January 05, 2022
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This article originally appeared in the July 1994 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of Dave Whitlock's "Fishing Sculpins."
The sculpin minnow is to large predatory fish what the mouse or rabbit is to large air and land predators–a meal. The sight of one can trigger an·immediate attack from gamefish such as trout, salmon, bass, stripers, and pike. So if you understand their habits and imitate them with the right fly and presentations, you can catch the largest river- and lake-dwelling gamefish.
When I was in my mid-twenties and on fire to catch a ten-pound-plus brown trout on a fly, I discovered the best way to do so was with sculpins. While staying at Rimshoals Resort on the White River in Arkansas, I saw an angler come to the dock with a 14-pound male brown he had caught on a dead sculpin. I watched as he gutted the fish, and after he took it to the resort's freezer, I investigated the pile of guts he had tossed into the river. That brown trout's stomach was jammed with two- to three-inch sculpins–17 of them. It was then that I started designing sculpin flies.
After 48 years of fly fishing, I still use this fly as my most consistently effective way to tempt large selective and wary fish in the waters I fish near my home and around the world.
To fish a sculpin fly most effectively, you must have the right imitation and use it with the right fly tackle and presentation techniques. And as I discovered years ago, you must also have a unique response to a sculpin strike to hook the attacking gamefish. Here is how I catch large trout, bass, and other gamefish on sculpin patterns.
What is a sculpin?
I firmly believe the more you know about a fish and its prey, the more likely you will be successful at fishing for that species. Sculpins are fish of the Cottus family. They live on the bottoms of streams and some lakes and seas in North America and Europe.
Sculpins are shaped to rest on the bottom of the stream and swim most efficiently near that area. They have an intricate camouflage system that makes them almost invisible to predators and their own prey. I have often watched them underwater in cleat creeks and in my aquariums. They sit quietly and catch small minnows and trout that swim up to them in the mistaken belief that they are just another harmless rock.
With no swim bladder and a large heavy planer head, the sculpin easily maintains its preferred position on and under the bottom structures of a stream. Think of the sculpin as a salamander-like fish. It has large pectoral fins that act almost like legs and feet. They are on each side of its body just behind the head and are more important to its movements than the small unimpressive tail fin.
When the sculpin is flushed out of its bottom structure, it usually, like another bottom dweller, the crayfish, makes a short fast swim to the next nearest bottom hiding hole. If it must swim long or far to escape, it is in serious trouble, because it just does not have the physical endurance and shape to make long high-speed swims.
I confirmed this one afternoon while I was doing some underwater photography in the White River near my home. I spotted a large sculpin hiding in the rocky bottom rubble. I chased it out, hoping to get a good full-view photograph. It kept making three- or four-foot darts away from me as I tried to get close enough for a decent macro photograph of it. Within minutes the sculpin was so tired I caught it with my bare hands. I am sure that brown trout and smallmouth chase sculpins similarly until they tire.
Sculpins, I've observed, seem to prefer to feed by ambush like a toad or frog. They sit quietly, fully camouflaged, and let minnows, scuds, worms, and aquatic insects move into their big-mouthed strike zone. But they emerge from their hiding holes in rocks or vegetation to forage. The little fish can be aggravating to bait fishers as they drag a baited hook (worms, eggs, crayfish) under a rock, steal the bait, and leave the hook snagged on the bottom. They are particularly active like this in low-light conditions, when the water is rising; and when some fish are actively spawning eggs, which they devour greedily.
Bait fishermen who seek large trout often use bloody (live or dead) sculpins, because, they say, the crippled bloody condition better attracts big fish.
Sculpins have a lower tolerance to poor water quality than trout or bass, only living where water is healthy. They grow to about six inches but generally range from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches long.
Their size depends on the species and growing conditions.
Sculpin Fly Tackle
Because a good sculpin imitation is bulky and weighted to sink and hold on or near the bottom, sculpin flies require medium to heavy fly tackle. I prefer 6- to 9- weight medium-action or medium-fast-action 8 1/2- to 9 1/2-foot graphite rods.
For fly lines, except for water that is only one or two feet deep, I use a sinking-tip or full-sinking fly line and a 3- to 6-foot Umpqua knotless "sinking line" leader.
