The Pheasant Tail Nymph is probably second only to the Hare’s Ear in terms of overall popularity.
It’s versatile, proven, and arguably gives the most accurate imitation of trout food of any fly commercially available.
Fly fishing author John Geirach writes of the Pheasant Tail…
I carry two all-purpose nymphs that I usually fish as droppers behind dry flies. [One] is a good old Pheasant Tail with a few turns of wire for weight under the thorax.
That’s a pretty ringing endorsement if you ask me.
Description Of The Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
The original pheasant tail pattern utilizes the butt ends of Pheasant feathers to develop a wing case. The aim, initially, wasn’t to imitate legs as it had been observed that nymphs tucked their legs inward while swimming.
The copper wire used in place of thread in the fly’s construction is not only interesting, it adds some additional weight, allowing the fly to sink faster.
There appears to have been two major variants – an English version, that doesn’t use any hackle, but has a thorax built up with continued winding of the pheasant herl and copper wire and an American version that had a soft hackle.
The Endrick spider
It’s worth noting that this fly has also been tied and sold as the “Endrick Spider”. I’ve never seen this personally, but it may be worth remembering if you’re in a shop that inexplicably doesn’t carry any Pheasant Tails.
I’m told the Endrick Spider was developed by Scottish angler John Harwood, for use around Scotland’s famous Loch Lomond. I’m not certain.
What Does it Imitate?
The Pheasant tail imitates a fairly wide variety of aquatic insects.
John Geirach writes: “If you backed me into a corner, I’d say the Pheasant Tail is a mayfly nymph, but in practice, [it can] serve as interchangeable sunken bugs for days when the fish seem shy about coming all the way to the surface for a dry fly.”
The fly was designed, initially, to imitate mayfly nymphs, particularly “olives” in the chalk streams of Southern England.
Others quickly noted, however, that it served as a good representation of a much wider variety of insects and its popularity quickly rose.
History Of The Pheasant Tail
The Pheasant Tail was created by English angler and River Keeper, Frank Sawyer. First described in Sawyer’s book “Nymphs and the Trout” in 1958, the design was somewhat radical at the time, as it was among the first (or maybe the very first) in that Sawyer didn’t use thread to construct the fly.
Rather, he opted to use very fine copper wire to both brighten an otherwise drab fly and to add weight, allowing it to be fished deeper than similar patterns.
As noted in the Endrick Spider section, this fly may have been developed in two places at once. Or, two similar patterns may have eventually merged over the ensuing decades to become indistinguishable.
How to Fish the Pheasant Tail
The Pheasant Tail, like other nymphs, is at its most productive by far when it’s drifted a few inches off the river bottom.
It’s worth noting that this pattern can trigger strikes as you begin to lift it out of the water at the end of a swing.
The action of fly rising off the bottom of the river as the line tightens can mimic the behavior of a hatching insect.
Don’t yank it out of the water – just let the current pull it upward naturally. I try to just time the end of my swing with a likely fish hang-out, so that the fly starts to come up right in front of the fish’s nose (or at least that’s the idea).
In fact, Frank Sawyer is credited with creating this “induced take” technique, though he, I believe, suggested raising the rod tip upward to bring the fly up in front of a sighted fish.
Using the Pheasant Tail on Stillwater
On Stillwater, this can be a very effective pattern fished with a floating line and retrieved, very slowly, just below the surface along weed beds or in shallows near reeds.
You don’t need to drag it in – after all this is still a tiny aquatic insect. It’s not a baitfish. But I’ve had a lot of success with this technique (inadvertent at first. We wonder why fish seem to strike when we’re not paying attention. It turns out things are more natural when we’re not trying too hard).
The Pheasant Tail is probably the best mayfly nymph pattern ever created. But, it’s also more than that. It’s a perfect mayfly that can also serve as a passable just-about-anything if it needs to.
The copper-wire design makes it a fast sinking pattern and the wide variety of sizes and colors give it broad appeal to just about any fly angler in just about any place on the globe.