Fly Tying Bob Quigley's Splitsville Caddis
March 11, 2014
As varied and versatile as they are, his patterns all share the same unique combination of beauty and pragmatism, refinement and messiness. Quigley's flies are always eminently practical — they float superbly, are buggy, and last through lots of dunking and chewing. But they also bear an aesthetic touch, with a sense of life and movement reflecting an artist's imagination.
One of Quigley's most effective patterns is the Hackle Stacker, which he first brought to public attention in the pages of Fly Fisherman. The gist of a Hackle Stacker is a dry fly feather wound up and down a loop of thread or other material and pulled tightly over the thorax to create a dome of hackle fibers on top of the hook shank. The Hackle Stacker falls between the cracks of a conventionally hackled pattern, with its ribbon of perpendicular fibers, and a parachute, where the fibers radiate horizontally around a wing post.
Its profile also differs from that of a Compara-dun or Sparkle Dun, whose narrow wings lie at right angles to the hook shank. Rather, the fibers of a Hackle Stacker splay upwards and outwards, akin to an aquatic insect breaking through the confines of its nymphal shuck. Whether perceived as wing, head, legs, or thorax, the hackle "explodes" out of the body, offering what Quigley called "proof of life."
After using Hackle Stackers to create all kinds of mayfly emergers, duns, and spinners, I unsuccessfully tried adapting the technique to caddisflies. The obvious move for downwings was to tie in a body, followed by a wing, followed by hackle stacked over the thorax. Wings of deer hair, CDC, and partridge worked well enough, but never seemed to exploit the full benefits of a Hackle Stacker. The flies were a bit too tidy, without the controlled messiness of their mayfly counterparts.
More conspicuously, they didn't mimic the genuine profile of a caddisfly. One limitation of many conventional caddis patterns is that the wings begin too far behind the hook eye and appear as a single block of hair or feather, followed either by a band of conventionally wound hackle or a parachute post occupying the front portion of the shank.
As deadly as such patterns can be, they don't really capture the shape of an adult caddisfly, with paired, tented wings beginning much closer to the head of the bug. Viewed from underneath, a mature caddis at rest looks like a fairly narrow, elongated triangle, with the tentlike wings sprouting from just behind a tiny head. Fluttering adults and spent egglayers, whose wings angle outward, also have those wings attached just behind the tiny head of the fly.
Two of the greatest caddis patterns ever — Al Troth's Elk-hair Caddis and its progeny, Craig Mathews's X-Caddis'¨ — solved this problem by simply attaching the wing directly behind the hook eye, without any forward band of hackle.
The question was how to adapt that profile to a technique that requires pulling the Hackle Stacker over the front part of the fly. Trying to divide the wings neatly around the Hackle Stacker loop, left and right, proved tedious and didn't yield a balanced fly. The simple answer was to tie the wing immediately in front of the Hackle Stacker loop, dub a very short thorax, and then to use the Hackle Stacker like a tool to split the hair evenly when you pull it forward and bind it at the hook eye.
Splitting wings with the Hackle Stacker yields some really buggy results. The wings sprout immediately behind the head and splay evenly outward in delta-wing fashion, suggesting an emerger pulling its wings free, a fluttering or crippled adult, or a spent egglayer. The hackle pulled through the wing also interlaces with and fans out the deer hair, forming the tentlike shape of two real wings rather than a single circular bundle of hair.
The combination also creates an active color and light pattern, especially when well-marked hair is split by any kind of barred or patterned hackle. And the meshed wing and hackle, lying in plane with or above the shank, produces great flotation for either dead-drifts or skittering presentations.
As the Splitsville Caddis evolved, other wing materials have proven equally useful, such as paired CDC feathers, synthetic yarn, and snowshoe hare. Adding a shuck of Zelon suggests an emerger. The commercially available Orvis Splitsville Caddis uses a combined wing of hair and CDC. Regardless of the variation, the Splitsville Caddis has taken many large trout on the Delaware system, and on great Western rivers like the Madison, Henry's Fork, and Missouri.
