Fishing Living Flies

Fishing Living Flies

New-Style Streamers are big-fish getters.

  • By: Mark Sedotti
  • Photography by: Ted Fauceglia

As we enter a fast, deep run, I cast to the bank above a deadfall and begin a short, quick, broken-cadenced strip retrieve. My big streamer responds by sashaying, slashing and darting with sudden side-to-side movements, just about calling to be eaten. No sooner has that dancing fly drifted under the first branch when it disappears in a golden flash. I set the hook and a jumbo, thick-bodied brown trout sporting vivid, black-and-red spots vaults two feet in the air, hanging, or so it seems, in suspended animation. This is no surprise: trout are coming to this fly with its side-swiping, strike-triggering action at every likely spot we pass.

Want results like these? Get prepared to embrace the new direction in fly tying toward patterns that present “built-in” strike-triggering action—motion that makes a fly come alive, like what conventional-tackle anglers employ with soft-plastic baits such as Sluggo, Finesse Fish and Zoom Fluke.

Although these flies are constructed with materials that display inherent action like marabou, rabbit hide and feathers, they are designed internally for sudden, often sharp, strike-triggering movements, more than simply a tight wobbly action. Most of these new flies are designed to move in specific ways (and in different directions, too), like up-and-down, side-to-side, darting in random directions and even spiraling on the drop.

In their book Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout, Kelly Galloup and Bob Linsenman say that big trout hit streamers for two reasons—hunger, and defense of territory. The new wave in streamers adds an important third element—the instinctive strike can be triggered with quick, sudden and sharp fly movement. These “living flies” are opening a new dimension in how we fly-fish for trout and other species…and it’s just the beginning.

Lifelike Predecessors
One of the first flies that used a strike-triggering feature was the Skating Spider (circa 1930s). This dry fly drifted and darted lightly on the tips of its long, stiff hackles as it “skated” across the surface, often interrupted by explosive strikes.

The Clouser Deep Minnow also triggers strikes, similar in fashion to a lead-head jig, but it usually drops too slowly to allow extreme sudden movement. In the 1990s Tom Piccolo introduced the Woolhead Bunker and, at times, that fly offered a sudden side-swiping action—like “walking the dog” in conventional fishing—but it was difficult to achieve with consistency.
More recently, Connecticut tier Bruce Marino came up with a pattern called the Wounded Baitfish, which flips on its side when sharply stripped, flipping back to its original position when paused. That’s the kind of “living” action we’re talking about here.

The New Wave

In my travels I’ve run into tiers who’ve developed flies that mimic that side-swiping or side-to-side “walking the dog” motion that bassin’ anglers use. Dennis Reed of Jonesboro, Arkansas, achieves that action with his M&M Minnow, as does California’s John Ryzanych with his Fathead, a pattern that descends in a spiraling motion and is reported to be a killer on big striped bass. I’ve crossed paths with guides who fish a similar pattern for muskies.
More and more tiers of trout flies are designing patterns with strike-triggering action (especially, but not solely, side-to-side movement) and the results are flies you ought to carry for big trout (or striped bass or salmon). Here are some of my favorite patterns that contribute to the strike-triggering revolution.

Rabbit-Strip Jiggy
This Bob Popovics creation takes a Clouser Deep Minnow a step further than Bob Clouser’s original version—a big step further—with the addition of several critical design features that deliver tremendous up-and-down action.
The Jiggy is, essentially, a thin rabbit strip placed on a hook with lots of tungsten weight at the head. That’s it—three components. Four if you add flash. You can’t beat that for economy, so it’s a fast tie.
Rabbit strip, inherently, has incredible action. Just pull a strip through the water and it moves wonderfully. Get that strip to snake wildly up and down and you’re talking too much for a trout to resist.

You do this by adding a tungsten head. Tungsten is key because it’s denser and sinks faster than lead. I’ll use a range of tungsten, from one large bead to three large cones, depending on water depth and current speed. The shallower and slower the water, the less weight I’ll use. The deeper and faster, the more I’ll tie in.

Typically, I’ll use two medium or large cones (tied flat end to flat end to look like an egg) placed at the head of the fly, for trout fishing. For fishing in deep (or deep and fast) water, I’ll use three large cones. Shallow trout fishing calls for one cone or a large bead. A single large bead is also good for panfish, or bass in shallow lakes.

Overall, this is an incredible strike-triggering fly and is dynamite on many species, including Arctic char, striped bass and carp, and should be as deadly on redfish, smallmouths, steelhead, salmon and tarpon.
To gain maximum action, the Jiggy must be streamlined. When tying it, use thin rabbit strips (Zonker strips work wonderfully). To achieve the least amount of resistance while moving the fly through the water, don’t apply collars, deer hair or spun heads—add nothing to inhibit the fly from dropping or going into a vertical position quickly. Everything besides the thin strip, and the tungsten weight (except for optional flash), is counterproductive.

When fishing trout you want the fly to be on or near the stream bottom. The reason? Have you ever seen all those big trout at the deep head of a pool where the chute comes in? A typical nymph or streamer won’t even sink a couple feet under the surface.

