Every now and then, a truly talented fly tyer comes along. This year is my 25th year behind the vice, and although I can usually pull off a decent tie, I never developed the distinct style or flair that truly talented tiers have. You can see a Borski fly straight away, the same with Popovics and Johnny King, locally with MC and Henkie Altena. Most recently, Leroy Botha. Talent in fly tying is not mastery. I can copy a fly just fine and tweak it and develop it, but there is nothing distinct about my patterns. The aforementioned flies are truly unique and their own.
Facebook has made the fishing world pretty small, so its not often something entirely new pops up that really gets me excited. But a few of Leroys flies did exactly this. His synthetic wool spinning is something completely new to me. I’m yet to see anyone else do this and the possibilities in the crustacean world of tying is endless. His use of foam is creatively beautiful. This is starting to sound like a trout article describing a chalk stream (I think thats a thing? “Chalk”?), so enough with the intro. From the man himself- Leroy Botha:
(wait until you see his blood worm imitation)
GAS HED AND THE QUEST FOR A PERFECT TURD
Word on the street a few years ago was that a deer hair turd fly was all you needed to rob the Bank of Grunter blind. But then, money talks and bullshit walks and by now there’s an impressive number of good blokes with an equally impressive array of opinions on what a sweet turd looks like. Some claim to have, and others are desperately searching for the secret grunter fly that catches them all. To be clear, I’m not that guy. For a while I despaired in the ‘fact’ that, unless your name was MC, these damn fish would only eat an articulated deer hair fly off the surface. But then came things like the X Rap Walk and grunter on the surface became quite a freakin’ thing. Slowly but surely, it became clear: the whole deer-hair-only theory was mostly bunk. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a perfect grunter fly – sometimes the fish bite, and sometimes they don’t.
This is a relief because, honestly, you can get a whole lot of DDDs for one Turd Burger. Therefore, it’s fair to say that the idea of using fine foam strips as a deer hair substitute in prawn flies, came mostly because I’m cheap. My first all-foam models didn’t work, primarily because they sat too high in the surface. But then a bit of time on the water with like-minded mates and a few peeks into their fly boxes lead to the development of a few much more functional, affordable patterns. One of them is Gas Hed, my spun-foam contribution to the growing clan of articulated surface flies for grunter, including the Turd Burger and AGHA.
The things the art-lure guys are using to nail grunter throw a huge yellow question mark over all theories related to grunter fishing on the surface. Many believe that they are imitating mud prawns but, my bra, nee. An X Rap does not imitate a prawn no matter what you tell me. For all we know it could be the grunter equivalent of a Blob Fly – a purely reactional thing. But then if that was my groove, I’d be chucking Mepps Black Furies in cold mountain streams, too.
To me it seems clear that you don’t need a great mud prawn imitation when fishing to grunts on the surface. Only one fact stands out in all of grunter fishing: Presentation is Everything. But because I love a unique pattern, experimenting with them and tweaking them, I did what I don’t believe many have purposefully done with turd design in mind. I bought a permit and collected mud prawns and sand prawns ‘for research purposes’, then spent some time observing, photographing and filming them. It was like a glorified version of turning over rocks on a trout stream, a real effort in matching the hatch – I highly recommend that sort of thing.
On one of these late afternoon searches, I had a great chat with a soft-spoken older gentleman who’d offered me some of his sand prawns, since he was not going to use them all. Both of us ended up standing there revelling in the release of prawns that in other hands may have been less fortunate. Turns out he was well versed in the ways of tigerfish on fly, and he undertook to bring his fly kit next time he visited the Garden Route. Win win.
Having attained some idea of how they look and move both at the surface and below, obsessive JAM and Turd Burger tying could proceed. Again.
Turns out that although it’s not necessarily an everyday thing for either, both mud prawns and sand prawns are capable of swimming impressive distances at the surface. They’re quick, too. Viewed from above or below, each species has a unique silhouette when doing so and I’ve tried to get as close as possible with my latest surface flies. Although I’ll never stop trying to improve a fly or come up with a new fly for next season, I do believe an accurate silhouette is all you need to give the fly an edge. Both prawn species are truly distinct when swimming up top, so at the very least, it can’t hurt.
I make the abdomen section with either synthetic wool or spun bucktail (half the price and buoyancy of deer belly hair), but Sculpting fibre or similar could be even better (less cheap, but will look great). Giving the whole fly a good squeeze underwater before fishing will sit it well and low in the surface as opposed to on it; less of a squeeze is required with the wool version. Unlike some deer-hair-only versions, if tied ‘correctly’, there is little chance of it getting waterlogged to the point of sinking. I keep a pair of scissors on me while fishing, and if the squeeze doesn’t do the trick, I can trim the head or abdomen of the fly until it does what I want – again there’s lots of evidence that function is more important than form. Be careful though – I have duffed it and it is possible to trim off enough foam for the fly to sink. When using bucktail or deer hair for the abdomen, I avoid spinning it too densely. You don’t need buoyancy here, only a good silhouette. The lower that back hook can hang in the water, the better the grunts can schnarf it. I then trim the head flat and pointed for the mud prawn model, and compressed and pointed for the sand prawn one. Both patterns draw a wake without popping or diving on the retrieve.
