The Woodchuck Nymph
It used to be that every time I hit the stream with my fly rod I had roughly five different patterns. I had a lot of luck on zug bugs early on in my fly fishing career, so that was a staple. Elk hair caddis was used any time my other dry fly, the royal wulff, didn’t work and vice versa. Pheasant tails were a known conjurer of trout which landed that pattern in the keeper box. And no one had any business carrying a fly rod if they didn’t have at least a half dozen hare’s ears with them.
My spartan fly selection had nothing to do with knowing that these were the only flies I needed to catch fish. It was due to my limited high school student budget and not having enough fly tying know-how to tie much else. My fly fishing acquaintance responsible for introducing me to the sport was from the west coast and, although possessing a remarkable ability to catch trout on almost anything, did not always offer a confident fly selection for Eastern waters. With things as they were I never felt I could take a chance on a pattern that looked good but might be a total waste of time.
I have expanded things a fair bit since then but I still rely heavily on the elk hair caddis and the royal wulff still gets fished at least a few times each season. The pheasant tail still catches trout as well as ever and hare’s ears have plenty of real estate in my fly boxes. I have largely dropped the zug bug in favor of the prince nymph which seems to work a bit better. But I don’t fish any of them anywhere near as much as my favorite fly of the past eight years.
For as long as I have been tying flies I have always liked experimenting and being creative. I used to tie anything with any materials I could find and I almost never tied the same fly twice. It occurred to me one day that although I was having a lot of fun, I wasn’t really getting anywhere. So I adopted a more methodical approach to fly design. I thought about the flies I fished most often. Nymphs by far were the most likely to be tied to my leader. So designing a nymph made the most sense. Next I considered what patterns I had the most luck with. Hare’s ear and pheasant tail immediately came to mind. It also occurred to me that the hare’s ears I had the most success on were natural color and did not have a tight, smooth profile. They were worn, with hair fibers sticking out at random. But instead of the usual rabbit dubbing with guard hairs mixed in to give it a buggy look I chose to try something new. Woodchuck fur had a nice blend of soft underhair with longer, stiffer fibers. For the tail I went with fibers from a turkey wing quill; approximately four tied such that they splayed slightly. The result looked good, but not that different from a regular hair’s ear. I’m not sure how I settled on it but the butt ends of the turkey wing pulled over the length of the fly to form a shell back seemed like a perfect solution. I was pretty pleased with my creation, all the more so since I collected both materials myself; I shot woodchucks all summer long and usually got a turkey during either the spring or fall season. In light of the fly being tied mostly with woodchuck fur I named my new creation the woodchuck nymph.
I don’t remember the first time I fished the woodchuck nymph but obviously things went well. I can’t recall a time when fish wouldn’t take a woodchuck but would take something else. I usually fish it as I would any other nymph, with split shot and a strike indicator. But it also works well held in the current with bouncing of the rod tip and tugging of the line to give it action. I think it works so well because it is simple and generally imitates a variety of insects. My philosophy on fly patterns is that they have to be fairly simple. If it takes me more than five minutes to turn out one fly I’m probably not going to tie very many of them. I have only ever tied it in size 12 and 10 with 12 generally being more effective. I suppose something smaller might work even better but so far I haven’t really had much reason to try it out. I still fish plenty of hare’s ears and pheasant tails but every winter I tie a bunch of woodchuck nymphs so I’m ready come spring. If anyone is interested, here’s the recipe and directions:
tail- turkey wing quill
body- woodchuck dubbing.
This can be bought or collected on your own. Not all parts of a woodchuck are the same. Look for sections of fur with thick, soft short hairs mixed with longer hairs. If you can’t find sections like this, cut off bits of short hair and long hair from separate areas and blend together. Cut the longer hairs in half if they are too long.
Shellback- turkey wing quill (butt sections from tail)
thread- brown or black 6/0
hook- standard nymph size 10 and 12
|A complete woodchuck nymph. It’s not fancy or
complicated to tie but it does a great job catching trout.
Tie in the tail, approximately 4 fibers will do. Next bring the butt section of the quill fibers back toward the hook bend and wrap with 4 or 5 turns of thread. Then apply woodchuck dubbing to the thread (it may be necessary to generously wax the thread) and wrap toward the hook eye, tapering gently 2/3 up the hook shank and then tapering sharply for the last 1/3. Bring the quill butts over the top of the body to make the shellback and secure with several thread wraps and build up a small head. Tie off and secure with head cement. If necessary pick out some of the dubbing fibers with a needle. If you would like to make the shellback more durable it can be coated with a light application of head cement.