Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph
by Dave Whitlock
“WHAT HALF-DOZEN or dozen trout fly patterns would you pick or recommend if they were the only flies you could use?”
This is the question I am asked most frequently by fishing writers, shop owners, clinic audiences and fly fishing school students. Picking a dozen or so flies would not be a problem, but what would I use if limited to a single pattern? That question is much more thought provoking and difficult to answer.
If restricted to one fly pattern, the Muddler Minnow would be my choice, in a range of sizes. Yet the muddler is not the fly I use most consistently, and it is not the most productive fly I fish. Nor is it the single fly design I recieve the most questions about each year.
My Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph (RFSH) is the most consistently effective fly I have ever used for all species of trout, char and whitefish, both in numbers caught and size. Even more significant, this nymph seems to be a fly that, like the classic Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph, Adams dry fly and Wooly Bugger streamers, performs well for most fly fishers in most waters. For instance, over a four-year period conducting fly fishing schools it has been the student’s most productive fly for landlock salmon, brook, and rainbow trout.
Productivity and Confidence
This nymph has been a key ingredient in both my nymph-fishing enthusiasm and confidence in the suggestive theory of fly tying. As so often happens, I discovered the Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph by accident.
When I first began tying soft, fur-bodied nymphs I was most influenced by the flies tied and fished by Thom Green, Ted Trueblood and Polly Rosborough, but I lacked the furs they often recommended, such as otter, mink, seal, hare’s ear and beaver. I substituted local gray and red fox squirrels, muskrat and rabbit, but seriously lacked the confidence that these would have the same magically effective qualities of the three master’s nymphs.
The RFSH Nymph was immediately effective and my confidence increased. As the years have passed, I have been fortunate enough to gain a fine inventory of furs, synthetic dubbing and other useful fly materials, so I constantly put the Red Fox Squirrel-Hair nymph through comparison tests against other patterns tied with these materials. I am convinced from my experiments that there is no single nymph pattern superior to my squirrel-hair patterns as an all-purpose nymph.
For whatever reason, it often outfishes specific local “killer” patterns, particularly for larger trout. I’m sure in some situations its effectiveness is purely because of the Squirrel-Hair Nymph pattern and my manner of fishing: It’s something new to these fish. Sometimes fish build a selective resistance after seeing the same patterns many times.
Whatever the reason, my old faithful Squirrel-Hair Nymph has saved my neck and reputation on numerous occasions during several decades.
The Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph in its pattern and form is an impressionistic fly made that way by design. This means it looks alive, vulnerable and very edible to fish. A trout, actively feeding or not, seldom ignores such a morsel swimming or drifting toward it. By maintaining its unique material patterns while varying its size and profile, you can make the nymph closely mimic numerous trout foods: certain species mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, midges, damselflies, scuds, sow-bugs and crayfish. The nymph is a tempting tidbit regardless of what a particular fish is preparing to dine on. If presented and fished like a specific live food, say an emerging caddis pupa or a swimming scud, the fly becomes more actively imitative rather than passively suggestive.
The Material used to tie the Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph is most responsible for the fly’s effectiveness. It is tied with rich orange-tan red fox-squirrel belly fur and a spicy spectrum of tan, cream, grey, black, and white fox-squirrel back fur. I blend each fur with a matching glossy synthetic fiber and thinly rib the fly with gold wire or oval tinsel. This combination gives the pattern the light natural cast so common in natural aquatic insects and crustacea, especially during the instar or softshell stage (during exoskeleton/skin replacement) that trout seem to prefer. The soft texture of the fur further enhances this natural image and attractiveness to fish. Water, air bubbles and light on the fur and tinsel body create additional halos of visual liveliness and movement.
The wear and natural odor absorption of extended use increases the nymph’s effectiveness. The dubbed body also has a Velcrolike holding effect on biting fish’s teeth.
As we perfect our capability to catch more trout on flies, we must also resolve to use better ways to recycle them! Increased knowledge and the availability of more effective fly designs can actually depress fish populations if they are not used with careful consideration. We will all catch and enjoy more trout, salmon, grayling, steelhead, char and whitefish on this amazing nymph if we practice catch and release.