A good fly pattern can help you catch a lot of fish. Understanding the thinking behind a good pattern can take you even farther and imparts lessons you can bring to your own fly tying.
The Hoverbug Variations traces the origins of the hoverbug and gurgler fly patterns two of the most important patterns to emerge in recent years. It's excerpted from Jack's new book, Scratching the Surface.
or How the Gurgler got to be the Gurgler
To begin at the beginning.
The Hoverbug is a direct descendant of the Foam Beetle, a common terrestrial fly most often used in fishing for late-summer trout in low-water streams. The Foam Beetle itself is a modern, more durable variation in foam of a Deerhair Beetle, a fly which has been around for a lot longer than most of us have been alive.
I had tied thousands of these simple beetles over the years, using both foam and deer hair, and had never given much thought to either their form or their substance. Never, that is, until one day when I was working my way through an order for five dozen #18 Foam Beetles the idea occurred to me that a simple adaptation of this pattern might be just the solution I was looking for to a recent problem I'd been having with some persnickety tarpon.
It was April in 1988 and I was down in the Florida Keys. As I often do when traveling, I had brought my fly-tying work with me a practice often resulting in strange and sometimes confusing cross-cultural fly tying experiences that find me tying tarpon and bonefish flies in Montana and Quill Gordons and beetles and hoppers down in the Keys. Apart from being the pay ticket for my trips, bringing my work with me was also a way of reminding myself that I wasn't put on this earth merely to fish and have fun and avoid responsibility, as some of my friends and many of my customers have suggested over the years. (Although now that I think of it, a good argument can be made that maybe I was put on this earth to fish, have fun, and avoid responsibility.)
But to return to the tarpon and the problem I'd been having with them.
As a pleasant break from wandering over the flats in search of bonefish and permit I had become fond of fishing some of the lagoons and backwaters of the Middle Keys for the small tarpon that are always around if you know where to look for them. Sometimes there were only a few tarpon in these places, sometimes more. Their presence seemed willy nilly and unpredictable most of the time with one noticeable exception. Whenever a strong northeasterly wind blew into the lagoons large quantities of floating seaweed, there were always more tarpon. Schools of small tarpon (from five pounds up to twenty or so) would follow these weed patches into the canals and lagoons to feed on the small crabs and shrimps that could be found among these floating islands of churned-up vegetation.
On days when there were no weeds covering the water I would usually fish these canals and lagoons with a small streamer a Cockroach or a Soft Hackle Streamer usually but when the weeds were thick or when the lagoon was coated with a fine film of pine pollen scum, it was next to impossible to fish a sunken fly effectively for any distance without snagging a small bale of weed or fouling the fly up with scum. The solution to this problem seemed to be a floating or semi-floating fly that looked some-thing like a small crab or shrimp that could be fished slowly within the small spaces that sometimes opened up among the patches of floating weed . Or perhaps and this would be best of all a fly that could be fished just beneath the weeds and surface scum.
As I sat at my vise looking at an unfinished Foam Beetle sitting in my vise, the answer seemed suddenly obvious. Why not simply tie a larger Foam Beetle on a heavier salt water hook? It could sort of look like a small crab or maybe even a large grass shrimp and maybe just maybe it would even do what I wanted it to do when weeds and scum were on the water.
I quickly whip-finished the Beetle I'd been tying and went to work on adapting this pattern for tarpon. For starters, I decided to tie the fly on a # 4 salt water hook, thinking it would be about the right size for a small crab or large shrimp but with a bite large enough to hook a small tarpon. Because I was tying the fly on a much larger and heavier hook, I also substituted a considerably thicker closed-cell foam for the much thinner foam I had been using to tie the Foam Beetles.
To further increase flotation, I laid a length of foam along the shank and segmented it into five distinct sections, leaving enough foam trailing beyond the bend to later be pulled over the body to form a carapace, or shell. Between these segments I palmered a tan-dyed grizzly saddle to both suggest legs and to give the fly a more "buggy" look. As a last step, I pulled the trailing piece of foam up over the body and ribbing and tied it off at the head. Pleased with the first of these little bugs, I tied up three more just for the fun of it. Now to see what they would do when added to water.
