Big Flies Big Fish

By Jack McLaughlin | June 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2000

It has long been said among anglers that "It takes a big bait to catch a big fish." In my personal experience, big flies have accounted for several trout up to 6 pounds and some smallmouth bass in excess of 3 pounds.

Big flies are fairly easy to tie but require some work to fish, and they require different techniques under different conditions. There are five flies that have worked well for me over the past 50 years; here is how to fish them and how to tie them.

Woolly bugger

The woolly bugger is perhaps the most versatile fly of all. It can be fished dead-drifted upstream as a nymph or stripped at varying speeds as a streamer. When fished upstream, the fly should bounce on the bottom, so use as much lead, both in tying and by adding split shot, as it takes to get it down.

When fishing the woolly bugger as a streamer, cast it upstream and let it sink and drift, twitching the rod tip to impart action to the fly. Use short or rather long strips to take up slack in the line as the fly swings downstream. Look for strikes to occur just after the first couple of strips or when the fly straightens out downstream.

Dead drift fishing requires the use of a floating line and a strike indicator. Cast directly upstream to a likely spot, then strip in line, keeping contact with the fly as it drifts downstream. The dead-drift is not complete until the fly straightens out below you, which is often where strikes will occur.

For big trout and bass, tie woolly buggers on a No. 2 or 4 streamer hook 4x long. Black is by far the best color, but olive also works well at times.

Wrap heavy lead wire the length of the hook shank, leaving room at both hook bend and eye for tail and fly head. Tie in a clump of marabou about one-fourth of the length of the hook for a tail. Wrap thread over the lead underbody a couple of times and cement the lead in place for a solid fly foundation.

For my version of this fly, tie in a neck hackle slightly longer than the hook gap when wound. Dub marabou onto thread and wrap forward short of the hook eye. Wrap hackle forward to cover body, whip finish and cement.

Mickey Finn

The Mickey Finn is an old fly pattern that has been used in the East for trout since I was boy. It was one of the first flies I ever attempted to tie. I was introduced to its effectiveness on the Gasconade River as a beginning fly fisher.

The Mickey Finn, with its gaudy yellow and red bucktail body, was perfect for murky stream conditions. Not being strictly purists, we added a small gold spinner to the fly to add to its attractiveness and to help get the fly down.

The Mickey Finn is basically an attractor fly. I have found it effective in both the gin clear Huzzah Creek and the Gasconade River. Fish it up against the bank using split shot on the leader when necessary. Because it is an attractor pattern, it is best to keep it moving at all times, using rod tip action or by stripping. As with most streamers and bucktails, the strikes often occur when the fly straightens out downstream. Don't be in a hurry to pull it out of the water and cast again. Letting the fly swim about in the current downstream is not a bad tactic.

Tie the Mickey Finn on a No. 2 or 4 hook 4x long. The body can have a red thread tag at the tail end and either a silver or gold tinsel body, which should be started near the hook eye, leaving room to tie in the wings.

Next, tie in a small bunch of yellow deer hair, using fine bucktail so it will not flare. After applying head cement to the bundle, trim off ends. Tie in a slightly smaller bundle of red deer hair and secure as before, then tie in another bunch of yellow hair, secure and wrap fly head, whip finish and cement the head.

Black Nose Dace

The black nose dace is a bucktail that imitates minnows found in most streams in Missouri. Fish it mainly at the head and tail of riffles and shoals, using weight according to water flow and depth. Fish it on a floating line at the head of riffles in the flat water whenever you see minnows jumping, which is usually a sign of foraging bass.

In the holes below riffles, use a fast sinking line. Cast the fly to the head of the hole and let the fly drift and sink, twitching the fly now and then in an attempt to imitate a crippled minnow. Imagine you are fishing a crippled minnow plug and you have the idea of how to fish the black nose dace.

The recipe for the dace is exactly the same as for the Mickey Finn. Their is a red tag. The body is silver tinsel with wings of white, a wisp of black then finally brown, with the entire wing tied rather sparse.

Marabou Flies

Black and white marabou flies are basically attractors and attract they do! If you know the lie of a big fish or can spot one in the stream, swim a marabou in front of him long enough and he will usually strike. The marabou tail completed the metamorphosis of the woolly worm and turned it into a killer called the woolly bugger.

For smallmouth fishing, I like my marabous tied upside-down with heavy copper or gold wire for a weighted body. The upside-down configuration makes the fly semi-snagproof. It is most effective for smallmouth in rocky habitat fished on the bottom. For trout in still water or water without current the marabou is hard to beat.

One long ago October, Bill Taylor of St. Louis and I were fishing the Meramec River below Meramec Caverns. It was cold and windy and we weren't having much luck until we switched to the black and white marabou on fast, sink tip lines, which turned out to make our day.

Marabou flies will catch trout or bass almost anywhere under all but muddy conditions. In addition to the black and white marabou streamer, I fish the same pattern in solid white and solid black with a gold or silver tinsel body.

The black and white marabou is a minnow imitation tied on a No. 2 or 4 streamer hook 4x long. The body should be tied with thread the length of the hook then wrapped with heavy gold wire and secured with cement. Use clear fingernail polish to secure the wire body.

Olive Sculpin

The olive sculpin is definitely a big fish fly and it works for smallmouth as well as trout. Dave Whitlock, the great fly tyer and innovator, once told me of catching large trout on his olive sculpin that had already gorged themselves on live sculpins. I thought Dave was pulling my leg until I saw it for myself.

The sculpin needs to be heavily weighted and fished on a sink tip line to be effective, as it imitates a bottom feeder. Fish sculpins at the head of deep holes or in riffley pocket water wherever sculpins are found. You can often determine their habitat by turning over large rocks in riffles.

Fish sculpins much like some minnow imitations, by casting to the head of a hole and letting the fly drift and swing to a position down below you until it straightens out in the current.

Tying the olive sculpin is not difficult. The one I favor is a bit of a departure from the standard pattern. Using a No. 2 or 4 streamer hook 4x long, first wrap the hook with heavy lead wire from just behind the point forward toward the eye, then wrap over the first layer of wire from a point about one-third of the length of the hook behind the eye, being sure to leave room for the head of the sculpin.

Returning the thread to the tail position, tie in a clump of olive marabou about one-third of the length of the hook. This is the tail of the fly. At this point, dub olive rabbit fur onto thread and cover the lead underbody. Finish off the sculpin by spinning olive sheep wool for a head and trim flat. Whip finish the head and cement. Solid black and dark brown also are effective sculpin colors.

When fishing large bucktails and streamers and especially heavily weighted sculpins, wear a broad-brimmed hat and glasses to protect yourself from embedding hooks in your head or eye. An 8.5-foot rod for a weight 7 fast sinktip line with leader no longer than 4 feet tapered to 3x (about 6 pounds) is most useful. When opting for a floating line, I use a 6-foot leader tapered to 3x.

For float fishing, a 9-foot rod for 7 weight line works well. Fishing big, heavy flies is much different from casting dry flies. Use an open loop either by casting cross-handed against a prevailing wind or by carefully watching your back cast when there is no wind problem. In essence, you are lobbing the fly rather than trying to make a tight loop.

Fishing big flies is sometimes slow and tedious, but if you want to catch big fish, it's the only way to go.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer