This is the third installment of the Magnificent 7, a list of seven different flies that I believe will keep your fly box organized and populated with proven patterns, ready to entice trout on practically any stream or lake . Flies covered so far are The Birds Nest and the Zebra Midge. In this post, the Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph is added to the Magnificent Seven.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Fly Fishing Fly Selection Refined
#3 BEAD HEADED PHEASANT TAIL NYMPH
The Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph needs no introduction among fly fishers. To the uninitiated it’s s a trout fly pattern, basically hand tied using Pheasant and Peacock feathers, copper wire, sometimes a copper or gold bead for the head. The Pheasant Tail Nymph imitates most aquatic nymphs found in rivers and lakes that are home to the fish all fly rod wielding anglers dream about; Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, Steelhead, Golden Trout, Brook Trout. Can’t leave out Abiqua Creek Coastal cutthroat trout. A fly pattern that has been around for over 80 years, the modern day Pheasant Tail Nymph is commonly refereed to as a PT nymph, proven extensively throughout the worlds renowned trout waters and even a few mysterious steelhead streams. It can be tied in numerous sizes and styles, on many different hooks. Tie it on a straight shank hook or a curved one. Add some crystal flash over the thorax, and it’s a flashback PT nymph! The pheasant tail nymph can be tied with or without a bead, however the beaded version is probably the most sought after modern version found in every fly shop, with the non-beaded version working best on still waters and spring creeks like Fall River. So much is written about this fly pattern. I feel the best I can do is summarize what has already been said in various magazines and online articles.
To begin, the PT nymph has a notable history well worth mentioning in this post. To say this pattern has been around awhile is an understatement when considering the first version was created by Frank Sawyer sometime around 1930. As it was known then, the Sawyer Nymph was solely tied with thin copper wire and pheasant tail fibers. Surprisingly, no thread was used when tying the Sawyer Nymph. Al Troth refined the Sawyer nymph into the current pheasant tail nymph, “American” version, around 1960. Al Troth’s contribution is ascertained by the application of peacock hurl for the thorax. What’s a thorax? Well, it is not for cleaning the toilet or tub. If the thorax definition is of interest, then you, reader of this post, will benefit from a local library, fly shop or Wikipedia visit to gain familiarity with fly tying terminology and entomology. Lest I digress, beyond Al Troth’s version, the PT nymph recipe has been endlessly adjusted, adapted and refashioned in too many ways to list. The tying materials may change, but if it looks like a pheasant tail nymph, it is! Usually.
I think of all the flies tied on the end of the tapered leader and presented to trout from wild and native to hatchery raised, the PT most closely resembles everything trout feed on with a few exceptions and they are; bait fish, eggs or roe, leeches, crayfish. The PT nymph looks like the dark caddis that hatch on the Lower Sacramentoin March. The March Madness caddis hatch on the Sac is the same hatch named the “Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch” occurring in other parts of the country, near Mother’s day. I fished this hatch on the Yellowstone in Montana, always Montana. Even today, my guest went on about Montana this, Montana that. All I can say is at least California doesn’t have a river called “the big hole”. I’ll stop there. Moving right
along, don’t loose me, the PT nymph does a fantastic job of imitating varieties of mayfly nymphs found in rivers and lakes. For example, a mayfly genus called callibaetis lives out a lifecycle in many lakes and some spring creeks. As a nymph, callibaetis looks just like a #14-16 PT nymph. The angler fishing a PT nymph equal in size to the callibaetis hatching on the lake where our angler sits in a pontoon boat or float tube, under a warm clear sky, possibly suffering from symptoms of heat stroke, is least likely to go home without a hook up compared to another angler fishing some other callibaetis type nymph. I have yet to find a callibaetis pattern that competes with the PT nymph. If there is one amongst the vast selection of callibaetis patterns, obviously I am not informed. I know many a great fly tier, and I will likely pay dearly for not promoting their awesome flies. To that end, I will never relinquish my stance on the PT when fished during a callibaetis hatch. Furthermore, bigger PT nymphs tied from #12 up to #10 imitate little stonefly nymphs, found in trout streams everywhere, also called Little Yellow Stones or Sallies. A #8-6 PT nymph suggests a Skwalla Stone preferred by Trinity Steelhead in January-February. Mayflies called Pale Morning Duns (PMD) are found in trout streams everywhere! Trout love PMD nymphs and the pheasant tail pattern can be tied to match the natural almost exactly, in a #14-18. A pheasant tail nymph looks like most of the cased caddis found on northern California rivers! During summer days on the Upper Sacramento, I can feel the cased caddis in the gullet of rainbow trout as I remove the barbless hook from the fishes mouth. The rainbows must eat the cased caddis larva right off the rocks were the cases are attached. Tied in size 20-22, the PT is a midge! A mayfly genus called “Baetis” lives in trout filled rivers ubiquitously, hatching almost daily more or less. Trout eat baetis all the time, every time.
