Fly Tying: The Pheasant Tail Emerger

Fly Tying: The Pheasant Tail Emerger

A classic steps out

  • By: Chad Mason
Frank Sawyer devoted much of his life to maintaining the River Avon in Salisbury, England. The job of a river keeper, as you might imagine, fires the mind at the tying vise. More than half a century ago, Sawyer developed a nondescript mayfly nymph imitation that now ranks, perhaps, second only to the Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear on the list of all-time favorite nymphs. Its inventor called it Sawyer's Pheasant Tail Nymph, but many of us have come to call it, affectionately, the "PT"

Like all great patterns, the PT is more than a recipe; it is a basis for many fruitful variations. Few American fly tiers follow (or even know) Sawyer's original recipe. Sawyer started with a tail of pheasant tail fiber tips. Then he twisted the butts of those fibers around fine copper wire and wrapped them over the shank for both abdomen and thorax. He used a second bunch of pheasant fibers for a wing case. And that's all. No ribbing, no peacock herl, no legs, no shiny "flashback." Though Sawyer's original tie remains effective, you'd be hard pressed to find such a PT in American fly shops. We Yanks like our nymphs full-figured, leggy and a little on the trashy side.

One of my favorite variations on the PT is not a nymph at all but an emerger. Inside a mayfly nymph is a dun waiting to come out. Between sub-aquatic life and that which flies in the open air, there is an awkward, vulnerable, ephemeral struggle to emerge. To imitate this critical stage of the mayfly cycle, the Pheasant Tail Emerger (PTE) joins the stern of a nymph to the bow of a winged adult. Tied in sizes 12 through 22, the PTE can imitate almost any kind of mayfly emerger. Drakes, Sulfurs, Pale Morning Duns, Blue-Wing Olives and even Tricos can be matched with an appropriately sized PTE.

Materials
The PTE is comprised of only three materials: pheasant tail fibers, snowshoe hares fur and muskrat fur. Not all pheasant tails are created equal. Look for plumes with long, fuzzy, brown fibers. These are generally the fibers located near the center of the bird's tail fan. Since I'm a hunter, I sift through the birds taken during the season and keep the best plumes. If you're not a hunter, shop accordingly.

The varying hare, or snowshoe hare, is a North American hare that changes its color from a mottled brown in summer to solid white in winter. In summer pelage, the hare's feet are cream-colored. This, apparently, is when the captive variety is harvested for fly-tying. Although dyed feet are available, I prefer the unbleached, non-dyed, natural cream-colored feet. Their color is perfect, and their natural oils are intact. Those oils give the hair good natural buoyancy.

For dubbing, I like solid patches of natural, non-dyed muskrat fur in medium gray. Muskrat fur also has natural oils, and is the traditional material for the Adams dry fly. To dub this material, clip a small patch of fur close to the hide. Then grasp the fuzzy bases in your right hand, and pull out the long guard hairs with your left and discard them. What remains is the soft, supple, gray fur. Roll the soft fur in the palm of your hand briefly to blend it. At that point, it is ready to dub.

Recipe:
HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 14-18 or Mustad 94859, size 20-22
THREAD: 8/0 UNI, camel
TAIL: Pheasant tail fibers
ABDOMEN: Pheasant tail fibers, twisted and palmered
WING: Natural cream snowshoe hare's foot clipped
HEAD: Natural gray muskrat fur

1. Select a small bunch of pheasant tail fibers. Even the tips with your fingers, and clip them from the plume. Attach them to the hook shank, extending one hook-shank length behind the bend. Wind the thread back to the bend, then wind it forward to the mid-point of the shank. (Use 3 to 4 fibers for smaller flies, 5 to 7 fibers for larger ones.)

2. Double the fibers back on top of the shank and wrap back over them to the base of the tail. Then wrap thread forward again to the mid-point of the shank.

3. Grasp the fibers with your hackle pliers and twist them into a rope. Wind the rope forward over the shank to the mid-point, forming a segmented abdomen. Tie down securely and clip excess. Put a small drop of cement at the tie-down point.

4. For the wing, grasp a small bunch of fur from a snowshoe hare's foot and clip it close to the hide. The base of the wing should be almost as thick as the abdomen of the fly. Tie the wing onto the top of the hook shank with the fur tips facing to the rear. Clip the butts and wrap securely over them.

5. Prepare a small bunch of muskrat fur, wax your thread and attach the fur to the thread.

6. Dub a fat head, whip-finish the fly and clip thread.

7. Pull the wing back and clip it at an angle with your scissors, so the top edge of the wing is approximately even with the base of the tail.

8. Admire the finished fly, give thanks to Frank Sawyer, and go fishing.