I vary my tippet strength from 1X to 3X for #6 to #8 sculpins, 1X to 0X for #2 to #4, and 02X to 04X for #1/0 to #5/0. The best knot to attach the tippet and provide for best water movement is an open-loop uni-knot or Duncan loop.
Four Sculpin Fly Fishing Methods
I use four methods to present and fish sculpin flies in flowing waters. No matter what sculpin design I use, all these methods work best with an extra-sharp, barbless hook that has a wide hook gap.
Method 1: Bank fishing. This is a method that works best where there is sufficient structure and depth near the stream's bank to shelter large fish, and when the water level is normal or above normal and clear. Large fish in such situations seem to want sculpins and other foods to drift down to them or swim at 90-degree angles to the bank into deeper water.
Position yourself out from the bank, and cast the sculpin straight to the bank. You can even land the fly on the bank. Point your rod at the fly and retrieve it erratically, crisply, with line strips that make it look like a sculpin that has been scared or flushed out of the shallows. Try to keep the sculpin swimming sideways so it is most visible and looks vulnerable to the large gamefish looking upstream.
This is an exciting, visual, active way to present and fish sculpins. You make a tight cast and presentation against the bank structure, then watch the fly dart into the path of the predator. Watching the chase and strike is exhilarating.
Here are three keys to the best results with this method:
- Use a sculpin that has a snag-guard so you won't hold back from putting it on or next to the bank.
- Try to cover every couple of yards of the bank with a cast and then swim the sculpin just a few feet into open water. Most strikes occur just as the fly comes into colored holding water.
- When a fish chases or follows the sculpin more than a few feet, to get the fish to strike the fly mend upstream or downstream so the sculpin will change its direction. This tactic usually excites the fish to nail the fly.
Method 2: Fishing bottom runs. This is a most productive method when trout, steelhead, smallmouth, or stripers are lying in midstream at the bottom of riffle water and down through the deep, slow runs. It works best with normal or low water conditions.
Large predator fish lie close to the bottom and watch for crippled minnows and minnows that swim in close to their ambush and attack feeding lanes. During autumn these areas may also hold a pack of big trout staging for their spawning run. The sculpin is the perfect fly to aggravate the big trout into vicious attacks.
Here the sculpin must land and sink quickly to the bottom, then it must drift and tumble helplessly, bouncing off rocks through the run, and then swing across and turn back upstream. When the fly moves upstream it should dart, pause, and swim with irregular movements like a foraging or panicked sculpin.
Using either a sinking-tip or full-sinking 30-foot taper with a sink rate of III or IV and a 4-foot leader, start at the top of the run and cast across and upstream. Let the fly and line sink and drift naturally downstream past you, mending when necessary to control the speed of the drift and the depth if you are using a sinking-tip line. The full-sinking line is difficult to mend to control the drift speed.
As the line begins to straighten below, it will also make a swing across the current to your side. This change of direction and speed often causes a fish to follow the fly to attack it. Be alert for when the fish body-slam the sculpin pattern, which is usually a killing move, not an eating move. Don't strike until you feel the fish's weight on the fly, or you will likely come up empty. Fish usually stun large minnows before they swallow them head first.
Once I discovered this habit and I waited to strike until the trout actually held the sculpin streamer in its mouth, I began hooking many more fish. One afternoon in late autumn on the Yellowstone River I landed two large browns that had swallowed my #2/0 sculpin fly head first and had not been hooked. The fly had just lodged backward in the trout's throat. This unusual event convinced me it's correct to wait to set the hook on the fish until they hold the fly and move with it after the first jolt or two.
After the fly makes a deep across-stream swing, it will plane up to the surface if the line is just held or retrieved against the current with a raised rod tip. This is usually wasted time and effort. Instead point your rod tip down to the stream bottom and begin a series of short erratic line strips to make the sculpin dart upstream near the bottom. Then feed back one to three feet of slack line to make the sculpin stop and drift back downstream. This action often draws strikes. Don't do more than two or three up-down cycles with each cast. Finally, strip in line to raise the sculpin to the surface and then cast back across and upstream, covering the water in a systematic series of casts and drops downstream much like an Atlantic-salmon fisherman or steelheader would do.
