Flatwings–Sand Lance–Coho

“I always wanted my flies to swim and look alive just like the baitfish did. Straight bucktail flies did a good job but streamers never satisfied my desire for imitation. They were stiff and opaque. The stems of the feathers did not allow them to swim naturally and although some of them were quite beautiful to look at, to me they never appeared alive in the water. I wanted a fly that would consistently catch fish without having to be pulled, yanked, stripped or tweaked in any way, shape or form. I wanted a fly that looked alive while at rest and also while moving. I wanted a miracle.” Kenny Abrames, A Perfect Fish–Illusions in Fly tying.

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Several years ago, we held one of my “Hot Dog Fridays” at Government Cut, the channel between Port Townsend and Oak bays. We fish at these gatherings, but they are primarily an opportunity for people to get together around a fire and talk about fishing and flies and share their favorite charcuterie. On that day, a half-dozen or so people fished, but my friend, Kevin Ryan, was the only one who caught anything. He got a nice cutthroat on a flatwing streamer that he had tied.

Many of the greatest flies possess features that go beyond merely imitating the appearance of a creature that fish consume–in other words, do something more than “match the hatch.” This can be the addition of materials that make it behave in a more lifelike manner. The palmered hackle on traditional Scottish Spey flies and Woolly Buggers not only look like legs or feelers, they move enticingly in the current. With its heavy dumbell head, the Clouser Minnow dives when tension is released from the line, which can suggest the behavior of some forage species better than a standard strip retrieve.

Over the decades, it has been demonstrated time and again that flies that seem alive catch more fish than those that realistically mimic every antennae or dorsal spine of an insect or baitfish.

The flatwing streamer flies popularized on the East Coast by Kenny Abrames and that have been making inroads into saltwater fly fishing on Puget Sound are a perfect case in point. Unlike the wing arrangement on standard freshwater and saltwater streamers, in which the barbs of the feathers are vertical to the hook shank, the feathers of flatwings are tied in horizontally. In addition, rather than at the head of the fly,  feathers are tied in at the tail and extend beyond the bend of the hook. The “flat” profile of the tail feathers allows the fly to hover, to suspend, in the water and to move with the current naturally. This is intrinsically different than traditional streamers and bucktails, which are pulled through the water, either by trolling or a retrieve, or slowly sink.

Anyone who has ever watched forage fish in the salt or minnows in freshwater knows that they are not always purposefully moving through the water. They often seem to suspend, to flutter in place. But even as they hold in the water, they are always in motion. This is almost impossible to achieve with traditional streamer and bucktails, but it is easy to accomplish with flatwings.

“We’re fans of flatwings because of the motion,” said John Paine, of north Seattle’s Avid Angler www.avidangler.com , which has become the nerve center of flatwing tying and fishing in Puget Sound. “They come alive in the water. They undulate. They fish so well. I don’t think the fish can resist them.”

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More than anyone, Kenny Abrames, a Rhode Island native with more than 50 years of saltwater fly fishing under his belt, has been the driving force in the development, advancement and refinement of flat wings.  Abrames is an artist, writer, and the author of two books, Striper Moon and A Perfect Fish–Illusions in Fly Tying (1999). His website www.stripermoon.com contains a wealth of fly patterns, essays, photography and discussions.

Abrames credits the old freshwater streamer, the Nine-Three, as the first fly that he was aware of in which the feather was tied in flat. Created by Dr. J. Hubert Sandborn of Waterville, Maine in the early 20th century, the Nine-Three got its name because the first salmon he caught with it weighed nine pound, three ounces. In Bates’s Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing, Sandborn explained his rationale for tying the fly way he did.

“I designed the Nine-Three to imitate a smelt as it looks in the water, with dark back, lighter below, and with silver belly and jungle cock eyes. The fly looks rough, but when wet it forms together evenly. The green feathers are tied on flat instead of edgewise which gives the fly a motion in the water that the others don’t have. I have told many commercial fly tiers about this but nobody will tie it this way because it looks rough. We fellows believe it the best fly year round for trout, togue, salmon, perch and bass.”

The subtitle of A Perfect Fish, “Illusions in Fly Tying,” addresses another characteristic of flatwings that makes them such effective patterns: By stacking different colored feathers and hair in the tail and wing, you are able to construct flies that realistically suggest the colors of baitfish.

Abrames wrote: “When tying in the layers of flat hackles, remember that colors interact with each other and form secondary colors as the hackles move. When you use blue and place a yellow hackle on top of it you are making green, but you are still retaining both yellow and blue. This property of color can be very dynamic in the appearance of a fly under the water because it adds a quality of life and energy to the fly that appears natural.”

