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Trout Unlimited
Top Trout Flies Course

Lesson 2 – Pheasant Tail Nymph

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The Pheasant Tail Nymph

One of the Top 10 Trout Flies Ever Created

If you’ve fished more than a week or been to any fly shop, I’m sure you’ve already heard of and caught fish with the pheasant tail.  It really needs no defending or justification as to why it is on the top trout flies list in this course, but we want to go deeper and discuss this fly and why it is so valuable to an angler and why so many patterns have spun off this original leading up to which ones you should have in your box, tips of fishing it, and understanding what it imitates and when.

 

The Details

Invented by Frank Sawyer, a noted author and inventor, back in England to be used on the chalk streams and spring creeks that reside in that country.  The pheasant tail became extremely popular very quickly due to the simplicity of the materials used and of course, its effectiveness.

It imitates a mayfly nymph and emerger most accurately though with very few adjustments can imitate stonefly nymphs as well.  The versatility of this fly is limited to mayflies and stoneflies, but the variations beyond this pattern are some of the best attractor and search patterns available.  We will cover all of these in detail later, for now let’s get an idea around the original pheasant tail nymph and the sizes and colors you can create as well as the seasons to fish it.

 

Graphs – Seasonality, Size and Color

Pheasant-Tail-Seasonal-Fly-Chart

The Secret to Why This Fly is So Productive

So what is it about this fly that makes it so productive?  The answer is two-fold in our opinion.  First, the profile of the fly, meaning the tail, legs and taper of the insect is so spot on, trout can hardly tell the difference between the fly and the true bugs.  Second, pheasant tail fibers and peacock herl both have this purple iridescence to them that provides a level of realness that is hard to beat with any other materials.  While we can’t know for certain because we can’t speak to the trout, this natural sheen to the materials used along with the profile makes it next to impossible for trout to resist or identify as a imitation next to the real insects going through the water.

 

The Entomology Knowledge on This Fly

The entomology of the pheasant tail tied in its natural colors is really rather simple.  However, as you’ll see when we get to the variations that exist, with a few minor changes, you can imitate any mayfly or stonefly nymph with excellent accuracy with a pheasant tail or a variation of the original.  Let’s go over some of the major insects it imitates:

All Mayfly Nymphs

Sizes: #8 – #22 | Color: Natural, Brown, Tan, Yellow, Green, Red, Purple, Pink, Yellow | Seasons: Year Round, No Exclusions

Mayflies are the most diverse and difficult insect to work with and identify as fly fishermen. It’s the only insect category we take to a more defined level and discuss individual species like the BWO, Hendrickson, Cahill, Hexegenia, Green Drake, PMD and more. For that reason, a fly pattern like the pheasant tail, in it’s natural state imitates about half of these with decent accuracy, but with a few color changes or added material, it can imitate all of them successfully. Let’s break down the different species of mayflies, their sizes, colors and seasons and then we’ll discuss how to make each pheasant tail look like that insect species successfully.

Blue Wing Olives – Baetis – BWO Mayflies
Sizes: #16 – #22 | Color: Brown, Olive, Dark Olive | Seasons: Spring, Fall, Winter

Blue wing olives are the most prevalent insect in most rivers during spring and fall and can also hatch on warmer days in winter.  We covered some of this already on the WD-40 lesson, so to not sound redundant, let’s instead discuss what you need to do to a pheasant tail in order to make it look like a BWO nymph.  The best way to make a pheasant tail nymph look like a BWO is to cut off the legs in front.  Baetis are slim and torpedo like and have small legs.  That’s the profile you want, is thin and without legs.  tied in natural pheasant tail, it should do just fine and if you can get your hands on some olive died pheasant fibers that’s also great for baetis.  If you want to focus on the correct colors, start with a thread that matches the BWO color you want like an olive or dark olive or brown olive thread and instead of wrapping the pheasant tail fibers over the abdomen (between the tail and head of the fly) instead you just wrap the thread over the top of the pheasant tail, and then use the fibers to make the head and leave the legs off.  See the picture here and below on the image gallery.

