Fly Tying Materials to Buy in Person: Hen Hackle Skins

Posted on November 22nd, 2021 in Fishing Tips

As a commercial fly tier and outfitter, I have commercial accounts with most of the major fly tying materials distributors. I’m not allowed to talk about my discounts, specifically, but they are substantial. Flies you buy from me or from Parks’ Fly Shop would cost you twice as much, otherwise.

That said, there are still several materials I am willing to buy at full-price or very close to it, either from a fly shop or some alternate source. This is the first in a series of posts about these materials, and why they’re worth it for me to spend a lot more on them.

Hen Skins for Soft Hackles

The first material I usually buy at full price, and the one on which I probably spend the most, is hen chicken skins for soft hackles (and to a lesser extent streamers). I also buy many other bird skins for soft hackles at full price, such as hen pheasant skins, but chicken skins are by far the most important.

There’s a simple reason why I pay full price for these skins: I can pick through them and get EXACTLY the coloration I want. If I bought these skins from large wholesale distributors, I’d be dealing with the luck of the draw. I’d get whatever the person responsible for packing my order happened to grab.

hen chicken skin for fly tying

Lots of soft hackle pheasant tails on this skin…

In the past, I got most of my hen skins exactly this way. At the time, I used a lot of Speckled India Hen Backs, mostly purchased from wholesaler Hareline Dubbing. These are wonderful products, available in a wide range of colors. The problem is that when I ordered half a dozen “brown” skins, say, I would get three that were dark brown with black bars, two that were almost entirely brown, and one that was medium brown with abundant random black speckles. Since I usually wanted the medium brown skins with abundant black speckles, the others largely went to waste (or I sold them).

A better option was to buy skins either in person or when I could see photos of the skin I was buying. This is possible with India Hen Backs, as many shops sell them. For my own purposes, since I need many more feathers than one skin can provide, I turned to furriers online.

I am going to be a bit of a jerk here and not give the website I most often use for these skins. They don’t sell all that many, and I use a lot of hen skins for soft hackles, streamers, collars on Woolly Buggers (such as my PT-Bugger), and legs and tails on nymphs. Instead I’ll point you towards eBay. A wide range of chicken (and other bird) skins are available. You just have to keep searching for what you want. Search for hen skin, hen pelt, chicken pelt, bird skin, or other similar search terms.

Buff hen chicken skin.

Pale hen skin for tying caddis emergers.

Top Winter Dry Fly – Parachute Midge Emerger

Posted on November 12th, 2021 in Fishing Tips, Fly Tying Videos

Here’s a blast from the past that still works well. The Parachute Midge Emerger, along with something like a #18 Purple Hazy Cripple, should  be your go-to dry fly when you see midges hatching on late fall and winter afternoons. This is my top winter dry fly just about everywhere: spring creeks, tailwaters, and the mighty Yellowstone itself. Hang an unweighted thread midge or WD-40 nymph under the emerger.


Hook: Standard or short-shank dry fly, #14-22.

Thread: 8/0 or smaller black, or to match the fly body color.

Wing: White Widow’s Web or similar synthetic.

Rib: Pearl Midge Krystal Flash.

Hackle: Grizzly saddle.

Slideshow from March 23 Twin Cities TU Presentation

Posted on March 25th, 2021 in Fishing Tips

I gave a presentation to the Twin Cities TU chapter on Tues, March 23. Here’s a longer version of the slideshow I presented. The topic was finding and fishing uncrowded water in Yellowstone Country.

TU Talk

Sources for Streamflow Data

Posted on March 4th, 2021 in Fishing Tips

Virtually all fly fishing guides and outfitters in Montana watch streamflow data and streamflow forecasts like hawks, especially during runoff season (that is to say: right now) and when summer thunderstorms are rolling around. This is no different than farmers watching the weather forecasts. Here are the important sites to allow YOU to check streamflows, both right now and expected flows for the days ahead.

Montana Streamflow Data: This site returns data from all USGS gauging stations in Montana. The site is organized by river drainage, then from upstream gauging stations to downstream stations. In my area, the Yellowstone Basin graphs from the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park down to the graph at Springdale are the graphs I use most often, with the Stillwater graph secondary. By far the most important graphs for general streamflow are the Corwin Springs and Livingston graphs on the Yellowstone, while the Lamar and Gardner graphs are important for telling me about sudden rises in water level (which are almost always accompanied by mud) due to storms.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service – Billings: Here’s the streamflow prediction site for eastern Montana. This site shows flow graphs noted in the previous link, but also shows predicted flows for the next few days for most gauging stations. The basic graph pictured below is most useful during the spring runoff season when we are trying to plan for future trips based on weather forecast. If you’re looking at a big predicted bump coming up, it’s best to get fishing beforehand, because that bump means mud.

This site also includes an option to view “Probability Information.” This is a longer-range forecast of predicted flows, but it isn’t updated very often and I often find it inaccurate. Here’s a sample graph of probability information:

Select the above graph by clicking the dropdown menu off the lower right corner of the graph, then selecting “Flow – Weekly Chance of Exceeding Levels.” This is most useful to anglers, as flow rather than gauge height determines fishability. Too much water and things are too rough, and probably muddy to boot.

Top Missouri River Nymphs in March

Posted on March 4th, 2021 in Fishing Tips

Intro to Top Missouri River Nymphs in March

Late winter and early spring are “pink season” on the Missouri. Top Missouri River nymphs in March are almost all pink. Whether the fish are taking these assorted pink bugs as eggs or dead scuds and sowbugs probably depends on the specific fish. Nonetheless, they work. The key is generally getting them down. These flies should be ticking bottom just on the edge of the current seam in 5-8 feet of water in slow walking-speed runs.