The pheasant tail nymph as a fly pattern is presented in a couple ways. Initially, a technique introduced by the originator Frank Sawyer called “Sawyer’s Induced Take” went like this: Using a fly rod, the fly was typically cast upstream, drifted drag free as it sank and presented downstream using a lifting technique just as the fly approached trout holding water. This lifting technique is typically called the Leisenring Lift after Jim Leisenring, a fervent wet fly angler who refined the “Induced Take” technique sometime during the early 1940s. I can think of a couple other presentations that mimic this very approach. One would be high-stick nymphing and the other short-line nymphing. Many will argue that all the presentations I just touched on are basically the same. I believe this to be the case. In the end, all techniques described in this post are popular and effective on many pocket water streams in northern California like the Upper Sacramento River, McCloud River, Pit River and the Power House #2 Riffle at Hat Creek.
Fishing the PT nymph under an indicator is in my belief the best way to show the fly to a fish in a prime holding lie that can’t be easily reached with the high-stick or short-line method. For every rainbow that takes a fly presented drag free, there are dozens that eat the same fly at the very end of a good presentation, just as the fly lifts, with or without an indicator suspending the fly. The retroactive technique of swinging flies has, for a hundred years or more, produced more hook ups than any presentation I can think of that dates back pre 1930. And 1930 was a long-ass time ago. I write “retroactive” because more and more anglers are discovering the swing technique, it’s effectiveness and allure. As for the indicator technique, it is a very effective and useful tool in showing fish a suspended fly quickly and relatively effortlessly. As popular as indicator fishing is, keep in mind, indicators are far from the only way or best way to fish. Saying there’s a best way to fish is like saying there’s such a thing as the best flavor of ice cream. I have my favorites. I don’t like Rocky Road or any kind of chocolate ice cream. If I want chocolate, I’ll eat chocolate cake! With fudge frosting! With a scoop of cookies and cream! Pick a presentation be it high stick, short line, swing or indicator nymphing and swing the PT nymph at the end of the presentation for best results and happy times.
In closing, please find below the recipe for the Bead Headed Pheasant Tail Nymph, fly #3 in the list of the Magnificent 7. I tie PT nymphs with and without bead heads. The head of the beadless version can be tied and finished with the same black thread used to start the fly, however, on smaller PTs, #18-20, I like to use red thread in order to help the fly standout a little more. Although the PT Nymph is tied with brown pheasant tail fibers, I almost always have a few tied with olive died pheasant tail, using yellow thread and wire to give it a more yellow/olive cast that is typical of mayfly nymphs found in select streams, lakes and spring creeks. Sometimes I substitute a sparse amount of pearl ice dubbing for the thorax to simulate the emerging nymph, covered with turkey quill, a dab of glue or epoxy on top of the turkey. A really tricky presentation approach on spring creeks is to tie a very small, just big enough piece of black foam into the leader, an inch or two above the nymph, and drift the PT into the feeding lie and watch the fly-line for any twitches or stretchy jumps which indicate a fish has taken the PT. Lift therod and snug up to the fish. Don’t set the hook or you will brake bigger fish off!
Hook: Umqua’s Tiemco TMC 3761 #6-20
Thread: Black or Red 8/0
Abdomen: Pheasant Tail Fibers
Thorax: Peacock Herl
Tail: Pheasant Tail Ends
Head: Copper Bead, Gold Bead
Shell Back: Turkey Quill (after tying it in, dab a little cement on the turkey shell)