 

 

Callibaetis Mayflies
Sizes: #16 – #22 | Color: Brown, Gray, Tan | Seasons: Summer and Fall

A small pheasant tail unweighted can do a great job imitating a callibaetis, but on stillwaters with fickle trout, the color may not quite do it for them.  To remedy this, tie in less pheasant fibers (only 2 or 3) and wrap the body in two colors of thread to create the mottled speckle look of a callibaetis.  Tie weighted and unweighted versions of this fly and you’ll be in good shape on stillwaters.

 

Hendrickson Mayflies – Nymphs and Emergers
Sizes: #10 – 16 | Colors: Brown, Tan, Pink | Seasons: Spring

It’s quite possible the pheasant tail was created to imitate a hendrickson nymph from the start, so little is needed from the standard.  If you want to vary a bit from the standard replace the peacock herl with some pink dubbing.  I like to use a fine synthetic dubbing like superfine dubbing found on dry flies, but any dubbing of your liking will work.

 

PMD – PME – Pale Morning Dun aka Sulphur Mayflies – Nymphs and Emergers
Sizes : #14 – #20 | Colors: Yellow, Tan, Cream, Orange | Seasons: Summer and Fall

PMD mayfly nymphs are brown and orange so the only change you need to make here is to replace the gold wire with a hot orange and that does the trick just fine for me.  You can wrap the whole body in orange wire as well to make copper john – pheasant tail combo.  Lastly if you want to imitate the emerger stage of a PMD, simply add some yellow dubbing to the top of the fly or some yellow krystal flash to make the top of the wing case look like it has split open exposing the PMD.  I’ve been fortunate enough to hold an emerging PMD in my hand, though not fortunate enough to photograph and film it, but I can tell you that they emerge quickly in 20 seconds or less and the yellow split case on top is very prominent.  After experiencing this on a small spring creek in Montana, I was able to adjust my fly selection that day and get into double digits with fish.

 

Isonychia or Slate Drake Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Brown, Black, Tan, Yellow | Seasons: Summer and Fall

Iso nymphs are dark brown and require no change on a standard pheasant tail.  If you want, adding a black wire can help you remember it’s in iso nymph, but a standard PT does a great job and a single wire color change doesn’t effect things that much.  I know some guys like to have everything hyper organized however, so some black wire would help remind you it’s an ISO variation.

 

Green Drake Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Olive, Dark Olive, Brown, Gray | Seasons: Summer and Fall

A standard pheasant tail does great imitating a green drake nymph.  Are you starting to see why a natural Pheasant tail is so strong?  So many insects are imitated by the natural pheasant tail there is little need for change.  If you tie pheasant tails for green drake nymphs, I like to adjust them to green pheasant tail (dyed green) and then tie them in sizes #12 – #18.

 

March Brown Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #14 – #18 | Colors: Brown, Tan, Gray | Seasons: Spring

I feel redundant at this point, but it’s absolutely true.  A march brown nymph just needs a standard pheasant tail.  You can add some rubber legs to each side to make X legs if you want, but it isn’t that necessary.  You’ll want some rubberlegs for stonefly imitations though so if you want to tie them in smaller sizes like this as well, you can imitate a variety of stonefly nymphs plus hendricksons.

 

Stonefly Nymphs

Sizes: #6 – #14 | Colors: Natural, Brown, Yellow, Black | Seasons: Year Round

Stoneflies.  Refer to our basic lessons to learn a little more about stoneflies, but stonefly nymphs have a 3 year lifecycle and are always present in the river and available to trout.  This makes it a great idea to have some tied and ready in your box whenever you get on the water. It is also important to note stoneflies don’t have an emergence on the water, but instead crawl to the banks to emerge and the dry fly forms return to the water to lay eggs and to be eaten by trout.

In order to imitate stoneflies however, a few changes have to be made.  First, I would make sure you have X legs on the pattern.  Small rubberlegs that you would use with a pat’s rubberleg stonefly pattern for example is the kind of material you want.  Add 1 or 2 pairs of X legs (2 pairs for sizes 6 – 10) and 1 pair for smaller sizes up to #14.  The second change make them heavier.  Using tungsten beadheads, and for the larger patterns you can even wrap in lead free wire, or put 2 beadheads on like you see in a double standard.  All of these options get the stones down deep.  Stoneflies aren’t great swimmers, but they can get themselves down to the bottom again if they get dislodged so they don’t float up high all that often in my experience so weight is key.