An SBS for Gas Hed could go on for days if I didn’t prioritise. I make a few different versions, but for the SBS will focus on the long shank hook model; keep in mind that there is much scope for experimentation. The method for stacking and trimming foam strips and wool is pretty much the same as you’d use for deer hair, the only real difference is that a thick bunch of wool (16 strips) can be tied on top of the shank and forced around it (spinning), eliminating the need to tie bunches top and bottom as I do with the foam strips (stacking). One extremely helpful move to know when tying this number is the “pinch wrap”; Fanie Visagie has an excellent YouTube vid explaining it.
Saltwater long shank streamer hooks, I use Mustad S74SNP-DT, #4 & #6. (Warning: you can tie this fly with very cheap materials, but never skimp on hooks. You want them sharp and very strong.)
-Thin mono (Invisible thread available at haberdashery shops etc)
-Sheet foam, thinnest you can find, colour of choice (see below)
-Synthetic wool or natural bucktail
-Braid line, 20lb+
-Non-standard tools include a straight edge, a craft blade and a cutting board of sorts. (Pic 2)
- Using a sharp craft knife and straight edge, cut the thinnest foam sheet you can find into the thinnest strips you can manage, leaving them attached at one end. I make a bundle of ten and a bundle of six long foam strips per colour used in the head. Also prep 16 lengths of wool as shown if not using deer hair or sculpting fibre brush. I use about 2m of wool at a time and double it on itself until I have 16 strands, which I just hold in a clip for the tying process.
- Dress the hook with an even layer of mono thread, and coat with a thin layer of superglue. This goes some way to prevent premature or invisible rust.
- For deer hair or bucktail versions, the tail fan is just flared hair tips, but for the wool version I use loops of wool to get a more realistic tail. Five loops in a wide fan for mud prawns, and three loops unfanned and with the middle loop trimmed short for the sand prawn version.
- Cut a bunch of wool about 3cm long from the prepared bunch, place it over the tail as shown and take three loose wraps around it directly ahead of the tail fan tie-in point, before slowly drawing it tight. While doing so, distribute the wool strips so they flare evenly around the shank.
- Once securely in place, force this bunch back as shown, and take two to three tight wraps right in front of it before adding the next bunch and flaring it exactly like the previous one. You can mix up the colours or tie bunches top and bottom for a counter-shaded effect as well. Repeat until the shank is filled right to the hook eye, whip finish and secure with a tiny bit of your favourite glue. I use either superglue or epoxy.
- Begin the trimming process by exposing the hook on the belly side, which will help orient the cuts needed to get the desired shape. Take your time – one hasty cut can end the deal. Trim the belly as close to the hook shank as possible, then carefully cut around the tail to expose it and avoid cutting it off. Then trim the rest to the shapes shown or as like.
- (Disclaimer: The pics for this part shows the mud prawn version.) Dress the next hook with thread and glue exactly as the one used in the abdomen, then form a bulletproof connection between them by lashing them together as shown, using a doubled section of minimum 20lb breaking strain braid. Coat again with a thin layer of superglue, making sure not to glue the abdomen section and loop connection together. It’s a pain in the ass when that happens.
- (Back to the sand prawn model – the steps remain identical.) Cut off ten strips of foam about 3cm long. Position the bundle just ahead of the loop connection as shown and take two loose thread wraps around it before pulling down and gently pulling tight. Do not let go of the back half of the bundle while doing so and it will flare on top of the shank.
- Make a few tight wraps directly ahead of the flared foam and invert the hook. The trickiest part of the whole damn fly is repeating the previous step on the belly side. You need to force back the previous bunch to make the thread wraps needed for securing each consecutive bunch. More hands or fingers would have been nice, but it gets easier as soon as you’re out from under the hook point. Use 10 strips on top and 6 underneath (as prepared in the first step). Invert the hook again and repeat the process until the shank is filled.
- Again, begin trimming on the underside as close as possible to the shank, exposing the hook. The rest is done in a way very similar to trimming the abdomen – just don’t rush or go too far.
My versions attempt to imitate the swimming profiles of mud prawns (Genus Upogebia):
and sand prawns (several genera in the area, most notably Callichirus):
Because sand prawns are often found in clear water, I do try to get its colour somewhere near the truth, although for this SBS I included some barring in the abdomen just for illustrative purposes. With mud prawns I am more concerned with the silhouette of the fly and the degree to which it remains visible given the water conditions- darker flies for darker conditions etc, although results are far from conclusive. It’s possible that colour makes no difference at all, and so the bright bits are kept just for shits and giggles. That said, yellow is such an underrated colour in saltwater flies, I add it wherever I feel any justification at all. I can barely think of a prey species that doesn’t have it.
Mud prawns, as far as common understanding goes, are by far the staple of the surface feeding grunt. It is however worth mentioning that my observations and those of some others point to the theory that sand prawns partake in this asshattery in some form as well. Also, they appear to do better in blind estuaries than mud prawns do. Therefore, if said impairment is an issue on your local water, having a few sand prawn specific patterns won’t hurt.