Fly Tying: January, 2018

Winter Steelhead Tube Fly


If the turnout at last month’s fly tying night is any indication, there seems to be a good amount of interest in winter steelhead fishing. As we move into the season it makes sense to continue our focus on winter steelhead patterns. But this month we will vary it up a bit by tying a tube fly.


Famed steelheader Lani Waller has become a a big promoter of fishing with tube flies. Waller was not the originator of using tube flies for steelhead and he freely admits that the system he uses is a result of experimentation and refinement by himself and others over a number of years. Waller has been fly fishing for over fifty years and his name became synonymous with fly fishing for steelhead when he came out with a set of three videos on the topic for Scientific Anglers 3M back in 1984. His evolution in steelhead angling made a quantum leap in 1997 when he was fishing with guide Bob Clay on the Kispiox River, a tributary of the famous Skeena River in British Columbia. Waller was reluctant to try the tube flies that Clay offered for fear that the small hooks on the tube flies would not hold up to the strong 20 plus pound Skeena system steelhead. But during a week of fishing Clay landed one hundred percent of the fish he hooked while Lani landed sixty percent of his hooked fish. That certainly turned Waller into a believer. When I first read that story I figured that if tube flies got Lani Waller’s attention they were definitely worth looking into.


So what is a tube fly, anyway? Well, tube flies differ from traditional flies in that they are tied on some kind of tube material instead of being tied on the shank of a metal hook. Tubes today are often made of different kinds of plastic or metal onto which are fastened the usual array of thread, feathers, hair and flash materials that normally go into the tying of a fly. The angler then ties a short shank hook onto the tippet material which has been threaded through the tube. The hook can then be pulled into a soft plastic junction tube that has been attached onto the back of the tube fly.


And who came up with this revolutionary idea? Well, that depends on who you talk to or where you look. The vast majority of sources that I came across give credit for the first tube flies to Minnie Morawski, a fly dresser who tied flies for the Charles Playfair Company in Aberdeen, Scotland back in 1945. Minnie was apparently using the hollow quills of bird feathers for her tubes. But then I found references to a British angler named Alexander Wanless who actually published a book with colored drawings of some tube flies in 1932. It is possible that Wanless is less often credited for the earliest tube flies because he was mostly a spin fisherman and the idea caught on later with the fishermen that really embraced the tube fly…the fly anglers. In the USA, tube flies were first used in patterns that were trolled behind boats. Although it undoubtedly happened earlier, the first documented use of tube flies in this country for casting for salmon or steelhead was in the Puget Sound area in 1985 (Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon by Ferguson, Johnson, and Trotter). Traditional flies tied on hooks surely remain the most common type of artificial fly, but tube flies are now used worldwide for nearly all species of fish that are sought by fly anglers.


Tube Flies (the two flies on the left) from the 1932 book by Alexander Wanless

You may wonder why would anyone bother with tube flies in the first place. Well, there is a definite upside to tube flies due to a number of advantages that are often quoted in a variety of resources:
1.  More fish landed— The short shank hook results in less leverage for a fish to throw a hook (see the example above of Lani Waller on the Kispiox)
2.  More hook-ups— The positioning of the hook in the junction tube toward the rear of the fly can help eliminate short strikes by fish nipping the tail of the fly
3.  Longer fly life— A strike by a fish will often cause the hook to be pulled free of the tube, causing the fly to slide up the leader away from the jaws of the fish
4.  Easy to change out hooks— If a hook becomes dull or damaged it is easy to swap it out for a brand new laser sharp hook right out of the package
5.  Easy storage of flies— Without the hooks on, it is easy to store a bundle of tube flies together without them getting all tangled up


Don’t be intimidated about tying tube flies. If you have tied a traditional fly before, you can tie a tube fly. The same basic skills are used to tie materials onto a plastic tube instead of tying onto the shank of a metal hook. Join us for our next Fly Tying Night and give tube flies a try. We will be meeting at The Royal Treatment Fly Shop in West Linn on Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 6 pm. Hope to see you there!


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