I have been accused of making things too complicated. Overthinking is one of my biggest time sinks. I can drive myself crazy replaying and analyzing conversations repeatedly in my head. Fly fishing requires constant learning and focused concentration, but it also revolves around a nearly infinite number of variables that constantly change. In that way, it suits me perfectly. A thoughtful mind game. Selecting a fly is often one of those puzzles that begins and ends many fly fishing conversations. I love tying new flies and trying them out, but I also want to embrace simplicity and find flies that consistently catch fish and are durable. 

Looking back at my fly selections over the years, I have consistently relied on one fly, over all others. It is the Pheasant Tail Nymph, and a modification called the Frenchie. As clearly indicated in the name, the fly is constructed primarily with barbs of the tail feathers of a pheasant, specifically the ringed-neck pheasant. The ringed-neck pheasant is a ground dwelling bird of striking colors and patterns. The male bird has a long-barred tail that is brown and black, with mottled golden brown and red feathers across its body and chest. The head is quite regal, with a bright red spot around each eye, contrasted by a rich green head which connects to the body via a bright white ring of feathers around its neck, living true to its name. Their striking appearance is perfectly suited as wandering wildlife for a stately English Manor. 

Ring-Necked Pheasant – Photo Credit: Lynn Cleveland Audubon Photography Awards

They were introduced to the United Kingdom from Asia in the 11th century and brought to North America sometime prior to the 1800s. Ring-necked pheasants are incredibly hearty and have taken up residence in agricultural settings where hedgerows allow for hiding and cover and the open crops fields allow them to forage for seeds, fruits, insects, and small animals. 

In the 1950’s, English River Keeper, Frank Sawyer developed the pheasant tail nymph, as he embraced and further developed fishing using sunken flies to mimic immature aquatic insects, or nymphs. Using copper wire instead of thread, Mr. Sawyer heavily weighted the flies to quickly sink the flies. His collection and study of nymphs showed the presence of gills along the abdomens of the insects. He noted that, “hairy fibers such as those on the herls of a pheasant’s tail are so valuable” in representing the vibrating gills of a nymph.

Ring-Necked Pheasant Tail Display – Feathers Courtesy of Mark Cheskey

Recreational bird hunting provided ample pheasant skins for local fly tiers in the United Kingdom and North and Central United States. While nearly all of the feathers can be used in a variety of flies, the long tail feathers are the most commonly used. The tail of the ringed-neck pheasant has individual feathers that are four to 18 inches long. They are light to dark brown with black barring. The barbs of the feathers are easily pulled from the rachis (shaft) and they contain barbules that are strong but flexible enough to vibrate in moving water. They are pliable enough to be used for knotted legs, lifelike tails, and folded wing cases but are broadly used with a small wire to create a durable abdomen. The feathers are inexpensive and present at nearly every fly shop and online retailer. They also accept dye and are available in many different colors. 

Bleached, Orange Dyed, and Natural Pheasant Tail Feathers

As someone who has been tying flies for less than a decade, my first introductions to the Pheasant Tail nymph were from YouTube, with tutorials from Tightline Productions and Lance Egan with Fly Fish Food. The original form of the fly used only parts of the tail feather and fine copper wire. Adaptations led to the introduction of iridescent peacock herl for the thorax. Lance Egan replaced the peacock with shrimp pink dubbing and a red thread collar, in a pattern adapted from French competitive anglers which uses jig hooks. Others utilized different color dubbing to match the fly to insects on their home waters. I have great success using a light-yellow dubbing, in an attempt to simulate the pale yellow of a sulphur mayfly.   

Since I have tracked my fishing statistics, I have caught over 90% of my fish on a pheasant tail or a modified version. In streams from Colorado to New York to Virginia, trout have been fooled by the fly. I primarily use the natural color, but also have success using bleached and orange dyed feathers. I find the fibers are easy to work with and are not as fragile as some other feathers like partridge or peacock. In my fly box I stock sizes from 12 to 20 and use size 16 with a 2.4 mm copper bead most often. For tails, I have replaced the fibers with Coq de Leon, as they are stronger and have finer barred markings. 

With all the questions that can arise in fly fishing, the most difficult one is “which fly should I use.” If I don’t have a specific plan for a hatch or trying something new, my answer is a pheasant tail nymph. Decision fatigue is real for me, whether it’s on the stream or picking something from a Diner menu. It’s nice to have a fly to rely on. 

Keep Mending…    

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