Title: Alec Jackson & Spey Hooks
Date of Article: 2008-07-18
Alec Jackson is
the Jackson behind the Spey hook. Now retired he runs the Yorkshire Flyfisher
and is of purveyor silks and other fine tying materials
is a article from Wild Steelhead & Atlantic
Salmon Premiere Issue written by Alec
I HAVE ENDED MY
SEARCH FOR THE RIGHT STEELHEAD FLY-- BECAUSE THERE IS NO SUCH THING.
As the famous
British angler, Hugh Falkus, has note , few Atlantic salmon are takers: anglers
should cover water quickly , looking for takers. The same thing applies to
steelhead. Those who waste their time looking for " the right fly," in a effort
to turn observed fish into taking fish, should be run off the river. Rather than
attempting to feed the inedible to the unfeedable , steelhead anglers should use
a reasonable fly, and move on.
What are the
attributes of a reasonable fly? A reasonable fly should not alarm fish. Yet it
should he highly visible under all conditions. It should be the proper size,
shape, and color. It should fish at the right depth. It should have good hooking
and holding characteristics, and be easy to dress from readily available
Victorianera salmon flies are beautiful but not reasonablethey
are difficult to dress and require materials hard to obtain. Early steelhead
flies were ugly, but they were reasonable. With the passage of time, salmon
flies have been simplified and have acquired more of the attributes of a
reasonable fly, and steelhead flies have become more attractive without losing
their reasonableness. Today we are in the Victorian era of steelhead fly
dressing. Syd Glasso started it, about 50 years ago, with his Olympic Peninsula
Spey flies. He catalyzed the move away from the ugly, bright and gaudy steelhead
patterns of yesterdaythe cheap painted street walkersto our beautiful and
functional steelhead flies of today, which I call the elegantly gowned
Many years ago Mark Canfield said to me When a steelhead is
hooked it gives you its best; you owe it the same in your flies. I
Designing flies for steelhead has recently made rapid progress by
borrowing from the best traditions of Atlantic salmon fly dressing. Books such
as J. H. Hales How To Tie Salmon Flies (1892), George M. Kelsons The Salmon
Fly (1895), and T. E. Pryce-Tannatts How To Dress Salmon Flies (1914) are much
sought after by todays steelhead fly tiers because of the information they
contain about salmon fly dressing techniques and its applicability to steelhead
flies. Spey flies and Dee strip wing flies are now more common on steelhead
rivers than on Atlantic salmon rivers. Some steelhead fly anglers I know even
fish fulldressed salmon flies! They are to be admired and respected for their
devotion and artistry, but are such flies required to catch steelhead? No.
Steelhead are worthy of beauty, but flies do not have to be complex to be
beautiful. Simple flies, reasonable flies, when well tied and carefully
considered, have a beauty and elegance of their own.
I see little in common
between early salmon fly dressing and early steelhead fly tying. Salmon angling
had a 300- to 400-year history when the first steelhead was caught on a fly.
Early salmon anglers were handicapped by their tackle to a much greater extent
than were early steelhead anglers. By the time fly fishing for steelhead
started, early this century, rods, reels, and lines had progressed to the point
where they were adequate, and salmon flies had reached a high degree of
sophistication. Yet early steelhead fly anglers were more likely to use the
rods, reels, and lines of salmon anglers than they were to use their flies.
Early steelhead fly tiers were quick to develop reasonable flies which had
little in common with salmon flies of the day.
A reasonable steelhead fly for
one set of conditions is not a reasonable fly for all conditions. Winters high
waters and summers low waters demand entirely deferent flies
that a reasonable fly should not alarm fish places greater limitations on the
summer steelhead angler than on the winter steelhead angler. Summer fish enter
rivers as long as one year before they spawn and thus experience a much wider
range of water conditions than winter fish. Summers warm and low water
conditions are unknown to winter fish. Under such conditions small dark flies
and light lines, capable of delivering our offerings gently, are required. Any
fly larger than a size 2 is too big and any line heavier than a seven weight is
too heavy. Large flies and heavy lines have the potential to alarm summer fish,
as do the bright colors frequently used in winter flies. Spey casting, or any
form of the line slapping the water, should be avoided, where possible, because
of the risk of alarming summer fish. For low water fishing I prefer small, dark,
portly flies. 1 2 foot leaders tapered to six or eight pounds and five or six
weight rods. For winter fish I use bigger and brighter flies, shorter leaders
and heavier rods, because I am less concerned about alarming them.
Fish use sight,
sound, and smell to locate and capture food. As fly tiers we are primarily
concerned with their vision. Some flies are designed, or fished in such a
manner, to make sound or disturb the surfacewaking flies. (Such flies are not
considered here since any fly can be made to wake, by the use of a riffling
hitch or by threading a sequin on the leader and pushing it against the up-eye
of the hook.) Artificial flies and fly tying materials have little in common
with fish food when it comes to smell, unless they have been treated with roe
extracts or the like. Such unethical arid disgusting practiceslike putting your
grandmother on the streetshould be illegal.
