Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Unlikely Fly Tying Material from Down Under
Unlikely Fly Tying Material from Down Under

In geography, the antipodes of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface which is diametrically opposite to it. Two points that are antipodal to each other are connected by a straight line running through the center of the Earth. Now Tasmania is not exactly antipodal to Bozeman, Montana (somewhere in the Southern Ocean halfway between Australia and Cape Town is), it’s close enough. On the other hand, parallel universes might be found anywhere. In the simplest of terms, one might characterize a parallel universe as “alternative reality” and both terms are generally synonymous. The term “parallel universe” without any scientific connotations implies a relationship, or lack of relationship, with our own universe. When it comes to trout flies, one might conclude that within Australia and New Zealand, tying flies for brown trout is an alternate reality.

In my preparations for our Australia trip next year, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Tasmanian trout flies. I want to arrive in country with the right stuff. When I inquired of our guides and hosts in Tasmania as to what would be some good flies to bring, the response was a little thin–bring some Red Tags and Parachute duns. I was hoping for more variety. When compared to the fly fishing literature of Europe and America, the volume of print on Tasmanian fly fishing is simply “dearthly”. Of the few titles I did find, this one: Australian Trout Food, Trout Flies and how to fish them, Rob Flower (1996) was very instructive. Although dated from a materials standpoint, from this book I learned that Australia has no shortage of the aquatic and terrestrial insects and the types of baitfish we are accustomed to in America. Mayflies, stoneflies, caddis plus assorted Diptera, crane flies, damsels, hoppers, beetles, etc., all make up the food sources of Tasmanian trout. The individual species might be different, but the general size and coloration isn’t. Although the small baitfish are of a completely different family—Galaxiidae–from those found in American and European waters, they are no less small river dwelling fish that trout love to feed on. You would think Tasmanian anglers would have the same flies in their boxes we do in America and in Europe. Not so much the case.

antipodes 2In the first edition of Australia’s Best Trout Flies (Sloane and Crosse) (1997/2001), very few of the 168 flies mentioned would be familiar by name to the average American fly angler, especially us western types. European anglers on the other hand might recognize more of the flies by name. But in hand (or in photos) one would recognize them as mayflies, stoneflies, caddis, nymphs, dries, streamers, terrestrials etc. To be fair, there are a few old standbys that are still at the top of the food chain in Australian waters. The Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis and Woolly Bugger (duh!) are listed as go-to flies. Of course a fair number of flies used in Australia originated in England and migrated down under when European anglers emigrated to Australia. Plus, those European anglers began to adapt their understanding of English trout flies to Australian conditions. A good example is the “Pot Scrubber” nymph. Anyone ever heard of that one? It was a pattern tied by English angler Dick Wigram, a protégé of G.E.M Skues. Wigram fished with Skues as a 14-year boy on English chalk streams and at the age of 21 emigrated to Tasmania in 1924 with his brother. He was to become one of the premier anglers and writers on Tasmanian fly fishing in the 1950s and 60s. In 1935, the Wigram’s Brown Nymph was introduced into Tasmanian angling circles. Originally without a rib, one of Wigram’s fishing pals started using strands of copper from Pot Scrubbers to rib flies. Wigram quickly adapted the technique to his nymph which became known more affectionately as the “Pot Scrubber Nymph”. Unfortunately, this tying material is unavailable at J. Stockard, but your local kitchen store may have some.

