As long as I have been fly fishing, since about 1992, wet flies have been constantly “rediscovered” in magazine articles. So, I’m not going to do any rediscovering because I figure they’ve never really been gone.
If you’re coming to tenkara without a western fly fishing background, perhaps wet flies are new to you in name. But if you’ve been fishing tenkara kebari you’ve been fishing wet flies and probably even employing some of the same tactics that those old-time wet fly anglers used in Europe and America.
I won’t give a full discussion on wet fly tactics in this article, but I will give you some tips for fishing the Pass Lake after the tying instructions.
If you dig around a bit, you’ll find various origin stories for the Pass Lake. Some say Canada some say Wisconsin or even Washington. I will say it seems to be a popular Wisconsin fly even now. In his book Upper Midwest Flies That Catch Trout and How to Fish Them: Year-Round Guide, Ross A. Mueller states that the Pass Lake was designed by a Clintonville, Wisconsin minister in 1938. And By the way that Ross A. Mueller book is a great little book.
I personally came upon the pattern while living in Maine in about 1996. There was an article about it in a regional outdoor rag and so I tied a few up and hit the stream. I can still remember the first brown trout that I caught using it on the Little Ossippe River in southern Maine. The were small black stoneflies fluttering about and a rising trout under an overhanging branch that I couldn’t approach any way but from upstream. I tied on the Pass Lake, let it swing downstream and under the tree … and it worked its magic. The trout was hooked and so was I.
I’ve fished the Pass Lake on and off in the intervening years but in the last couple of years my increased interest in fly manipulation due to my tenkara habit has brought it to the front of my fly box again. I don’t want to overstate it – but the Pass Lake works. It just plain works. I’ve fished various other winged wet flies but when it comes to versatility and effectiveness I have not had nearly as much luck with any other as I’ve had with the Pass Lake. I suspect it’s that white wing that makes the difference. The fish see it, and I can see it too. Being able to see and track that white wing in the water can sometimes really help to see trout moving to the fly.
The materials are pretty simple. And of course, you can vary them. The keys to keeping it close to a real Pass Lake is a tail, dark body, white wing and brown hackle.
I generally tie them in size 12 or 10. I tie them both on heavy wet fly hooks and also lighter dry fly hooks – just to keep my options open. You can even stretch it out and tie it as a streamer. The hooks used here are Fulling Mill Heavy Weight Champ barbless hooks. The Fulling Mill HWC is a competition quality, barbless, heavy nymph hook – and it is super sharp.
The traditional wing is white calf tail. Frankly the calf-tail can be a pain in the butt to tie with, it’s slippery and doesn’t compress very much. White antron makes a great, easier to use substitute, especially if you want to tie it in smaller sizes like 14 and down.
For the hackle I like to use India Hen Neck. This is a really cheap type of hackle (usually about $5 or so) and I really prefer the softness and webbiness of it compared to the more expensive genetic hen hackle that can be $20 and up.
For tailing, golden pheasant tippets seem to be popular now, though the original may have been mallard flank according to what I’ve read. I’ve been using the golden pheasant tippets lately, just because I like the look. But I wouldn’t sweat it too much. I used the brown hen hackle fibers for tailing for many years – the fish didn’t seem to care.
I’m not too particular about the thread – I’ve been using red a lot, and black and brown. I’m not convinced it matters at all. In sizes down to about 12 I use 6/0 but go down to 8/0 for the smaller sizes.
For the body I like using peacock herl – because peacock herl is awesome. But the original is black chenille. I sometimes use the eyed peacock sticks for herl – but to be truthful, I wouldn’t worry about it too much and I’ve been using strung herl too. Some folks complain about strung herl – and it usually isn’t as full as some of the herl on the eyed sticks – but often I don’t really want herl that full anyway. And the way that I double wrap it makes it pretty nice even if it’s not the thickest.
Step-by-Step Tying Instructions
- Tie on thread and tie in golden pheasant tippet tail. I like to wrap the tailing fibers all the way up the shank to help create a smooth body and create some heft.
