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Spawning Purple
By John Shewey and Forrest Maxwell

Flies For Summer Steelhead

If we were to assemble one each of every Steelhead fly in print today, we would be left with a pile of thousands. Most of these flies, at one time or another, have taken a Steelhead for someone somewhere. A few patterns from that pile, however, would be responsible for countless hookups over the years.

Old favorites like the Green-Butt Skunk, Fall Favorite, Purple Peril and Skykomish Sunrise have taken thousands of fish. Is this fact a function of the relative effectiveness of these flies or simply the natural result of so many anglers fishing them? As a general statement, we would argue in favor of the latter—after all, if 100 anglers fish one pattern while one angler fishes a different pattern, we would certainly expect the 100 to hook more fish.

Still, some flies fish better than others: We would choose a simple hairwing skunk long before tying on a fanciful Victorian-style Atlantic salmon fly because our collective experience suggests a basic dark hairwing fly is simply more effective more often than the gaudy, intricate feather wings that have traveled cross-continent to gain a small following amongst Steelhead tiers.

Once in a great while the Steelhead gods grant an angler the chance to watch how a fish reacts to the fly: You watch your fly swing through the steelhead's window and then watch as the fish moves for the fly, stays put or at times seems to shy away. If the fish fails to move for the fly, you might opt to switch patterns and try again. Sometimes the new fly makes all the difference and we have no idea why. More often, a fish that refuses to move for the first fly, likely won't move for any successive casts. Still, angler's have documented enough of these cases that we can say with some certainty that at times fly choice does make a difference.

We submit, however, that unless you are indeed casting to a visible fish, changing flies offers no advantage. In other words, fly choice matters but the steelheading community has no idea why. Unless we can watch a particular steelhead's reaction to our flies, we simply do not have enough information on which to logically base a decision to change flies. We hardly know why a Steelhead takes a fly to begin with so how can we hope to know what factors motivate a fish to choose one pattern and reject another? We can guess, but we simply don't have enough information to form anything but a guess. Thus we feel that a major strategical advantage is gained by the angler who chooses one or two favorite flies from amongst the thousands and then covers the water as diligently and efficiently as possible.

We are often reminded of the many times over the seasons that some elated trout angler has rushed into the shop wide-eyed with a story of how a Steelhead jumped all over his No. 12 Elk Hair Caddis or Hare's Ear Nymph. We once fished for a week without moving a Steelhead only to have two such trout anglers come running into the shop to tell their respective stories of Steelhead pouncing on their trout flies. Why should this happen? We don't know. The biologists don't know. The entire steelheading community doesn't know. It is enough for us that these majestic gamefish will humor us on occasion by grabbing our flies.

In fact, a quick study of the endless horde of Steelhead patterns in print today leads to two important conclusions: First, some talented fly tiers have lent their interest to Steelhead flies with little regard to Steelhead fishing. While this development is certainly to the betterment of the tier's art, it is rather disserving to the beginning Steelhead angler who understandably finds tremendous difficulty in choosing a few good flies in which to place his or her confidence and fortunes astream.

Second and more importantly, this vast confusion of patterns suggests that Steelhead will grab just about anything at one time or another.

Given both of those facts, how is the beginning steelheader to choose a fly in which to place his or her fate and trust? We grappled with this problem for quite some time before the obvious solution finally emerged from the carnage of our minds. Why not just follow the same ploy we always used while working in the fly shops? A customer walks in and asks what fly we recommend for the North Santiam or the Umpqua or the McKenzie or just about any other river. We escort the customer over to the fly bins, pull out a Purple Matuka and leave it at that. We always sold the flies that we ourselves fished.

An overwhelming majority of the time—probably along the lines of 95 percent of the time—we fish our favorite purple flies, the Purple Matuka and the Spawning Purple. The remaining five percent of the time might see us choose a Brad's Brat or a skunk. That five percent generally involves trips to rivers where we have chosen some favorite river-specific flies. Oregon's Deschutes is the best example of this. Here we might fish a Rick's Revenge or a Mack's Canyon —just for variety if nothing else since the Purple Matuka and Spawning Purple take just as many fish there.

We have developed so much confidence in our favorite flies that on those days when no Steelhead is forthcoming, we simply disdain any belief that our flies were the cause of our failure to hook a fish. We go on fishing the Purple Matuka or Spawning Purple with utter confidence. The fly is the absolute last factor on which we will blame a fishless day.

And the fly is the least of our worries once secured to the tippet. That fly will catch fish. Absolutely. Without question. The same confidence that permeates your every cast must extend right down to individual tackle items, especially the fly. In the words of a tele vangelist, "if you want to be healed brother, then you gotta believe," and healed in this game means a chrome-bright summer steelhead trying to yank the rod out of your hand. So tie on a Purple Matuka or a Spawning Purple and be healed. If you choose any other fly, do so with the same utter confidence. The fly you choose will catch fish. Period...

If you don't tie your own flies, then finding our two favorites may pose a problem. The Spawning Purple and the Purple Matuka, despite their effectiveness for us, are not in especially widespread use simply because they evolved for us as local patterns without a lot of fanfare. Many fly shops, however, are happy to tie custom orders. Just show them a copy of this book and ask to have a few Spawning Purple's and Purple Matuka's tied up. If you do tie your own flies (and we recommend that every angler begin doing so at some point), you will find steelhead flies to be a relatively easy and thoroughly enjoyable undertaking.

On most rivers, we fish our favorite flies on No. 1/0 through 4 hooks, with No. 2's being our choice most of the time. Some rivers have a reputation for small flies; other for large flies. We've fished such places and always found our No. 2's to catch steelhead...

Materials: Spawning Purple

    Thread: Fluorescent flame-orange single strand floss and then orange or black 6/0 or smaller thread.

    Hook: No. 3/0-6, salmon/steelhead wet fly.

    Tag: Silver flat tinsel.

    Body: Flame orange single-strand floss (used as tying thread).

    Wing: Four or five separate "spikes" of purple marabou tied in at intervals along the top of the hook, beginning at about mid-shank; the last of these is tied in after the purple hackle is wrapped.

    Collar: Purple hackle.

    Cheeks: Jungle cock (optional).

    Second Collar: Dyed-orange guinea.

    Tying Instructions: Spawning Purple

    1. Secure a length of fine flat silver tinsel just ahead of midshank. Wrap this tinsel backward and then forward again, keeping each wrap tight against the previous one but without overlapping the wraps. Forming both the tag and the silver underbody.

    2. Wrap backward with the single-strand floss, forming a thin butt. Leaving a turn or two of silver tinsel showing for a tag, reverse direction with the floss and wrap back to mid-shank. At this point, secure a wing of purple marabou fibers (use the entire tip section from a marabou "blood plume") This "spike" of marabou, when pulled to the rear, should extend to the back of the hook bend.

    3. Tie in three more of these marabou spikes, leaving a gap between the respective tie-down points. Each successive spike must be cut slightly longer than the previous ones so that the ends are even at the rear.

    4. After securing the fourth spike of marabou, switch to the fine thread and secure a purple hackle. Make five or six turns of hackle for a collar.

    5. Now add a fifth spike of purple marabou and then, if desired, add a long jungle cock eye to each side of the wing. Then finish the fly by making two or three turns of orange-dyed guinea (use the long-fibered rump feathers for large flies.) ~ John Shewey and Forrest Maxwell

    Credits: From Fly Fishing for Summer Steelhead published by Frank Amato Publications.

For more great flies, check out: Beginning Fly Tying, Intermediate Fly Tying and Advanced Fly Tying.

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