Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Can’t beat crayfish flies for catching fall smallmouths

In the fall on the state’s rivers and big creeks, there’s no more enjoyable way to catch smallmouths like this than crayfish flies. (Photo by Vic Attardo)

By Vic Attardo
Contributing Writer


I’ve seen a lot of beautiful crayfish flies that looked as if they could get up off the fly-tying table and crawl down to the local stream. Really fine works of art, all.


While tying exacting replicas of any crustacean, fish, or insect is an achievement, I prefer simpler ties, especially for bass, that destroy flies.


Decades ago, I saw a crayfish pattern by an esteemed Pennsylvania fly-tier, Chauncy Lively. Born in 1919 in Greene County, Lively seemed to belong to the impressionist school of fly-tying, meaning key elements of his ties were meant to mimic in shape, color and motion the natural, but not as an exact duplicate. 


A fly of Lively’s that was a real eye opener for me was called the Orange Flash, a crayfish “streamer.” Now we all know streamers aren’t crayfish, but by using the triggering colors of a natural crayfish, shades of burnt orange mixed with brown, gold and peacock herl for spice, Lively’s fly was immensely effective on bass and the beginning, for me, of imitative crayfish patterns.


I often tie flies with a particular place in mind, building my patterns to adjust for depth, water clarity and current. So in making crayfish flies, my aim is to incorporate the triggering colors while making flies of different weights, size and bulk.


From the top to bottom of the accompanying photograph you can see where size and weight is important to these designs. The second fly up from the bottom is my interpretation of Lively’s Orange Flash.


The small fly at the bottom, the Simple Crayfish, I primarily employ for smallmouths along river edges. It is lightly weighted so I can place it in thin water without causing a major splash.  


Matching the environment to the fly is critical in my estimation, and the lightly weighted small crayfish doesn’t spook shallow water bass. 


The Simple Crayfish consists of a tapered body of dark orange acrylic dubbing, barred orange marabou and gold Krystal Flash tail, and a caprice of several strands of peacock herl with brown partridge wrapped for legs. 


This fly shows a red thread head and I try to emphasize that component on many of my crayfish ties. 


Second from the top is a Jig Head Crayfish, which I use in moderate currents to get the fly down quickly. It’s a major producer for me on the wadeable rocky sections of the Juniata River.


The top fly is a heavily weighted beadhead crayfish streamer. Everything from the bead to the metallic chenille over a lead wrap and rabbit fur wing is meant to soak and sink in water. 


I use this fly around all sorts of structure in lakes for both largemouth and smallmouth and in the heaviest currents of the Susquehanna and Delaware River, where quickly reaching near-bottom is necessary. 


With the Jig Head Crayfish, I can work heavily cobbled and snaggy bottoms because the hook point rides up. This makes the fly easy to drift in places where other weighted flies would constantly snag. 


The Beadhead Streamer is meant to dart quickly, rising up with the pull of the line and then descending with a slow dip.


While you may not be able to detect it on the Beadhead Streamer, underneath the rabbit strip wing tied across the top of the body is a tuft of bared orange marabou placed at the hook bend. 


Bared orange marabou at the tail of three of these flies serves to add motion to the pattern even when the fly is not being advanced. In addition because the material is barred, that is stripes of black or brown over the dominant orange color, the sense of motion is heightened as the colors blend.


I just had an experience fishing the Susquehanna River at the top of the state between Lanesboro and Great Bend where it took switching the different sizes and weights of these crayfish flies for consistent action. 


There’s a host of structures on this part of the Susquehanna from moderate to fast riffles and channels, to rocky flats, island shoals, long deep pools and bridge pilings. 


This was a two-man canoe trip where we could float downstream with the current and with sweat and strive, then paddle back up short distances so we could work both sides of the river.


With such a variety of structures and current speeds, flies of different weight and size were required. In the canoe, I kept a 6-weight and an 8-weight rod strung and ready: the former with the Simple Crayfish and the latter with the Beadhead Crayfish. 


Frequently we disembarked to wade and the compact fly on the 6-weight was a pleasure to work and very effective. If I had used the heavier fly in this thinner water, hang-ups would have been a major concern. 


Likewise, while floating in deeper pool water I threw the 8-weight with a 7-foot poly tip that probed the bottom of the pools. I was surprised at the number of hefty smallmouths that were in this type of water early in the morning and in the evening.


The point is, you don’t need exacting replicas of crayfish to be successful but it certainly pays to adjust crayfish patterns for bulk and weight. 

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