Tubeflies for Warm Water
by Jerry Darkes
Mention tube flies to most anglers, and Atlantic salmon, steelhead, and maybe some saltwater uses come to mind. Tube patterns have been around for many years in West Coast fly fishing but are still considered primarily a European technique, especially in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in tube flies in North America, mostly by steelhead anglers in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes regions.
As more tube-fly patterns, materials, and components are developed, new applications have followed. One area in the start-up phase is for warmwater use. Bass, pike, and muskie are prime candidates for creative tube patterns. We are no longer limited to tying on Q-tips, drink stirrers, and Bic pen cartridges. New products have opened the door, and creative tier are stepping in.
Several reasons favor the use of tube flies. To start with, you can use a short-shank hook even with a long-bodied fly. This offers less leverage for a hooked fish to work against, and the result is more landed fish. The dressed tube can be any desired length and much longer than possible with a conventional hook. Eliminating the long hook also keeps the fly much lighter to cast.
If a hook is damaged for some reason, it can be changed without discarding the fly. The hook size or style can be adjusted depending on the conditions or species sought, and a fly can easily be adapted for saltwater or freshwater use just by changing the hook. The angler can incorporate a dressed hook or a bare hook, providing maximum versatility from a single pattern style.
Finally, tube flies make it easier to release fish quickly and safely. A fish may be injured as the angler struggles to save his fly while unhooking the fish. With tubes, the hook can be clipped off, if necessary, and the fish easily released with the fly still intact. With toothy critters, the fly also slides up the leader away from sharp teeth.
Tube flies originated in Great Britain sometime around 1940 and are quite simply what the name suggests - a fly with a hollow tube replacing the hook shank. The tippet end of the leader runs through the tube and connects to the hook, which can be rigged various ways but most often is pulled into the rear end of the body.
The Scandinavians have had the biggest influence on the development of tube flies with their exquisite style of tying stacked hair wings that act as a keel to keep the fly swimming straight. The earliest references to the use of metal tubes with plastic liners are from Sweden and Denmark, and the widest variety of tube-fly components and materials come from this area.
One of the earliest proponents of fishing tube patterns in warm water was Michigan tier Tony Pagliei. For a number of years, Pagliei was a lone voice preaching the benefits of tying and fishing tubes around the Midwest. He fishes both steelhead and salmon, but also employs tube flies when fishing the Grand River near East Lansing for smallmouth bass, pike, walleye, carp, and whatever else might be interested. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Pagliei makes several pilgrimages a year to the fish-filled waters of his home.
Pagliei early on promoted the convertible aspect of tube flies - the idea of mixing and matching fly components to change color and function. Working ahead of his time, he released a video titled Tying Convertible Tube Flies in 2002. Tony also publishes the Web site www.tubeflies.com, a storehouse of ever-expanding information on tying and fishing tubes.
Several other New Yorkers have had an influence on the development of warmwater tube flies. Rick Kustich has penned numerous articles and several books about fly fishing - mainly about trout and steelhead - but he grew up and still lives about a half mile from the upper Niagara River on Grand Island,, a top-notch warmwater fishery. Kustich's passion for fly fishing for muskies is well served here and on various other local waters.
Steve Wascher is a schoolteacher and guide who lives on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, another well-known fishery. The muskellunge is king here, but a full range of warmwater species calls Chatauqua home. Wascher, a true fly-tying junkie, has a front-door laboratory to experiment in. Like Kustich, he chases muskies whenever he can. Both are designing flies for these large toothy critters. They focus on tubes to create and fish a fly much larger than could be done on a conventional hook.
Being based in northern Ohio, I focus on steelhead and warm water. Peter Humphreys, the Guideline sales rep, ties beautiful Scandinavian-style patterns for Muskegon River steelhead and gave me several flies to try locally. On a trip to southeast Ohio's Little Beaver Creek for stream smallmouth, my eyes fell on one of his creations. The combination of olive-and-chartreuse arctic fox with copper Flashabou screamed "smallmouth!" to me, and I was not disappointed. Fish climbed all over that fly.
This experience really fired my interest in tubes for warmwater use. Tony Pagliei introduced me to the Eumer folks. Rick Kustich and Steve Wascher had me out several times to fish for and catch muskies with tubes, and I was converted into a bona fide tube fanatic. Nearly all my tying now focuses on tube patterns, and I fish them whenever practical. Even Greg Senyo, an Orvis Fly Tyer of the Year, has converted many of his patterns to tubes and is working to create additional patterns for warmwater use.
At the Vise
In order to tie a tube fly, one must rest the tubing on some sort of metal mandrel or pin. There are dedicated tube vises and also different styles of adapters that will hold the mandrel and then clamp into a regular vise. The mandrel may be a fixed diameter, where several different sizes may be needed, or it can be tapered such that the tube is pushed up the shaft to the point where it is held in place by pressure.
Many recognized patterns can be easily converted to a tube fly configuration and may be improved on. Using the Woolly Bugger as an example, let's consider Pagliei's convertible idea. We can tie bodies on plain plastic tubes and leave them unweighted or add a cone of some sort to the front. The hook can be dressed in various colors for the tail. With six bodies and six tails, you end up with 36 possible combinations. Substitute arctic fox body for marabou in the tail, and you have a fly with as much movement as marabou but that is nearly indestructible compared with the marabou feather.
