As Modified by Frank Dalziel
Hook: Daiichi X472 #2-#6
Thread: MFC 6/0 or 8/0 or UTC 70 or 140 Chartreuse
Tail: Chartreuse Polar Bear or Calf Tail Mixed With 4 Strands of Chartreuse Crystal Flash
Rib: Fine Green or Red Wire
Body: Chartreuse Diamond Braid or Flashabou
Hackle: Grizzly, Palmered Over Body
Tying Notes: Experiment with different body and tail colors as well including red, blue, purple and pearlescent. When targeting deeper water add a small silver or gold bead.
During the late summer and early fall fly fishers flock to the beaches along the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. The region from Qualicum Bay to Courtenay is a favourite with many. The eastern beaches offer you a chance to cross paths with coastal cutthroat and prized returning pacific salmon, primarily coho, chum and pink. There is something soothing about standing knee deep on a beach bathed in sun, enveloped in the sounds of surf and birds, the smell of the ocean and hopefully little or no wind.
At first you might think that successful flies for salmon must be large in order to entice a take. Not so when it comes to beach flies. Beach fly criteria is unique when compared to open ocean flies. Beach conditions have had an effect on pattern development and subsequent success. Clear relatively shallow water and the bright skies associated with the late summer early fall period dictate slender sparse flies. Large overt patterns tend to spook fish making them hesitant to strike. The sparse nature of most beach patterns allows them to ride higher in the water where cutthroat or salmon can attack them from behind and below, a favourite ambush position. Color and shape are important features as beach flies still incorporate key triggers, intended to illicit a latent imprinted feeding response from salmon that may no longer be feeding. Another added benefit to slender sparse patterns is they are easy to tie. A welcome bonus when it comes to fly replenishment at the end of a days fishing or when you don’t heed the advice of a friend who suggested that 2X fluorocarbon might be too light for taming large coho with attitude. A lesson I learned the hard way late last summer off the mouth of the Englishman River.
One of the joys of fly tying is the ability to, as ardent beach fly fisher Frank Dalziel stated to me, is the ability to, “Roll your own.” This do it yourself, or DIY, approach allows you to develop and maintain critical tying habits to ensure a properly crafted fly. The California Neil is no different. The habits needed to tie this simple Woolly Worm style pattern transfer to other beach patterns as well.
Tails must be sparse and reasonably short. No more than shank length to prevent wrapping or fouling around the hook bend. Hair tails are measured in fibre counts, 12-15 strands is ample. A good rule of thumb is when you think you have the tail content correct divide it half again. Polar bear is still popular with many tiers due to its natural translucency. The challenge is finding good polar bear in reasonable quantity and quality. Many distributors are no longer carrying polar bear hair. Calf tail and translucent synthetics are suitable alternatives. Adding a dash of flash helps but avoid over application. Too much flash adds bulk and in many cases spooks fish. Some tiers only place ‘flash’ products such as Crystal Flash in their tails to the mid point and stagger cut the material to further reduce bulk.
Bodies, like the tail must be slender. Braided body materials such as Poly Flash and Diamond Braid are popular. In the absence of these materials Flashabou or SuperFlash are excellent substitutes. Be sure to tie the body material along the entire length of the shank to maintain a smooth lump free profile. When using braided body materials use firm tension. After every third or fourth wrap pull and stretch the body material to near breaking point. This practice further reduces bulk while forming a tight durable body in the process. Maintaining an anorexic look to your fly bodies helps suggest the streamlined profile of one of the salmon’s favourite foods, needlefish or Pacific Sand Lance. When chasing salmon and cutthroat along the eastern beaches it is common to see both mature and immature needlefish darting along the shoreline, particularly during tide changes.
The variegated look of grizzly hackle provides movement and contrast. Like the body and tail the hackle must be sparse. Select a relatively stiff hackle with a barb length equal to the hook gape, one size smaller than the hook is ideal. Use no more than five or six wraps to cover the body. As with all Woolly Bugger or Woolly Worm style flies I prefer to tie my hackle in at the head of the fly and wind or palmer it back over the body. Once the hackle is in place I wind the wire rib forward through the hackle to the eye securing it in place. The wire color can compliment or contrast the overall fly color. A red wire rib for example on a chartreuse fly provides and interesting contrast that cutthroat and salmon seem to prefer at times.
At times, particularly along steeper beaches in full tide conditions, your fly might need assistance getting down. This can be done a couple of ways. One option involves using a slow sinking clear intermediate or Midge Tip fly line to get the fly down. The other can be done at the vise by adding a gold or silver bead. Bead head flies can be used on both floating and clear intermediate lines. The subtle glint from a small bead may convince a following fish to munch your fly. It pays to have a selection of both bead head and non bead head patterns.
The California Neil can be fished using a variety of retrieves from dead drift to rocket fast. When targeting fussy coho a slow almost chironomid paced approach works well. Don’t be afraid to use the tide and wind to drift the fly either. When covering water fish are believed to be cruising use a slow hand-twist or four to six inch strip retrieve. Adding a thermometer shake pop to the end of a strip retrieve imparts a seductive pitch to the fly just prior to pausing. At times this pop can be the ticket to conversion for a following fish. Fish the fly right back to the rod tip and be prepared for a take as you are contemplating another cast. The increase in speed and change in angle as you raise the rod to cast often converts following fish into aggressive takers.
The California Neil is an example of the slender sparse tying style common to many beach patterns in use today. Other patterns the philosophies of this fly incorporate include the Pearl Mickey, Handle Bar, Art Limber’s Candy series of flies and a host of local favourites yet to be documented. I encourage you to visit the eastern shores of Vancouver Island this summer and experience beach fishing for yourself if you haven’t already. It is one of British Columbia’s fly fishing pleasures!
1) Cover the hook shank with tying thread. Stack or hand stack the tail material. Secure the prepared tail material in place just behind the hook eye forming a sparse shank length long tail. Secure in four strands of Crystal Flash along the shank so the ends flow back over the tail. Stagger cut the Crystal Flash to varying lengths along the front half of the tail.
2) Tie in a length of fine wire along the hook shank. With the tying thread just back from the hook eye tie in the body material. Secure the body material down the shank to the base of the tail.
3) Wind the body material forward using tight close touching turns. After every third or fourth wrap pull tightly on the body material to further secure it in place and reduce bulk. Using a minimum of wraps, tie off the body material just back from the hook eye and remove the excess.
4) Select a grizzly saddle feather with fibres no longer than the gape of the hook. Tie in the grizzly saddle feather by the butt at the hook eye.
5) Palmer the grizzly saddle feather back down the shank over the body no more than five or six times. When the hackle is about one wrap ahead of the base of the tail attach a pair of hackle pliers to the tip of the feather to serve as a weight and let the feather hang. Using open wraps, zigzag the wire rib forward to the hook eye to avoid trapping any fibres down. Tie off the wire at the hook eye and using a pulling and twisting motion break away the excess. Trim the excess hackle hanging at the rear of the fly.
6) Build a neat head, whip finish and apply head cement.