Friday, November 27, 2009

It’s Time to Start Tying Flies for Spring

The nights are getting cold here in southeast Nebraska, water temperatures are falling
and your chances of catching anything on a fly rod are getting pretty slim. On top of that, it’s getting harder to find a place to fish. The last time I was out I found duck decoys floating in a couple of my favorite spots. I’ve decided it’s time to stick a little closer to the fire and concentrate on tying flies for next year.

The first flies I’ll tie will be the Improved Black Gnat and the Improved McGinty, two of my favorite panfish flies. Both are easy-to-tie wet fly patterns, just what I need to get my aging fingers back in shape for four or five months of intense tying.

The Improved Black Gnat and the Improved McGinty are my versions of two traditional wet flies – the Black Gnat and the McGinty – created to take trout. I call them "improved" for a couple of reasons. One is that each of the original patterns requires more materials, each is a little more difficult to tie in its original form, and each of the original patterns takes a little longer to tie than my down-and-dirty variations. I also believe that bluegill and crappie are less selective than trout and in my experience they like the more-simply tied versions at least as well as the originals. To me, that’s an improvement and I renamed them, not in an attempt to claim any ownership to the patterns, but to identify them as being knock-offs of the originals. In answer to the obvious question, I have not tried the improved versions of either of the "improved" versions for trout fishing and I don’t have any idea how trout would respond to them. I’m just really happy that bluegill and crappie like them.

I’ll start fishing again next spring just as soon as there is open water and panfish move into shallow water looking for forage. Fishing in the spring can be pretty tough, thanks melting snow and ice which raise water levels and turn normally clear waters the color of semi-stout coffee. Then, just as the water starts to clear again, roller-coaster cold and warm fronts produce strong spring storms that result in high winds and heavy runoff that again result in stained water.

In stained water, bluegill and crappie can see dark-colored flies such as the Improved Black Gnat, easier and at greater distances than lighter-colored patterns. I’ve also found that larger flies, such as size 8 or 10, produce more fish than those size 12-14.

The Improved Black Gnat Wet FlyThread: Black, pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 3906, sizes 8-14
Tail: Black goose biot
Body: Small black chenille
Weight: (Optional) 3-5 turns of small lead wire
Collar: Black hackle
Head: Black thread
I don’t know if this pattern imitates any insect in particular, but it seems to be easy for the fish to locate when it is retrieved slowly with a short jerk-stop-short jerk motion near some type of cover, such as vegetation standing in shallow water.

The Improved McGinty Wet Fly
Thread: Black, pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 3906, sizes 8-14
Tail: Red hackle feathers
Body: Small black and yellow chenille
Weight: (Optional) 3-5 turns of small lead wire
Collar: Yellow hackle
Head: Black thread

The Improved McGinty roughly resembles a honey or bumble bee in shape, color and size, and though I've never seen a bluegill eat a bee, they sure go after this fly. Its three colors – red, yellow and black -- seem to attract bluegill.

I prefer to use the Improved Black Gnat in stained water, but when the water is clearer and visibility is better, I change to the Improved McGinty.

When spring does finally roll around, fly anglers can start taking bluegill on flies shortly after ice-out. Concentrate your efforts in shallow water with vegetation or other cover near shore on the north and west sides of the lake or pond because those spots will warm quicker than other areas.

Later in the spring, when the water warms and vegetation begins growing, I can usually find bluegill around healthy, green weedbeds in water two to eight feet deep, where the fish congregate because of the shade, protective cover where they can hide from predators, and because the weeds provide forage such as zooplankton, insects and small minnows.

My wife, Maggie, is shown with a few bluegill she took on an Improved McGinty while fishing near shallow-water vegetation last spring.

I think that a 4 or 5-weight graphite rod with a weight-forward floating line and tapered leader is an ideal setup for spring bluegill fishing. I like a weight-forward floating line and a 7½-foot tapered leader with 7X tippet for both bluegills and crappies in shallow water. You can cast accurately and comfortably with this combination all day, and it doesn't overpower the fish.

In the early spring, I use an unweighted fly because it sinks slowly to about two feet below the surface and hangs there, shimmering in the water. Later, in early summer when the fish move to deeper water, I often use a weighted fly.


  1. Tom-

    Ward Bean shot me the link to your blog! I am a warm water fly tyer and fly fisherman. Mainly a smallmouth guy, I really enjoy being outdoors and while a trout stream in Wyoming is local pond is just as good to me.

    The Improved Gnat and McGinty look like winners to me and I'll make sure to whip some up for my spring bluegill runs.

    We are having sub-zero temperatures here in Minnesota and the woodstove is burning a big piece of oak while I write this post. Darn it is cold!

    Sad to hear old Jack Gartside died a few days back and have been tying some of his patterns for next season.

    Thanks for taking the time to create this blog...this stuff helps me get through the brutal Minnesota winters!

    Look forward to followiung this blog.

    Best Fishes,

    Doug Rorer

  2. Hi Tom,

    Phil here from Portugal. Been trying to get in touch with you but lost your contact details due to a computer crash, I only got your old address. Could you please send me an e-mail to my address.

    All the best,


  3. Thanks, Tom! I appreciate the patterns for these two.
    Ill be whipping up a few, with my own variations. I want to do the McGinty in orange and the Gnat using black ostrich herl. Think that 'll work out?