One spring while fishing Arkansas's White River I used a two-fly combination of a small sculpin (#6 or #8) on the point and a nymph as a dropper fly. I used the same second method described here, and I had some amazing fishing. First a small trout (four- to ten-inch) would take the dropper nymph; then the small trout's struggles would attract larger trout that would grab the sculpin. On most days the fish seem to take more when the sculpin is in one phase of the presentation (drifting down, for example). Concentrating on that phase can improve your success.
Method 3: Sight casting to fish below a salmon, steelhead, or trout redd. This method is not to harass spawners into striking an egg-eating sculpin, but rather to pick off spawn eaters below or to the side of the nest areas.
For this method a floating or short sinking-tip line works best. You must use a fast-sinking sculpin design, because the water in these areas is shallow and swift. The sculpin fly must swim on or near the bottom through a narrow short area that the spawn eaters hold in near the egg-laying activity.
Position yourself to the side and just above the spawning area so you can control the line to swim the sculpin precisely to cover the spawn eaters. Work to either visible fish or the areas to the side and below the redds. Another productive area is the first deeper-colored water below the redds or next to the bank, especially if little egg laying is occurring or if the light is intense. At those times egg eaters hide and rest until the food becomes more abundant and the light is right.
This method of fishing sculpin flies along with single-egg patterns has become popular, but I am opposed to using it to catch spawners. Even if you do release the fish, you are disturbing them while they perform an extremely delicate and important natural function. Scaring spawners or hooking them off their redds is unsportsmanlike and will surely cause decreased natural reproduction.
Method 4: Brooks's Panicked Muddler. Joe Brooks often wrote about fishing Muddler Minnows for big Yellowstone and Missouri river browns with this method. It involves making long casts with a floating or sinking-tip line. Cast a big Muddler Minnow, Spuddler, or Whitlock Sculpin straight across the tailout of a pool. Then briskly strip the streamer across the pool with continuous 6- to 18-inch fly-line strips almost all the way back to the rod tip. Big browns, steelhead, brook trout, and rainbows all respond to this method, especially males just before they spawn. This method seems to work best on dark, still, cloudy autumn days or late calm evenings. It's exciting to watch a three- to ten-pound male brown make a wake behind the speeding streamer, then leap out of the water and down on the fly.
Usually they miss the fly or hit it with an arm-jerking jolt with their mouth closed.
Once after missing about 20 good browns in the tailouts above Livingston, Montana, I stopped by Joe's motel and asked him what I was doing wrong–and if a trailer hook would help. Joe told me that a trailer hook would not help, because the fish were chasing and hitting the streamer with their mouths closed in a territorial response. I tried a trailer hook anyway, but Joe was right. It did not improve my hooking success.
It seems that if the fly pushes a Vwake just under the surface as it darts across stream (never downstream or upstream), it draws more consistent results. Also the faster you strip it in, the more wildly the browns react to it.
Sculpin Fly Design
Because the sculpin is a bulky soft-bodied fish that lives and swims near the bottom of a stream or lake, sculpin imitations must mimic the natural's size, shape, texture, color, and action at the bottom. Some of the most popular patterns are Don Gapen's Muddler Minnow, Al Troth's Bullhead, Don Williams's Spuddler, Wool-head Sculpin, Partridge Sculpin, Shenk's Sculpin, Whitlock Matuka Sculpin, and Whitlock Near Nuff Sculpin.
Because of the necessary large bulky head and fat body, the fly must be weighted to sink well. It needs a wide exposed hook gap.
The color pattern of a sculpin fly should resemble the stream bottom of the river you are fishing. Usually this is a brindle or barring of olive, black, brown, gold, and tan.
To make the fly dart up and down along the bottom, the head should have a divingplane design like the Matuka Sculpin or lead eyes like the Near Nuff Sculpin.
The best location for the hook point for most sculpin fly fishing is about midpoint of the body. If the sculpin fly is fished on or very near the bottom, the hook should be in the up position so that it is less likely to snag on bottom. This is also better for hooking fish that strike from the side or top angle. If the sculpin fly is to be fished more than a foot off the bottom or at the surface, the hook should point down, because the strike will more often be from a fish swimming and attacking beneath the fly.
