Ever watch another angler land fish after fish, while you go fishless? It happens to all of us and generally the first words out our mouth when approaching our fellow fly fisher are, “What are you using?” When I’m the fortunate one catching, I never mind sharing what I’m using, as it’s nearly always one of a dozen patterns, often a version of the “Clouser Minnow.”
Fly fishers often spend substantial time on fly selection. There is a deep seated belief that fishing success will be greatly enhanced by “perfectly” matching the hatch; a point not lost on this author. There are times when fish seem to be keyed in on a specific food item to the point of refusing every presentation made by anglers.
Consequently, many fly fishers spend countless hours studying a fish’s feeding habits and spend even more time at the vise trying to develop the perfect patterns to “match” the hatch while on the water. Open most any fly fisher’s fly box and you will likely find it filled with countless patterns, in all shapes, colors, and sizes. This approach is taken by many in hopes they will have something to match whatever hatch they encounter.
However, most fish are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever comes their way. Studies of a fish’s stomach contents rarely show one item making up more than 25 to 50 percent of their diet at any given time. Simply, no matter the hatch, it is likely several items are being eaten at the time, and thus, there are likely several different patterns that will work at that moment.
It is my belief that fish do not recognize “exact” images of their prey as we do. One day fishing a mountain river, the fish were feeding in part on stonefly larva. One angler had taken the time to gather stonefly larva for bait and was having success with them. After all he was using the real thing. I found that a size 10 halfback (glorified woolly worm pattern) was highly effective and I out-fished that angler by a factor of four to one. The likely reason I was more successful with an artificial was that the halfback appeared more lifelike to the fish than a stonefly larva impaled lifelessly on a hook. In short, I suspect the fish saw the artificial as living prey, preferring that over the dead insect.
A presentation that suggests something living is more important than having a pattern that, to our eye, is a perfect match. From my perspective it is far better to give the illusion of life than to fish an exact replica. So when I “match the hatch”, I select a pattern that is the same size (or slightly larger to stand out), shape/profile, and color of the suspected food item. Then I concentrate on presenting the pattern in a manner similar to what the fish are seeing. Overall this approach has served me well.
This tactic rolls over into my fly tying, where I tie relatively few patterns, but I tie each in a variety of sizes, colors, and materials to maximize my ability approximate what is “hatching.” Thus, one “pattern”, such as the Clouser Minnow, fills many fly boxes.
The Three-inch Gray/White Clouser
One reason the Clouser Minnow is such an effective pattern is it never quits moving. Being weighted, the fly sinks providing movement even when you’re not retrieving it. This produces a run/fall (jigging) action that is often deadly.
The Three-inch Gray/White Clouser is a mainstay in my fly collection. With this one fly, I catch numerous species and it is one of the first flies I tie on when fishing for black bass, walleye, white bass, striped bass, trout, and hybrid striped bass. From this pattern I’ll illustrate some of the modifications you can make to it allowing you to match different bait species and make differing presentations.
Hook: 3906b Mustad or equivalent, size 6
Thread: Gray Danville Flymaster plus (140 denier)
Eye: Silver 3/16 inch brass dumbbell eyes
Belly: White bucktail
Flash: Gray or silver Kystal Flash or equivalent
Back: Gray bucktail
Step 1 - Tie eyes on approximately 1/3 down shank from eye of hook.
Step 4 – Select one half dozen strands of gray flash. Tie in so the flash extends about a ¼ inch or so past the bucktail. Then fold over the strands and tie down. Trim to length if needed.
Step 5 – Tie gray bucktail in front of dumbbells, wrapping back to eyes. Whip finish and cement.
Finished Three-inch Gray/White Clouser
While obvious modifications include bucktail color, hook size, dumbbell size and color, Krystal flash color, etc., there are some basic modifications that every tier should consider first. They have to do with the amount of material used and how we tie these materials on the hook. These simple adjustments affect how the fly looks and behaves in the water, and thus effects our presentation.
Using the same amount of material, we can produce three distinct profiles by tying the hair down differently. First, there is the original profile. If we don’t tie the belly down along the hook shank we get a wider profile. If we tie the back down tighter by wrapping thread behind the eyes we get a tighter profile.
Tight, standard, and wide profiles
Lightly versus heavily dressed
We can also modify the amount of material we add to the hook to get a thinner or heavier profile. As bucktail is generally buoyant, lighter bodied flies sink faster and give a sleeker look, whereas heavily dressed flies will tend to suspend.
Further, buck tails are not the same, not only between tails, but also within a single tail. The hair near the base of the tail typically is hollow stemmed. As a result it tends to flare giving a wider profile and additionally is more buoyant resulting in slower sink rates. Whereas the end of the tail is harder and resists flaring giving a thinner profile and quicker sink rate.