I got up from my bench and walked out the door and down to the edge of the ocean. I tied my new fly to a length of leader and flicked it out a few feet into a small tidal pool. The fly landed with a small, satisfying plop and floated nicely on the surface for a couple of seconds. And then it began to slowly sink. This was not what I had hoped it would do, but maybe one of the other bugs would float higher. None did. It was back to the bench to experiment a little further.
Obviously needing a little more flotation, I widened the foam just a bit, from about the 3/8" width of the originals to roughly 5/8" and quickly tied up another bug. Back to the tidal pool I went. This time the fly did just what I wanted it to do. It floated but only barely hovering and just scratching the surface with the top of the shell. The Hoverbug was born.
One finishing touch remained. A little color. Hovering just beneath the surface the fly looked more like a little white marshmallow than it did a crab. I walked back to my room, found a bag of broad-nibbed waterproof pens, and picked out a tan that was close to the color of some of the small crabs and common shrimp. With a few swift strokes of the pen the marshmallows turned magically into crabs. The fly looked great couldn't miss, I thought. Now, if the fish would only agree.
Fifteen minutes later I pulled up alongside a lagoon where I knew there would be tarpon. I turned off the engine and stepped out into the still, humid late afternoon air.
Looking out over the surface of the water I could see only scattered windrows of matted weed and small patches of yellow pollen scum close to the shore; most of the surface was clear of weeds and unruffled by wind. Conditions couldn't be better. Already I could see two or three small tarpon rolling out near the middle of the lagoon . Too far to cast to but still a good sign.
I found a clearing among the pines that lined and overhung the bank and sat down upon a bed of pine needles to wait for a tarpon to roll or to otherwise reveal itself nearby or maybe even within an open hole among the floating wreaths of weed just a short cast from the bank. I tied on a Hoverbug, tested the knot, and bent down the barb on my hook to make it easier to sink the hook into the hard-mouthed tarpon. I was now ready for any fish within casting distance.
A few minutes passed. I lit a cigarette and sat where I was and watched the water and the weeds, now more of them and more thickly bunched, drifting in with the incoming tide. And with the weeds came the tarpon. Soon there were fish showing much more frequently. Sometimes they would come up to the surface in singles, sometimes in groups of three or four. I guessed there were maybe fifteen or twenty small tarpon now in this corner of the lagoon.
When three of them rolled and appeared to be heading in the direction of a small opening in the weeds about thirty feet in front of me, I worked out some line and plopped the fly down smack-dab in the middle of the opening . As I had hoped it would do, the fly floated high for a second or two and then sank below the surface and hovered there just beneath the surface film. I waited a few seconds, then gave it a short twitch or two. I let it sit where it was for a second or more and then twitched it again, just inching the fly towards me, all the while trying to keep it within the shifting parameters of the opening and away from the weeds surrounding it.
On the fourth or fifth twitch the fly was taken, by a small tarpon that simply poked its snout up out of the hole in the weeds and sucked in that little bug as gently as a trout would sip down a mayfly. I paused for a second , sank the hook into its mouth, and the tarpon took to the air. It was a small fish, about six pounds, but among the most satisfying I had ever taken. Here was the first indication that my new fly actually worked.
Further proof came a few minutes later. While I was fighting the tarpon a wind had come up. Not a strong wind, but strong enough to blow some pollen off the pines and onto the surface, coating it rather thoroughly with a greenish-yellow patina of pollen dust. Yesterday I might have been daunted by this but this was one of the problems I had considered when I designed this fly and now I would see whether my theory could be translated into practice.
I cast the fly with a sharp snap of my wrist so that it landed with a hard plop and opened up a small clearing amidst the scummy surface film. I let the fly settle there for a few seconds to allow the leader and the line to sink and then I began to slowly draw it towards me.