Most good sculpin habitat is a jumble of coarse rock, ledges, logs, limbs, roots, and aquatic vegetation, so it's best to use a down-pointing-hook fly with a monofilament snag-guard. A snag-guard should not cause any missed strikes.
Sculpin fly fishing is perhaps the most consistently effective method to catch larger trout in streams, but it is also a method that works well in lakes, tidal flows, and oceans for many other large predator fish, especially bass, musky, pike, stripers, salmon, and peacock bass. All these fish eat bottom-dwelling minnows. Since the sculpin fly design also imitates suckers, darters, small catfish, chub, crayfish, and maybe even shrimp, it is an excellent choice almost anywhere for big swimming predators.
The versatile Muddler Minnow design can be altered to closely resemble several food forms, from surface insects to deepswimming minnows. Examples include hoppers, stonefly adults, emergent nymphs, minnows, and sculpins. The following Muddler Minnow pattern imitates sculpins and sculpin-like deep minnows.
HOOK: TMC 9394 or Partridge, #8 to #2/0.
THREAD: Tan or cream Danville single float strand waxed nylon.
CEMENTS: Dave's Flexament and Zap-A Gap.
BODY WEIGHT: Lead wire equal to the hook's wire diameter.
TAIL: Mottled turkey or imitation turkey quill.
DUBBING: Cream Antron or Partridge SHL same color.
RIB: Small oval gold tinsel.
UNDERWING: Grey fox back or tail hair and gold or olive Crystal Hair.
WING: Mottled turkey wing quill sections.
COLLAR: Deer hair. HEAD: Deer hair.
SNAG-GUARD: Mason hard nylon.
Matukas and Near Nuff Sculpins
The Near Nuff Sculpin is more suggestive, easier to tie, faster sinking, and darker than the Matuka Sculpin. It is effective when tied in olive-and-black, gold-and-black, white-and-black, yellow- or chartreuse-and black, and orange-and-black.
When you are fishing Near Nuff Sculpins, you may catch more but smaller fish than with the Matuka Sculpin. This design also works best in #4 to #10. The Matuka Sculpin works best in #4 to #5/0, probably because the Near Nuff Sculpin's design does not look or act correctly for good imitation when the fly is tied larger than #4, while the Matuka Sculpin becomes more realistic as the size increases.
HOOK: Turned-up eye or straight eye, 4X- to 6X-long heavy salmon or streamer hook, #8 to#5/0.
THREAD: Danville's flat waxed single strand nylon, yellow or cream.
CEMENTS: Dave's Flexament, Goop, and Zap-A-Gap.
MATUKA RIB: Medium brass wire.
BODY WEIGHT: Lead wire.
BELLY: Coarse cream-colored dubbing.
SNAG-GUARD: Mason hard nylon 3/4 the diameter of the hook wire.
TAIL AND BODY: Six to eight soft webby flexible cree or grizzly neck hackles, dyed to the body's color.
SHOULDER: Rabbit hair the color of tile tail and back.
GILL: Bright red Antron.
PECTORAL FINS: Two cock pheasant lower back feathers.
COLLAR AND HEAD: Deer hair in cream, black, and natural, or gold and olive.
Near Nuff Sculpin
HOOK: TMC, Partridge, or Mustad, #4 to #10.
THREAD: Danville's Flymaster 6/0, olive, gold, or black.\
WEIGHT: Lead eyes.
TAIL: Two grizzly rump or flank feathers.
FLASH: Olive or gold Crystal Flash, two strands on each side.
BODY: Coarse or medium olive- or gold and-black dubbing.
BODY PALMER: Grizzly neck, saddle, or body flank feathers dyed gold or olive.
NOTES: Tie the lead eyes to the hook shank on top of turned-down-eye hooks so the fly swims hook up. Use tile same general tying method as you would with a Woolly Bugger except tie the hackle in at the hook bend, tip first, so the larger longer barbules are at the head of the fly to simulate the sculpin's large head.
Dave Whitlock, a fly-fishing instructor and author of Aquatic Trout Foods, lives in Norfork, Arkansas.