For mid-fall striped bass in the surf, it’s tough to beat a Bucktail Deceiver or a flatwing.
By Ray Phelan october 28 2022
When the bite is on, what fly will you choose? Be ready for instant hook-ups with Bucktail Deceivers and Rhody flatwing patterns for lifelike fly motion.
Waders on and rod ready leader check, it’s time to choose the fly. Which will it be? Open the fly box and an old favorite may stand out from the others and whisper, “Take me. I’m the one for today.” Maybe you’ll be more analytical and try matching the hatch, or perhaps pick an attractor pattern as today’s best shot, or select a fly that can poke through wind and rough water. Maybe you’ll pick the same type fly of your buddy used for what he said was a mad-dog bite yesterday. The few moments taken to select the fly are a special part of fly-fishing and the success of the trip depends on your choice.
Thumb through the pages of any good fly-tying book and you’ll see limitless choices to match every species of bait for any fly-fishing situation imaginable, but to paraphrase the great Duke Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” In the surf, it don’t mean a thing without that motion, and two really good ocean-motion choices for mid-fall striped bass are the Bucktail Deceiver created by New Jersey’s Bob Popovics and the R.L.S. Flatwing patterns popularized by New England’s Ken Abrames. For the fall season, it’s tough to beat a Bucktail Deceiver or a flatwing, so let’s take a closer look at both.
Bob Popovics’ Bucktail Deceiver (nicknamed BTD) is an evolutionary improvement of the traditional Lefty’s Deceiver. Developed in the late 1950s, Lefty Kreh used a combination of schlappen feathers for the tail and a bucktail collar to catch Chesapeake Bay striped bass around Crisfield, Maryland. Over seven decades, this iconic fly has caught just about every fish that swims in both fresh and salt. One of its best features is the position of the feathers partially covered with bucktail so that they rarely twist around and foul on the hook.
To fully appreciate the Bucktail Deceiver, we first need to look at an earlier Popovics pattern called the 3D, named for its multi-dimensional trimmed tapering of synthetic fibers. Originally tied with Bozo Hair, the 3D laid the groundwork to build upon as Bob developed other patterns in following years of experimentation. As Bob said in his book, Fleye Design, “3Ds are a lot of work, and I’ve pretty much replaced them with Bucktail Deceivers and Hollow Fleyes. That’s how my tying goes; it evolves. But, the 3D represents an awakening for me, and tying it has really sharpened my sense of shape—every time I tie, I think in three dimensions.”
So, that leads us to the Bucktail Deceiver. It, too, started life as a synthetic pattern made of Kinky Fibre, not bucktail. Its original tying recipe is shown in detail in Bob’s first book, Pop Fleyes (Stackpole), co-authored with Ed Jaworowski. Eventually, Bob tried tying the fly with bucktail and was immediately impressed with how it rode in the water. “Since then,” he said, “I don’t believe I ever made another synthetic one, not only because the results are so beautiful and organic, but also because they were extremely fun and satisfying to tie.” To say that the fly looks good in the water is an understatement—it comes alive!
The Bucktail Deceiver does an incredible imitation of a swimming live bait. After tying the first BTD, Bob said, “In the water, the Bucktail Deceiver moved like no other fly that I had seen before. It looked like it was plugged into an electric socket – everything turned on. Every little pulse of current or twitch of the rod made the fly move and pulse seductively.”
The fly’s essential action is the result of tapering the bucktail fibers, which begins at the tying bench. The longest fibers are tied in first, followed by progressively shorter lengths as the layers of bucktail fibers build toward the hook eye. This tactic exposes more bucktail tips to the water. According to Bob, “The end result is a beautifully tapered fly that resembles many baitfish, imparts realistic movement, and has a lifelike shape. With its natural taper and silhouette, it captures the look of most saltwater baits, big or small, anywhere in the world.”
On a personal note, I’m a big believer in the fish-catching powers of the Bucktail Deceiver and have tied them in small 3-inch sizes to fool summer striped bass in New Jersey and snook in the dock lights in winter. Longer versions are my go-to flies for bigger fish, and in fresh water, they are dependable for largemouth bass everywhere and peacock bass down South. For salty rivers and creeks where flow is so influential, the BTD is a dependable friend when working current seams, rips, edges of shadow lines, and around dock pilings and boulders.
These are Must Read loaded with other great ocean-motion patterns for October’s saltwater fly-fishing. Some patterns are famous; others not so well known, but each has a proven record for catching albies, bluefish, striped bass and weakfish. If your local fly shop doesn’t have these, check with the publisher or try Amazon .