- Tie in the peacock herl, two or three strands. And like with the tailing, tie it on all up the shank to create a smooth underbody. Before wrapping the herl for the body you can create a thicker body with the thread under wraps if you want. Finish the under wrapping with the thread back at the hook bend.
- Wrap the herl around the shank up toward the eye, and then back to the bend to form the body. The double-wrapped herl creates a nice full herl body.
- Here’s my little trick for a durable herl body. Spiral the thread in spaced wraps up over the herl body up to the eye to reinforce the herl body. Throw on a couple of half hitches and trim the herl.
- Time to tie in the wing. Snip a bit of the calf tail for a wing. You don’t want too much, or it will be thick to properly tie in. You’ll get good at judging the right amount. You can even the tips if you like – but I don’t worry about it all that much.
- Measure the wing length against the fly – I tend make the wing extend to the end of the tail, but many folks tie it a bit shorter, about to the hook bend.
- Tie in the wing – being careful to leave room for the hackle and head. The pinch wrap technique is handy to keep the wing from slipping around the hook shank. To do this you pinch the wing as shown and pull a few thread wraps around the wing as you keep it pinched.
- Once you get a few wraps around the wing then you can let go (maintain thread tension) and finish tying it on.
- Because the calf tail is slippery and doesn’t really compress much, I like to put on a drop of cement at this point to help secure it.
- Prepare a hen hackle by pulling of the fluff at the base and creating a tie-in point by stroking the fibers back from the tip.
- Tie in the hackle with a few wraps over it and then a few locking wraps under it.
- Trim the excess and wrap over the butt, bringing the thread back toward the hackle stem.
- Wrap hackle forward and tie off.
- Trim excess
- Complete the fly by creating a neat thread head. End with a whip finish and coat with head cement for durability.
- The final picture shows an alternate version with an antron wing instead of calf tail.
Fishing the Pass Lake
So how do you use this fly? Well that’s the beauty of it – there’s no wrong way really. As long as it’s in the water you’ve got a good chance. You can fish it upstream on a dead drift when prospecting. Sink it deep and lift it or cast it to rising fish as a “damp” fly just in the surface film, let it hang downstream, pull it up and let it drop back… But lately my favorite method is a down and across stream swing.
The swing is the thing! It’s just too much fun…
I really don’t think there’s a more relaxing or more exciting way to fish a trout stream than the downstream swing. It’s relaxing because strike detection sort of takes care of itself; when swinging a fly downstream you’ll know when you have a hit because you’ll feel it (and often see it). It’s exciting because you’ll often get explosive jolting strike that can even startle you on a quiet stream. The fish will often get airborne too.
The basics of the swing is to position yourself a bit upstream of and across from your target area. In the case of a section of riffles or pockets as in the graphic, you then cast to the head of the riffle or pocket, let the fly drift a bit downstream and then stop your rod to cause the fly to swing around and rise. Fish will hit sometimes as soon as the fly hits the water, or along the drift and very often just as the fly starts to swing across current and rise.
The graphic at the beginning of this section shows a sweet section of perfect water for the Pass Lake wet fly using a downstream presentation. In a section like this with the broken surface you have the advantage that you are obscured from the fish a bit by the rough water. If you’re fishing a slower pool or clearer smooth water, you may have to be more careful and stealthier to avoid spooking fish. The dotted lines show possible drifts and swings for the fly. Start close to you and work across the stream. In this figure the stream is good holding water all the way across to the far bank. So, keep working the whole width of the stream, take a step or two downstream and work it further downstream. When swinging the fly across current try to keep it slowly swinging – not ripping like a speed boat.
Be creative. Let the fly hang in like likely spots – sometimes a fish will find this irresistible. Pull it upstream and let it drop back. Try different tactics until you find what the fish are looking for.
And, of course it’s not just water like that pictured that is appropriate for the swing. Try it in any likely holding water that you find: deep pools, eddys, deep runs, under overhanging trees and down rhododendron tunnels, log jams, etc…
Tie a few Pass Lake wet flies and get out there. You won’t regret it.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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