With the Jiggy (just like the “wormers” do) you can put the fly right on those giants’ heads and keep it there. Once the Jiggy is in the zone and in a vertical position, you can immediately jig or short-strip it to achieve a horizontal position. When it does that you can slack off, which places the fly in a vertical position again. If you repeat that vertical/horizontal sequence, in the shortest distance, while employing the slowest retrieve, you’ll get more strikes. Basically, you want to “hop” the fly and create a rhythm.

If fishing the fly close in to structure or fishy areas, use a long leader and jig the fly like you would if using a cane pole. On longer casts an angler using a floating line has excellent control up to 50 feet out. Again, retrieving the fly in short, fast, staccato strips with a slight pause between those strips is most effective.

Don’t fret if you get a bow in the fly line. I’ve had the best luck fishing the fly directly upstream or up and across. Often I don’t even feel a take; instead, I see the fish eat the fly or I see the fly disappear. That’s why I like to fish close in with bright white, yellow or fluorescent flies. Chartreuse, hot pink, orange, brown, purple, black and olive also are productive colors.

I’ve experimented with different fly lengths, and a Jiggy from 2½ to 4 inches long, as well as one at 5¾ inches long, allows for the best action. A fly that rates 3¾ inches is the winner for absolute maximum action, and that is the size I tie. For trout and bass I use a size 4 medium-shank nymph hook. When tying shorter flies I go with a short-shank size 6 or 8.

Kickin’ Chick’n
This is one of my personal inventions; I worked hard to create a fly that produces the subsurface side-to-side “walking the dog action” I prefer, with just the right amount of darting speed. The basic fly is a Sedotti’s Feather Slammer, a streamer tied in the Deceiver tradition, albeit small (it’s 3½ inches long and most Slammers range from six to 20 inches), with a couple important add-ons.

I tie in an R13 Marc Petitjean Majic Head and keep it inverted, like a cone, so it helps slow the fly when stripped quickly. I also wrap a length of .035 weighted wire (10 wraps) strategically around the bend of a size 4 dry-fly salmon hook to assure its swing. That weight keeps the momentum going in the rear of the fly so when the cone slows it, the fly kicks to the side, the same way a tandem tractor-trailer jackknives when breaks are suddenly applied on an icy road.

The exact components and construction of this fly are critical for the right action. I fine-tuned the fly so the swing moves at the speed of acceleration I want, which is a fast dart. Too many flies are tied to move side-to-side and instead move too slowly for the fish’s taste. I fine-tuned the Kickn’ Chick’n to achieve a swing speed similar to conventional baits, including the Zara Spook, Sluggo and Hogy.

By the way, feathers offer less underwater resistance than synthetics, and at 3½ inches are the perfect length. A feather fly longer than five inches doesn’t swing at the critical speed I want.

The Kickn’ Chick’n takes tough trout and big trout. Russ Maddin, the great Michigan guide who named the pattern, lost his mind after using this fly and it’s become a staple in his arsenal for big, resident browns in northern Wolverine Country. The fly exhibits greatest action when retrieved directly across current and when moved with sudden, quick, short strips (with no added rod-tip action) and a slight pause between those strips to allow the fly to kick.

The Kickn’ Chick’n looks like a baitfish (in shape, size and 3D form), is made with action-filled materials, swims erratically and has that irresistible strike-triggering action, to top it all off.

Feather Slammer
To my delight, I get the same side-to-side action (and the same darting speed) with a Feather Slammer that’s a little bigger (4½ inches) than the Kickn’ Chick’n, without using the Majic Head. I simply tie the Feather Slammer with a weighted keel (see tying photo at left) included on a Gamakatsu Octopus 2/0 hook. I tie in a 1/0 Gamakatsu Octopus trailer or “stinger” hook behind the keel so there is a 2½ inch gap between the two hook bends. This is just the right amount of rear weight (along with the keel) and gap to gain optimal strike triggering action. And the second hook is murder on short-striking trout.

Fish this fly like the Kickn’ Chick’n. Both are easiest thrown from a drift boat, but are fished effectively while wading, too. Fishing across current is best, but I often catch fish casting directly upstream, or up and across, and employing a fast retrieve, which promotes maximum fly action. Big trout attack the Feather Slammer because it appears hurt and vulnerable, like a wounded baitfish. I tie on the fly with a loop knot, instead of an improved clinch, to achieve maximum movement.

For trout, fish these flies at the heads and tails of pools; under cutbanks; around downed trees, woodpiles, and bushes; around boulders and rocks that are distributed through runs; across and over shelves, where the main river current crosses from one side to the other; across different speed currents; over small, deep, foaming plunge pools; and at lake and tributary inlets. All are where big trout feed and stake out territory.

No matter where you choose to fish these new “maximum action flies” you’ll be surprised at how effective they are at drawing strikes from big, challenging fish. These flies are an indicator that fly-tying is going to another level.
It’s as if we no longer simply tie baitfish imitations and have crossed into an area where we’re designing “baits,” to use the conventional-tackle word. It’s an exciting movement and it’s certainly productive. No doubt we’ll see continued advancement.

Mark Sedotti passionately chases big trout with streamers across North America. He lives in Port Chester, New York, near the shores of Long Island Sound and Catskill Mountain trout streams.