One thing leads to another thing. I keep learning this about the ramifying rings of actions and reactions. Nothing stands alone. Look at what happened when I released a big wild fish back into the waters of the North Umpqua River twenty years ago now. Did this steelhead, intentionally or unintentionally, gift me with the knowledge that perfect moose hair does exist as well as the warning this gift entails?
I brought this steelhead in to a quick release-without a photo-a steelhead longer than my leg. It was mid-July, a bit past noon, in bright sun, with the up-canyon breezes coming at a good clip. I cast my Comet slightly upstream . . . and something had happened, and-for some unremembered reason-I looked down at my feet and saw a great shadowy form laying on a narrow ledge there about six feet down directly underneath me. I lifted my rod, putting a setting jerk into the motion and at one and the same time, the dim shape at my feet disappeared while the water fifteen-feet away erupted a steelhead that spent more time in the air than in the water as it cartwheeled end-to-end and across the small pool, the small pool that it never left.
Less than ten minutes later, I held it briefly to see which guide on my rod it was closest to and how close, saw the fish was quite fat and a female, and she was gone. My last blinking glimpse of her was through a profuse showering of water that had me jerking my face out of the way and downstream.
The immediate consequences of this large fish for me were that I retired the Comet pattern, never to fish it again, and I never again fished the Camp Water runs with a point on my hook. Neither the pattern nor the water would again give me such a fish and, truly, these Camp Water fish get hammered.
It took me a while to realize I was finally rid of a finny monkey on my back. I could now do what I wanted to do without any real concern for hooking steelhead.
The pivotal effect of this steelhead coming to my fly was that I needed to come up with a new go-to pattern. I should say here that there was nothing I hated more than opening my fly box and having to choose among the patterns. The only thing I find nearly as troublesome is to fish through a run more than once. During that single pass I am moving quickly. If I raise a fish, I will usually cast to it no more than three or four times before moving on.
Besides the beauty of this, our river; palaver with friends and acquaintances; and, now and then, pie and coffee at the Inn; trying to interest a steelhead in my fly for me amounts to finding that rare steelhead that rolled off the curious side of the bed that morning. Thus it seems to me that the faster I move, the more water I will be able to cover, and the greater the number of potentially inquisitive steelhead will see my fly.
Blue Ducktail Streamer
Initially, in my search for a new go-to fly, my mind moved to the concept of bucktail streamers and I was particularly interested in learning how to tie a streamer with a small elegant head that did not crowd the eye of the hook. With the help of the river, I ended up deciding that, for me, a bright blue streamer was just right.
At the same time I was experimenting with the various kinds of hollow hair, spinning them as part of a wide variety of ephemeral patterns that came and went like afternoon winds and some times a lot more quickly.
One of these patterns brought a smile to my good friend Joe Howell's face. I had just hooked and landed my first steelhead on a waking fly and the pattern looked more like a centipede that had been regurgitated by a duck than any thing else. I tossed it on the glass counter between us and Joe said, "My Lee, THAT is an ugly fly."
Then he realized he might have hurt my feelings and apologized. With a smile of my own, I said, "It is an ugly fly, Joe. You're right."
I was camped at William's Creek with my good friends Rob Arita, Tony Kaltenberg, Matt Ramsey, Tod Ostenson, Mike Williams, Bod Carroll, and others who came and went (the young Clay Kinsel) and all these friends knew that I was to some degree struggling to give birth to another primary steelhead pattern.
By a year and a month after the large fish, with Tod's feed back, I had settled on moose hair as my optimal spinning medium. I knew I wanted to wake flies in much faster water than most of the anglers on this river do and the stiffness of the moose hair seemed like it would make this more possible.
So concerned with their behavior in standing waves was I that I was applying copious amounts of cement to the heads of my flies. My good dog, Sis, and I were camped by ourselves in the small upcreek camp at William's Creek after crossing the foot bridge, while the rest of my buddies were in the larger camp just downstream along the William's Creek terrace.
One sunny bright and hot afternoon Tony came to visit, immediately bursting out with: "Whooee, Lee, are you getting high back here?"
I hadn't realized how bad the fumes were, and, after talking this over with Tony, I decided to tie up some Muddlers without glue-stiffened heads to test whether the head cement was necessary. To easily distinguish these unglued heads, I tied them with colorful Antron bodies. This was the only reason for the Antron and I gave these flies to my friends to try out with instructions to riffle hitch them.
Almost immediately they were coming back with stories of fish investigating this pattern, lots of fish. While, truly, a Muddler is a Muddler; I am as certain as I can be that-at that time and on this spiral arm of the Milky any Way-North Umpqua steelhead had never seen anything quite like this simple moose hair and Antron pattern. With the help of my friends-and after I had verified that this Antron Muddler waked superlatively in fast water-I had my new go-to fly. I called it a Moose Antron Muddler (MAM for short) and it was absurdly easy to tie. All that is necessary is strong black thread to deal with spinning this tough hair; Antron for the body; and a sparse, Ticonderoga pencil's size pinch of moose hair, which I spin on, and whip finish. It was a fly that could be tied in around two minutes. Since that realization that this MAM was the fly I wanted, I have not fished any other fly in the last twenty years.
For what it's worth, I don't pop this waking fly, but prefer a relatively smooth swing.
