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Fly Fishing Articles

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

The following is a article from Wild Steelhead & Atlantic Salmon Premiere Issue written by Alec Jackson


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 materials.
Victorian—era salmon flies are beautiful but not reasonable—they 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 yesterday—the cheap painted street walkers—to our beautiful and functional steelhead flies of today, which I call the elegantly gowned courtesans.
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 agree.
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. Hale’s How To Tie Salmon Flies (1892), George M. Kelson’s The Salmon Fly (1895), and T. E. Pryce-Tannatt’s How To Dress Salmon Flies (1914) are much sought after by today’s 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 full—dressed 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. Winter’s high waters and summer’s low waters demand entirely deferent flies

The requirement 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. Summer’s 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 surface—waking 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 practices—like putting your grandmother on the street—should 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 knife’s edge view from certain aspects. A reasonable fly is three-dimensional and is incapable of presenting a knife’s edge view, so there’s 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 winter’s cold waters, when flies fished down among the rocks are appropriate.

Greased line 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 Scotland’s 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 Wood’s 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 fishing—even with bare hooks. Wood’s low-water flies were two-dimensional and thus not reasonable.
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 Wood’s. Hill wrote of his experience~ Salmon Fishing, The Greased Line On Dee, Don And Earn (1948).
Why did Hill’s more heavily dressed portly flies produce better at Carlogie, just a few miles upstream from Cairnton, than Wood’s sparsely dressed slim ones?

Steelhead and 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 vision—thus 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 Wood’s. Inland flies are fat and over-hackled, much fatter than Hill’s. 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 low—water 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 size.

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 surface..
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 camera’s aperture a couple of stops. Fish can’t do this. I defy you to hold up one of your flies against a strong light, at arm’s 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 it’s 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. Winter’s 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 don’t 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 isn’t.
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 green—less than three in a hundred. Do the same thing with Trey’s 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 don’t produce as well as others.

There is a scientific explanation.

As fly 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. White—all wave lengths of the spectrum—and 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. I’m not a morning person. For my winter fishing I use yellow, orange, red, and combinations of them in my flies.

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.

Yellow and orange are possibly the most visible colors when our rivers are discolored by Gelbstoffe. Consider the design of Al Knudson’s 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 body—the perfect reasonable fly for its intended purpose. Also consider the effectiveness of the General Practitioner, a bright orange prawn imitation.

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, up—eye, return-loop, forged bend, high carbon steel salmon hook. These hooks are—or used to be—available in a wide range of wire weights, from 4x-fine to 5x—stout, and shank lengths from 1x short to “Long Dees.” Hooks lighter than 2x-fine have good hooking but poor holding characteristics.

The opposite is true of hooks heavier than 1 X—stout. 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 wouldn’t tie Bob Arnold’s 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 qualities.

Finally, there’s the matter of readily available materials and ease of tying.

There are more furs, feathers, and other materials available than 1 can count so I’ll 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 synthetics—I’d rather commit sonic other form of adultery!)
From my point of view, steelhead flies require only three components: a tail, a body, amid a hackle. And I’m 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 Arnold’s 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 cast small.
The bodies of all my flies are made of peacock or ostrich rope. Store—bought chenille is just as good. Fish can’t tell the difference. But it’s ugly and I hate it. I’d like to be able to say steelhead like my rope better than chenille, but they don’t. 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 it’s done so I can tell the world.
I’ll willingly give up my fancy feathers.

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