Rainbow Czech Nymph

rainbow czech nymph

Rainbow Czech Nymph

This is a great multipurpose nymph that can look like a sowbug, scud, egg, or even a caddis larva. Also try it with the bead replaced with a fluorescent flame “fire bead.” Another good similar pattern is the AMEX, which basically just swaps the abdomen and thorax colors around and replaces the shellback with a tinsel wingcase over the thorax alone.

  • Hook: #12-18 scud. Note that you can also tie this fly as a “jig nymph” with the proper hooks and beads.
  • Bead: gold brass or tungsten
  • Thread: 6/0-8/0 black, pink, or tan.
  • Shellback: clear scud back.
  • Rib: black wire or midge/micro tubing.
  • Abdomen: Wapsi rainbow sow-scud dubbing (note that the Wapsi product is far better than others for this fly).
  • Hotspot/Thorax: Bighorn pink sow-scud dubbing, or other hot pink dubbing.
  • Head: one or two turns of rainbow sow-scud dubbing.

Pink Firebead Soft Hackle Sowbug

soft hackle sowbug

Pink Soft Hackle Sowbug

Various bright pink sow/scud patterns are always favorites on the Missouri at this time, and some get surprisingly complicated. Most years, I do better by following the KISS rule. You’ll use up a lot of firebead flies, mostly because the beads get banged up and lose their effectiveness, and it’s easy to fill your box with this pattern. Experiment with different shades of pink on the body (I typically carry four subtle shades) and tie some of each with light dun and some with cream or white hackle.

  • Hook: #16-18 short shank nymph.
  • Bead: fluorescent fire orange brass or tungsten “fire bead.”
  • Thread: fluorescent fire orange 8/0
  • Body: pink dubbing blend.
  • Hackle: one or two turns of light dun, cream, or white hen.

Pink Lightning Bug

pink lightning bug

Pink Lightning Bug

This one likely crosses over between eggs, scuds, and Blue-winged Olive mayfly nymphs. There are many competing variations of this fly. I’ve given the recipe for the one I use the most. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different tail materials, bead colors, metallic or translucent pink body materials, and dubbing blends for the thorax.

  • Hook: #16-18 scud.
  • Bead: nickel brass or tungsten.
  • Thread: hot pink 8/0.
  • Tail: A few strands of shell pink Antron yarn, or similar yarn.
  • Abdomen: pink Holographic Flashabou.
  • Rib: extra small red Ultra Wire.
  • Wing Case: tag ends of abdomen Flashabou.
  • Thorax: pale pink dubbing blend

Late Fall Yellowstone Fishing Trips

Posted on February 1st, 2021 in Fishing Tips

Introduction to October Fishing Trips in Yellowstone

Late fall begins when the first extended cold weather hits, usually around October 1. October fishing in Yellowstone is not for the faint of heart, but it is fantastic for the right anglers in the right places.

While fewer waters fish well at this time than earlier in the year, simply because most waters are already at winter-low flows and have cold water temperatures and lethargic fish to match, those that do fish well at this time fish really well.

The best waters are those that host fall-run brown trout, though nowadays we often focus on the non-spawning trout that follow the brown to eat their eggs and the bugs their spawning behavior disturbs, rather than the browns themselves, both to avoid stressing actively-spawning trout and to avoid the crowds the spawn can bring to the best areas.

That said, the largest numbers of “big brownies” are present in late fall, and unlike in late summer and early autumn it’s seldom necessary to get on the water early if you want to chase these fish.

On the other hand, the weather can be horrendous, with heavy snow and temperatures in the teens more than feasible by this late in the year. As noted above, many waters are simply too cold to fish well by October. An additional unwelcome development in recent years is massively-increased guiding and fishing pressure targeting fall browns, which is one reason we now spend more time chasing the non-migrants on brown trout rivers, since these fish fall between the cracks a bit.

Large brown trout that ate an egg fly.

Full confession: I caught this one. Despite the good fishing for large fish, business falls off in late fall. Fewer people want to visit Montana when it might be 20 degrees and snowing, I guess. I’m not alone among Montana outfitters in that I do a high percentage of my own fishing in late autumn.

Important Note on Fishing Ethically During the Brown Trout Spawn

The brown trout spawn begins around October 15. We target browns more aggressively beforehand, since we can be certain we aren’t pursuing active spawners or damaging spawning areas.

After October 15, shallow areas with fist-sized rocks and gravel and steady currents fill with brown trout that are actually settling down to make the next generation. It is unethical to fish in these spawning areas and extremely destructive towards the next generation to do so. We never fish for actively spawning brown trout on our Yellowstone guided trips.

Any guide who does so is unethical and unprofessional and does not deserve your money. If you decide to fish spawning areas on your own, expect thorough tongue-lashings from anglers who fish ethically who happen to see you doing it.

If you didn’t know better about fishing for wild actively-spawning brown trout before reading this, now you do.

There’s no reason to worry: the deep pools and turbulent boulder-bottomed water where the big browns rest on their journeys to their spawning areas hold plenty of fish right up until the park closes. These include both pre-spawn fish on their migrations and post-spawn fish that are done “doing the deed.” Rest assured you can still catch big fish without fear of stressing the active spawners.

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