A perfect steelhead fly possess a combination of elegance and functionality. It should also instill a certain sense of confidence, eliminating any nagging second thoughts about whether you’ve tied the proper fly to the end of the leader. When using a wet-fly swing for steelhead, my preference is for a pattern with an enticing movement in the water. Marabou or a rabbit strip are my first choices for creating the type of swimming motion that brings a steelhead instinctively to a fly. The Marabou Spey fills all these requirements and has become the pattern I rely on most often, whether fishing for chrome on the Pacific Coast or around the Great Lakes.
Tying flies on tubes is not new, but combining its traditional design with the tactical tying and fishing advantages of a tube results in an easy-to-tie and highly effective pattern. Working with and wrapping marabou on a hook shank can be cumbersome. But wrapping marabou on the larger surface area provided by the tube makes for a much easier process.
The tube design also lends its self to a number of additional tactical advantages. The length of the tubing controls the position of the hook relative to the body of the fly. I prefer the hook to be at the rear of the fly—extending beyond all other materials. With the hook positioned in this manner, there is an increased chance of hooking short-striking steelhead. In addition, the short-shank hooks used with tube flies provide less leverage to a fish during the fight, and result in a higher landing percentage.
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Tying on tubes also provides for versatility in weighting the fly. The Marabou Spey can be tied on plastic, brass, or copper tubes. Eyes can be added to plastic tubes to give the fly a more realistic look. I tie most of my Marabou Spey flies on plastic tubes, and add cones or beads to the front of the fly when I need weight. I carry various sizes of cones and beads with me on the water so that I can quickly turn any plastic tube fly into a weighted fly. Some cones and beads slide right over the main tube and secure on the head of the fly. Smaller sizes of cones may require a small-diameter liner tube in order to secure the weight to the fly.
Tie the tube fly to the leader by threading the tippet through the tube and knotting it to the eye of the hook with your favorite knot. I typically use an improved clinch knot.
After you cinch up the knot, slide the eye of the hook into a section of soft tubing referred to as junction tubing, which also fits over the rear end of the tube. I use junction tubing on tubes made of metal or hard, rigid plastic. But I prefer using softer plastic tubes so that the eye of the hook can be pulled right into the tubing, eliminating the need for a junction.
A tube fly usually rides up the leader after a fish is hooked, keeping it out of the fish’s mouth during the fight, and while the hook is being extracted after it’s landed. This adds to the tube fly’s durability, especially with toothy fish. If a hook becomes damaged, it can simply be replaced.
Tying a tube fly requires a tube-specific vise, or an attachment to a standard vise, to hold the tube securely.
When tying on plastic tubing, I select a color that also acts as the body of the fly. Metal tubes can be dressed with dubbing or a flat braided material, but colored plastic tubes don’t need any dressing.
Cut the tube so that once the hook is drawn into the tube, it extends slightly beyond the materials.
With plastic tubes, you’ll need to insert a mandrel into the tubing so it’s rigid enough to tie on, and then clamp the mandrel into the vise. Tubes made of aluminum, brass, or copper can be inserted into the vise or tying tool without the aid of a mandrel.
One possible disadvantage of marabou hackle is its tendency to compress in the water, reducing the silhouette of the fly. There are, however, a couple steps that can be taken to create a fuller fly. One way is to put a ball of coarse dubbing material such as SLF just behind the first marabou hackle. This props up the marabou barbules, creating a fuller body.
An even simpler way to do it—and the method I prefer—is to wrap a stiffer hackle such as a longer saddle hackle or schlappen just behind the marabou. While the SLF can add some shine and shimmer under the wing, I prefer adding a hackle for its ease, and that I think it results in a better silhouette.
I always use two marabou feathers to create the fly. Not only does this produce density and better movement, it allows me to create various color combinations.
I select marabou feathers with long barbules and thin, flexible stems and save the leftovers for tails on Woolly Buggers or other flies where you don’t wrap the stem.
I usually add a small amount of flash such as Holographic Flashabou on the outside of the second hackle, or between the two hackles. A small element of flash seems to make the fly more productive than no flash at all.
I occasionally add a tail of rabbit strip or synthetic hair when I feel the fly needs to be larger or to create even more movement. If you want a truly huge fly, you can stack two tubes together. You can also stack tube flies to create different color combinations.
If you need weight, you can either add beads and cones on the water, or while the fly is still in the vise. Large beads and cones slide over the plastic tubes, and can be affixed permanently with Super Glue and by melting the end of the tube with a lighter so that it curls up around the end of the bead or cone.
Beads and cones with smaller openings require a small-diameter liner tube. Slip the liner tube into and through the main tube, and melt the smaller tube at the rear so that it can’t slide forward. Then cut the tip of the liner tube at the front end, leaving a short platform for a smaller cone or bead.
When performing this step after the fly has already been completed, it is extremely important to keep the materials pulled well away from the lighter.
Adding weight to a plastic tube provides for a faster sink rate than a metal tube of a similar weight. But metal tubes seem to hang up less on the bottom, and because the weight is evenly distributed, can be freed more easily when they do become snagged.
I tie the Marabou Spey tube in a range of colors. Black over purple is my favorite combination for steelhead. I also like black over kingfisher blue, black over chartreuse, purple over orange, all pink, and all white. Olive and brown versions have been good colors for me in low, clear water,
and also for smallmouth and largemouth bass. Marabou tube flies should be found in any serious salmon and steelheader’s fly box. Variations of this pattern can also be effective on warmwater species, inland trout, and even in saltwater.
Rick Kustich authored the upcoming book Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (Stackpole Books, 2013). His web site is rickkustich.com.