When the leader had sunk sufficiently, I pulled the fly under the surface, beneath the pollen dust, and continued to twitch it back towards me. The fly worked as well as I had hoped it would, hovering just under the surface and humping it ever so slightly as I moved it along.
If I pulled on my line the fly would dive and inch or two; when I eased up on the line the fly would float back up almost to the surface but not quite. Whatever the tarpon took the fly for small crab or large shrimp take it they did, one right after another, whenever I found one within reach. By the time the mosquitoes finally convinced me to quit for the evening I had jumped a total of twelve tarpon and landed five, ranging in size from four to about fifteen pounds, an excellent evening.
On the dark drive back to Grassy Key, while motoring over Seven Mile Bridge and thinking about the evening's fishing, I played around with several names for this wonderful new fly as fly tyers are wont to do and finally decided to call it simply a Hoverbug because this is what it did and did so well; it "hovered," neither floated nor sank, simply hovered there just beneath the surface.
That first trial with the Hoverbug was over ten years ago and hundreds of tarpon ago but my love for this form of "semi-dry" fishing for tarpon has not diminished. If anything, it's intensified to the point where I now actively seek out places where I can fish a Hoverbug to my heart's delight.
I've found places, for instance, on the ocean side of some of the middle keys where on an evening incoming tide the tarpon will congregate and hold in a fairly small area, not moving much except occasionally from side to side and then back again to their original positions. Here they will work the tide in much the same way a trout will work the current in a river, feeding on small baitfish or crabs or shrimp or almost any-thing else that comes their way on or near the surface.
In these places I like to cast the Hoverbug (sometimes as large as # 1) up-current and into an area where the tarpon are feeding and then to simply let the bug dead-drift back to me, with only an occasional twitch to attract attention and to make it appear more lifelike. This is generally the most effective way to catch these fish that are simply lying in a current and passively taking whatever comes their way. There are times, though, when the fish are more actively pursuing their food and moving over a flat in search of whatever they can find. When this is the case, I'll try to pick one out of a pod, usually the nearest one, and plop the Hoverbug down about forty feet in front of it. And then I'll wait until the tarpon is within about ten feet before giving the fly a twitch to let the fish know that this might be something good to eat. It works almost every time.
There are few thrills in angling to compare with the sight of a large tarpon hovering beneath your fly, eyeballing it and drifting with it for a few feet before finally deciding to take it. Sometimes they will take the fly as gently as a trout sips a mayfly. Sometimes they will be more like a bass taking a frog, all mouth and commotion. But it will always be exciting. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Hoverbugs and Bonefish
After my success with tarpon, it wasn't long before I was trying out these little foam bugs on other salt water fish. What worked for one species might work for another. And so I began to tie them up on #6 and #8 hooks for bonefish, especially bonefish feeding in very shallow water.
It will come as no surprise to experienced bonefishermen that bonefish although for the most part bottom feeders do not always feed there, but will often take their food where they find it sometimes even on the surface or close to it. Which is where the Hoverbug really seemed to work best. With a sink rate of almost nil I could keep the fly hovering somewhere just below the surface within a feeding area and among the bonefish for relatively long periods of time. With any luck at all, the bonefish would take it for a small crab or other juicy morsel. And take it they did.
I recall several wonderful days down in the Yucatan, sight-casting to schools of cruising bones in shallow water. Timing my casts so that the fly would settle with a soft plop about fifty feet in front of an oncoming school, I would pull it under and then let it just hover there beneath the surface until one of the school grabbed it and ran. Sometimes I wouldn't even have the chance to pull it under; the fly would be charged immediately by one or more of the lead bonefish and picked off the surface with a ditzy splash that reminded me of the way a whitefish takes a dry fly. But these weren't whitefish. They were bones. And one day I caught over thirty of them in this way. They were small, to be sure, two to four pounds, and not at all sophisticated like the larger Florida bonefish that I had been used to catching, but bonefish are bonefish. And I had caught them all on a Hoverbug, which somehow made them seem every bit as exciting.
