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Adventures in Fly Tying... November 2009


The Troth Bullhead

Article, Photography and Fly by Joe Cornwall
Videography and Production by Jim Stuard

Inspiration by Knob Creek


With this fly we are starting a brand new series.  This fly, and the next six flies we demonstrate on this program, will constitute our take on the ideal warmwater smallmouth bass fly box for the Midwestern angler.  From now until the warm days of next spring we will bring you a new fly every month, each fly related to the others as regards seasonal use in pursuit of creek smallmouth, spotted bass and largemouth. Certainly these flies will take just about any species of fish, but the project will allow the reader, over the course of this winter season, to assemble a fly box that will take black bass from moving water just about anywhere you'd care to cast a line.  At the end of the series we will have a very special opportunity for one lucky read to win the fly box we will fill with these flies during this Podcast series!  Stay tuned for more details!

The Troth Bullhead is one of my favorite flies.  It's effective year-round and has accounted for one of the finest smallmouth bass outings I've ever experienced; a triple digit trip that took place one September.  It is, of course, a Muddler Minnow variant and a brilliant one at that.  The Troth Bullhead is designed to be an imitation of a small catfish. Catfish are ubiquitous and it stands to reason that gamefish would find them as tasty as we do.

A schoolteacher from Pennsylvania, Al Troth became known as a guide, outfitter, and professional fly tier after moving to Dillon, Montana.  He is the fellow who brought us such staples of the trout fly box as the American Pheasant Tail nymph, the Elk Hair Caddis, Terrible Troth Stone, Troth Salmon Fly and Gulper's Special.  He created this pattern to fool big Madison River browns, trout that definitely had a taste for meatier meals.  While the Troth Bullhead is an effective imitation of any small bullhead or immature catfish, it was designed specifically to mimic the mad tom stone cat - a member of a group of fishes that consist of about 25 species or so of the genus NoturusNoturus flavus can be found in good numbers in virtually any stream or river healthy enough to maintain a population of trout or smallmouth bass, from tiny creeks meandering out of the Appalachians to wider, warmer flat-land flows and all the way into tumbling Rocky Mountain freestoners.

Mad toms live under the flat rocks and in the crevices between boulders in well-oxygenated areas featuring good current and modest depth. They are primarily nocturnal, as is true of all members of the catfish clan, but they move about on rainy days, too. They are active in cold water, so the mad tom is one of the first baitfish a smallmouth bass will see during springtime pre-spawn conditions when water temps are in the upper 40's.  All through the season the mad tom will remain available as prey to the gamefish population, especially under low light conditions when it is overcast or as the water is rising during a post-rain event.  Typical mad toms are 4 to 5-inches in length, but the species will range from 2-inch juveniles to 9-inch bruisers.  They are a substantial mouthful and therefore a prized delicacy; a situation bolstered by the fact that they are slow and clumsy swimmers. Put bluntly, smallmouth eat the hell out of these things!

While the original Troth Bullhead was tied with black ostrich and dark natural deer hair, I much prefer a very dark dun that matches my local baitfish population.  The natural hair is too brownish gray and too light for Midwestern flows, but is a great choice for clear, rocky rivers with lighter bottoms.  Also its a fine choice to imitate sculpins.  I've also found this fly in a black or black-and-blue combination to be deadly and that's the first color combination I'll grab at the very earliest part of the season.  Feel free to experiment with various color combinations, like the Muddler Minnow on which it's based, the Troth Bullhead is really more of a style of tying than a specific pattern.

The Troth Bullhead is best fished on a sink-tip or full sinking line. Even though the pattern has 10 or more wraps of .030 lead wire, the deer hair head still pushes this fly towards neutral buoyancy.  Put on enough lead to really get the fly to sink and you'll kill the action in the water. The flat, toad-shaped head pushes water making for a strong sonic signature - a powerful strike trigger.  It also makes the fly wobble and wiggle, another powerful strike trigger.  Kill the wiggle and the fly loses its charm.  Keep it just heavy enough to easily break the surface tension and follow the line to the bottom and tie it on with a non-slip mono loop knot for maximum shimmy.  Retrieve the fly in very short 3 to 6-inch staccato strips in order to truly imitate a weak-swimming little catfish trying to find a place amongst the bottom litter to hide and you'll be surprised at the response you'll get from hungry bass and trout. And don't discount this fly in lakes and ponds.  Largemouth bass feed regularly on brown and yellow bullheads and immature channel cats. This is a truly superb largemouth bass fly when fished around blow-downs and weedy shores in late spring and early summer.