My friend, Kevin Ryan, has been tying flatwings for a number of years. I can clearly remember the first time he showed me one of the lovely, slender blue flies he ties for salmon. We were standing on the beach at Point Whitney, near Brinnon. I was immediately smitten by its elegance–and how much it looked like a sand lance.

“I started reading a lot of stuff on Kenny Abrames’s website and it appealed to me–the beaches, the flies, the floating lines, the whole thing,” he told me recently. “It was sort of romantic . Then I talked to Nathan Keene and a bit to Dylan Rose.”

Keene and Rose, both formerly of the Avid Angler, are passionate flatwings advocates and introduced many Seattle-area saltwater fly fishers to the flies. They also reached a wider audience through Chris West’s late and lamented website Puget Sound Fly Fishing, where they posted recipes and tying instructions for flatwings.

“Nathan told me that he only used about three patterns in the Sound,” Kevin says. “A sandlance, a herring and a sort of Mickey Finn.”One interesting point that Kevin makes is that the design of the flat wing is at odds with the conventional wisdom in Northwest saltwater fly fishing that fish tend to strike short and that you want the hook to extend into the tail of the fly. However, flatwings use a short hook–either the 253NA Eagle Claws recommended by Abrames or the Gamakatsus SS15 and SC 15 used by many tyers out here. Kevin says the success of the flies suggests that the fish hit it in the head.

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If someone handed you a recipe for a flatwing without any tying directions, you would assume that they are built like standard streamers and bucktails, like Black Ghosts and Mickey Finns. They have a tail, a body, usually of braid, a wing and, at times, a hackle and throat. The thing that makes flatwings unique is the way the materials are assembled.The tail of a flatwing, the part that allows the fly to suspend in the water, is perhaps its most critical part. It usually begins with a fan-shaped wedge of bucktail, usually white. This acts as the support upon which the feathers and flash are applied, and it keeps the feathers from tangling around the hook. In Abrames’s flies, a small amount of dubbing is tied in above the bucktail; this creates a cushion upon which to tie the stems of the feathers and flash that are stacked above it.

Depending on the dressing, a flatwing tail can have one, two, three or more feathers. The feathers typically associated with the flies are long, slender saddles. If the fly has more than one tail feather, the bottom fly is usually tied with the concave side facing up, then the remaining feathers are tied with the concave side facing down. A couple strands of flash are usually tied in between feathers, although they should be sparse. Flatwings as a rule are unusual among saltwater fly pattern in that they use very little synthetics.

The bodies of flatwings are usually braid, often pearl. The wings are usually bucktail or feathers, and flatwings often employ several different colors. This is to achieve that “lifelike” mixing of colors that Abrames wants. Some dressings are topped with peacock herl. The throat and “sides” of the fly is also usually bucktail

The underwings and the bottom of the tail are white, as are nearly all baitfish. A variety of colors are used in Abrames’s flies to suggest the different forage species pursued by striped bass. In the Northwest, where salmon feed primarily on herring and sandlance, shades of blue, purple, silver gray, olive and chartreuse are popular colors.

For sand lance, the Avid Angler’s proprietor, Ryan Smith, employs a range of colors–bright white for the underwing, followed by a “light light pink” and chartreuse, a little flash, blue and olive and purple. He suggests chartreuse for the sides and a forewing of olive and gray.

There are excellent tying instructions for flatwings in The Perfect Fish. For a more hands-on experience, the Avid Angler regularly schedules flatwing tying classes.

I’m probably the last person in the world that anyone would want to take advice from on tying flatwings. But there are a couple things I have learned as I’ve struggled with them. First and foremost, you need the right feather for the tail. Typically, these are long very narrow saddles. If you don’t have the right feathers, you simply won’t be able to tie them in so they lay flat. Second, although most instructions call for a “pillow” of dubbing to tie the tail feathers on, don’t overdo it, or the feathers you tie on top of it will angle upwards and not lie flat on the first feather. Similarly, don’t use too wide of a braid for the body, because that too will make the wings cant above the tail. My early efforts ended up with the original white tail feather flat, as it was supposed to be, but the subsequently applied tail feathers were at a different angle, and the wing was at yet another.

As for the availability of saddle feathers suitable for flatwings during this time when all feathers are extremely hard to come by, Smith says that the Avid Angler (206-362-4030) currently has a good selection in stock and works hard to keep it that way. “We’re constantly trying to keep feathers in stock,” he said. Smith also says that the shop has some capes that also work quite well for flatwings.