Other Salt Water Species
In addition to bonefish and tarpon you might want to try a Hoverbug when fishing for redfish, snook, and jack, among other species. For redfish in shallow water, try a #8 or a #6, in brown or black. For jacks you might want to try a #2, all-black, especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
The Hoverbug in Fresh Water
Back home in New England I began to use the Hoverbug (now tied on a Mustad #3406 fresh water hook) for bass and bluegills among the lily pads and weeds of some of my favorite local ponds. Here, too, the fly fished very well, bringing to net some fine and lovely fish. My favorite size for bass is a #4 and for bluegills a #6 or #8. Color hasn't seemed to matter much when fishing these bugs, although for no particularly good reason I've come to prefer them in brown and in olive, with matching hackle. Black, as you might expect, seems to perform best in low light.
In New Zealand ,the Hoverbug is a very effective imitation of the large cicadas, so common on many of their streams at certain times of the year. I've taken many large trout plopping Hoverbugs under arching branches and letting the fly drift back towards me.
The simple Hoverbug worked great on the smaller tarpon that I enjoyed fishing for but for the larger tarpon feeding out on the ocean flats or in the cuts at night, I needed a fly with more "meat" on its bones. And so one night, before heading out to fish, I sat down and tied up some much larger Hoverbugs on # 2/0 hooks using thicker and wider foam to mimic the profile of a larger crab and also to float the heavier hook. To suggest the legs of a crab and to give the fly a bit more action, I also substituted long pheasant rump feathers for the narrow saddle hackle palmering used in tying the smaller Hoverbug.
Later that night a few hours before dawn, really I set out to try my new flies. I drove to a narrow roadside channel that paralleled the highway, a place where I knew tarpon would gather at night to feed. There was a lone street light at the end of a service road that attracted lots of baitfish, crabs and other tarpon treats. Sometimes I could see the tarpon and the baitfish clearly; at other times, out of the light, they were only shadows chasing shadows.
The tarpon here sometimes would lie in the current and let the food drift down to them but most often they would cruise around, often in a predictable pattern, and always in a counterclockwise manner. They would swim for several hundred yards first along one bank (often quite close to my feet) and then, at some point that they alone determined, would cross the channel to the far bank. There they would move along this bank for several hundred yards and then, just before the channel merged with the wider waters of the Gulf, they would cross back over to my side to repeat the process, pausing only now and again to turn on a baitfish or to scarf down a crab. That night, however, some were cruising and some were holding.
One thing I especially liked about this place quite apart from the predictable presence of tarpon was that the wading was pretty good here, at least out to about thirty feet from the bank. But this was usually quite far enough for a backcast to clear the bushes behind me and for a forward cast to reach most of the tarpon in the channel as they cruised by or held in the current.
I waded out into the channel as far as I dared you never knew when sharks might be about and positioned myself about fifty upstream and across from some holding tarpon. I could see the shadows of three or four of them quite clearly. They were finning slowly side to side, moving three feet this way and then three feet the other way. Then they would drop back in the current but only for a moment or two be-fore they would again move forward to take up their former positions. Occasionally one of them would turn on a baitfish or shrimp or some other morsel but then it would immediately return to its original position among the pod. Fascinated, I watched them for a few minutes while I planned my strategy. I didn't want to make a mistake and spook them with a careless cast.
I considered the speed of the current slow at this stage of the tide and paid out enough line so that a carefully-placed snake cast would fall about twenty feet up-current of the tarpon and drift without drag into the feeding lane of the fish nearest me. The newly-tied fly landed with a soft plop just where I had hoped it would and drifted lazily toward the tarpon. Mesmerized, I watched as the tarpon simply moved forward and inhaled it with a quiet smack. I counted to three, leaned back on the rod, and set the hook. The fish was mine. The fly had worked.