Essential Saltwater Flies – Ed Jaworowski (amazon)
Pop Fleyes – Bob Popovics (amazon)
Fleye Design – Bob Popovics (amazon)
The Orvis Guide to Beginning Fly Tying – David Klausmeyer (amazon)
A Perfect Fish; Illusions in Fly Tying – Ken Abrames, (amazon)
R.L.S. Flatwing Flies
Flatwing flies are often thought of as Rhody flies because they have their roots in Rhode Island, a state seemingly created by God exclusively for the striped bass fly-fisherman. Blessed with miles and miles of beaches, rocky coves, salt marsh rivers and creeks, and fish-rich back bays, Rhody is a fertile paradise that helped salty fly-fishing get started with early pioneers like Harold Gibbs in the 1930s. Imagine how wonderful it would be to fish Harold’s Meadow, the marsh across from where he lived on the Barrington River, and to cast his famous Gibbs Striper Fly to today’s generation of striped bass. It gives me goosebumps to think of.
Salty flatwings have their roots in several salmon flies, perhaps best exemplified by the Nine-Three Streamer. Dr. J. Hubert Sanborn, the streamer’s originator, named it after the first salmon he caught on his new pattern, which weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces. After tying in a small bunch of bucktail that extended beyond the bend of the hook, he lashed into place three saddle hackles tied on flat; that is, with the curved side upward, not on either side of the fly as was standard practice for most salmon streamers. The fly also has side-lashed feathers, too, but Sanborn believed the flat-lashing of the top-wing feathers gave the fly a motion in the water that no other pattern could claim. This holds true for today’s saltwater flatwing patterns.
Ken Abrames uses the prefix R.L.S. for 60 or so bucktail and flatwing flies shown in his beautifully illustrated book, A Perfect Fish; Illusions in Fly Tying; it’s his subtle way to preserve the original elegant scientific name for the striped bass as Roccus Leneatus Saxatilis. The big push for the R.L.S. Flatwing family came from Abrames and his many years of seeing the art of tying flies and how bucktail and feathers could be used to create illusions. Ken sees things differently than others, and he shares his visual impressions and deep feelings about tying and the sport of fly fishing in his book.
The small tight-knit community of fly-tyers and fly-fishers, all members of the Rhody Fly Rodders, have shared many ideas over years spent on the water. Many of these guys, like Ray Bondorew, had a hand in developing the concept of bucktail and flatwing flies that are so ubiquitous throughout the northeast. The Ray’s Fly is the lead instructional section of Abrames’ book, and a few pages later, there’s a detailed recipe for Hunky’s Finest Kind, developed by Ken’s friend Capt. Hunky Clark. In subsequent years, tying artists like the late Bill Peabody and flatwing maestro Joe Cordeiro carried on the tradition and added their own unique tweaks to these superb flies.
If you must ask, “Why are flatwings so good?” you probably haven’t fished one or watched it in the water. Even at rest, a properly tied flatwing moves in the slightest current without even stripping the fly line, creating an illusion that it’s alive—something to be eaten by a striped bass. There are several styles of flies within the broad R.L.S. family: bucktails, shrimp, squid, and single-feather, two-feather and three-feather flatwings. The Illusions book is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy on Amazon . Ken’s original book, Striper Moon, is also out of print, but you can find it on Amazon for about $20.
Because both flies “breathe” life even at rest, the Bucktail Deceiver and flatwing-type flies are versatile patterns that can be fished in a variety of places—surf, inlets and back bays, but in the fall, their fish-catching prowess in the surf is hard to beat. In Striper Moon, Abrames says, “If you have caught a striper elsewhere, you have not met him at his best. A striper in the surf is a different sort of animal than the one who lives in the rivers and bays. He is fast, decisive, wild and strong. The fish of the bays and rivers fight well, and I love to catch them; however, stripers in the surf engage in battle.
To get the best performance out of both flies, an unhurried retrieve is usually the best approach to let the natural fibers breathe—to let the water’s current move around the bucktail and feathers. This is usually best accomplished on an unhurried retrieve. The standard strip-strip retrieve is a good searching technique if you’re not sure bass are active when you first start a fishing session, but once you see the direction of the current flow along the beach, the current seams along points of sand or at breaks in a sand bar, you can refine the retrieve.
One especially effective technique is to pay out a bit of line on the back of a receding wave to let the fly move with the water flow before the next curling waves changes the fly’s motion. It’s always a good idea to pace the waves and watch for the pause that occurs after every few sets flow through to the beach. Some call this the seventh wave, but the pause doesn’t always happen on the seventh wave – it could be the fifth or the eighth. Placing the fly into this quiet water behind the wave’s crest gives the fish more time to see the offering and strike.
Both patterns have established reputations for catching striped bass. They’re relatively simple flies and don’t require 85 steps to tie, so time at the tying bench is fun, not tedious. They’re also easy to customize to change colors, add a throat, peacock herl top-wing or bold eyes; ditto for overall length, short or long, to closely match the size of the prevalent bait where you’re planning to fish.
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