You can imitate golden stones using gold or yellow colors, salmonflies using black and sticking with the regular pheasant tail color also imitates a bit of both sides.  See the pictures below of some stoneflies as tying inspiration and then refer to the bottom of the lesson for additional pictures of variations.


In summary, a pheasant tail, with minor color and size changes and modifications, can imitate any mayfly nymph or emerger as well as any stonefly nymph.

Identify the Signals the River Provides to Learn When to Fish It

The pheasant tail is probably one of the 5 patterns that need no signals to fish. Anytime is a good time to fish one and that is why they are recommended to beginners so often is because it’s just hard to go wrong with them. With that said knowing the seasonality of insects and sizes will help you choose the right size because after what we just shared above, you can have several dozen size and color changes to imitate everything and if you do that, you have to choose the right size and color. So how do you know?

The best approach I’ve found beyond using a bug seine, which we already described in the WD-40 lesson, is to come to the water prepared with the right seasonal bugs. During Spring and Fall, carrying sizes #12 – #18 is the right move for mayfly nymphs and sizes #8 – #12 for stonefly nymphs is recommended. If you went back and looked at the entomology section of this lesson again, you could see which sizes and colors should be used for each season. We’ll summarize it below:

For Mayfly Nymphs and Emergers

  • Spring: Sizes #10 – #22 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Pink
  • Summer: Sizes #12 – #18 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Yellow, Orange, Gray
  • Fall: Sizes #10 – #22 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Yellow, Orange
  • Winter: Sizes #16 – #22 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Black

For Stonefly Nymphs

  • Spring: Sizes #6 – #14 | Colors: Natural, Black
  • Summer: Sizes #6 – #12 | Colors: Natural, Black, Yellow
  • Fall: Sizes #6 – #12 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Yellow, Orange
  • Winter: Sizes #6 – #16 | Colors: Natural, Olive, Black, Yellow

Additional Signals for Fishing Pheasant Tails

It’s more important to identify when the right time is to throw a mayfly or stonefly nymph than it is a pheasant tail, because a PT will imitate them accurately if the fish are eating them. Overall, any mayfly or stonefly hatching activity is an important signal to fish the nymphs. Most people see dry flies floating around and immediately tie one on, but if heads aren’t rising to the dries, then throwing the nymphs may be a better call. Look for periods of stonefly or mayfly hatches with little to no surface activity and that is an excellent time to throw a pheasant tail.

  1. Anytime you see emerging mayflies
  2. Anytime you see midges hatching
  3. Anytime flows have been stable and a cold or warm front is moving in
  4. Cloudy days seem to always bring out the best in a pheasant tail
  5. When you can see fish holding tight to the bottom, but actively feeding – use a beadhead pheasant tail down deep
  6. When you’re fishing a tailwater with small insects and picky fish
  7. Anytime you find midges or baetis in your bug seine
  8. As a dropper under a dry fly when trout are near the surface, but aren’t actively rising
  9. Anytime you are seeing rising trout in spring or fall
  10. Anytime you are seeing little to no activity during spring, fall or winter (must be eating nymphs)

 

Presentation Tips on the Fly

The presentation tips are the same as the WD-40 and fortunately, this means that fishing a pheasant tail as the first fly and a WD-40 is an excellent idea.  Notice the tips restated below and instead just use a pheasant tail AND a WD-40 when nymphing and you have a deadly combination for fishing.

Nymph Fishing – Fish it Deep

If you’re fishing it as a nymph then 95% of the time you’re going to want it 1-3 inches off the bottom of the river. For more detailed info on basic nymphing skills you can read our free article here on nymphing, but the key is to watch the depth and the current and get enough weight on the nymph rig through beadheads or split shots to get it down on the bottom. You should be getting salad on your hook from the bottom every 10 casts, that’s when you know you are the right depth, but before that make small adjustments every few casts until you get it right. Once you’re on the bottom you have a 10x better chance of catching fish with this fly as a nymph. Most times, this will be your approach.