The Clouser Deep Minnow and Deceiver are two other patterns that adapt well to tube configurations. After tying the main fly, you can use a plain or dressed hook. The hook can be stainless for saltwater applications and dressed with saddle hackles, bucktail, rabbit strip, or any material you choose. Use red junction tubing to simulate the gills of an injured baitfish.
Topwater patterns also convert well to tubes. Using preformed foam bodies, push a pin through several times to enlarge the opening for a tube. Coat the body tube with Zap-A-Gap or superglue, and quickly push it through. Make the tube a little longer than the body so it can be dressed and accept a junction tube. The hook can again be dressed if desired. Deer hair can also be spun on tubes. Just make sure you are using tubing for tying applications so it does not compress from the pressure of spinning the hair. Tubing that is too soft may not pull off the mandrel, or may close up later so that the leader cannot be put through the tube.
Invertebrate patterns can also be tied on tubes. Pagliei's TRB can be made to imitate a damsel, stonefly, or larger mayflies nymphs such as Hexagenia genus. By changing material colors, a lot of different looks can be achieved. Senyo does a Hex nymph and several crayfish patterns.
My two favorite tubes to tie are Eumer's Ball Head Tube and Shrimp-Crayfish Tube. The Ball Head Tube can be quickly dressed with a variety of materials, and swim-tank tests show this tube generates a small wobble when stripped or swung in current. The Ball Tube is a great introduction to tying tubes. It serves as the tying platform and also gives both color and weight to the fly. Just tie on a rabbit strip zonker-style and you are ready to fish. You can also add different materials at the head to create a variety of looks. I call this the Ball Head Bunny.
Another very versatile pattern I tie is the Deep Creeper. It is tied on the Eumer Shrimp-Crayfish Tube. Again, the tube is the body and provides both color and weight. Grooves on the tube function as tie-down points. This pattern has only two materials on it, a rabbit strip and Sili Legs. Depending on color, it can imitate a crayfish, a leech, a sculpin, a tadpole, or who knows what. All I know is that it catches fish! It gets eaten on the fall as well as when stripped. When you drop one in the water, you'll see why.
Another way to add weight and motion into tube patterns is through the use of Monster or Turbo cones. Add these thin metal discs to the front of the fly just before finishing. Their cupped shape creates a current vortex behind the cone, giving any soft materials additional movement. The shape also gives a slight wobble to the fly, and because the tube absorbs minimal water, it casts easily.
On the Water
A tube fly is generally rigged to fish by threading the leader through the tube, tying on the hook, and pulling the eye of the hook back into the larger diameter junction tubing to hold it in place. When a fish is hooked, the fly will often pull away, allowing the fish to be quickly and easily unhooked. I use a Daiichi 1640 size 2 for general fishing. This hook holds well and is easily removed.
Other hooks are certainly usable. The most important thing is that it has a relatively short shank and a fairly straight eye so it holds straight behind the fly. If a heavier, longer hook is desired, the Daiichi 2450 is a good choice. Many bait hooks also work well, and if you end up chasing bigger fish, you may need to go this route. The Gamakatsu Wide Gap Finesse Hook works well for surface bass bugs. For mega fish such as muskies, a super-strong cutting-point hook should be used.
If you are fishing longer flies and getting short strikes, there is a remedy. The hook can be rigged "stinger" style so that it rides behind the body. To do that, run the leader through the tube, tie the hook on with a loop (you determine the length), and pull the knot into the junction tubing seated in the body tube. A hook rigged that way rarely tangles with the wing of the fly.
Michigan guides Ray Schmidt and Jay Niederstadt have taken the idea a step further to fish the wood-filled rivers they work on. First, thread the leader through the fly and tie it to a small barrel swivel. Attach the hook to the barrel swivel with a short length of tippet that is at least 4-pound test lighter than the main leader. The junction tube is replaced by a piece of 1/8-inch surgical tubing. You can leave the hook trailing or push it into the tubing. If the hook gets snagged, it is easily broken off, saving the fly. This "Fearless Fly" system is illustrated at www.schmidtoutfitters.com, by detailed photographs.
It is also possible to make the fly somewhat weedless and snag resistant. When the hook is seated into the junction tube, turn it upward so that it rides point up. The wing of the fly acts as a keel to make it stay upright and swim straight, minimizing snags, but it may be a bit harder to hook fish.
Toothy muskies and pike demand a bite tippet. There are various types of wire that can be knotted to the leader and the fly. The wire tends to kink in front of the tube, and may need to be retied several times during a day's fishing. Forty to 60-pound test fluorocarbon seems to work best and has low visibility. Try a uni knot to attach a length of this to the leader and then a three-turn clinch knot or Homer Rhode loop knot to connect the fly. Check the fluorocarbon after every hooked fish, and replace it if there are any nicks.
Beyond the numerous practical advantages to fishing tube flies, new patterns can be created from all the materials and components now available. We can design flies to target a wide variety of fish in nearly any situation, from nymphs to supersized patterns for apex predators. So far, we have barely scratched the surface in applications for warmwater fisheries. For both the angler and fly tier, warmwater tubings doesn't mean jumping into the backyard pool anymore.
End of story.