By Gordon van der Spuy
The parachute RAB (para RAB in short) must rate as my all-time favourite fly. It is delicate and everything I look for in a dry fly is optimised in this pattern.
I love tying it, but more importantly, I love fishing it. When trout commit to this fly they really commit! Fish ram it with gusto when they take it, very much in the same fashion that a great white takes a seal in False Bay. What they take it for is a mystery to me.
We speculate, perhaps they take it for a crane fly or a spider or even a big mayfly, who knows? Who cares? The point is they eat it and that’s good enough.
The fly is designed to cast and drift well, a classic example of form following function. It has a large profile when viewed from below, a buggy image, plenty of movement and more importantly, it presents like a charm. It’s almost impossible to make a duff presentation and is effective even in the hands of the tyro.
It floats down like a thistle seed due to the resistance offered by its large halo hackle. Fortunately, and unlike most variants, the parachute design doesn’t twist fine tippets. One could say that the para RAB is the presentationist’s fly.
When I realised that trout ate good presentations more than they did well tied flies I knew that the pattern was a winner. More importantly the gape is totally open so hook-ups are good too. It catches fish and instils confidence in my fishing.
It’s the lazy man’s fly in a sense, the dry fly version of what the Walker’s Killer used to be thirty years ago. I know it’ll work so I try it on every trip to the river. It is a lot classier than a sinking fly though, in my opinion.
I don’t view the fly as being the be all and end all of dry fly fishing and it definitely does have its limitations but I can tell you that it is effective more often than not. Most people fish them large, say in size 14s and 16s. They work well this large but fish do at times actually steer clear of these massive ice berg like concoctions, especially towards the end of the season when water levels are low and the fish have been pressurised. This is the ideal time for micro para RABs tied on a #18 hook. I don’t tie them smaller than this as I don’t view minute being practical. There are better patterns to tie small.
The original RAB tied by Tony Biggs had ample WTF factor. (WTF, by the way is not an abbreviation for ‘well that’s fantastic’). Anyone who has ever held an original Tony Biggs RAB in hand will tell you that it looks a bit like a secretary bird that’s been knocked repeatedly by a township taxi.
They really look shockingly ugly, a far departure from what commercial versions look like. Although being effective, the fly had many design flaws. It twisted fine tippets and resulted in fewer hook ups in the smaller sizes due to the hook gape being occluded by the ultra-long hackles used in its design.
That said, the pattern does teach us something very important, namely that most trout in bubbly streams are suckers for patterns with a ‘larger than life’ image, combined with plenty of movement. The para RAB offers the same appeal I believe but with a vastly improved hook up rate. It doesn’t twist tippets either. Some say it’s a totally different style of fly. Maybe there is a bit of truth in that but the general triggers stay the same.
The startling thing about this pattern is that you’ll very rarely encounter a decent commercially tied para RAB; you simply don’t find them all that often and when you do they tend to be poor copies. If you don’t believe me go shopping and see for yourself.
There is no excuse for an untidy para RAB because it is not difficult to tie, provided you understand the concepts of thread control and prevent bulking up the body of the fly. I have been tinkering with this fly for a few years now and have made a few discoveries which helped me improve the sequence a lot.
The first discovery I made was that the original tying process of the pattern was way too clunky, too many steps, too much cement etc. I wanted a simple fly, something that could be tied in five minutes and still be effective. I discovered that by tying the squirrel fibres in first and then tying the post on top of them it simplified the tying process.
I also realised that by splaying the squirrel fibres and forcing them into position, then damming them up with thread to keep them in that position, I had a more pronounced halo hackle that offered better movement. I also did away with the traditional pheasant tail body with copper rib (I felt it took too long to tie and gave the pattern unnecessary weight), opting for a nice plain Egyptian goose biot body instead. One can also use conventional goose biots but they do tend to be on the short side for bigger flies. Goose biot bodies are simple to manufacture, they look great as you get a nice taper and give a lovely segmented look to the fly. They just look sexy.
The next discovery I made was how to balance the fly so that it drifted down on the final cast without spiralling down. I had always believed that RABS should have long tails, twice the length of the shank at least. I have now come to realise that the tail should be as long as the shank of the hook and no longer. Longer than this and the pattern is unbalanced and will spin around in the air on its descent. I have also since managed to acquire a few original Biggs RABs and have noticed that Tony also tied them with the shorter tail. Tom Sutcliffe also ties his version this way. The shorter tail keeps the fly positioned right in the drift on the traditional variant.
Furthermore, the halo length in the para RAB needs to be equal to the length of the body and the tail of the fly combined. This seems to balance the fly out and aids in gentle presentations. I tie them on the Fulling Mill Ultimate dry fly hooks, great hooks for small stream work. They’re strong enough for yellowfish too.
I also like making the parachute hackle shorter than normal to allow the Halo to appear more pronounced, call it a trigger if you like. The hackle would typically be as long as the gape of the hook.
When I first started tying these flies I used squirrel fibres for the halo but have since come to realise that vervet monkey guard hairs are far superior, they are super thin, have lovely barring and are slightly stiffer than the squirrel fibres and thus keep their shape a bit better.
Obtaining vervet can be tricky and one is normally dependant on road kill. One can also use Gallo de Leon fibres for the halo. Fibre length is not limiting because the fibres are cut off the feather rachis and can be adjusted to suit your requirements. Tiny Gallo de Leon halos can be achieved like this. I introduced Leon Links to the method a while back and he says it has opened up a whole new world for him. One can actually now hackle tiny flies with Gallo de Leon, something which once seemed impossible to do due to the long fibre length of the Gallos.
The para RAB is a style more than a pattern, there is so much that you can do with the initial concept. This pattern has taught me a lot about tying in general. I’ve learnt about the importance of thread control, economy in tying, taper, balance, eliminating bulk, planning ahead and damming thread to force fibres in the position you want them in. It’s a fly full of lessons. If you can tie a decent para RAB you’ll be able to tie almost anything!
Fishing the para RAB
I normally opt for a plain straight forward downstream drift when fishing the fly but have also realised that skating it across a riffle can get slumbering fish to pounce on it. One can also fish the pattern wet down and across and stripped upstream, not unlike fishing a soft hackle. Some might view this as sacrilege but I think it’s downright clever thinking. Those halo fibres ‘kick’ like crazy when retrieved. Soft squirrel fibres are great in this regard, they are stiffer than say marabou but still offer sufficient movement. This I accidentally discovered one day, my fly had been drenched due to it having taken about fifty fish during the day. I hastily retrieved the fly to replace it and got eaten on the first strip. I repeated the experiment and found the method to be very effective.
The para RAB is a tiers fly as much as it is a fisherman’s fly. It’s one of those beautiful flies that actually catches fish consistently. Normally beautiful flies lack in the fish catching department, the para RAB crosses the divide so to speak. Give them a throw!
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