Adaptation Can Be Fun and Rewarding—The Montana Temple Dog

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

oneFor the fly tier, adaptation can be a bit of fun. I tie flies because I enjoy the process and quiet time as I sequester myself in my fly tying room. Although from a practical perspective, I don’t really need more flies, but there’s this constant itch to do something a bit different. And when that bit of difference proves itself on the river, it really is rewarding. Such was the case when I embarked on adaptations of the Temple Dog style of fly tying. My Temple Dog style flies, tied in “Montana” colors proved themselves with “tie flying” colors the first time out on the river. One of my early Montana Temple Dogs in olive seduced three 18”+ browns in a span of 15 feet along a deep undercut and very fast current on the Madison River this summer. Three big fish in less than a dozen casts in such a short span of water was either pure luck, or I had a fly pattern with some real potential.

As I mentioned in Dogs and Buggers, the Temple Dog style of hair wing flies was created in the mid-1980s by Norwegian fly tier Håkan Norling and has since become a very popular style for steelhead and salmon flies. The style originated primarily as a tube fly, but is easily adapted to traditional salmon or trout hooks. So the story goes, Norling ran out of fox fur when tying some patterns for clients and ended up substituting Temple Dog fur for his wings.

twoThe original Temple Dog looked something like this. Today there are hundreds of different steelhead and salmon patterns based on this Scandinavian fly style. In studying up on this type of fly, there were two characteristics that not only distinguish the style, but that I found very intriguing. Could I adapt those characteristics to flies that would work well for Montana trout? Temple Dog style flies have a combination of high wings and thick front hackle interspaced with the winging fur that gives them both a real sense of bulk, but also great swimming action. They are often called “Fat-back” flies because of the high fur wing.

There is ample evidence that salmon and steelhead don’t really feed once they reach fresh water on their spawning runs, but brightly colored, gaudy flies have always worked to entice them to strike. For whatever reason steelhead and salmon take a brightly colored flies like the Temple Dog that resembles nothing in particular was not my problem. The rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout in Montana can generally be assumed to be feeding when they take a fly, the possible exception being trout on redds. Clearly a Temple Dog style fly that I might devise for Montana trout needed to look more like the baitfish we encounter out west—trout fry, whitefish fly, sculpins, shiners, dace and such. This meant flies with more subdued colors like browns, blacks, grays and olives. But there were other adaptions I wanted to incorporate. One being hotspots and this element of a fly has pretty much become a staple element in all my streamer style flies. The other being the incorporation of some bright yellow element in some of the adapted patterns. Whenever I talk to guides and outfitters about the tea colored Big Hole River, they always suggest black streamers with bright yellows tails and it’s not unusual to see similar recommendations for the Yellowstone and Madison rivers.

So my adaptations go something like this:

Hook: Traditional salmon fly in size 6 or 8 or appropriate tube
Weight: 10-15 turns of .015 lead-free wire
Thread: UTC or Montana Fly in 140 or 6/0 Fluorescent Orange
Tail: Layered subdued colors of Finn Raccoon (tied long with or without flash) or bright orange or yellow fox tied short
Body: Dubbed with favorite dubbings and ribbed with hackle just like a woolly bugger. (subdued colors) or wrapped with lateral scale flash and ribbed with hackle
Wing: Layered Finn Raccoon with subtle colors and flash tied Temple Dog style (explained below)
Hackle: Saddle, Spey or Coq de Leon hackle tied Temple Dog style in subtle colors. (explained below). The softer Spey or saddle hackle is better for flies to be fished in slower water while the stiff Coq de Leon is better for fast water.

threeThe Temple Dog style wing is formed by taking your first clump of winging fur and tying it in with the tips facing forward. After securing the fur, you leave the butts (~3/16-1/4”) exposed. The tips are then bent backwards and the next element is a wind of two or three turns of hackle. The process is repeated with another clump of fur and turns of hackle. Flash can be layered in as desired. This causes the wing fur to stand up at a sharp angle away from the hook shank. In the water, the wing and hackle creates a real sense of bulk. The Coq de Leon hackle fibers are very long and stiff and typically used for tailing on dry flies. But the speckled, subdued colors make them ideal for hackle on a baitfish pattern. In fast water while a fly is swinging, the stiff Coq de Leon will still lay back a bit giving the front of the fly some bulk and contrast in coloration. Conversely, the soft Spey hackle tends to mat tight against the fly in fast water, but demonstrates some subtle movement in slower water. So I tie versions of my Montana Temple Dogs with both types of hackle so I’ll have the right one to match the river conditions.

My ever growing gallery of Montana Temple Dog flies

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 t5  t6
 t7  t8

The few times I’ve had these on the river, they have proven just as effective as the Pine Squirrel Woolly Buggers in enticing strikes from fish hanging along undercuts and deep in pools. I’ve found the flies with Coq de Leon hackle the most effective in fast water where the current does most of the work. In slower pools, you’ve got to strip these type of flies fairly aggressively to create the right profile. I plan on giving them a good workout on the Madison in October for spawning browns which hangout in fast, knee deep water along the river’s edges. Additionally, a dozen of these Montana Temple Dogs in a new Tacky Big Bug Box will be entered in the Madison-Gallatin Trout Unlimited silent auction next February. We will see if my adaptations catch on.

