When Scuds Die

When Scuds Die

Death becomes this tiny crustacean-but there's a secret to getting the color right

  • By: Chad Mason
I took a break while my partner plied a small eddy on a Midwestern spring creek with a fly tied to imitate a live scud. Retrieving the weighted fly in short strips, he caught and released six brown trout on as many casts. When the action stopped, I worked the adjacent current seam with a dead-scud pattern, which I presented on a drag-free drift, and took four more browns before the fish finally became too disturbed to bite. The scud has lately become every fly fisher's favorite amphipod, and with good reason.In many waters these creatures are a mainstay of the trout's diet. For instance, on Iowa's Spring Branch Creek, one of my home waters, a quick sweep of a seine through the watercress will yield dozens of wriggling scuds. The creek's brown trout gorge on them. Around here you need to be a good "scudder" to catch fish consistently, and the same is true of other spring creeks and tailwaters from coast to coast. Why does a dead-scud imitation often work better than an imitation of the living crustacean? I don't think anybody really knows for certain. But my best guess is that vulnerability plays a role. A dead scud may present an irresistible target simply because the trout knows it has no chance of escaping. If I'm correct about this, then a dead-scud fly plays the same role underwater that a "crippled mayfly" pattern plays on the surface. In any case, because of the scud's importance to fly fishers, fly-pattern books often bulge with recipes for imitating these creatures. Many are tied in bright colors, such as orange and pink, ostensibly to imitate dead or dying scuds. I've often heard that "scuds turn orange after they die." Guided by this old yarn, I often used to fish fluorescent scuds, and sometimes I caught fish with them. But subsequent observations in the field have led me to change my patterns-and to catch more trout. I have captured scuds from spring creeks and tailwaters, dispatched them with a swift tap of my tweezers, and watched their colors change as they decayed in water-filled glass vials. I can confidently report that upon meeting their demise, scuds do not turn "safety orange" like the Bighorn Shrimp in the bin at your local fly shop. Figure 1 shows a live scud from a Midwestern spring creek. This scud's grayish-olive color is fairly typical. Gray, tan, green and olive are the most common colors, and scuds typically range from size 12 through 18 in most moving waters. Figure 2 shows the same scud shortly after death. The thorax has retained most of its olive coloration, while the head and abdomen have faded to pale, watery gold. Several hours later, Figure 3 shows further color degeneration, with the thorax now a lifeless dark gray, and the head and abdomen beginning to take on a pale apricot hue. (All shown four times actual size.) The color of a dead scud appears to depend on how long the scud has been dead. But a common scheme persists throughout the process: a pale, translucent head and abdomen, and a dark, comparatively opaque thorax. This is the basic formula for dead scud patterns. Based on the above observations, I do not believe trout take brightly colored scud patterns-like the popular Bighorn Shrimp-as dead scuds. And although some streams do, in fact, contain populations of live scuds that are orange, this is not common. In the majority of streams where all the scuds are of a subdued color, I believe trout take brightly colored scud patterns for trout eggs, or else they strike them reflexively, triggered simply by the bright color. In my experience, fishing with such patterns is often a feast-or-famine proposition. One day the fish are turned on to them, while on nother day the fish may actually swim away from them. A more natural dead scud imitation provides more consistent action. You can tie dead-scud imitations by using dark colors in the thorax, and lighter colors in the head and abdomen. Simply insert alternating colors of material into your dubbing loop when building the fly. Two dead-scud recipes, based on olive live scuds, are provided below. I recommend that you sample the scud population in the waters where you fish, then adjust the color of your patterns accordingly. EARLY DEAD SCUD Hook: Tiemco 2487, size 14 Thread: 8/0 UNI-thread, white Weight: 0.015" lead wire, 5-7 wraps Antennae: Wood duck flank Rib: 5X clear tippet material or fine gold wire Shell: Strip of clear plastic bag material Body: Head and abdomen are pale gold dubbing; thorax is dark golden olive dubbing. LONG-DEAD SCUD Hook: Tiemco 2487, size 14 Thread: 8/0 UNI-thread, white Weight: 0.015" lead wire, 5-7 wraps Antennae: Mallard flank Rib: 5X clear tippet material or fine copper wire Shell: Clear plastic (cut from a small zip-close bag) Body: Head and abdomen are pale apricot dubbing; thorax is dark gray dubbing. INSTRUCTIONS: For dubbing, use any of the commercially available blends. My suggestions are: "Hare's Ear Plus" by Hareline Dubbin, "Sow-Scud" by Wapsi, or "Squirrel Blend" by Spirit River. You may need to mix colors to achieve just the right hue. To dub the scud body, form a dubbing loop with your thread. Insert the head material, then thorax material, then abdomen material into the dubbing loop, twist, and palmer over the shank. Pick out with a dubbing needle and clip after the fly is finished. JR-please include contact info for these three companies; can place it right after company name in parens.) When to play dead…When should you opt for a dead scud pattern over a live one? In general, dead scud patterns get the nod in linear currents where drag is easily avoided. On the other hand, try a live scud pattern -retrieved with short jerks-in eddies or languid pools where slow, swirling currents make it difficult to achieve a drag-free drift. Happy scudding! [Sidebar] Two Tips for Better Scuds The silhouette of a fly is perhaps its most important attribute. For this reason, curved-shank hooks have long been the "industry standard" for scud patterns. (JR: please find out what hook models are appropriate and include contact info for companies) Additionally, two simple tricks will improve the silhouette of your scud patterns. - When ribbing the fly, do not make the segments uniform in width from front to back. Instead, progressively decrease the spacing of the wraps as you approach the hook eye. This suggests the bold segmentation of the scud's abdomen, in contrast to the more subtle segmentation on the thorax. - When clipping the dubbing beneath the hook shank, angle your scissors to produce short fibers near the hook eye, and longer fibers near the hook bend. A scud's thorax is deeper than its abdomen.