Streamer Fly Patterns for the White River Tailwaters
These fly pattern pages are suggestions for some approaches that have worked for me over the years. Any number of good pattern books are available, but I wanted to share some thoughts on adaptation of patterns I like to tie and fish in the Ozarks.
There is a rich history in fly tying regardless of the geographical region where it occurs. There is also very little new in actual modern fly patterns. We owe a lot to those who have gone before and developed materials and techniques. Every tier borrows from others and adds a little of himself or herself to the tradition, and a melding of tradition to one's own vision is constantly taking place.
The White has a diverse stream life. Aquatic insects found in most areas include: many kinds of caddis and mayflies, some stoneflies, and, of course, many kinds of midge. Beetles, both aquatic and terrestrial, and grasshoppers make for further fun dry fly opportunities. In addition to insects proper, there are crustaceans, such as scuds and sowbugs, with prolific populations.
However, there is an abundance of crayfish and baitfish, sculpins being the predominate fish of importance. Fishing streamers, or flies that imitate these larger bait forms, is therefore an important angling method for the White.
I favor natural materials and like to study more traditional patterns. Here are some of my favorite streamer patterns that work well on the White River.
A woolly bugger is a White River standard. Trout rarely turn one down.
Perhaps no other fly has been tampered with and experimented on as much as this one. Always dressed up, never down, it has been given beads, flash, color, and legs galore. It has been tied smaller, bigger, but seldom better.
The original dressing—dark olive chenille body, black marabou tail, and dark dun or black hackle—was created by Russell Blessing, a friend of Barry Beck who promoted the fly [See Barry Beck's interview with Mr. Blessing in the January/February 2006 issue of Fly Rod & Reel; also, Leiser, Book of Fly Patterns, p. 243]. The fly is a simple modification of the more traditional Woolly Worm.
While a typical quartering downstream presentation always seems to produce, don't overlook dead drifting the pattern as you would a smaller nymph. Black, olive, brown, and even blue are all good choices. If you tie, try some with eyes for weight. Many fly fishers favor the smaller sizes (10 and 12's or even smaller). Patterns in the larger sizes (4,6, and 8) are usually used for high water situations. Beadhead versions are very effective. Tails should be 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 times the hook shank; and according to Beck in a tying class I took with him, most tiers don't make the tail long enough. Variations of the Woolly Bugger are endless and continue to make the pattern fun and effective.
Created by Tom Nixon, who felt this was a good representation of a young crayfish, the 56er is fun to tie and fish. I come back to it from time to time, and it is always effective.
The tail is mallard flank. The body is gray wool with a contrasting color stripe underneath. I use doll wool from the craft store, and yarn for the contrasting color stripe, which can be orange or yellow. A grizzly palmered hackle brings it all together. Give it a try.
Similar to woolly buggers are Matuka style streamers. A style of fly that originated in New Zealand, it is now out-dated there and has all but become so here in North America. Yet, the fly can serve as a good and lively imitation of baitfish.
I prefer to not weight this pattern and fish it either with split shot on the leader or a sink tip fly line with short leader. I have found it best suited to the faster runs, or a good high water pattern. This one is dubbed with black synthetic dubbing with a gold rib and tied with a Hoffman variant soft hackle-chickabou feather. A variation of the style with a deer hair head makes an effective sculpin pattern, AKA Whitlock Matuka Sculpin.
Sculpins and Their Imitations
A White River sculpin. Fishable sizes range from the size of your pinky to as large as 6" or more. Colors range from light to dark and markings from distinct to few.
There are two species of sculpin in Arkansas—the Banded Sculpin and Ozark Sculpin. They are very similar to one another and somewhat difficult to tell apart. Although often described as "prehistoric" in appearance, it is considered by biologists to be among the most advanced of fishes (Fishes of Arkansas).
The predominate characteristics of the fish are its broad head, tapered narrow tail, and oversized pectoral fins. It dwells on the bottom structure and swims in short rapid movements. Because sculpins are abundant in Ozark streams and tailwaters and available year round to fish, they are a favorite food of big brown trout.
