Sculpins are plentiful in rivers. Big fish eat little fish all the time. Fish sculpins long enough and hard enough, and you’re bound to catch big trout using a sculpin fly pattern.
I’ve known these facts about sculpins for a long time. But until recently, my approach to streamer fishing kept reverting to the same old technique of stripping Woolly Buggers, and knowing that something—namely the right sculpin pattern—was missing.
As a fly tier, I admire the artistry in sculpin patterns with multilayered marabou or Matuka-style wings, perfectly positioned pectoral fins made of matched feathers placed concave-side out, and tediously clipped deer-hair heads. As an angler, I’m reluctant to fish them. They are fairly effective, but by the time I’ve put $4.37 in exotic materials and 28 minutes of time into tying one, I’m emotionally involved. I don’t want to lose it.
I tried to develop a simple, effective sculpin of my own—borrowing from the successful patterns I fished and adding to them—but fell short. My yearning, through it all, remained the same: What the world needs, I thought, is a good five-minute sculpin—one that is quick to tie and catches fish.
Those thoughts were simmering on the back burner when Brad Befus gave me a full, beautifully dyed strip of rabbit hair. This strip of rabbit will make my sculpin, I thought. The rabbit strip provided the proper bulk, silhouette, and movement for the sculpin pattern that was brewing in my mind. In an instant I conceived of a fly to be tied around it.
A sculpin’s belly is usually off-white, so I use dull cream-colored Aunt Lydia’s yarn. Any slightly off-white to almond-shade yarn will do.
Sculpins have prominent blood-red gills that show through their big pulsating gill plates. Trout are predators. They like to hit blood. To accentuate the gills, I dub a shaggy patch of bright red chopped nylon or imitation seal. Angora goat and a host of other fibers are suitable.
A subtle amount of flash is important. A sculpin pattern can work decently, at times, in spite of being too flashy but will work more consistently if it bounces light with about the same intensity as the natural. For my fly, I use a few strands of Krystal Flash, tied in as an underwing to simulate the bounce of light from a sculpin’s side scales as it moves.
The sculpin’s body tapers from fat to skinny. A wide-cut, full rabbit strip suggests this taper when wet. (Typical skinny Zonker strips won’t work. Wide strips are often marketed as Magnum Zonker Strips.) It swims in the slightest current and holds its full shape in fast water. The rabbit strip for this fly must have sufficient hair volume to retain its bulk when wet. That’s more important than exact width. You can look for the proper characteristics in 1/4″ to 3/8″ pre-cut strips or tack out a full hide of rabbit, pre-dyed to a suitable sculpin color, and cut out some wide strips with an industrial razor knife. Set the blade
shallow so you don’t cut the hair. Ten minutes of cutting produces a lifetime supply of sculpin strips.
Spun deer hair that is loosely packed suggests the fins and head of the natural without being too buoyant. Deer hair, for whatever reason, catches fish. Spun wool, popular on other sculpin patterns, doesn’t fish like deer hair. Besides, casting a wet woolhead sculpin is a bit like casting a baby muskrat.
The challenge with using deer hair is keeping the pattern quick and simple. On some sculpin patterns, forming and trimming the deer-hair head is a process that seems to combine some obscure form of Oriental miniature art with veterinary surgery.
If your deer hair has fairly even tips while it is on the hide, you can skip stacking for the first stage of the head. This saves time, and the slightly varied hair ends won’t cost you any fish.
Finally, use thick thread. I like Danville Flymaster Plus or Gudebrod Super G. You need strength to handle the hair and to quickly cover the rest of the fly.
Continued after gallery…
Fishing the Sculpin
Justin Baker, a young protégé of Gary LaFontaine who used to guide for my shop, said it best: “Sculpins are dull, darty little fishes.” When you’re fishing sculpins, use dull flies and make them dart. Fish them aggressively around snags, under cover, and near the bottom. If you lose a few, you’re doing it right.
Sculpins are designed to live and feed on the bottom of the stream. They don’t have stabilizing air bladders like trout. When drifting in the current, they tend to tip up; when swimming, they tend to plane down. A fly designed to tip back when at rest and plane down when pulled gets more hits than one that only dives on a slack line. That’s why my fly is weighted in the middle and has a Dahlberg diver-style head.
