The Evolution of Big Black

by Mark Bachmann


The air has that balmy crispness of early spring that permeates the soul with the heady smells of cotton wood and alder leaves half grown from buds dripping the resins of rebirth. A kaleidoscope of green radiates from the canyon. The trees, the water, even the lightly leaden sky seem slightly green. A steady overnight rain has removed the last lingering impurities from the atmosphere. Now, the air is starkly clear. Wreaths of white fog hang suspended between ramparts cloaked in giant Douglas Fir trees. The water is at the perfect level and clarity for steelhead fishing. With great expectations Chuck, Stens and I launch the drift boat.

We drift down the river a while and leave the boat anchored at the upstream tip of an island. Chuck and Stens survey the wide tail-out. There isn't room for three so I choose the smaller back channel. Here the river is a lower gradient with soft currents and medium depth. The type IV sinking tip section of my line is replaced with a type II. A two and one half inch long, unweighted Black Steelhead Bunny is attached to the end of the short stout leader.

The water has dropped so much in the past twenty four hours that the first run is too shallow. I cross the river to fish the next run from the opposite shore. Here a couple of mid-stream boulders break the current and form a perfectly textured riffle. The first cast is short, with barely enough line to load the tip of my fifteen foot rod. The big black fly lands broad side to the current and the rod is gradually rotated downstream to keep it that way for as long as possible. The fly slowly speeds up through the swing....nothing. The next cast is extended two feet....same swing....nothing. The fly line is lengthened another two feet so that the riffle is covered in concentric arcs. The fly drifts five feet under light tension, then the line begins to slowly tighten. I hold my breath as the pressure increases to the point where the fish can be felt swimming on the other end of the line. The rod tip is moved down stream. With this added pressure the fish bolts directly away and sets the hook deeply into the hinge muscle of her mouth. The battle, though strong and dramatic, is short lived and ends as Stens brings Chuck and the drift boat down to me. Of course we have to take pictures and yahoo a little. The prize is a perfectly formed seven pound, wild, chromer hen steelhead. She is held long enough to regain her strength and is returned to the currents. Chuck examines the now slimy fly. "It's big....looks pretty simple....why did you select this one?"

I drop the fly into the shallow water between us and it comes alive with graceful motion, inky-black and glistening silver. It is subtle but very apparent against the grayish river bottom.

Stens, who has been uncustomarily quiet, drops his fly into the water next to mine. It sinks head first swiftly to the bottom. The flies are identical except his has small nickel plated lead eyes. His fly rests lightly on the bottom in the gentle current and breaths and wiggles like a tiny streamer of jet black smoke.

"It looks pretty convincing", says Chuck. "What do you call it?"

Stens and I look at each other. "We call it Big Black", is the dual reply.

This may be one of the all time deadliest fly patterns for spring and early summer steelhead. For the past three spring seasons it has accounted for about eighty percent of my catch. I fish a river that has a nearly continuous year around run of steelhead. From late March through May, bright winter run fish will be mixed with early summers. The Big Black Fly is equally effective on both.

Many popular northwest steelhead patterns are predominantly black. Black is easily seen in many different water and light conditions and has the most distinguishable silhouette. Black is a color that doesn't readily spook fish even when a fly is presented in a large size. Rabbit fur is a material that comes alive when fully saturated and suspended in water. Every fiber is in motion and pulsates with life. Most strikes result in the fish being hooked deep in the mouth, which would lead to the conclusion that the prey was intended to be swallowed. This might indicate that the Big Black mimics some food source such as squid or out migrating juvenile lampreys. But then maybe, it's just a big black obnoxious critter invading their space......It works.

Big Black seems to be most productive if presented near the bottom and broad side to the fish. We call it a deep greased line presentation. The cast is made across the current and slightly upstream. A small mend then places the line perpendicular to the current flow with the rod in an upstream position. The rod is then rotated down stream with the speed of the current so that the fly line lays across the current until the fly comes under light tension. The rod tip leads the fly line downstream slowly until both rod and line are parallel with the current. The fly crawls along the bottom of the river remaining broad side to the flow through much of the swing until it stops directly below the angler. Then the angler steps down stream and the process is repeated until the whole run is systematically covered. Having a fly pattern that you know will catch fish is a distinct advantage. Problems get easier when you can eliminate some of the variables. When you know you have a reliable fly, then you can concentrate all your energy on finding fish. A lot of time can be used up in the decision making of which fly to tie on. More time may be squandered worrying if the right color has been selected rather than if the fly is fishing at the right depth and speed. Fly speed and depth are everything. The right presentation is worth more than a box containing a hundred different fly patterns.