Hook: Size 4 to 5/0 Mustad SL53UBL Signature Series salmon hook or similar up-eye salmon hook.  Size 2/0 shown in video and size 1 and 2/0 are my go-to sizes.  Conversely you can use any size 4 to 5/0 3XL or 4XL streamer hook.

Tail:  Cream or white marabou to match body, black, dark dun or blue ostrich herl and peacock herl on top
Thread: Black 140 denier, 6/0 for fly body, gelspun or similar for spun deer hair head

Body: White, cream or primrose yellow Antron yarn.  Substitute dubbing or cactus chenille for different effects.

Overbody:  Continuation of ostrich and peacock herl used in the tail

Collar: Black, dark dun, dark blue or natural deer body hair, 180 degrees over top of the body and extending back no farther than the tie in point for the tail

Head: Spun deer hair, natural, black or dark dun.  Experiment with stacking dark blue or gray along the bottom.

Windows Media Video  QuickTime Video 



Mount the hook in the vise and begin a thread base.  When I'm going to underwrap a lead body I leave the tag of the tie-in thread to serve as a bridge to allow an easier creation of a tapered thread "ramp" at each end of the wraps.
Here you see the lead - ten turns of .030 for a size 2/0 - placed on the hook. You cover the middle third of the shank with lead and have to leave plenty of room for the spun head.
Select the marabou for the tail, either light cream, light yellow, white or some similar light shade.  Tie it in at the bend so it extends about 1.5 times the shank length behind the hook.
Use the butt materials to build a cushion over the weighting wraps of lead. This helps to get the right body taper.
Tie in 12 to 20 ostrich herls. They should extend about 20 percent beyond the marabou.  I like to use black ostrich which is what's called for in the original pattern, but experiment with purple, blue, dark gray to simulate a lateral line and add a hint of sharp contrast to your pattern.  Don't cut off the butt ends!
Add 12 to 20 peacock herls on top of the ostrich. The peacock should extend about 20 percent beyond the ostrich, making for a nice taper at the rear of the fly.  Don't cut off the butt ends!  Once the material is tied in, you'll fold those butt ends back and lock them in with a few wraps of thread.
Now that the butts of the material are tied back over the tail, advance your thread to a point in front of the lead underbody and tie in the yarn.  I use Aunt Lydia's Sparkle yarn in cream, but you can use dubbing, chenille or wool yarn. The original pattern called for wool yarn.
Wrap back to the tail and forward again, making a thick, carrot-shaped yarn body.  Tie off the yarn and clip away the excess material.
Now fold over the butts of the ostrich and peacock, making sure to keep them in line and in order.  Push the material back just a smidge so it lies along the back of the fly but isn't tight - the fly will last longer if this tie isn't tight.  As it is, this back will like be the first victim after a few fish have eaten the fly. 
Clip off the black thread and change to heavier gel-spun for deer hair spinning on the shank.  Clip a bunch of black or dark dun deer hair and roll a collar across the top 180 degrees of the hook, keeping the lower portion free of collar material.
Tie in a pinch of blue, dun or natural deer hair for the lighter colored belly. Conversely you can use a monochromatic head.  There is plenty of room for experimentation to make this fly look like the critters in the water you fish.
Add a pinch of black or darker back to the top of the hook and flair the hair using the stacking method.
Continue to stack and flair deer hair until the hook shank is covered.
Using a fresh double-sided razor blade, trim the head.  I like to take the hook out of the vise and hold it hook-point-up for the first cut.
The first cut is flat and clears the hook gape.
Use the razor to rough out a flat, triangular, toad-shaped head being careful not to cut away the collar.
Continue to trim till  you're happy and take the resulting fly out fishing!


Part 1 of the 2 part YouTube version is below.  YouTube is limited to 10 minutes, so you may see some videos are are normally downloaded in a single file broken into two segments to better serve our YouTube and web viewers.

Click below to view part 2.



Tight lines and clear flows...

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