I am a bit of a perfectionist or perhaps I should say more truthfully that I like to frustrate myself. For instance, for my comet, I was always on the lookout for perfect peacock neck-feather hackle; for the blue bucktail streamer, I was always looking for perfect bucktail hairs a perfect hue of royal blue. Shortly, I was constantly seeking perfect moose hair.
This is the reason I am writing this article for The Whistle: to describe the extreme and I mean extremely extreme difficulty I had determining where this perfect hair was located on the moose as well as some of the interesting discoveries I made about moose hair and waking flies along the way . . . and of course the warning.
Now, you don't really search for something very effectively until you have learned you need it. In an example of genuine serendipity, I already had a piece of not perfect but still very good moose hair and gave what remained of this sample to Mike Williams who was making a run to Eugene to visit The Caddis Fly. With the help of Doc (may he be blessed), who worked there, Mike found a two-by-four-inch piece of perfect moose hair.
The hairs of this patch of moose that Doc and Mike dug up allowed me to ascertain that they were about an inch in length with white bases and dark brown tips. This was progress, initial progress, but progress nonetheless.
This patch of moose hair amazed my friends and me. Rob, Tony, and I were using up the last of it about a month later when I realized the hair required some kind of a ceremonial recognition. The three of us filed down to William's Creek and standing in the center of the flow, I clipped the remaining pinch of hair free and sprinkled it into the flow of that oh-so-cold creek. I didn't realize it then, but it would be almost a decade and a half before I encountered another patch of perfect moose.
In the interim, I learned that body hair, if short enough, would work, but not particularly well. I also found out that the closer to the skin you remove the hair, the better the hair will spin and, thus, wake. This is because, the closer to the skin, the broader the tapering hollow center of the hair is and the easier the hair spreads around the hook when spinning it.
Then, within three or four years of starting this search, I stumbled onto the fact that burning the very tips of the wing hairs on a MAM would allow the fly to wake twice as well as it otherwise would. When I'd tried to shorten mediocre moose hairs by trimming their distal ends with scissors, the resulting fly was unsatisfactory, reminding me more of a whiskbroom than anything else. I preferred the look of wing hairs that are slightly uneven in length.
I can't tell you, reader, why this disappointment with the whisk-broom-like look made me consider burning the hair tips but it did, though I resisted this apparent foolishness for while. Also, if you want to see an ugly fly, burn your first Muddler and look at the result. However, once a burnt MAM brings your third or fourth steelhead to you, its ugliness begins to take on a certain charm. I learned that it is important to soak the fly before burning the ends of the hairs; otherwise the fire might catch and burn the fly's wing down to nothing.
Another thing I learned was that the literature of riffle hitching was not so much wrong as it was unnecessarily complex. This literature often suggests that the angler seize off the tippet to one or the other side of the fly, depending on the side of a river you're on. Preferring fool-proofable simplicity to all else when angling-despite a tendency to search for grails-I experimentally seized the tippet off at the bottom of the fly and behind the spun head. I was interested to see that this allowed the fly to wake better and equally well from either bank of the river.
I also learned that if you left the front 5.0 millimeters of the hook behind the eye bare, but for the whip finish, it will also wake much better. This is because the half hitches come off the fly closer to its center, canting the fly in the water especially well for waking.
I also discovered that mending your fly line upstream took tension off the fly and a waking fly won't wake unless it is under tension. It seems a good thing have somewhat of a belly in your line if you are waking flies.
I have not used head cement on any of my flies since I began using Antron. Rather, I whip finish the fly head tightly using strong black thread. When my sweet dog Sis died eleven years after I learned to tie MAMs, to honor her, I continued to fish the last fly I tied on when she and I were fishing together. I fished this particular MAM for seven months, raising nine steelhead to it, and it never came apart. I lost it in the branches behind me at the top of the Tree Run.
Why put head cement on a fly when you don't need too?
As I gradually learned all these particulars, I also managed to look for perfect moose hair in fly shops all over the western U. S. and in the personal collections of hollow hair all over the same region. Judging by its absence, I realized I was probably the only fly tier who knew about it. Either that or this info was a preternaturally well kept secret-humans don't keep secrets this well . . . steelhead might, but people can't or, anyway, don't.
It took a visit to the pool by my good friend Ty Holloway to ultimately solve this mystery of the perfect moose hair that had befuddled me for more than a decade. With no real expectations, I described the perfect moose hair to Ty at his request. Well, by God, you could have knocked me over with a single moose hair, when he returned with not just perfect moose hair, but a lot of it. The person Ty knew who gave him this hair (may he also be blessed) later told me he would prefer it if he wasn't identified as the source. There is not very much of it on your average moose. Furthermore, there is no market for it, despite my saying to Ty and this other person that it was worth its weight in gold to me.
Now for the place on a moose where this hair is to be found and the warning. Confronted with a moose or moose hide, the quintessential hair will be found in an inch-and-a-half wide ring that circles the white patch below the moose's tail and above its privates. Check the hair length and make sure the base of the hair is white to ensure you have gotten the perfect hair.
The Warning: be sure the moose is dead and not just dozing . . . after all, waking a moose is an altogether different proposition from waking a moose-hair muddler.
Caribou, elk, deer, and moose all have hollow spinnable hair. Note: deer are the closest evolutionarily to moose and this shows in the hair.