Spinners & Emergers
Because the Splitsville technique tends to fan wing fibers widely, it also lends itself to mayfly spinners. One of the drawbacks of the typical poly spinner is that the wings are pinned crossways to the hook shank with figure-eight wraps, making them too narrow, particularly where the wing attaches to the body. But a real spent spinner shows the opposite profile, with fan-shaped wings widest adjacent to the body, and narrower at their tips.
Kelly Galloup's book Cripples & Spinners (Dean Publishing, 2001) spends some time on this reality, noting'¨for example how wide a Trico's wings are at their base and in proportion to the bug's body.
Rather than affixing the poly or Zelon wings perpendicular to the shank, the Splitsville Spinner follows the Splitsville Caddis, with the synthetic tied in as a downwing immediately in front of the Hackle Stacker loop. Then, when the Hackle Stacker is pulled as tightly as possible through the middle of the wing fibers, and over a dubbed thorax, those fibers interlock with the hackle and fan widely outward. The tighter you pull the Hackle Stacker through the poly to split it, the more the wings flare, resulting in a very natural, translucent wing profile that can be trimmed to a precise shape. Plus, the spray of hackle fibers over the thorax adds great visibility and flotation.
One of the recent conquests of the Splitsville Caddis was an obese 24-inch brown I found sipping Blue-winged Olive spinners against the shady bank of a Catskills stream.
That same fanning technique can be easily adapted to upright-wing dun and emerger patterns too, with just one additional tying step. The wing material, whether deer hair, CDC, or synthetic yarn, is again tied in as a downwing immediately in front of the Hackle Stacker loop. However, before dubbing the thorax, you pull both the Hackle Stacker loop and the wings to a vertical position and post them into an -upright position with several tight wraps of dubbing behind the wing assembly.
Depending upon the volume of dubbing and how tightly you wrap it, the wings can be posted (from behind) from a 45- to 90-degree angle, with something in between most imitative of mayfly wings. Then, when the Hackle Stacker is pulled through the wings, they are neatly divided and fanned out in a roughly vertical plane. This technique has proven useful not only for smaller Blue-winged Olives, PMDs, and Sulphurs, but larger versions on curved hooks (like Daiichi's Klinkhamer iron), with tall matched CDC feathers or deer-hair wings, make great imitations of the big March Browns, Brown Drakes, and Isonychias.
In the late summer and early fall, our Catskills rivers see epic flights of small flying ants. With rusty brown bodies and short, iridescent wings, these little bugs look like small wasps on the water, and inspire frenzied but selective feeding. There's no dearth of good ant patterns, but most of them are hard to see on the water, with wings lying flat over the rear body segment. The problem is that the ants trapped on the water's surface more often show a spent wing profile, which screams vulnerability.
The Splitsville technique proves great for imitating these tiny ants. A short downwing of white poly or Zelon, split by a Hackle Stacker, provides sparse, translucent wings spent in a V-fashion, like the naturals. The combination of the white poly divided by a grizzly Hackle Stacker pulled over the ant's front body segment also offers great visibility and buoyancy, and serves as both a great imitation of the flying ant fall and a general summer searching pattern.
The same technique also makes for a useful tweak on the venerable but hard-to-see foam-body beetle. The beetles I find in my waters often splay their wings as they motorboat helplessly in the surface film. By splitting a darker gray wing of poly with a barred Hackle Stacker over a short thorax, you add visibility, flotation, and a sense of struggle to the typically inert-looking beetle.
These suggestions don't begin to exhaust the possibilities for using a Hackle Stacker as a tool to split wings. Quigley's innovations live on, and he'd be immensely pleased to know that his ideas continue to evolve and inspire the next generation of tiers.
Jonny King is a jazz musician and an attorney. He lives in New York City.