PUBLISHED: 9:12 AM on Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Fly-Tying: Variants





I get downright nostalgic around the holidays. Back when I was just getting into tying - so many moons ago - my skill was pretty limited. This was before "how-to" videotapes replaced fathers who would patiently instruct their offspring in the fine art of, well, anything.

Since my father hated fishing, I began my struggles studying and mimicking the crude pencil drawings that came with a very rudimentary tying kit. At that time, my only goal in life was to catch a fish on a dry fly that I had actually tied. This would, however, prove problematic.

First of all, a person should probably have loftier goals; second, my casting skills were in the neophyte stage - and that's being generous; third, I could read rivers and rise forms about as well as I could decipher Sanskrit; and finally, my thread, feather and fur abominations were just plain, well, abominable.

To make a long story short, I eventually got the hang of tying Variants. These are perfect for beginners, since you don't have to mess around with wings. And back then, my skill at winging dry flies was on a par with how well I might perform open-heart surgery. In other words, you wouldn't want to be stretched out on the table looking up at my sweaty brow and trembling fingers. Okay, too much information. Let's tie.

On a standard #12 dry fly hook with the barb removed, I've spiraled black thread along the shank. Down at the bend, I've overlapped the thread several times, forming a tiny ball. When we tie in the tail, the ball will help force the tail fibers apart, forming a split tail.

As for the tail, I've tied in a clump of dun-colored synthetic tail fibers that are about twice the length of the shank. The fibers will spread as soon as you apply thread pressure at the base of the tail. For the body we'll need a brown hackle quill that's been stripped of its fibers. Tie down the tapered end first.

Use hackle pliers and carefully wind the stripped quill around the shank, just as you would a fur-dubbed body. By the way, you can make stripped quills more pliable by soaking them in water overnight ... "Now you tell us!" Pro tiers always have an olive jar or two filled with soaking quills.

For our "wingless" collar, select two dry-fly quality hackles from a dun cape that are about two sizes larger than you would normally use for a #12 dry fly. Find your hackle gauge and get it right - it's important. Prepare the feathers as usual, then tie down the butt ends one at a time, just behind the eye.

Now, use your hackles pliers to wind the feathers one at a time, forming an exceptionally large hackle collar. Taking care not to bind down any wayward hackle fibers, whip finish the head and finish it off with a dab of cement. Hey, nice job! You're getting really good at this.

Because of the large collar and long tail, Variants are high floaters. This is an important attribute if you like to fish Alaska's tumbling freestone streams. Beginning tiers often tie winged dries with wings either too long or too far forward - or both. This typically causes the fly to land head down or upside down, instead of the proper upright mayfly manner we're trying to mimic. On windy days I've actually seen the Variant roll on its collar. And since it's all collar, it doesn't matter where it ends up, its attitude in the water is always just right.

Just to finish up, my first homemade fly-caught trout succumbed to a Variant on the Allegheny River in upstate Pennsylvania about 100 years ago. At that precise moment I was cursed to spend half my life hunkered over a tying vise. Just think; if I hadn't caught that fish, I might have actually done something with my life. Happy tying!