This story was originally titled “Get a Spine: A new approach to tying articulated baitfish patterns that look and act better than the real thing." It appeared in the April-May 2015 issue of Fly Fisherman.
As a full-time guide on the James, New, and Roanoke Rivers in Virginia for trout, bass, stripers, and muskies, I know the success of my business is determined by how well my guests do on a day-to-day basis. Of course, a number of factors such as weather, water temperature, water clarity, and angler skill levels can come into play, and I don't have any control over those factors. However I can control the fly I put on the end of their line.
Over the years I have guided many light-tackle spin anglers, and I've noticed that the lures that consistently outperform flies have swimming action such as the Sebile Magic Swimmer or the movement of soft plastics such as Zoom Flukes, which dart through the water side to side, up and down, and then glide and hover, much like a dying or struggling fish. Predators, whether a lion on the African plains or a smallmouth bass in your local river, are programmed to eat or kill something that acts like it is wounded, dying, or easy to get. And when a large brown or a musky sees something that moves with a start-and-stop motion, has a struggling jerk and twitch, and kicks and falls like a dying bait, it's almost always going to eat it.
The movement and success of conventional lures were the starting point and foundation of my obsession to design a fly that would react in the water the way a dying or injured baitfish would. Lots of water has passed under the bridge since I started trying to make a fly that would have all the key characteristics I was looking for. I think Thomas Edison said it best by saying he found hundreds of ways not to make an incandescent light bulb before he found the correct way.
After many years of attempts and failures, I too have found many ways not to make a fly that moved the way I wanted, but some good came out of it. For instance, when I designed the Gummy Minnow I was actually trying to design a realistic imitation of a swimming baitfish-type fly similar to the lures and soft plastics the conventional anglers do so well with. While the Gummy looked real, and felt real, and turned out to be a super fly for many gamefish, it didn't have the swimming action I was looking for.
Building the Motion
After many failed attempts I finally had an epiphany. I went back to the roots of what makes a fish swim. First, a fish is powered by its muscles. Second, they move and change direction with their fins aided by their muscles. Third, and most important, all of their movement starts with the spine and the independently moving vertebrae. Stripping fly line provides the "muscle," and I knew I could place and manipulate material to fill the role of fins. But, I was stumped on the spine.
While articulated flies have been around for years, I was looking for something that would be faster and easier than tying on broken hook shanks. To really get what I wanted I needed a series of short connections of wire (vertebrae) to form a platform on which I could build a body.
Martin Bawden at Flymen Fishing Company was already making specially designed shanks for Greg Senyo's steelhead and salmon flies. I went to him with my request and together we designed a series of stainless steel shanks in four lengths (10 mm, 15 mm, 20 mm and 25 mm) that would provide the backbone for Game Changer style flies. This system of shanks—available as a complete system that contains all the sizes (Articulated Fish Spines) or in packages of individual sizes—can be easily daisy chained to each other to create a backbone for flies with a wide range of swimming motions (the more shanks you use, the more serpentine action you will achieve) and sizes.
The Game Changer design excels on apex predators such as musky. The fly that took this fish is called a T-Bone, a Bob Popovics-inspired offshoot of the Game Changer tied with bucktail. The T-Bone turns sideways on the strip, giving the fish a broadside view of the target. Photo by Blane Chocklett
In addition to the series of interconnected shanks, the other keys to the Game Changer's swimming action are the head shape and body construction. The head of the fly is what starts the serpentine swimming action. From guide, fly designer, and writer Henry Cowen (who interviewed a lure designer at SPRO), I learned that for a lipless fly to swim like a conventional swimbait, it must have a solid or dense arrowhead shape that pushes water out and away from the body. The body and head must be constructed of a material that resists water—the water must have something to push against to start the side-to-side action. The narrower the body, the tighter the wiggle; the broader and denser the body, the wider the wiggle.
After talking with Henry, and through trial-and-error testing, I created a number of fly designs using the Game Changer design including the T-Bone—which is one of my most successful musky flies.
Changing It Up
The Game Changer has evolved to become a fly design style, not a specific fly pattern, and I create Game Changers with different materials for different species and situations. So far the Game Changer in its different iterations has caught many different species of fish all over the world from trout to roosterfish.
The original Game Changers were tied with Body Fur, but I now use Chocklett's Body Wrap (Hareline), which is a similar synthetic material attached to a cord, but it is more dense and has a tighter weave, which helps the swimming action. A fly tied with this material suspends in the water, and kicks and flutters in a tantalizing way when it is stripped.
Over the years I have also experimented with versions tied with EP Fiber, both on a brush and tied in with Johnny King's V-style, which he uses on his Kinky Muddler. [The original Kinky Muddler story was in the Feb.-Mar. 2011 issue and is now available at flyfisherman.com/kinky-muddler. The Editor.] Over time tiers may discover other materials and methods for creating the bodies, and they may work very well as long as they are dense enough to aid in the swimming action.
I guide on a few of the top musky rivers in the country, and I wanted to make a natural version using bucktail for these toothy critters. The challenge here was to make a really big version of the Game Changer—around 12 to 14 inches—that could still be cast on a fly rod. Inspired by the Hollow Fleye and Bulkhead methods of Bob Popovics, which provide the illusion of size without adding too much bulk, I was able to create the pattern I was looking for. Instead of using the tips of the butts of the bucktail to tie down and reverse tie, I use a big hair stacker and put the tips of the bucktail in and stack the hairs evenly and then trim the uneven butts. This allows me to tie in the middle of the bucktail and reverse-tie it down, which creates more of a barrier, more bulk, for the water to push up to and out instead of through the material. This method also lets me have a clean, even look to the finished fly. A spun head pushes water out from the body, starting the remarkable serpentine swimming action of the Game Changer.