6 thoughts on “Adaptation Can Be Fun and Rewarding—The Montana Temple Dog

  1. Joe Duca

    Hi again Mike, really nice work you’ve got there. Thanks for sharing. I imagine that’s​ why a Montana nymph in black & yellow thorax works so well out your way. Take care…

    Reply
  2. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article, and great-looking flies.

    But educate an ignorant tyer, if you would: I don’t mean to open any ethical cans of worms, but having never heard of either “Temple Dog fur” or “Temple Dogs” themselves, I thought I’d try to find out what animal is the source of this fur. It seems to be a little difficult to find any definitive info. It may be that once upon a time the fur came from some kind of northern fox, but that’s only some peoples’ speculation based on the fineness of the fibers. What I’ve seen from just a little bit of web searching is that “Temple Dog fur” now mostly comes from China, shipped as dog skins and later sanitized and packaged.

    Given the ongoing record of certain parts of the world for skinning animals alive and other unsavory practices, I confess I feel a little hesitation toward dog fur of unknown extract and unknown geographic origin. I’ll gladly use fur and feathers, mind you, but we all assume “harvesting” practices of materials aren’t in the realm of the horrific. It’s worth asking about…since it’s a business and all.

    Any clarity you can add, Mike? Is this stuff domestic dog fur, or something else? Sheared, or skinned? The fur does seem like it’d move well in the water and I like the look of the fly style.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Mike Cline

      Mike

      There is a distinction between the Temple Dog style and actual Temple Dog Fur. Most tiers use Arctic Fox and/or Finn Raccoon (fur from legally trapped or shot wild canine species) for traditional Temple Dog style flies. Temple Dog Fur (which purportedly comes from domestic Asian dog breeds like the Tibetian Mastiff, Chow Chow or Chinese Foo Dog) is actually fairly scarce in the US and European fly tying materials market. The scarcity I suspect is for the very reasons you bring up, concerns over the humane treatment of domestic dog breeds. A Canadian company which specializes in tube flies carries it with this lead statement: “After a few years of searching, we have finally found an ethically harvested supply of Temple Dog fur. The original winging fur for all tube flies is finally here!”. But compared to Finn Raccoon or Arctic Fox, Temple Dog is 30-50% more expensive and far more limited in available colors. Several Chinese wholesalers market whole skins on the internet, but I am sure there are significant importation hurdles/prohibitions for domestic dog skins.

      From a performance standpoint, I doubt there’s a big difference. The chief difference between Finn Raccoon and Temple Dog is the presence of course guard hairs and thick, fine underfur on the Finn Raccoon, characteristics absent in Temple Dog. Purists swear by the Temple Dog for steelhead and salmon flies. I can live with Arctic Fox and Finn Raccoon and as fly tying materials, they are readily available in a plethora of colors and they suffer none of the stigma of Temple Dog fur.

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Thanks Mike; it’s amazingly difficult to find that kind of info. As I said, I’d never even heard of “Temple Dogs.” Maybe I’ve not frequented the right places enough in my life. (I have heard of “Pub Dogs.”)

        I wonder if some of the excellent synthetic hair products (for example J.Stockard offers “Pseudo Hair” and a few other similar products, some of which are really superb in the water) might be good for these Temple Dog Style flies? Color options abound, and no pseudos are mistreated. Your thoughts? Have you done any experimentation using faux hair?

        – Mike

        Reply
        1. Mike Cline

          Mike,

          The term “Temple Dog” derives from the “Foo Dog” or “Chinese Guardian Dogs” and the breeds that resemble them. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_guardian_lions)

          I have not tried Pseudo Hair specifically. I do intermix various synthetic flash materials in the wings and tails. With any material, the real test for the “Temple Dog” style is suppleness. The hair, pseudo or otherwise for the first layer of the wing must naturally lay back over the fly. Because the hair is tied in tips forward with the butts exposed, if it is too stiff then the wing won’t function properly. Of course, the craft fur and Pseudo hair materials are significantly cheaper than an equivalent amount of Finn Raccoon. It is a bit like the different between real crab and imitation crab. Both are edible and taste good, but there is a difference.

          Reply
          1. Michael Vorhis

            I understand; thanks. To me most basic “craft” fur seems either more stiff or more coarse or more constant diameter or more …something. Good for some uses but not unusually lifelike.

            By contrast, products like Pseudo Hair are so fine and supple, and move so well, that it’s hard to imagine anything with better suppleness. I’ve never seen any live animal, be it Pekingese or ChowChow or anything else, with hair finer. So I suspect some of those synthetics might work well for this application…as a hunch. They’d lay down with the slightest twitch of a strip.

            Again, thanks for the clarifications. See? I learn something new every, uh, year. And a very interesting look on these flies.

            – Mike

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