To be highly visible under all
conditions, a fly must be the correct size, shape, color, and fish at the
necessary depth. Many frill-dressed salmon flies do not have the right shape to
be highly visible under all conditions. They are two-dimensional and present a
knifes edge view from certain aspects. A reasonable fly is three-dimensional
and is incapable of presenting a knifes edge view, so theres always more to
see regardless of the relative positions of fly and fish. Fly size, color and
fishing depth vary between wide limits depending on fishing conditions. Compare
and contrast summer's warm waters, when greased line techniques are most
effective, with winters cold waters, when flies fished down among the rocks are
fishing means different things to different people. Simply fishing with a
floating line does not constitute greased line fishing.
Greased line fishing
involves using a floating line and low
to control the attitude, speed, and
depth at which a fly fishes. The method was developed by Arthur H.E. Wood, at
his Cairnton beat on Scotlands River Dee, and written about by Donald G. Ferris
Rudd, in Greased Line Fishing for Salmon (1935), under the pen name of Jock
Scott. Curse that man and his book and all the confusion it has
caused. During Woods time at Cairnton it was probably the most prolific
Atlantic salmon beat in the world, stiff with fresh, free-taking fish that could
be caught any way desired. Wood caught them the way he enjoyed fishingeven with
bare hooks. Woods low-water flies were two-dimensional and thus not
At Carlogie, farther up the Dee, Frederick Hill, the river keeper
for Captain Musker, discovered that portly flies were better producers; his
flies were more three-dimensional than Woods. Hill wrote of his experience~
Salmon Fishing, The Greased Line On Dee, Don And Earn (1948).
Why did Hills
more heavily dressed portly flies produce better at Carlogie, just a few miles
upstream from Cairnton, than Woods sparsely dressed slim ones?
salmon do not feed actively enough in freshwater to be able to maintain their
body weight; they live off their fat. When fish are using their eyes, essential
proteins and enzymes are concerned. The chemistry of vision depletes body
reserves. I theorize that fish vision declines with body condition and suggest
that the farther they are from salt, by time or distance, the poorer their
visionthus the need for fatter flies.
Many of my low-water steelhead flies
are tied in two styles, which I term Coastal and Inland. Coastal flies are slim,
but not as slim as Woods. Inland flies are fat and over-hackled, much fatter
than Hills. Coastal versions are rarely used and then only over fresh fish
close to salt. Inland versions are the workhorses.
When we use hook size to
define fly size we are at best ambiguous. All hooks are not created equal. For
example, size 6 Partridge Wilson hooks have a shank length of 21 millimeters and
a gape of 10 millimeters. Size 4 Partridge lowwater hooks amid size 2 Partridge
salmon hooks have about the same dimensions, much closer than the same models
labeled size 6. Add different manufacturers to the equation and the problem
becomes worse. For this reason I always think in terms of shank length and gape
rather than. than size. My flies for greased line fishing are always referred to
in terms of Wilson equivalent hook size regardless of the size printed on the
box. But never forget that and our definition of fly size means nothing to fish.
Outside of the cone of vision of a steelhead, the undersurface of a river is a
mirror, in which fish see not only the fly but he also its reflection. Surface
motion of water gives life to a fly and moves it relative to its image.
Consequently fish see a subsurface fly, one that is just under the surface,
larger than life. And the fly is constantly changing in apparent
My flies for
greased line fishing are in the hook size range of 10 to 4 with eights and six's
preferred. All are tied on hooks of three wire weights, and with varying amounts
of dressing, so I can control the depth they fish within narrow limits about
half an inch to an inch below the surface.
How do I know my fly is fishing at
the correct depth? More important, how do I control it?
If I can see my fly
waking on the surface, or if it does not come to the surface the instant I
tighten my line, then I am doing something wrong. Or I am using the wrong fly,
then I change my fly, sometimes IF I am not doing something wrong, sometimes as
often as three times in a single pool. Should my fly be waking, I put on the
same fly tied on a heavier hook or a more sparsely dressed fly, or a combination
of both, in order to sink the fly a little. If my fly fails to pop to the
surface the instant I tighten my line, I substitute the same fly on a lighter
hook or more heavily dressed on son the fly fishier closer to the
What color should a reasonable fly be for greased line fishing?
Black! Silhouette is more important than color and black gives the strongest
silhouette. Fat black flies give a stronger silhouette than slim ones. Often
greased line fishing is done under a bright sun. As a result the fly is strongly
backlit. Photographers know how difficult it is to obtain a true color rendition
of strongly backlit subjects and compensate by opening up their cameras
aperture a couple of stops. Fish cant do this. I defy you to hold up one of
your flies against a strong light, at arms length, and determine its color. If
light levels are low, the rod cells in the eyes of fish take over the primary
function of vision. They cannot differentiate colors, only black from white.
They see a silhouette.
