Forced to name the smartest, most effective nymph ever made, many of us would choose the Pheasant Tail.
The fibers of the pheasant tail feather that make up the fly have the perfect qualities: their color, especially when wet, matches that of many real nymphs, they give a segmented impression when wound around the hook shank and they have a fuzziness that suggests the tiny gills that run down the sides of so many aquatic insects.
It’s hard to imagine that no one thought of using pheasant tail to make a nymph until the mid-20th century, but the fly-fishing world unanimously credits this brainstorm to Frank Sawyer, the professional keeper of a stretch of the Avon River in England, owned then and now by the Services Dry Fly Fishing Association.
Yes, contrary to the popular image of the proper British angler who only fishes dry flies, and only fishes them upstream, nymph fishing is permitted on the association’s water — beginning June 1. (From April 24 to May 31, however, it’s upstream dry-fly only.)
Here, Sawyer invented the nymph that gained him fly-fishing immortality. I’m a big fan of simple, cleverly designed flies, and Sawyer’s Pheasant Tail may be the simplest and cleverest of them all.
It’s not what has come to be called the American Pheasant Tail, which has a thorax of peacock herl, partridge hackles, a wire rib and often a bead or even a plastic stripe up its back, all tied together with thread.
Sawyer’s nymph is made of nothing more than pheasant tail and very fine copper wire. You make a lump of wire on the front half of the hook, then use the wire to bind a half-dozen fibers on at the bend, letting their tips form a short tail. Then wind the fibers and wire together up to the front, where you bind the fibers again with the wire. Now fold fibers and wire halfway back, bind them down with two wraps, then pull fibers and wire forward again for the final wraps. Genius.
But while Sawyer was no doubt a legend among the active and retired British military men who fished his part of the Avon, and while he wrote three books of his own, his fly came to be associated with another big fishing personality who lived right across the road: Oliver Kite.
Kite had been an officer in World War II and survived disease and bloody combat in the jungles of Burma. In 1956, still in the army, he had a heart attack at age 35. Two years later, already a member of the Services association (then called the Officers’ Fishing Association), he moved to Netheravon, England and soaked up his neighbor Sawyer’s knowledge of local fly-tying and fly-fishing.
Compared to Kite, Sawyer was a stoic country man. Kite was the “widely traveled outgoing communicator and incomer to the village,” writes biographer Robert Spaight in an introduction to Kite’s book, “Nymph Fishing in Practice.”
Kite wrote a newspaper column, taught fly-fishing at a local college, made speaking appearances and got his own TV show, “In Kite’s Country,” in 1965, producing 115 episodes until 1968, when he died of a heart attack at 48 while fishing the famous Test River.
The Pheasant Tail nymph was a recurring character in Kite’s work. He didn’t even call it the Pheasant Tail, he just called it the artificial nymph, pretty much the only one he ever used. He fished it in sizes 12 through 16. From 1957 through 1961, he caught a total of 2,503 trout, and “the nymph” caught 1,760 of them (the rest were on dry flies.)
“In my experience it is unnecessary to carry more than one pattern of artificial nymph dressed, of course, in several sizes with variable sinking capability, according to the water to be fished,” Kite wrote in “Nymph Fishing in Practice.”
“When I find I need another, I shan’t hesitate to dress one. Until then, there is no point in me recommending patterns for which I can foresee no requirement.”
Kite also helped to popularize one of Sawyer’s signature techniques, the “induced take,” which is a lot like the “Leisenring lift”: You cast well upstream so the fly sinks to the trout’s level as it drifts downstream. When it comes into the trout’s view, you lift the fly, so it resembles a natural swimming toward the surface.
There apparently was a falling out between Sawyer and Kite in Kite’s final years, but Spaight, the biographer, says there really wasn’t much to it.
Sawyer lived until 1980, and became well known in the U.S. His reputation as a fly designer and angler is well deserved. But Ollie Kite was no slouch. His books are still available on Amazon, and a few of his old TV shows can be found on YouTube.