The tarpon weighed, I guessed, about forty pounds, and took forever to land. But it eventually tired and was soon almost with arm's reach. With the fish finning slowly in the shallow water, I bent down and quickly removed the barbless hook from its upper lip and released it. Almost unbearably pleased with myself, I walked back to the bank to give myself and the remaining tarpon a necessary rest. When fighting a tarpon among others holding or cruising about in a rather small area these fish will usually move off during the struggle and not return to feed until fifteen or twenty minutes have passed and they feel more secure. If they stay around which some of them may do they become extremely cautious for about the same amount of time and simply refuse to hit anything thrown at them. In any case, a rest was called for.
I sat down on the bank, drank some coffee, checked my leader for frays, and replaced the large Hoverbug that was almost destroyed while fighting the tarpon. The night air was cool and it felt good to sit there in the stillness.
Twenty minutes passed before the tarpon returned. At first there were just a few but before long about ten or twelve had settled back into their routine. I finished off my coffee and waded out away from the bank and into a faintly shaded area just off to my right. I had my eye on a tarpon that was holding in the middle of the current about a hundred feet out. I waded out as far as I could into the current, just to the edge of the dropoff where the water depth changed from about four feet to forty, and shot a long cast just upcurrent of the fish. The fly landed just where I wanted it to and the tarpon took it just as it began to drift past. It was another large fish, larger even than the first one, I guessed. And a guess it remained, because after several leaps the fish threw the hook and the line went limp.
The fishing continued until the first gray light of early dawn and then, as they usually did, the tarpon left the channel to return to the Gulf. But while they remained, I managed to jump a total of eight tarpon and land three. This was a good percentage for me. And certainly a good beginning for this variation of the Hoverbug, which I now began to refer to as a Floating Crab.
Back home in New England, fishing for stripers, the Floating Crab has been consistently successful, especially when fished over mussel beds or in shallower water where crabs are likely to be found . When fishing this fly, I usually retrieve the fly slowly and just under the surface, with only an occasional twitch to suggest the erratic movements of a crab. If you're ever of a mind to try a floating crab pattern for stripers or other gamefish, you might want to give this pattern a try.
With a marabou tail, a Hoverbug becomes a Hoverbugger
This pattern can also serve quite well as a floating baitfish imitation. Tie it up on a long-shanked streamer hook and try it out on salmon and steelhead. By varying the foam widths and hook weights, you can get this fly to do anything you want, from floating high to floating low. Skitter it or swing it or dead-drift it over holding fish. If you want a fly with more action or with a somewhat different profile, try adding a slender tail of bucktail or marabou. I know many steelhead and salmon anglers who have had great success with this pattern.
The Beat Goes On
It was while fishing large Hoverbugs for jacks down in the Bahamas that I varied the Hoverbug once more. To add a little more life to the Hoverbug, I decided to add a long tail of marabou. This addition, so deceptively simple, seemed to make it a much more effective fly when a more active fly was required. Not only did this fly take jacks but in smaller sizes (#8-#10) and with a short marabou tail, I've fished it very successfully for smallmouths on the Susquehanna, browns on the Housatonic, and salmon in Norway.
To distinguish this tailed version from the original Hoverbug, I soon began to call this pattern a Hoverbugger. Customers and friends, however, started calling it the Hoverbugger and it's by that name that it's become generally known. You can call it whatever you like, Hoverbugger or Hoverbugger; it's still a fly that catches a lot of fish. The original Hoverbugger was tied in black, but I now tie it up in a wide variety of color combinations. My personal favorites are olive, black, and gray.
Birth of a Gurgler
Gurgler with bucktail tail
It was in the Spring of 1988 down in the Bahamas that the Gurgler was born, at least in its first rather primitive incarnation.
I had been having success with the Hoverbugger (or Hoverbugger) described above but there were times when even this fly wouldn't produce, when the large jacks I was fishing for seemed simply uninterested. This usually happened when the jacks were just sort of milling around a foot or so under the surface, not doing anything in particular, just hanging out, or so it seemed to me. It was interesting to watch but I wanted to more than just watch; I wanted to catch them. But they showed no interest in anything I'd throw at them. That is, until I made a small but, as it turned out, a very important adjustment to the Hoverbugger.