To be able to fish confidently at depth around large cover, you must have no emotional attachment to the fly. If the fly becomes snagged, it must be broken off without pangs of material loss. Only then will the angler be able to fish most effectively in the places that hold the maximum numbers of steelhead. It makes sense to fish flies that are quick and easy to tie. The fastest flies to tie are the ones that incorporate the fewest kinds of materials. Steelhead Bunnies are some of the easiest.

More often than not the angler is equipped with a lot of pretty flies in varying colors but which are all of the same sink rate. Usually the artistic nature of the fly tying angler demands that steelhead must surely be more easily enticed with the most complex fly designs. These artsy flies take a lot of time to tie. The angler is not prone to fish these flies at risk.

Steelhead are notoriously fickle and love to change holds with changes of water level and temperature. Some days a lot of different water types might be explored just to find the fish. Steelhead will rest and travel in depths from one to ten feet deep. The closer the fly is to the fish the more often it will draw strikes. Obviously having flies which are designed to function efficiently at these differing depths can be a distinct asset. Lead eyes or brass beads of differing weights may be tied into these flies so that the angler is more easily adaptable to changing conditions.

The first big black rabbit strip fly I ever saw was a copy of one attributed to Mel Krieger. It was a three inch long narrow strip of black rabbit pelt tied on a standard looped eye salmon hook. Close to the eye of the hook were attached a pair of black painted medium size lead eyes. I tried that fly on the Salmon river near my home and immediately hooked steelhead and chinooks with it. It was deadly in several sizes and weights but had a nasty habit of becoming tangled. The tail would often irritatingly wrap around the hook while casting. This was especially true in the sizes which were proving to be most effective. The answer came from a group of astute, young Alaskan guides who spend their winter seasons fishing steelhead on the rivers which drain the northern Cascades in Washington State.

Steve Kruse stopped by on his way back from a multi-day trip on the Skykomish River where he had been fishing with Ed Ward and Deck Hogan. Steve was sporting the big grin of a successful hunt.

" How'd ya' do", I asked?

"It was great," Steve said as he slid into a chair on the other side of my fly tying table. " Got one fish each day, the smallest eleven, the largest fourteen pounds. The Sky is a beautiful river, endless riffles. The fish are strong....real strong". Then he took me on a vicarious trip complete with screaming reels and leaping chrome plated fish and bald eagles and shared comradeship.

All the while the story unfolded, I was eyeing the unusually large, bright scarlet fly stuck in the braid on his battered base ball cap. It appeared to be a three inch long, all red bunny bugger tied on a 2/0 looped eye salmon hook.

"Oh this", he replied as he took the fly from his hat and handed it to me, "they call it Big Red. It's the hottest thing on the Sky."

It was a sparse tied bunny bugger with the narrow rabbit strip palmered between ribs of wide pearl mylar. I made a mental image of the fly. The tail was one half inch long. There were four wraps of mylar and rabbit over a thin body of scarlet dubbing. The fly was sleek, snaky and apparently foul proof.

Kruse no sooner left than I was splitting down some red rabbit strips with a razor blade and a half dozen Big Reds were tied. Never caring much for large irons because of the hook setting problems they cause, nickel plated ring eye streamer hooks were selected. Then my attention turned to other colors of rabbit pelt. Several purple and then black ones were added to the collection. The pearl rib didn't look right on the black fly so it was changed to silver.

The next morning found me on a favorite piece of water on a local steelhead river. Naturally Big Red was my starting fly, but it hung on the bottom and broke off half way through the sweet spot in the run. When I opened my fly box, the black version of the fly seemed dominant in the early light. Since this piece of water is small, it was easily fished again. For the effort of twenty casts my reward was a pair of nice winter steelhead. One was landed, the other came off at the beach.

That fly was named after Big Red, and became known locally as Big Black. Since then the Big Black has gone through several small modifications. A very lightweight version tied on a size 1.5 Alec Jackson nickel plated spey hook and a silver bead head version for fishing slightly deeper water. Both flies lack body and rib as gaps are left between the turns of rabbit strip to let the silver hook show through. One style consists of a rabbit strip and a hook and the other is a rabbit strip, a bead and a hook. I have always felt that the best engineering incorporates the fewest parts possible that will achieve the desired result. I would rather fish than tie and would rather have a sacrificial volume of flies than a few fancy ones. The Big Black Fly has been most successful in lengths around two and a half inches, on the rivers that I fish. But, it is tied in sizes up to eight inches long. These large flies can be very effective in rivers which contain really large steelhead or where steelhead have been pooled for a long period of time.

