Famous Fly Origins: The Pheasant Tail Nymph

Fly fishing has long been a sport of tradition. For generations, gear, techniques, and knowledge have been passed down from one lineage to the next. Out of all these ideas and facets of our sport, perhaps the most recognizable are some of the famous fly patterns.  Few fly fishermen find themselves on the river without an array of flies, all of which were invented by someone, somewhere. How often do we take time to learn the origins of the very things our dear sport revolves around? Not often enough. Perhaps the most famous of all trout flies is the Pheasant Tail Nymph.  This simple, yet effective pattern is the epitome of a fly that has left a legacy in its wake and possesses a history that deserves to be told.  

Invented by Frank Sawyer, the Pheasant Tail has remained a staple in the fly fishing world for over a century.  Frank worked as a River Keeper on the River Avon; a chalkstream in England, where he was responsible for making sure wealthy clients caught their share of trout. His desire to catch large quantities of fish combined with a passion for fly angling and fly tying led him to develop an entire genre of fly called the ‘ sunken nymph.’ 

These innovative patterns were designed to be fished subsurface, in order to imitate small baetis insects. The first and most effective of these flies? You guessed it; the Pheasant Tail.  However, Frank’s version of the fly was much simpler than today’s renditions. The original pattern contained only two materials; copper wire and pheasant tail fibers and was designed to be fished along the bottom of the river, or as an emerger. His pattern proved extremely effective and quickly became world-famous. Check out a video of Frank tying the fly below.  

Invented in an era where dry fly fishing was the norm, Frank’s ‘sunken nymphs’ opened up an entirely new world of fly fishing.  He quickly learned that subsurface flies were much more efficient than dry flies and thus began developing techniques to fish these new patterns effectively. 

Along came the style of nymphing now known as the Netheravon style; named after a village alongside the River Avon; where Frank fished the most. This method involved the ‘sink and draw,’ where the fly was allowed to sink and then made to swim upwards to the surface either by pulling in line or by raising the rod tip. This raise of the fly in the water column was intended to mimic the motion of an emerging insect, moving from the bottom of the river to the surface.  The goal was to have the fly raise in front of a targeted fish, in order to induce a take. The perfect fly for this method? None other than the Pheasant Tail. 

Frank went on to perfect this craft and wrote many articles and books about his observations on the trout streams of South West England.  The most famous of which is titled Nymphs and the Trout, where he discusses his fishing and tying methods in depth.  Frank’s discoveries paved the way for modern nymphing techniques, and now have a firm place in fly fishing history.  Even today, anglers from across the globe use the Pheasant Tail Nymph and variations of the Netheravon style to consistently catch trout.  

Flies are the essence of our sport, and carry tradition, stories, and longevity alongside their fish catching capabilities.   So, next time you’re on the trout stream, looking into your box of flies, take time to understand that each of them has a history.  Part of the beauty of our sport is the timeless passing down of knowledge and tradition, so remember to appreciate our fly fishing ancestors.  Oh, and next time you’re fishing a pheasant tail (which will probably be next time you fish) don’t forget to give the Netheravon style a try. You never know what fish you might entice.  

Article and photos from Ameen Hosain, who is a content creator and fly fishing guide based out of Boulder, CO. Follow him on Instagram @thefishboulder.

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