One evening while tying up some tan Hoverbuggers, I decided to see what the fly would look like if I left a length of foam a little forward of the eye and raised it a bit instead of trimming the foam snugly behind the eye as I usually did. This inverted lip looked like it would create a commotion when worked across the surface of the water, much like the Jitterbug I used to love to fish when I was a boy going after bass back in Massachusetts. Holding the finished fly in my hand, it certainly looked odd but I was sure that it would work on these reluctant jacks if anything would.
The next morning, just before the sun rose above the horizon, I had my first chance to try out this new fly on a school of milling jacks. There were about a dozen of them lying over a dropoff at the edge of a nearby sandbar, widely spaced and doing nothing. And they were all large.
I cast my Hoverbugger with the inverted lip out along the edge of the school and worked it back towards me very quickly. The inverted lip produced a commotion and a gurgling sound as the fly moved towards me. As I retrieved, I also wiggled the rod from side to side to send the fly this way and that, making the fly do a crazy dance across the surface just like my old Jitterbug, I thought with a smile.
It took only two casts before I caught the attention of the fish and the whole school of jacks moved in on it. Seeing them move, I worked the fly even faster now. Just before I reached the end of my retrieve, when the fly was only about twenty feet from my rod tip, the swiftest among them grabbed it, almost ripping the rod from out of my hand with the force of the strike. The fish was very strong and very fast and almost before I could say Well, I'll be damned, it was into my backing and headed for the safety of some submerged pilings. It almost made it but I was able to turn it in time and steer it back into the open water. On its second run, however, the fish was more successful and soon wound the line around a piling. Bum luck, I thought, but at least the fly had worked. And the day was still young.
I walked back to the sand bar to try again. The school was still there minus of course the fish that had broken me off and they were still just hanging out about twenty feet off the sandbar. I pulled some line off my reel, measured my distance, and set the fly down right into the middle of them. As I'd done before, I began my retrieve almost as soon as it hit the water, moving the fly just as fast as I could while at the same time wiggling my rod tip. And then, just as before, the whole school was soon on it like hounds on a hare and another fish was on. This time, though, I landed it and quickly released the fish to rejoin its pals. It weighed about fifteen pounds, I guessed. I replaced my chewed-up fly and caught two more before the school finally wised up and moved off. This experience marked the beginning of a long love affair with the fly I now called the "Gurgler."
This original Gurgler served me quite well for several seasons. I fished it for just about every species that would take a surface fly and to this day this version is still my first choice when flyrodding for largemouth and smallmouth bass.
But further changes were yet to come.
Gurgler with marabou tail
If you compare the photo of the original Gurgler to that of the now-Standard Gurgler on the following page, you'll clearly see the modifications I've made to the original. To make the fly more durable and easier to extract from some of the toothier fish like bluefish and barracuda, I now began to tie the Gurgler on a long-shank hook rather than the regular shank I had been tying it on. This small section of bare shank serves also as a sort of short wire-guard, to make it less likely that I would be bitten off. In addition, this relatively empty shank will sink a bit and cause the front end of the fly to ride a little higher and produce a dipping action that can be absolutely deadly at times. In the summer of 1991, I began to substitute bucktail for the marabou tail and also to overlay both the tail and the shell with Glimmer, to add both a bit of sparkle to the fly and also to further protect the foam shell from being cut through by teeth. I also began to streamline the body considerably, slimming it down and making it more baitfish-like in profile and also at the same time less wind-resistant.
It was at about this time that I began to sell the Gurgler commercially and it soon became a favorite of striper fishermen throughout New England. For the past eight seasons now, the Gurgler or Gartside Gurgler as it's often called has accounted for almost a third of all the stripers I've taken, including several fish of over forty pounds. It's easily my first choice whenever the water is fairly calm and stripers or blues are near the surface.