Instead of walking to the head of the riffle and fishing in the traditional down-and-across method, I like to cast upstream. I’ve caught fish the first way, but not many. The best rule, one I learned from an old article by Joe Brooks that I read when I was a kid, is keep the fly broadside to the fish. The up-and-across cast, with enough twitches to keep the fly moving through slack pieces of current, does that. Swinging the fly down and across in the conventional manner lets the fish see the fly rear-end first as it moves away—not exactly the best presentation. Your chances of getting a hit on that kind of a drift are slim unless you swing it right into a trout’s face. Usually they won’t chase a fly that’s swinging past them at a high speed.
I like to soak the sculpin in the river and give it a good squeeze to get the air bubbles out of the deer hair and rabbit so the fly sinks quickly. Cast quartering up and across the current. As the line swings past me, I swing my rod downstream with it, rod tip in the water, and begin short, darty, stripping pulls with my left hand. I keep the line in the water for maximum contact with the fly. If the line feels slack, I make the fly dart more. If the line is taut and pulls against the current, I make fewer darts. My retrieve changes as the fly moves through the riffles because I want to keep the fly from drifting on a slack line.
It helps, when fishing a holding lie, to let the sculpin “live there” for a while. If the situation permits, let it soak and swim for as long as you can stand it. When you move it, inject a mild note of panic into your retrieve, but don’t move the fly too far. This “escape” helps trigger the strike impulse in predators. Trout are predators. That’s something we tend to forget when matching Blue-winged Olive hatches.
Sculpins don’t live where trout live. They arrive in such places only by accident. They like to hang in the lower third of a pool or long run, or in other lies where they can dart among the rocks on the bottom in relatively gentle currents, eating whatever they can. They are not strong swimmers and occasionally one gets washed downstream. Quick drop-offs below riffles, the edges of fast water against still water below an island or along a gravel bar, or slough mouths are prime areas to fish sculpins. The trout hanging in these places always look for them.
For riffle and pocketwater, a floating line with a 6-foot leader allows you to quickly and easily fish your fly in the best spots by raising your rod tip and twitching the fly through pockets around boulders. Place a split-shot on the leader one foot in front of the fly if you need to get it deeper.
When I need to fish the fly deep, such as casting across fast water into deep, slow lies along an outside bank, I use a sinking-tip line with a floating running line and a short head. When I can, I cast quartering upstream and throw upstream mends into the line as the fly drifts into the lie. As the line straightens, I strip in short darts.
In uniform currents, the quartering- upstream cast works best with a downstream mend. I like to swim the fly downstream slightly faster than the current speed and away from pursuing trout.
I often use a 200-grain full-sinking line to fish the still edge of fast currents at slough mouths, cut banks, and below islands. I cast into the currents and let the fly wash below me into the gentle currents. I let it sit there for several minutes then retrieve the fly in short, quick bursts.
On a sinking line, use short, level leaders from 3 to 5 feet. For a #4 sculpin, OX fluorocarbon (12- to14- pound test) is about right. Graduate down one leader size per fly size from there: 1X for #6s, 2X for #8s. Or, always fish with heavy stuff and don’t worry about delicacy. If I hook a stump, I’d rather uproot it than break off my fly.
Fluorocarbon does well for this sort of fishing. Beyond the low visibility factor, it sinks better and is much more abrasion resistant than standard monofilament. At the strengths required, there’s little worry about leaving it in the stream for another millennium. Typically, breakoffs occur at the fly knot.
Trimming The Sculpin
1. Take the fly out of the hook to trim it. For the first cut, open the scissors wide and come in from the front of the sculpin, directly below the eye and parallel to the hook. Don’t let the scissors points get back into the dubbing.
2. For the second cut, do the same thing as the first, except on top. Come in from the front and clip back to the carapace at a 30-degree angle.
3. For your third and fourth cuts, hold the hook by the bend, palm up, in your noncutting hand. From the rear, push the open scissors into the hair toward the eye on one side of the hook at a 45-degree angle and snip. Do the same on the other side.
4. Trim the head a little if you need to, and you’re done.
Chuck Stranahan owns Riverbend Fly Shop in Hamilton, Montana. He has a forthcoming book, Fly Construction, Fly Design, and his flies are available commercially through Doug’s Bugs, Santa Rosa, CA.