Tube Flies For Steelhead
May 30, 2013
By: Jay Nichols
Tube flies — flies tied on metal or plastic tubes rather than the shank of a hook — have been around since the mid-1940s. Joe Bates in Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing attributes the first tube fly to Winnie Morawski of England who tied it on a hollowed turkey quill. Their effectiveness for Atlantic salmon is well established, and according to co-authors Mark Mandell and Les Johnson in Tube Flies, pockets of anglers on both coasts of the United States have experimented with tubes for saltwater species since the 1950s. A handful of steelheaders have known about the effectiveness of tubes for a long time, but an increasing number of anglers from British Columbia to the Great Lakes are discovering that they can hook and land more fish with tubes.
In most situations where you use a long-shank hook — from slim profile patterns to large rabbit leeches — tube flies offer too many advantages to ignore. Large profile steelhead streamers often catch their share of fish, but they have limitations. Big flies are generally tied on long-shank hooks that are heavy, hard to cast, inhibit the motion of the fly, and sometimes help fish throw the hook. Long flies tied on short hooks often result in missed strikes because the hook is positioned too far forward in the fly pattern for good hooking. Flies with stinger hooks trailing behind the pattern solve some of these problems. More steelhead anglers are realizing that tube flies provide a better solution to improve the performance of their flies.
Perhaps no one in the relatively small group of Northwest tube fly devotees is more convinced about the effectiveness of tube flies than legendary steelhead angler Lani Waller. Though tube flies were not new to him — he had used them in Russia for Atlantic salmon and in bluewater for marlin in the mid to late 80s — Waller was introduced to tubes for steelhead by guide Bob Clay on the Kispiox in 1997. Waller recalls thinking at first that the short-shank egg hooks Clay used looked much too small for the 20-pound-plus Skeena-system steelhead. During one week that year, Clay landed every one of his fish with his tube flies, but using conventional flies Waller landed only 60 percent of his hooked fish. Waller became a believer.
Tube Fly Advantages
Tube flies offer five major advantages to steelheaders.
1) A long-shank hook often acts as a lever in a fish's mouth and can twist out. Tubes enable the use of short-shank hooks with large fly patterns, which eliminates the lever effect of long-shank hooks and increases the hooked-to-landed ratio. Waller says that when he used conventional long-shanked hooks he normally landed from 60 to 70 percent of his steelhead. But now with short-shank hooks on tube flies he lands at least 80 percent. He notes that when you have the fish of a lifetime on, that difference can become critical. Waller recalls losing a 20-plus-pound steelhead on a standard, extra-long-shank hook as the defining moment when he decided to convert completely to tubes.
2) You can use the sharpest hooks available to the fishing market on conventional patterns. Gamakatsu and Owner hooks are designed for bait fishing and for fish that often strike short or nip at the fly. Steelheaders know that steelhead often nip at the fly when they chase it, especially in colder water temperatures. Waller reports that he now has little faith in the conventional steelhead and salmon hooks offered by most manufacturers. "They may look elegant, but in my experience they don't re-sharpen very well and don't penetrate as well as Owner or Gamakatsu bait hooks. A sharp tip on the point is little help if the taper of the entire point is not thin enough."
3) The tube fly construction allows you to change a hook when it dulls without discarding the fly. Many steelhead and traditional Atlantic salmon patterns take a long time to tie and they dull easily — especially wets fished deep among rocks in winter steelheading.
4) You can also use small hooks to reduce hook damage to wild steelhead, and you can adjust the location of the hook in the fly depending on the aggressiveness of the fish.
5) Large bulky flies cast easier without the weight of a large hook. Though many advanced steelheaders design flies with weight to help their anchor for certain Spey casts, for most anglers, large flies tied on tubes allow them to cast large, heavily dressed flies with relative ease.
Through trial and error Waller used and altered the tube system that Clay taught him. He says that other steelheaders in the Northwest have been experimenting with tubes, and his system merely consists of refinements of his and his fishing partners' best ideas developed over the years.
Waller shortened the length of the tube and changed the hook and the manner in which it is attached to the tippet to create an effective, easy-to-rig tube-fly system for steelhead.