A good pattern to imitate this baitfish is the woolhead sculpin:
- Size 4-6 streamer hook. I weight these heavily on the shank.
- Rib: oval gold mylar.
- Chenille body: black, olive, or brown.
- The wing and tail are tied from a strip of rabbit fur as in the zonker.
- Pectoral fins (optional): hen hackle or ringneck pheasant "church window" feather tied to protrude on each side.
- Head: wool, tied in tight clumps and trimmed to shape.
The pattern can provoke some hard strikes. Use at least 10 lb. test tippet. Trout will often bite the sculpin to disable it, so if you get a strike but no hook up, don't yank it out of the area. Let it settle back down and be prepared for a second take.
There are many sculpin patterns worth trying. Whitlock's Near Enough Sculpin is perhaps the easiest to tie. It's similar to a Woolly Bugger, but with olive grizzly marabou tail, a similarly dyed saddle hackle, and an olive dubbed body. You need to weight these patterns or use some method on your leader or line to get the fly down near the bottom. Hour-glass eyes or weight wrapped on the shank will help.
Deer hair matuka style flies represent this baitfish well. The broad deer hair head and slim taper of the feathered wing and tail make a life-like representation of the sculpin.
A pattern I picked up in Alaska is the layered marabou sculpin pictured above. Generally, it is a hybrid of sorts between a Whitlock Matuka and a woolhead sculpin. It's tied with a flesh colored rabbit strip for body and tail (commonly used on flesh flies), then layered with sand colored grizzly chickabou, and finished with a deer hair head and collar.
Trout will attack it aggressively. It is an effective pattern for the White. Fish it on a sink tip line with short 12-lb. leader of 3-4 feet. This method is great for working around structure as the fly is unweighted and allows it to linger close to the structure and sink slowly into the water column.
Muddler minnows will work well too. Any of the better pattern books will have a variety of these flies to try. Eric Leiser's, Book of Fly Patterns is a great one. It is well researched, well written, and has over a thousand patterns from classic dries to salmon flies, detailing the methods for tying the more complicated styles of flies.
Crayfish and Their Imitations
Crayfish are abundant and both trout and smallmouth have a profound love for them! There are many good crayfish patterns available, and I don't have a particular favorite. But anglers should think smaller, as the preferred size of crayfish by most trout are small, about the size of one's index finger.
Threadfin Shad and Their Imitations
Arkansas lakes are stocked with a variety of bass. Game and Fish also stocks threadfin shad as baitfish in the reservoirs. Northern Arkansas is on the northern border of the fish's range. In the late winter and early spring when lake temperatures are their lowest, there will often be a "shad kill." The result is these baitfish get drawn through the generator turbines and become forage for the trout below the dams.
Trout gorge themselves on the fish at high water. Winter and early spring is a good time to fish white streamers to imitate this phenomenon. A Zonker tied with a white rabbit strip is a good attractor for fish feeding on the shad. Fish it at high water floating or sink it under and strip it. The fly shows up well in the water and you can tell if you're getting any reaction to it. White woolly buggers will sometimes be just as effective.
Another simple but beautiful pattern I enjoy tying is the Marabou Streamer. Tied more along the lines of a traditional streamer with tag, tail, underwing and overwing, the pattern works year round, but is effective during shad kills also.
Thunder Creek Streamers
Keith Fulsher is responsible for the Thunder Creek series of flies. Essentially a bucktail, the Thunder Creek streamer can be effective in moving or flat water. I use these in sizes 10-12 on calm water. Most tiers recommend tying them sparsely for low clear water situations. Fulsher lacquers the head and paints eyes on them, but after catching fish on them with the head shredded and similarly on shredded bullethead hoppers, I don't expend the effort to finish the head.
A number of books include the patterns: Leiser's Book of Fly Patterns, Hellekson's Fish Flies, Bates' excellent Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing, and Fulsher's own Tying and Fishing the Thunder Creek Series (now out of print).
Baby Lefty's Deceiver
Effective for trout and nearly all species of fish that eat other fish are Lefty's Deceivers scaled down to size 6-or smaller and tied in a variety of colors.