All About the Tail

     I had definitely gotten myself into a hot streak. Every third cast I was getting a strike, and most of the trout were 12 to 14 inches. I had fished this stretch of river before and usually got a few fish, but nothing like this. I worked my way downstream, through a deep bend and my luck continued to hold. There were a few small trout mixed in with the bigger ones but the real fun came when I set the hook on what felt like a log. Only a second or two after the hook set I felt the head shakes, and then my line started to meander through the pool, a pronounced bend in my rod. After a brief but vigorous fight I held a fat 17″ rainbow in my hand.

Two zonkers with long tails (top) contrasted with one tied with a short tail.
Short tails have less action, but help eliminate short stikes. Long tails are
 beneficial on most flies, including this wooly bugger variant (bottom).

     All of these fish were caught on the same streamer, a natural zonker. What makes this experience instructive is the fact that I almost always fish this section of river the same way with the same fly. But this time, of the half dozen or so natural-colored zonkers in my fly box, I had selected one with a tail nearly two inches long. Typically, I tie this pattern with a tail one- to one and a quarter inches. The difference in action is noticeable. Long tails move a lot more than short ones and the wiggling, undulating motion adds tremendous lifelike rhythm. All that extra movement also sends pulses radiating out through the water. These disturbances can be sensed by fish via their lateral line, which tips them off to the presence of something small and possibly edible.
     Long tails are not without disadvantages. One distinct possibility it is the “short strike,” in which a fish nips the back of the fly or lure. This may be a means of testing suspect food, or it may be done in an attempt to cripple prey. The predatory fish can’t get close enough to eat it’s prey, so it does the next best thing and nips it to hinder it’s swimming ability. To counter this, a stinger hook can be added, which involves attaching a second, short-shanked hook to the primary. This is typically done with a short length of monofilament, fluorocarbon, or wire tied to the bend of the primary hook, and tied to the eye of the stinger hook in the usual fashion. I have never tried this, mostly because I simply haven’t gotten around to rigging up some flies with stingers, but also because it strikes me as having potential to cause line tangles and unnecessary injury to the fish. But one of these days I plan on giving stinger hooks a try. In the mean time, I definitely intend to keep tying flies with long tails.

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