The Game Changer is more a style of tying than a specific fly pattern. Body materials include Body Wrap, hackle, and bucktail. Clockwise from top: Feathered sculpin GC, shad GC, silverside GC, baby brown GC, and a Feathered shad GC. Photo by Jay Nichols
The next design I made using this new style was a deer body hair version for the bruiser browns on the White River. Steve Dally, of Dally's Ozark Fly Fishers in Cotter, Arkansas, gave me the idea to downsize a musky version of the Game Changer tied with deer body hair, hen saddle, and mallard flank feathers.
The next day I got a chance to fish the fly and landed my personal best male river brown trout measuring 27 inches. With that great brown trout fresh in my mind, I called Bob Popovics and discussed the new fly and how to get one that would get deeper faster without being too heavy to cast all day. Bob asked me if I thought about using all feathers as the body and head.
After getting off the phone I experimented with hen saddle and schlappen feathers wrapped around the shanks. By increasing the size of the feathers as I moved forward on the shanks, I could create a tapered body and the soft webby fibers were dense enough to push water out and away from the body, creating an enticing action that moves like nothing I've ever seen. This all-natural version of the Game Changer is my current favorite, and the fish respond well to it. I owe a lot to Bob Popovics for the inspiration.
The bucktail, deer body hair, and feathered Game Changers have an impressionistic quality that fish seem to prefer sometimes. Flies tied with natural materials are also lighter and easier to cast, which is a huge benefit when making flies over 8 inches long. The deer-hair version is also more buoyant than the Body Wrap version, which can work better in shallow water or when fish are responding to a fly that rises back to the surface after being stripped on a sinking line.
The Game Changer design makes fishing the fly easy, and it can be mesmerizing watching it dart and swim back to you. One of the best things about this fly is that normal strips swim and wiggle the fly, but when you pause, the fly hovers, kicks, and falls horizontally. I'm always experimenting with retrieves to find what the fish like best, but I often do a start-and-stop retrieve or short strips with a long strip thrown in. Make sure to pause the fly after several strips as this is where most or half of the strikes occur.
A saltwater hand-over-hand retrieve with the rod under your arm can be effective at times for a wide range of freshwater fish, from trout to musky. I find this retrieve to work best in clear water, when fish are being picky. With a faster-moving fly, you force them to react immediately.
There are several ways of doing a two-handed strip. The one I like is to place the rod under your casting arm with the rod tip pointing at or into the water. This angle, which I keep even when doing a standard retrieve, allows you to have good contact with the fly at all times, reducing unwanted slack in the line and minimizing the chance of missing a strike from the fish. You strip by pulling the line in an upward angle with your casting hand while at the same time pulling straight back with your other hand. This will be a continued nonstop sequence until the fly is back to the boat and ready to cast again.
When you retrieve any fly for apex predators, you want to have several gears to work with, and this means controlling your retrieve so that you can speed it up if necessary. When a big predator moves on the fly, it can be a cat-and-mouse game, and sometimes a fish needs a little more coaxing to finally commit to the fly.
The natural predator-prey response is for the prey to flee when the predator starts its attack. I know I am mixing metaphors here, but I have found that my clients understand the swim speeds best in terms of running. Many times you want to walk the fly back to the boat to start the retrieve (first gear) and if a fish moves on the fly and starts following but doesn't eat, you then want to start to jog the fly back (second gear). If the fish speeds up and shows more interest but still doesn't eat, I then run the fly away from the fish (third gear). This is usually when the fish makes its final assault and clobbers the fly. We all want something that we can't get.
Sometimes you need a fourth gear to get the fish to commit, and you won't have it if you begin your initial retrieve too fast.
Everything is happening fast at this point and the eat is usually at or near the boat. When you run out of space at the boat, it is time for the figure eight. This is popular for musky, but I have also caught large browns with it. When the fly gets within two feet of your rod tip, stick the rod tip deeper into the water and move the fly in figure-eight patterns or at least a wide oval with a change of direction. Once you go from the retrieve to the figure eight you should not slow down or stop the fly—you should increase the speed, especially on the turn. Make as wide a turn as possible, as tight turns make it hard for larger fish to change direction.
I have found that whenever a fly changes direction, it seems to trigger a take.
I firmly believe that fish with teeth are designed to grab their prey, so it is natural for fish such as musky and large browns to look for the best opportunity, which I call the T-bone profile shot. My T-Bone fly is a Game Changer style of fly designed to kick when stripped and provide this profile.
Strikes can be violent on the Game Changer fly. It is important to wait when you see the strike before setting the hook with a strip set because the fish tend to rush the fly and overrun it, causing slack. To get a solid hook-up, let the fish turn away before you set to avoid pulling the fly out of its mouth and try to strip a lot of line.
*Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouth, musky, and stripers year-round. He is a signature fly designer for Umpqua Feather Merchants, ambassador for Temple Fork Outfitters, and consultant for Flymen Fishing Company. He lives in Troutville, Virginia.