Base of tail flares, tip of tail doesn't
As the previous illustrates, by simply modifying how we tie down the material, how much material we use, and where we take the hair from the tail, we can create several variations of the same pattern. These easy techniques allow us to tweak patterns to meet our specific needs, fast versus slow sink rates, and slim to wide profiles all without changing the basic recipe. But the modifications don’t stop there.
While the Three-inch Gray/White Clouser is a staple, there are times when other color combinations are better. Most fish species are varied in color, generally darker along the back and lighter down the sides to the belly. Thus, I favor two-toned Clouser. White is my first choice for the belly, although I do use other colors such as creams, yellows, oranges, and light olives, depending on the prey base. For the back, colors I always have on hand are olive, chartreuse, pink, and blue. For low light conditions I keep a few all black or all white flies on hand. While these are my favorites, with over two dozen colors available there are literally hundreds of color combinations to tie.
Bucktails are available in many colors
As a rule I match my flash color to the back, although that is strictly a personal preference. By varying the flash color you can come up with an even larger number of Clouser variations. In some cases it may be good to use contrasting colors for the flash, especially if the forage base has a distinct lateral line. With several dozen color variations available today, the numbers of unique color combinations, hair and flash, runs into the thousands.
There are numerous brands and colors of flash
I also tend to match my brass eyes to the general color of the back, gold eyes for darker colors, silver eyes for brighter colors. Other color options exist including black and copper. And that doesn’t even address the options available in terms of different types of eyes, stick-on eyes, and paint.
So far we’ve looked at shape and color for a single sized fly. However, I often find that size is at least as important as color and profile, some days even more so. In terms of my freshwater fishing I tie five sizes of Clousers. The following table provides the hook and brass eye size for a given fly length. Bear in mind, this is my preference, and there’s nothing keeping you from modifying any part to fit your specific needs. In fact I recommend you do as that is the whole point of this discussion.
Brass eye, inches
Author's freshwater length/hook/eye chart
Clousers are an effective pattern for both salt and fresh water. For salt water use I typically use stainless or plated hooks and tie the above lengths on hooks one or two sizes larger. Your choice of hook will change how the fly sinks. Keep in mind that salt water is denser, thus, it takes heavier flies to achieve the same sink rates.
Another way to modify the sink rate of your Clousers, and the look as well, is your choice of eyes. Besides brass eyes, there are also eyes manufactured out of aluminum, lead, and tungsten in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors. Plus, you can always use bead chain, an old standard. Further, you can paint the eyes to achieve differing looks. Or consider using stick-eyes.
I view the Clouser as a style; the basic pattern being weighted eyes, with a belly and back sandwiching a little flash. So like the eyes and hook, we can vary the back and belly materials to produce endless variety in our Clousers. A favorite modification for me is fox tail; it makes a great crayfish imitation. Other materials include, but are not limited to, yak, artificial hair, calf tail, other types of tails.
Lastly, you can modify your Clousers by adding a touch of wire on the hook for additional weight. Other options include adding beads, or rattles for noise, wrapping the hook shank with tinsel or chenille for added flash, and adding weed guards. The number of modifications is only limited by your imagination.
In my case, I tie Clousers in all five lengths and a half dozen color combinations for each size. This gives me some 30 “patterns” which fill five fly boxes. Then for the larger patterns I tie up a few lightly weighted patterns and a few lightly and heavily dressed flies in my favorite three color combinations, Olive, Gray, and Pink. That adds a couple of boxes of specialty flies. Further, I have a couple boxes of Foxee Clousers in several colors and two sizes. Not to mention my salt water collection. As I said one pattern does fill many fly boxes.
Author's fly boxes of Clouser Minnows
While I used the Clouser as an example, you can take any confidence pattern, be it a basic mayfly, stone, caddis, midge, woolly bugger, or some other pattern and with some modifications in tying techniques, hook size, material color, and materials used, create a myriad of looks. These adjustments will allow you to “match the hatch” every time out. Additionally, these changes allow me to make better presentations. Then there’s the added advantage of not needing to learn a large number of patterns. Tying fewer patterns allows me to produce larger numbers of flies quickly, tie high quality, and spend less time tying, which equates to more time fishing.
So the next time you sit down at the vise, give consideration to modifying a few confidence patterns to fill your fly boxes, rather than trying to tie every “hot” new pattern that comes along. I firmly believe you’ll spend less time at the vise and catch more fish when you are on the water by matching the hatch through approximate patterns and good presentations.