Shorter tube. A one-inch tube combined with a long rabbit-strip wing helps create a more animated fly that snakes in the water because the long wing of the fly is separate from, and independent of, the tube. Waller says this increased movement triggers the steelhead strike. The short tube also allows fish to inhale the fly easier; it prevents quick rejections from fish that detect the hard tube in their mouths; and it allows greater flexibility in the hook location in the fly pattern. For short-striking fish, you can add a long connector or tie a long loop to place the hook at the rear of the fly. For aggressive fish that take a hook situated at the rear of the fly deeply, you can snug the hook tight against the short tube so the hook rides forward in the fly pattern.
Better hook. In a tube fly the body of the fly pattern is tied on a plastic or metal tube in place of a hook shank so that you can match any fly with the right hook for the job and use a variety of different hooks available from a variety of different manufacturers.
Waller prefers Owner (www.ownerhooks.com) or Gamakatsu (www.gamakatsu.com) bait hooks because they are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and extremely sharp. Bait hooks seem an unlikely choice for fly fishing, but they are designed to hook fish that don't always come aggressively to the lure, but rather nip at it like steelhead. They also have a wide gap, offset point, and come in different colored finishes to complement different fly patterns and are stout enough to hold the largest fish.
Waller thinks the offset point is critical to the effectiveness of these hooks. "When a steelhead takes the pattern and closes down on the fly, the hook lies flat against
the tissue of the fish's mouth. The offset point is more likely to protrude to one side and stick more quickly than a straight point when the line and leader are drawn tight — either by the current or the angler."
Many people use tube flies with a straight-eye hook, but an up-eye hook does not impede the connection in any way because in Waller's method, the knot from the surgeon's loop is inserted into the junction tubing or tube itself.
In addition to Gamakatsu and Owner hooks, any premium, short-shank, extra-heavy hook (straight or turned-up eye) works in Waller's system. Tiemco's SP series of straight-eye, short-shank hooks (www.umpqua.com/hooks.htm); Mustad's Signature series (www.mustad.no/); Eagle Claw's (www.eagleclaw.com) Circle Sea; or Daiichi's X-series or Bleeding Bait hooks (www.daiichihooks.com) are all good choices .
New connection. Waller also changed the way the hook is attached to the tippet. With conventional tubes, the hook is usually attached with a clinch or improved clinch knot in which the tippet is secured to the hook eye and the hook eye stuck through a malleable piece of plastic integrated to the hard plastic tube, called junction tubing. Waller changed that rig by tying a double surgeon's loop and jambing the knot directly into the thin plastic tube or into a piece of junction tubing attached to the rear of the tube. His arrangement allows the hook to swing freely in the fly.
This setup has several advantages. It is easy to quickly change your hook on stream by backing the hook out of the loop. The hook can be oriented to ride either hook up or down, depending on how you adjust it in the tube or the junction tubing. By varying the length of the loop, you can manipulate where the hook rides in the fly pattern, without increasing the size of the tube or the junction tubing. The only criterion for the loop size is that it is large enough to slip over the short-shank hook.
Waller says that another advantage to this connection is that when you draw the loop into the junction tubing, the hook is supported by both sides of the loop and does not sag or drop too far below the wing of the fly. This keeps the hook closer to the wing when it swings into softer currents and still allows the wing to flutter and vibrate independently of the hook. For Waller, the long wing of the fly is the target that the fish sees first and is pursuing. "The goal is to make that target look alive and animated and to always keep the hook close to that part of the fly."
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Great Lakes Tubes
From California to British Columbia to the Great Lakes tributaries, tubes can help improve steelheader's success swinging streamers for steelhead. Rick Kustich (see "Steelhead Solitude," page 46) has fished with tubes almost exclusively for the past three years. Kustich says he likes the ability to easily integrate weight into a pattern by tying his favorite Great Lakes steelhead streamers on long copper tubes. When he fishes for steelhead on his home waters, they are usually holding deep in cold water and won't move far to take a fly. The heavy tube sinks quickly to the fish's level.
Kustich does not integrate the junction tubing into his fly, but instead leaves ample room at the rear of the pattern to connect it onstream. This provides several advantages: The flies are easier to tie, you can replace the tubing without ruining the fly, and you can adjust the length of tubing to place the hook at different areas in the pattern. While these patterns are not as easy to cast as ones tied on plastic tubes, they do get down quickly.
Thanks to Atlantic salmon and steelhead fishers, tubes have opened a frontier in fly-tying techniques, but the possibilities do not just stop there. Anglers who enjoy fishing streamer flies for trout, smallmouth bass, pike, and stripers may soon create patterns that can improve their fishing.
Jay Nichols is the managing editor of Fly Fisherman. He lives in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.