Most of the
above, about greased line fishing, does not apply when a fly is being fished
down among the rocks. A floating line with flies on heavy wire hooks can be used
if fished in the style of Bill McMillan. However, I like to use sink-tips and
light wire hooks
because its the function of the line to take the fly down
and the lighter the wire the greater the life of the fly Flies on light wire
hooks, to quote the prize fighter, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Winters frequent high and discolored waters call for large bright flies fished
close to the bottom. My winter flies are generally size 2 or larger and on the
red side of green. Larger flies require heavier lines to cast, but I dont think
the combination alarms winter fish under winter conditions, as it would summer
fish under summer conditions. Why the red side of green? I wish there were an
easy answer, but there isnt.
Look at the colored plates of flies in Trey
Comb's book, Steelhead fly fishing and Flies (1976). Count the number of flies.
Now go back and count the number n that are predominantly white or greenless
than three in a hundred. Do the same thing with Treys recent book, Steelhead
Fly Fishing (1991). The disparity in numbers is even greater. Why? By trial and
error steelheaders have found that white and green flies dont produce as well
There is a
anglers we try to understand fish vision and are interested in three types of
cells in the eyes of fish: rod cells, comic cells, arid glial cells. Rod cells,
along with their inability to distinguish colors, have already been mentioned.
When the light is good, cone cells take over the primary function of vision;
they can differentiate colors. Finally, there are the glial cells which help
organize the process (chemistry) of vision. Whiteall wave lengths of the
spectrumand green do not stimulate as great a response, or of as long a
duration, in type B glial cells as do other colors. Thus the poor performance of
white and green flies.
When the light is improving, in the early morning,
type A glial cells utilize the blue end of the spectrum most efficiently and
when the light is failing, in the even, they use the red end of the spectrum
most efficiently. Colors on the blue side of green are morning colors while
colors on the red side of green are afternoon colors. Im not a morning person.
For my winter fishing I use yellow, orange, red, and combinations of them in my
During fall and
winter, steelhead rivers are often high and discolored. The discoloration comes
from two sources, suspended particles of inorganic material such as sand and
silt, or the stable products of organic decay known as Gelbstoffe. Particles of
sand and silt are large compared to the wave lengths of visible light and thus
same scatter all wave lengths equally. They reduce the visibility of all colors
about the same. Gelbstoffe, washed into our rivers from the land, absorbs the
shorter wave lengths of light more than the longer ones.
orange are possibly the most visible colors when our rivers are discolored by
Gelbstoffe. Consider the design of Al Knudsons Yellow Spider, a highly
productive steelhead fly. It was designed for sea-run cutthroat, harvest trout,
and has a fat yellow chenille body and a cock grizzly hackle to hold the mallard
away from the bodythe perfect reasonable fly for its intended purpose. Also
consider the effectiveness of the General Practitioner, a bright orange prawn
There is little
the fly dresser can do about the hooking and holding characteristics of his
flies, except to make sure he selects the best hook for the job and does not
obscure its point. Always start with a needle sharp, upeye, return-loop, forged
bend, high carbon steel salmon hook. These hooks areor used to beavailable in
a wide range of wire weights, from 4x-fine to 5xstout, and shank lengths from
1x short to Long Dees. Hooks lighter than 2x-fine have good hooking but poor
opposite is true of hooks heavier than 1 Xstout. There is a natural
relationship between the type amid style of fly being dressed and hook shank
length. Clearly, you should not dress Dee strip wings on 1X short salmon irons;
likewise you wouldnt tie Bob Arnolds Spade on a Dee iron. My preference is for
single hooks in the 2x-fine to ix-stout and ix-short to 2X-long range. For me,
these have provided the best combination of hooking arid holding
theres the matter of readily available materials and ease of tying.
more furs, feathers, and other materials available than 1 can count so Ill make
do with mentioning those I typically use: deer hair, in as great a verity as can
be obtained, the finer the better. Cock and hen hackle, from necks and saddles,
in a wide range of sizes amid colors. Peacock and ostrich herl, preferably on
the feather. Guinea, mallard, and teal hackle, some dyed. An assortment of
wires, tinsels, dubbing materials, yarns, and silks. Substitutes for heron, such
as blue eared pheasant and ring-necked pheasant. (God forbid that I should
ever use syntheticsId rather commit sonic other form of
From my point of view, steelhead flies require only three
components: a tail, a body, amid a hackle. And Im not sure about the tail
and the hackle.
All of my working steelhead flies can be grouped into
four classes: Spades, many elaborations of Bob Arnolds original pattern; Pseudo
Speys, simple versions of Spey and Dee flies; grubs and shrimps, adapted from
those for Atlantic salmon; marabous, reliable steelhead flies which fish big and
The bodies of all my flies are made of peacock or ostrich rope.
Storebought chenille is just as good. Fish cant tell the difference. But its
ugly and I hate it. Id like to be able to say steelhead like my rope better
than chenille, but they dont. The only thing I can say is that the time it
takes me to make my special body material allows no time for frequenting dark
bars. Some day I would like to learn how to make elegant silk rope in the manner
of Kevin Perkins. So please, Mr. Perkins, sir, take time away from your exotic
birds and teach me how its done so I can tell the world.
Ill willingly give
up my fancy feathers.