flows of summer/fall for stellies,neutral colors work great,even a purple soft hackle works during low light,fish mine with a loop knot for better action,or a smaller nymph,egg,or wet fly trailer,tight lines,friends.

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