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Adventures in Fly Tying... March 2007

The Killer Bug and The Pheasant Tail
Fly and Text by Joe Cornwall
Video Production by Jim Stuard

My copy of Frank Sawyer's Nymphs and the Trout (ISBN 0-517-503360) is dog-eared and worn. I purchased it without really knowing anything about Sawyer, or his place in angling history, from the old Tight Lines sporting goods store in Bridgewater Massachusetts back in 1972 or so.  I paid the list price of $5.95 for this, the second edition of a book originally published in England in 1958.  I remember reading this for the first time and being dumbstruck at the idea that someone could have a job as a river-keeper.  Sawyer was just that; the river-keeper of the upper Avon on Wiltshire.  In his time he knew, fished with, and befriended such immortal angling luminaries as G.E.M Skues, Charles Ritz, Sir Grimwood Mears, and Brigadier General H.E. Carey.  Sawyer was featured in magazines, on television and in books.  Frank Sawyer's considerate writing style. obvious love for the sport, and original thinking made him a fishing hero for me and he has influenced my fly tying and fishing since then.  Serendipitous is the only word for such a profound effect delivered wholly by accident. I am forever grateful.

Sawyer fished many waters and created a fistful of flies that are some of the best and most productive ever fielded.  The most famous is the Pheasant Tail Nymph, a fly that can be found today in almost any fly fishers kit worldwide.  In the five decades since it's introduction to the angling community, the PT has become a different fly.  Rare is the angler who carries this fly in its origiinal dressing.  Rarer still is the fly fisher who carries any of Sawyer's other patterns.  Flies like the Killer Bug, the Grey Goose, and the Bow-tie Buzzer have been lost in the glare of "newer", "faster", and "better."    I hope this installment of Adventures in Fly Tying will help rectify that situation.  For a look at the master himself tying the Pheasant Tail, click here!

You can purchase fine wire in some fly shops, but you'll get it cheaper from the craft shop.  An even better solution, and the one that Sawyer himself used, is to get the wire from electrical devices.  Small transformers from little radios is ideal.  Today we have a better source.  Get about a yard of quality speaker wire.  Good speaker wire consists of 60 to 90 strands of 41AWG 99.9% pure copper wire.  One meter-long piece will tie at least four dozen flies and should cost about $.50 at the hardware emporium.


The Killer Bug

Hook – 1xl Nymph hook, size 10 to 18

Thread – .Very fine copper wire

Tail – .None or a short tuft of yarn
Body – Gray yarn, 100% wool

The Pheasant Tail

Hook – 1xl Nymph hook, size 10 to 18

Thread – .Very fine copper wire

Tail – .Tips of herls from a cock pheasant tail center feather
Body – Pheasant tail center feather continued from the tail




Windows Media Video  QuickTime Video 




You just can't get any easier than this!  One material and wire for thread.  It's indestructible, sinks easily, looks like a lot of different things trout eat and it's cheap and fast to tie a dozen of them.  Why did this go out of fashion?  How much money can a fly shop make off a nymph like this?  It worked on trout and grayling half a century ago and it works today. Try this one on suckers in a small size 16 for a hoot on your 2wt rod this summer!
The right yarn is the important thing.  The original material was a Chadwick's number 477 - if you find some on Ebay expect to pay as much or more as you would for a premium fly line!  In truth, any good medium to dark gray yarn will work. I like 100% wool for its translucency and bugginess.  One good skein of yarn will tie thousands of flies for about the price of a high-fat value meal.
Cut a piece of yarn about 6" long for the fly.  Separate the yarn into its individual plies. One ply is more than enough to tie any fly because you are going to make a body three layers thick.
Start by wrapping a wire base just like you would a thread base.  You can put a drop of superglue on the wire after you've got it started to keep it from spinning around the hook if that troubles you.  This fly is made from wire and yarn and is circumferentially symmetrical, so a little bit of play on the hook doesn't matter at all at the end of the day.
Tie in the ply of yarn at about the one-third point on the hook and continue to wrap the wire to the end of the shank.  Stop the wire above the hook barb and wrap he yarn back to the wire.  Hold the yarn there and then take the wire back to the hook eye in open spirals.
Now wrap the yarn forward to the hook eye and then back to the end of the shank again. You want to make a symmetrical, cigar-shaped body with the wire at the hook eye.
Spiral the wire back over the body to make a wire ribbing.  Tie off the yarn with three or four tight turns of wire. 
Add a small drop of superglue  and make three tight turns to finish the fly at the tail.  Sawyer didn't leave a tag of yarn, but I like to leave a short tail.  It really doesn't matter much to the fish, so this is a personal call.  Comb the yarn with a piece of Velcro or use a dental root canal tool to give a fuzzy look for maximum effectiveness.
Like the Killer Bug above, the Pheasant Tail nymph is ties with just two materials; the fibers from the center feather of a cock pheasant's tail and a bit of copper wire.  Many have tried to dress up this pattern, but no one has ever made it better.  If you think simply ribbing the fly with wire and tying it with thread is easier, try it in its original dress. You'll be surprised at how easy it is.  Also, you make be surprised that it fishes better!  The heavier tie and deep glow of the copper under the pheasant tail fibers gives this fly a different action and appearance in the water.
Lay down a smooth base of fine copper wire  You can break off the tag end or cut it with your coarse-work scissors.  A drop of CA superglue will keep the wire from spinning around the shank.
Select a quality pheasant tail feather.  Stroke the barbs back so the tips are even and clip it away from the feather stem. Select about 4 quality barbs for a size 14 fly.
Tie in the barbs so the tips make a tail about the same length as the hook.  Mayflies have long tails - three of them to be exact.  Hold down the barbs with no more than three turns of wire.  Hold the wire straight up and twist the remaining barbs loosely about the wire.
Make a single layer body for the abdomen.  If the barbs of your pheasant tail are two short - as they are here - you can tie off behind the hook eye and tie in a few more barbs to make the swollen, darker wing case.
The wing case should be made three layers deep and should used the darker ends of the pheasant tail barbs. Mayfly wing cases get dark and swollen right before they hatch into duns, so this is a very effective and accurate imitation of the free-swimming nymphs of the Ephemeralla species
Finish off the fly with three tight turns of wire right behind the hook eye.  A drop of CA glue will keep the wire from ever unraveling. 
The finished fly is elegant and effective.

Till next time, tight lines and soft water…

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