Quill Flies For Tailwater Trout

Reprinted from Fly Fishing Quarterly Magazine

Quill Fly SmeltHalfway into my second day of casting I finally admitted that something was wrong.  After all, spring fishing on the Grand River had always been productive in the past.  But this time, despite fishing my usual holes with proven patterns and getting a few fish to bump my flies, I just couldn’t seem to buy a solid strike.

Fortunately, after a few hours observation without rod in hand, the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.  First, I noticed an unusual number of fish rolling on the surface.  Then, I was struck by the abundance of gulls and kingfishers descending upon the river.  Finally, after focusing my attention on the water in the vicinity of these birds, I saw an occasional smelt go floating by.  After following a few of these injured minnows downstream, I realized that they were being picked off by hungry trout.

Until then, I never really noticed fish feeding on floating baitfish.  But it isn’t surprising that they might.  Recently killed smelt have essentially the same nutritional value as live ones, yet are much easier for fish to catch.  Thus, in tail waters that routinely have large numbers of minnows injured by hydroelectric turbines and spillways, this opportunistic feeding behavior is common.

Unfortunately, many fly fishermen are unaware of this phenomenon and fail to make the connection between poor results with standard streamer techniques and times when trout are being selective to floating baitfish.  For the small group of anglers who have learned how fussy some fish can be, Quill Flies designed to imitate injured minnows have become an integral part of their tail water fly fishing repertoire.

Quill flies are relatively simple (sometimes very simple) floating patterns that mimic whatever baitfish are common in a given region.  In Maine, most often, these are smelt. The “Quill” designation refers to the body material, most often the butt section of a turkey quill. Size depends on what’s being imitated.  But the larger the fly, the more wind-resistant and hard to cast it will be, so you don’t want to overdo it.  I usually tie my Quill Flies on 8X long size 2 or 4 hooks.  I will provide the recipe and tying instructions at the end of this text.

Flies for Landlocks, Trout and Bass

Quill Fly BrookieDon’t limit your opportunities by assuming that Quill Flies can only be used within the shadow of a hydroelectric facility.  Fact is, a large number of minnows passed through a dam travel several miles downstream before they die and float to the surface.  This widespread distribution conditions fish across a large expanse of river into looking for these easy meals – thus allowing fly fishermen to effectively utilize Quill Flies throughout the area.

Recently, I also found them to be extremely effective on free-flowing rivers and streams when fished in conjunction with the spawning runs of baitfish in early spring. But in tail waters, the availability of floating minnows is not usually restricted to any particular season or time of day.  Bait fish from the head pond get discharged into the river whenever a school swims too close to the powerhouse or spillway.  Thus, unlike insect hatches or terrestrial food sources which tend to be highly seasonal; floating minnows provide year-round meals for game fish such as trout, landlocked salmon and bass.

The thing I like most about Quill Flies is that they produce an exciting, visual type of fishing.  Strikes are typically solid smashes that come from fish you can see charging the fly from several feet away.  Even on days when they aren’t taking particularly well, fish will usually at least show themselves by responding to the passing fly with a flash, bump or roll.

Presentation and Tackle

Quill Flies are also extremely simple to fish with.  Most of the time, all you need to do is quarter a cast up and across and let the fly dead drift back past you.  It’s kind of like fishing with a 4-inch dry fly.  Some people add a twitch or pop to their retrieve, and occasionally I’ll skitter my fly across the surface as it swings around at the end of its float.  But generally, I find a standard drag-free presentation to be most effective.

They are, however, a bit wind resistant and awkward to cast.  Thus, I recommend using at least a 9 foot, 6 weight rod with a weight forward floating line.  Finding an effective leader can be tricky, but over the years I’ve settled on a 12 footer tapered to 2-4 X (6-8# test).  This may seem a bit on the heavy side, but fish feeding on floating minnows are not usually leader shy, and the stout tippet really helps to turn the fly over.

Productive Water

I’ve found that concentrating your efforts in fairly fast, broken water is important for a couple of reasons.   First, it minimizes the negative impact of a heavy tippet or less than perfect imitation by forcing fish into making a split-second decision on whether or not to grab the fly as it zips by.  Second, most dead bait fish end up in the main flow near the center of the river rather than along the banks. Thus, fish are conditioned to look for floating naturals in these places.  So don’t be afraid to toss your flies out into the heavy current.  When properly tied, they float well and results from these areas are generally much better.

Another key to success is to avoid spending all day working the same piece of water.  Usually two or three casts into a given run is all that is required to get a response.  If you don’t at least see a flash or some sign of a fish, move up or down stream a bit.  I like to use a Quill Fly as a searching pattern, especially in conjunction with a small boat or canoe, where I can extend the drift by floating along with the fly; very similar to the way a Humpy or Renegade is used from a drift boat on western float trips.

Finally, don’t worry about missing a few strikes.  The thick, solid quill makes the hooking properties of these flies less than ideal.  On good days, your strike to hookup ratio may be somewhere in the vicinity of 50%, but on days when the fish aren’t quite as hungry, you may roll five or six for every one hooked.   But hey, if responses to Quill Flies out-number strikes on standard streamers 10 to 1, you’re still way ahead of the game.

Despite their effectiveness, however, Quill Flies are still not a very widely used or popular pattern.  Perhaps it has to do with their “stiff” appearance or that they are a bit troublesome to cast.  Maybe it’s because they are hardly ever offered for sale in fly shops.  Or perhaps people simply think they look too silly to be effective.  Whatever the reason, anglers are missing out on a good thing by overlooking these flies because the fish love ’em.

Rigging Up

A Quill Fly can range in complexity from something as simple as a raw turkey quill lashed onto the top of a long-shanked hook, to a fly which is carefully painted and feathered to imitate a specific baitfish.  The one that I tie leans a bit toward the fancy side, more for my benefit than the fish’s.

Tailwater Quill Fly

Hook: Mustad 94720, 8X long, size #2 or #4

Body: Butt section of turkey (preferred) or duck quill

Rib: Silver or gold crystal flash (optional)

Wing: Pintail feather (thin)

Eyes: Plastic wiggle eyes

Throat: Red or gray hackle or marabou (optional)

I usually begin by cutting a two to three inch section from the butt of a large turkey feather with a sharp knife.  Both ends are then sealed with a thin layer of epoxy and two coats of Thompson water seal applied to the entire quill.  It should be sized so that the pointed (butt) end extends to the bend in the hook and the blunt (cut) end stops just before the eye.  Lash the quill to the top of the hook with white monocord.  Incorporating some silver or gold crystal flash for pizzazz is optional.  Color the top half of the fly with a black indelible marker and use super glue to attach the pintail feather and plastic eyes.  A whisp of red or gray hackle or marabou for a throat gives the fly a nice, “finished” look.

Since this tail water Quill Fly adequately imitates the two most common types of baitfish in my home waters, rainbow smelt and shiners, it is generally the only floating minnow pattern that I carry.  But by using an assortment of top feathers and colored markers, this adaptable pattern can easily be modified to resemble nearly any species of baitfish that may be encountered.  The key to success with any Quill Fly is simply using it for the first time.  Once you have experienced the exciting, top-water action it can produce, you’ll have plenty of inspiration to develop a specific pattern for use in tail waters of your area.