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It’s common knowledge that, as they move closer to Puget Sound on their journeys from the Pacific Ocean, Chinook salmon tend to hug points of land. When the king runs were still strong, beach fisherman routinely took big fish from the shore at places like Point Wilson and Point No Point. Anglers still take a few Chinook at these places. But, although they tend to be most associated with offshore rips and open water–and are, consequently, usually pursued in boats–coho are regularly taken by wading anglers. Indeed, in recent years far more coho are taken from Olympic Peninsula beaches than any other type of salmon. But they don’t usually begin to approach the points regularly until they have reached the outer boundaries of Puget Sound.

“I don’t see coho close to shore in the strait very often,” said Chris Bellows, former Neah Bay charter operator and creator of the great website flyyakker.blogspot.

The standard presentation among fly fisherman on the beaches is to cast as far as you can and strip the fly back in fairly briskly. It works, too. But that’s not how the veteran bait anglers on the points, who usually account for the majority of the salmon taken, do it. They tend to work their baits, usually thin herring “spinners,” close to shore and with relatively light weight. They the let the bait move with the current, not strip it through it.

My old friend, cutthroat clinic partner, and fishing buddy, Ron Hirschi, has fished the beaches for coho and Chinook his entire life, with both bait and flies. Indeed, he is on his favorite beach nearly every day of the  season.

“There are times when we (small number of guys) will crowd together and seemingly cast on top of one another when a real crush of fish comes through close to shore. This might be when a big school comes by or when they’ve pushed a lot of bait in really close. Somebody might hook up or might have a hit and another individual will immediately cast over to this spot. You will often see the fish or at least swirls.”

Sandlance and herring are the most important forage fish for coho and Chinook salmon in Puget Sound waters. Sandlance, which are closely related to the Atlantic sand eels that many East Coast flatwings imitate, are a silvery, slender marine species, not a “candlefish” (actually a smelt) as they are often called. Herring are heftier, with blueish-green backs and silver sides and white bellies. Sand lance typically reach 4 or 5 inches by late summer, while herring are available in several year classes.

Although most anglers are more familiar with herring than sandlance, sandlance actually often seem to be the preferred food of coho and Chinook at times. Chinook moochers at MidChannel Bank, near Port Townsend, used to sew finer mesh in their nets and dip “candlefish” from bait balls and then mooch them on size 1 hooks.They often out fished the herring moochers by a wide margin.

Sand lance are not as light averse as herring or smelt, and they are often near the surface during the daytime. When alarmed, sandlance bury themselves in the sand or gravel, and many salmon show marks on their noses from rooting them from the bottom. Sand lance are also much more likely to be close to shore than herring.

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It’s possible to fish flatwings exactly the way you fish standard saltwater dressings like Clouser Minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers–that is, cast out and strip them back to shore or the boat. Flatwings  also perform well on sinking lines and sink-tips. You can even take salmon trolling them.

“I have fished them on a couple of occasions in the South Sound in a boat,” Kevin Ryan says. “We weren’t getting anything so we began trolling with sinking lines. I tied on a flat wing and BAM.”

When fish are within reach of beach anglers, however, the ideal way to fish flatwings–and the method that really brings out their most attractive qualities for the salmon–is to work them fairly close to the surface on a floating or intermediate line. A floating line allows you to present the fly much more precisely than sinking lines and that, in turn, lets you keep the fly in the appropriate attitude toward the current longer and more realistically. It lets you hang the fly, to suspend it like a real forage fish. You are actually sort of defeating the purpose of a flatwing if you are stripping it straight back. You want the feathers to flutter and for the colors to shimmer and blend.

Obviously, not every tide change during the salmon season is appropriate for flatwings. For one thing,  if you are wading, the bait needs to be up on the beach for them to be effective. Also, extreme tide changes often set up swift currents along a beach that aren’t good for flatwings. Big incoming tides also often tear up a lot of seaweed, eelgrass and other material, and it can be extremely vexing trying to keep both a floating line and a flatwing clear when this happens.

Ideally, you want both bait and salmon visible, within casting range, and you want relatively moderate tidal exchange. As in all salmon fishing, the hour around daybreak and dusk are the most productive. During the course of a summer, there aren’t really that many days when all of this comes together. But when it does, the fishing can be something you will remember for the rest of your life.

” . . . there are definitely magic times,” Ron Hirschi told me. ” . . . when you can actually see fish ride the surf or high wind-driven waves and the waves from ships. You’ll see guys move back away from the waves and scatter, but anybody knowing what to do will crouch down and stare into the wall as if into glass and when there is a fish, you can almost always hook . . . one of those flatwings would lay nice into that kind of surf, tossed around just a little.”

I’ll let Kevin Ryan have the last word about flatwings: “They bear more use.”

all flies and fly photos by Kevin Ryan

Sky Valley Limited
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