Eastern Fly Fishing

By Mike Valla

Exactly what defines a bucktail fly, as opposed to a streamer fly, or other flies commonly called hair-wings, has caused some confusion and even disagreement among fly tiers. Adding to the confusion: many flies called bucktails are not necessarily tied with hair from white-tailed deer tails. Everything from squirrel tail hair to polar bear hair to guard hairs from various animals has been utilized to tie what are commonly called bucktails.
   While most bucktails are in fact crafted from black, brown, white, or even dyed deer tail hair, bucktails were not always streamlined baitfish-imitating patterns tied on long-shank hooks. In the early 1900s, William E. “Scrip” Scripture Jr. of Rome, New York, an early bucktail tier, tied his crude patterns on relatively short-shank hooks without using a vise. Scripture maintained that he didn’t tie bucktails with the idea that they would imitate baitfish. Instead, his bucktails simply suggested a morsel of food or something a fish struck in its territory.
   Like Scripture’s patterns, other early bucktails were designed without any intent to suggest or resemble baitfish. The classic and highly effective yellow-and-red-haired Mickey Finn bucktail, popularized and promoted by John Alden Knight in the 1930s, hardly suggests a natural minnow. The Edson Tiger Light, a bright-colored bucktail developed in 1929 by Maine tier William R. Edson is an attractor pattern that entices fish for who knows what reasons. Perhaps the pattern’s gold metal cheek reflectors and streamlined form suggest a baitfish or other aquatic life form worth devouring or attacking.
   The East Coast doesn’t hold a monopoly on bucktail history. Mentioning bright-colored attractor bucktail patterns brings to mind the handsome steelhead hair-wings that emerged from the vises of West Coast tiers a century ago. By the 1920s, steelheaders had started to put aside old feather-wing patterns in favor of flies tied with deer-tail-hair wings. By midcentury, bucktail steelhead flies were regnant. John Shewey’s Classic Steelhead Flies (2015) fully covers West Coast
bucktail contributions.
   Some have theorized that bucktails can resemble nymphs. In his book Streamcraft (1919), George Parker Holden from the Catskill Mountains region of New York, interpreted the Emerson Hough Bucktail, a clipped-hair-bodied pattern developed by Canadian Northwest Indian guides, as resembling a moving insect. Lew Oatman, who has been called the father of the scientific approach to baitfish patterns, also supported the notion that some small bucktails, such as his Ghost Shiner, might suggest a nymph zipping through the water.
   Of course, only the fish know if they strike bucktails thinking that they are some kind of nymph, minnow, or something else that suggests food or appears to encroach upon their territory. And as Scripture aptly wrote in his unpublished 1954 memoir, “Perhaps we dubs should let the experts win their arguments while we just go on catching trout.”
   However, fly tiers have devoted a considerable amount of time to crafting bucktails with the express purpose of imitating or suggesting baitfish, and even juvenile game fish. Chief among the natural baitfish is the ubiquitous blacknose dace minnow and its relatives. The dace’s black lateral stripe is prominent and figures into patterns designed to imitate the fish. The most popular pattern is the Blacknose Dace bucktail developed many decades ago by Art Flick.
   Flick’s original pattern was tied on a relatively short-shank hook, but modern tiers favor tying the pattern on a longer streamer hook, using three layers of hair: white, black, and brown. Flick developed his pattern for fishing his beloved Schoharie Creek in New York. It’s highly effective when cast across and downstream, and allowed to swing through the current. Short, jerky strips of fly line often elicit strikes that powder the fly.
   While Flick’s fly is still one of the most popular baitfish patterns, juvenile game fish imitators, such as Sam Slaymaker’s Little Trout series bucktails, are equally effective for fishing both large rivers and smaller creeks. It didn’t take long for tiers to recognize that game fish can be cannibalistic. Slaymaker’s Little Brown Trout, Little Brook Trout, and Little Rainbow Trout are great fish takers, particularly early in the season, when streams are frequently high and stained, fished with high-density detachable sinking-tip leaders. 
   Bucktails aren’t limited to stream fishing or to trout fishing. They are also great enticers when fished on cold-water trout lakes as well as in tepid bass ponds. A variety of baitfish species inhabit ponds and lakes, providing a forage base for game fish. Techniques that go beyond casting bucktails and fishing them on the swing through stream riffles and runs can bring fish to the net. You can certainly successfully troll bucktails from a canoe and
other watercraft.
   One particularly effective still-water baitfish imitator, especially for large lake-dwelling brook trout, is a colorful bucktail tied to resemble the southern redbelly dace. Montana fly-shop owner Dan Bailey featured the fly in A. J. McClane’s July 1968 Field & Stream article, “Match-the-Minnow Streamer Fly Series.” An outing to a remote brook trout pond tucked away in New York’s Adirondack Wilderness comes to mind: in a lightweight Kevlar canoe, I trolled the pattern up and down the shoreline using a sinking-tip line. The Southern Redbelly Dace bucktail accounted for a fine 18-inch brookie that early spring day. The pattern sports a painted eye, a feature that surely adds to its fish-taking effectiveness.
   Other colorful baitfish-resembling bucktails, such as the Red Shiner, work well for trolling. Along with Bailey and other enthusiastic bucktail aficionados, Helen Shaw, a well-known author of fly-tying books, was represented in McLane’s article with her garish Red Shiner, crafted to resemble the natural red shiner minnow. Shaw kicked up bucktail tying a few notches by creating a rather complicated yet stylized fly. While it takes patience to tie, Shaw’s pattern is effective for both cold- and warm-water game fish.
   Bucktails have always been considered great bass flies. Even the simplest patterns, tied with little more than a wad of brown deer tail hair crudely lashed to a hook, entice both smallmouth and largemouth. Bass find patterns tied with enhanced flash beyond simple tinsel body ribbing irresistible. Slab-sided baitfish such as the golden shiner are nicely mimicked with bucktails featuring bodies made from large Mylar tubing, fine flashy wing materials, and painted eyes. Adding a little bluish Krystal Flash or similar materials works well for bucktails tied to resemble the fathead minnow and other forage fish. Like other baitfish, fathead minnows often display a blue hue in sunlight.
   Flies we call bucktails have emerged from fly-tying vises for over a century. Such patterns have evolved through the years from simple single-shade, drab hair-wings to complex, colorful, and imaginative flies. Whether the target is striped bass netted along an ocean shore or the tiniest trout in mere trickles, bucktails have a place in every fly angler’s box.


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