Use a NZ Strike Indicator When Fishing an Emerger

A NZ Strike indicator is a wool indicator that is extremely sensitive, adjustable and moldable. This allows you to put just a little bit of wool on, almost imitating a dry fly in size and profile so the trout don’t become spooked when it lands and then you can put a Pheasant Tail on without a beadhead below it and let it fish as an emerger near the surface. During a midge or mayfly hatch, this is an extremely effective way to catch fish. Because the emerger sits just below the water, it’s hard to detect strikes and since you’re job again here is to dead drift it, you need something to tell you when a fish eats. The NZ strike indicator is super sensitive and the slightest movement should make you set the hook.

 

Common Variations and Ways to Modify the Pattern for Success

This is where things can get a little crazy.  There are so many variations of a pheasant tail and in a way it is the mother of all mayfly nymphs due to its design and profile.  You can move away from pheasant material do things like Coq De Leon, but at the end of the day you’re still just talking pheasant tails.  I could probably write an entire course on pheasant tail variations, but I’ll limit it to the top 5 changes that I fish most often.

Jig Style – Frenchie Pheasant Tail

Over the last few years as I have learned tightline/euro/modern nymphing techniques, I have found a jig style fly to be superior in most applications and tie a large majority of my flies this way. I still fish regular style flies all the time, but I tie these because they are currently still difficult to find. The jig style allows the hook point to ride facing up during the drift so you can get snagged less often. A slotted jig style bead allows for more weight on the fly and to get down deeper faster. In addition to all of this, a slimmer profile and less pheasant tail fibers helps the fly get down deeper. The trend here is getting down deep and fast and then being able to add different color dubbings to the head to imitate a variety of different mayfly species. The go to is a pink dubbing or a polar ice white for me personally, but a black, olive, green, or yellow is also excellent for imitating select mayfly species. Check out the pictures below and notice how it’s still a pheasant tail body, just a different head and upside down. Not far off from the original, but enough to have it’s own variation.

Thread Body Pheasant Tail

It’s a lot easier to find different colored thread than it is different colored pheasant tail fibers. For this reason, I often tie a thread body to imitate certain species of mayflies, like a blue wing olive. It allows for a thinner profile on the abdomen of the fly and it allows me to pick the primary color the trout sees. You can even sub out the peacock herl to match or mix dubbing colors on the body making the color combinations nearly infinite. I stopped tying normal bodied pheasant tails a while ago in favor of this because I found it to look more accurate to insects I find in the river. I think you can’t go wrong with either option, but this is a way to hone in even more accurately on insect species with a single pattern.

CDC Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

CDC as you’ll find is always a great variation on a pattern. The CDC is the duck butt feathers (that’s not a typo) and they don’t really retain water due to the oils in the fibers. When you wrap a CDC feather soft hackle style, you can get a great looking fly that holds air bubbles and can land a lot of fish. I know many guides who use the CDC pheasant tail as their only pheasant tail version and it really does seem to work well.

Rubberleg Pheasant Tail

This was mentioned earlier, but is an important modification to note. Using rubberlegs gives it more of a stonefly look. You can do a CDC pheasant tail with rubber legs and make a CDC stonefly, or do a jig style pheasant tail with rubberlegs and imitate a stonefly as well. Adding rubberlegs makes it stonefly-like and a great way to extend the use of this already incredibly versatile pattern.


Those are the top variations and modifications I recommend. If you look through all the color, size and variation options and wanted to tie two of each, you would have to tie 1,296 flies! That’s what I call a versatile pattern. For you nerds, here’s the quick math. 9 sizes (6 – 22) x 9 colors x beadhead vs no beadhead x 4 variations x 2 of each fly. 9 x 9 x 2 x 4 x 2 = 1,296 flies. if you wanted a dozen of each it would be 7,776! Best get out your big fly box for that 🙂

Image Gallery of Variations and Colors of the Fly

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Read Introduction Here

Read THE BASICS Lesson

Lesson 1
Lesson 6
Lesson 2
Lesson 7
Lesson 3
Lesson 8
Lesson 4
Lesson 9
Lesson 5
Lesson 10

Read Conclusion Here