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A fly for winter steelhead

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by Ian Whitelaw


Courtney displays a fine
steelhead, fresh in from the sea.
Photo: Valorie Taylor
Steelhead trout, like Atlantic salmon, return to their natal streams up to four times in their lifetime and can reach staggering sizes in excess of 60 lbs, although the world rod-caught record is a meagre 42 lbs.  However, for those of you whose salmon fishing has been only for Atlantics, it's worth pointing out that, when it comes to spawning, all the Pacific salmon species are a one-shot wonder. They return to their natal rivers after several years (the number depends on the particular species), make their way upstream to the spawning beds for one passionate fling, and then die. Their decomposing bodies lie in the shallows by the thousand, stinking to high heaven, providing food for their newly-hatched offspring, and attracting bears, eagles and seagulls. 

More importantly, from the angler's perspective, the roe and the rotting fish are food for the steelhead, and this has given rise to a very specific family of flies here on the west coast of North America - the flesh flies. It sounds disgusting, but the aim here is to represent small chunks of disintegrating salmon meat, as well as roe with strands of skein, the membrane that surrounds the roe.

Talking to Courtney Ogilvie, an experienced fishing guide and compulsive fly tier with a deep interest in steelhead, I learnt that up to 85 percent of the stomach contents in young steelhead and salmon smolts, which reside in freshwater for the early stages of their lives, consists of eggs, skein and flesh. Only in the infant stages are they dependent on flesh, but during adulthood, when they are hell-bent on spawning and are not really in a feeding mood, there is still a territorial manoeuvre or instinctive reaction to passing "body parts".

This is especially true when the river has fallen after a period of high water and then risen again. Dead fish that have been left high and dry on banks and in bankside vegetation have begun to decompose, and the rising water brings them downstream. At such times, the flesh fly is deadly. 


Basic Principles


The flesh fly is based - not surprisingly - on the colours red, pink and white, with a little flash to attract attention. It needs to look bulky, and it needs to catch the current to achieve the necessary dead drift, but for successful casting it needs to be as light as possible. For this reason, Courtney balances natural materials with synthetics that don't absorb water. Using strong thread, he ties the materials in tightly to keep the body slim and allows long fibres to create the impression of bulk. 

The hook needs to be fairly short if it is to hold. Steelhead are notorious for going ballistic when hooked, with plenty of leaping and head shaking. This kind of treatment in fast water stands a good chance of levering out a large fly if it has a long shank, so Courtney keeps them short, or even uses a stinger - a trailing hook on strong thread that is immune to the levering action of an aggressively shaking fish. 

Courtney's General-Purpose Flesh Fly


1. The hook used here is a Talon Straight Eye Streamer #02 that has been debarbed (a legal requirement in British Columbia), and it is first wrapped with strong, small diameter invisible thread to just behind the hook point.  

2. To create a bright but light centre to the fly, build up the body with cactus chenille along half the hook shank. Tie off and trim 

3. To give the fly some body, tie in a piece of red, crosscut rabbit fur on top of the hook, move the thread forward, and then tightly wrap the fur two and half laps, using wet fingers to keep the hair pulled towards the back. Tie off and trim. 

4. Tie in a piece of pink strung marabou, making sure not to crowd the eye. The longer the fibres, the better. Using hackle pliers take hold of the vein and wrap the marabou in the same direction as the rabbit fur, constantly pulling the fibres towards the back with damp fingers. Tie in and trim, keeping the head size to a minimum.  

5. Finally, tie in three strands of pearl crystal flash at their midpoint on one side, bring the other half to the other side and tie in. Whip finish and add a drop of head cement or unscented fingernail polish.

Courtney Ogilvie is a qualified fishing guide based in Qualicum Beach, and he knows the steelhead rivers of Vancouver Island like the back of his hand. To contact him, call 1-250-752-5887 or email him at fly-fisher@telus.net 






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