The Onion Bag
The Onion Bag

Another go-to fly in the Tasmanian fly arsenal was equally obscure from my perspective, but no less had an interesting nom de plume—The Onion Bag. A take on the traditional Red Spinner which was first tied by Harry Powell, a well-known Welsh fly tier in the 1920s. It is the female spinner of the March Brown and the Autumn Dun. The pattern made its way to Australia sometime in the mid-20th century. Touted as an all-around mayfly spinner pattern for lake and stream, the Red Spinner, the fly is actually difficult to find for sale by name outside of Europe. Many variations exist and spinner fly patterns are about with many different names. Although I have been unable to nail down an exact timeframe, The Onion Bag was created by Tasmanian angler Joe Martak to deal with the prodigiously large trout found in the Central Highland lakes in the 1950s. What makes a Red Spinner an “Onion Bag”? Simple. The body of the fly is tied with the pink or red strands of polypropylene that traditional onion storage bags are constructed of. Another material fortunately that J. Stockard doesn’t need to carry. The Onion Bag is still a popular pattern in Tasmania and the latest iteration is popularly called by “Onion Bag Guides Spinner” and featured prominently in Tasmania’s leading fly retailer’s catalog.

Original Cat Fly
Original Cat Fly

As an angler who much prefers fishing streamers in large and medium rivers, I was very interested in the unique streamer patterns that are used in Tasmania. Of course Zonkers (which originated in Colorado) and Matukas (which originated in New Zealand) are widely used baitfish patterns, but there is one baitfish pattern down under that I had never heard of—The Cat Fly. Not unlike the Zonker in form, the original Cat Fly was tied by Jim Dunne. What makes the Cat Fly unique? Take a gander at this pattern.

  • Hook: #6
  • Body: Yellow Seal Fur
  • Rib: Oval Gold Tinsel
  • Wing: Strip of Cat Fur on Skin.

As I was writing this our cat Barnaby, who often sits in my lap while I tie flies, became very nervous. Of course many variations exist and many now use alternate furs. But, in its original form, this is probably not a pattern that would be sanctioned by the Humane Societies of the world.

Tasmania is roughly one-fifth the size of Montana and about equal in size to our Region III fishing area which encompasses the great blue ribbons streams that SW Montana is so famous for. We get hundreds of thousands of visiting anglers every year. Antipodal to that is Tasmania, a world renown brown trout fishery that only gets approximately 3000 visiting anglers annually. It must be all those unusual “alternate universe” flies—The Pot Scrubber, The Onion Bag and The Cat Fly—that keep them away.

2 Comments

  1. Fun article. I envy the anticipation you must feel as your big trip draws nearer.

    I find it excellent that fly tying is so resilient–that people isolated on the other side of the planet from fly angling’s roots, and from “proper” tying materials, would find solutions in pot-scrubbers and onion bags. It reminds me of how I made fishing lures as a kid–I had no resources other than a woods out back and whatever was on the kitchen counter and the rusty hooks I might find in the dirt when the family went to a lake once a year…but that didn’t stop me from ad-libbing, from making lures that had a chance. That instinct still lives on, every time a mylar candy bar wrapper catches my eye and I opt to tuck it into a pocket insted of the trash bin, to see how it might look as a sliver of wing case later.

    Australians are refreshingly devoid of pretense, and always were. I remember a young British traveler named Andrew I met during my year “down under” long ago, who remarked, “What I love about Aussie is how they name things down here! Back in the UK, places are always something like, ‘King Edward The Seventy Seventh Royal Riding Grounds’ or ‘The Duke Of Something-Or-Other Family Estate.’ But here in Australia they just have places like, ‘Bob’s Hill.’ It’s brilliant!”

    So I’m not surprised that fly patterns would make use of vegetable bags and the like. Whatever works, when you’re far from the source of things. And I love those honest names too. I guess I’ll now have to name a certain fly in my fly box the “Granola Bar Wrapper nymph.”

    – Mike

  2. Hi great article. Now I can use my onion bags for something other than rock filled anchors. I wonder if the person responsible for Quick Descent Dubbing, made from shredded aluminum, used a pot scrubber or knew of that fly. I read of a tyer that drilled holes in soft black plastic and used the corkscrew shavings for ribbing his stoneflies. Cats are safe, but I have used Heidi’s shed whiskers for ribbing and tails. Thanks Mike, lots of great information, good luck on your upcoming trip. Bring some Mrs Simpsons, how about a few yabby? Have fun & stay safe, I’ll be inventorying my candy wrappers! ?

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