It is most economical to buy full hides and cut your own strips. Most commercial cut strips are cut in widths appropriate for zonkers which are too wide for good bunnies. Hides should be picked carefully. Rabbit strips cut from prime pelts with long guard hares provide the best loft which in turn contributes to the most movement of individual fibers when fully saturated. A thin, but strong supple hide is desirable for ease of tying. Avoid thick, soft, puffy leather as it tends to roll while palmering and the bulk makes tying a small, efficient head nearly impossible.

As the fly changes size it must also change form to remain effective at hooking. Large hooks take more force to penetrate than do small hooks, because of their larger frontal area. Large hooks create more water drag while casting and are also more injurious to the fish. This is no problem when tying a two and a half inch long fly as hooks are easily obtainable which fit both the fly and the fish. Problems however do arise when tying flies larger than this.

The fly will tail wrap if the leather of the rabbit strip extends more than one quarter of an inch beyond the bend of the hook. That is unless some device is installed to prevent it from doing so. The hook must be positioned so that the fish will be fairly and securely hooked when it takes the fly. This pretty much dictates that the hook be near the rear of the fly. Long flies should be flexible to retain their maximum movement in the water. This criteria has resulted in some interesting fly tying innovations.

*Bead Head Big Black
**Hook: TMC 9394, #2 - #6
**Head: 3/16" nickel plated brass bead
**Thread: black flat waxed
**Wing:

Lay down a dozen wraps of tying thread directly above the hook point on the hook shank. Coat these wraps liberally with Flexament. A narrow cut strip of black rabbit pelt is attached to this wet foundation with several more wraps of thread. The thread is moved to the eye of the hook with four equally spaced wraps. Then the rabbit is palmered to cover the thread on the bare hook shank. An extra wrap of rabbit strip behind the bead completes the fly.

The rabbit strip has a tendency to foul if the leather is allowed to extend more than on quarter of an inch beyond the tie in point. This approach builds a two and one half inch fly on a TMC 9394 hook. Non - fouling flies with longer tails are tied by installing a horizontal loop of forty pound monofilament at the tie in point before the rabbit strip is attached. This loop should be about one half inch long and at least a quarter of an inch wide.


**Body: none, let bare hook show through for rib

* Double or Triple Whammy Big Black
**Hook: TMC 9394, #2 - #6
**Head: 3/16" nickel plated brass bead
**Thread: black flat waxed
**Wing:

same as above except one or two extra beads are positioned on the hook and spaced so the rabbit strip will just fit between them. Super glue is applied to the hook shank on each side of each bead. The rabbit strip is wrapped in the wet super glue and adheres firmly to the hook shank and will keep the extra beads from sliding. It is easier to count the beads than distinguish between different sizes of lead eyes.

*Unweighted Big Black

Same fly, leave out the bead. The lighter the hook the more action the fly will have. Alec Jackson Spey hooks are best and come in five colors including nickel and gold.

* Lead Eye and Brass Eye Big Blacks

Plated lead or brass eyes may be attached to the hook. They come in all practical weights and are easily attached to the hook with figure eight wraps of tying thread. Be sure to add a penetrating coat of super glue to these wraps to keep the eyes from coming loose while fishing. After the rabbit strip is tied in, figure eight wrap the lead eyes with black chenille to form a streamlined head. This will help to keep your leader from fouling in the eyes if you make a bad cast.

* Extended Body Big Black

Many forms of very large Big Blacks, including the Articulated Leech and the String Leach have been both popular and productive. The best local pattern is the Wire Leach. A short shank hook such as a #4 TMC 800B is attached to a three to six inch long piece of 15 pound test nylon coated stainless steel cable. A loop is formed in the other end of the cable, wrapped with tying thread and coated with super glue. When the glue is dry place this assembly in a gallows tool. Coat the hook and wire with super glue. Sparsely wrap a strip of rabbit the length of the hook and wire. You may want to install a ring or small swivel in the front loop as your leader will quickly cut through the nylon coating and the cable is very abrasive.

As Henry Ford said, "You can have any color you want as long as its black."


Top Fishing Websites at TopFishingSites.Com 4reel fishing top fishing sites cyber-lake.com Top Fishing Sites
1