The Needleback Minnow – Part 1

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

A few months back I realized, too late to do much about it, that the larger rainbow trout in my home river are chasing small baitfish right under my nose. They’ve been doing it for years, while I’ve floated bug imitations of every sort over them, often to little avail. The swirls and leaps and roll-pounces I’ve been seeing under sparse little midge hatches suddenly made sense when it dawned on me that, while a single adult midge is not worth a large rainbow’s time, it’s still a nice mouthful for a minnow. And the swirls I was witnessing up against banks and in back-eddies were trout ambushing those little feeding fish.

When the truth hit me, I burned with streamer fever. But while I had buggers and larger saltwater streamers and big fat tungsten-headed sculpin imitations in my fly boxes, I didn’t have any streamers that would mimic a small freshwater baitfish nibbling under the surface film.

I went home obsessed beyond measure, and thought about it for many weeks. I looked through lots of patterns and went back into old memories. I knew what I wanted–something small enough to cast with a 5-weight rod, and something with a whitish underbelly and a greyish or greenish or mottled brown back. I envisioned something of the shape of a Rapala minnow plug…more or less…but of course much smaller. And I wanted something I could fish not only deep but also near the surface, as though a minnow is looking for little hatching midges. I wanted to be able to see it and work it up against shores and logs, and over the tops of the submerged weeds where fish large and small hide. And it had to know which way was up–it couldn’t drift sideways or inverted. I wanted those ruthless ambushes, those pounces and slashes, to end up on my hook.

In my research I found some obscure streamer pattern that someone advocated tying on a rubber worm hook. The strange planform of the hook allowed it to be vised point-up, resistant to snags. But the hook seemed a clumsy shape, too big and quite ill suited to little freshwater minnow patterns. So I went looking for other kinds of hooks and methods, and I dreamed up an approach that might surprise you.

Here is my recipe for a terrific snag-resistant streamer. It’s incredibly easy to tie…and there are four “tricks” to it that set it apart from any other streamer I’ve seen:

Trick #1: The kind of hook you use. There’s a relatively new kind of hook called a “swimming nymph” hook. With just a little envisioning, planning and experimentation, my theory proved correct–it turns out to be an amazing, highly adaptable hook for streamers.

Trick #2: The unique way you can keep it “swimming” upright.

Trick #3: How to expand your material color options, making do with inferior fibers in a pinch.

Trick #4: A way you can “tame” any inferior hair fiber used. This trick is borrowed from the salt water “Surf Candy” streamer pattern and the Popovic “Flex Fleye” pattern, although I’ve changed it to be much simpler and better for freshwater flies.

The Recipe:

Hook: Daiichi 1770 swimming nymph hook, size six (easily obtainable at J. Stockard). It produces a streamer 2 inches to 4 inches in length–an easy size to work with. There’s also the Daiichi 1870 swimming larva hook, but the 1770 has a more ideal shape for this pattern and I believe may be slightly lighter gauge, which can help when trying to fish it shallow. Smaller sizes are useful too, but #6 is a good starting point.

Thread: Your choice of color; I use grey 6/0 or tan 6/0.

Inner body: Fifteen or twenty fibers of hollow deer hair (color is not important).

Underbelly: Light-colored hair. Of all the hair products I’ve used, Hareline “Pseudo Hair” (or similar products like “polar” fibers) seems by far the best for lifelike movement, workability, etc. It is easily obtainable at J.Stockard in white and cream, both good underbelly colors.

Upper Body and Tail: Darker hair–it’s your choice what the back of your baitfish streamer should look like. I’ve used greens (note that some tying hair like Wapsi “Fishair” calls itself “olive” but is more of a forest green) and greys (although it’s hard to find a good medium grey craft hair) and mottled browns, and have also mixed them. The Wapsi “Fishair” is said by some to float, but it does not, per my tests. It’s relatively coarse as fake hair goes, but has its place and is easy to work with. Hareline “Pseudo Hair” in brown or olive (or both together) are superb choices, for look, flow, shape retention and tying ease. Again,the choice of hair depends on what you want the streamer to resemble; you have many options.

Other: 4mm eyes (I usually go with a white background eye), epoxy, and mayby Shoe Goo and mineral spirits.

Tying the Needleback Snag-Resistant Minnow:

1. Load a #6 Daiichi 1770 hook, point UP, in the vise jaws. This hook is so easy to tie on inverted that you won’t give doing so a second thought. (I can say that about no other kind of hook.) See Figure 1 for the reason why it will work so well. This is Trick #1.

Figure-1__Swimming Nymph Hook with Streamer Sketch

2. Here’s a nice trick (Trick #2) I dreamed up (maybe everyone else uses it, but if so I’ve never heard of it before): Apply a bundle of hollow deer hair to the curve of the shank, and double it back over to form a loop. If it flares nicely when tied down, it’s hollow. A little twist of the bundle sometimes helps keep it together; all strand loops should end up well above the shank (on the hook-point side of the shank). This provides enough buoyancy to let the streamer know which direction is up, yet its soft floatation force still lets the streamer drift level and balanced (so it can be fished with split shot on the leader without its nose pointing to the center of the earth). Together with the lower hook bend, which hangs down and acts as a keel, this little trick keeps the streamer swimming upright. It’s made of materials readily at your fingertips, it doesn’t change the streamer’s shape or appearance (other than making it just a little more plump, which is a good thing), it won’t interfere with hooking, and tests in water show it works extremely well. See Figures 2 and 3. (Test your own ties to ensure you’re using enough deer hair fibers.)

Figure-2 Applying the Deer Hair

Figure-2 Applying the Deer Hair

3. Select two equal bundles of light-colored hair for the underbelly and sides. Figure 4 illustrates. Tie them on either side of the hook as shown in Figure 5. Then, with your fingers, try to blend them together at the back. Wet fingers help smooth them into the unified shape the streamer will be in the water.

Figure-3 Deer Hair Loop

Figure-3 Deer Hair Loop

4. If desired, lightly darken the top of the light-colored hair with a permanent marker (like a grey/silver metallic color, or any color that suits your intent) as shown in Figure 6. (This may only be useful if you’ll use relatively light hair for the minnow’s back as well.) Personally I find permanent markers a bit better than paint markers. Some faux hair takes permanent markers well (by my experience Hareline “Pseudo Hair,” Wapsi “Fishair,” and “NeerHair” will all mark permanently). Markers are very useful for making the streamer look like a fish.

Figure-4 Twin Underbellies

Figure-4 Twin Underbellies

5. Now add darker hair material to build the minnow’s back. Allow some to droop down a bit on the sides, if you like, for a gradual color blend effect. I’ve used a combination of textile-shop mottled brown fake fur (shown in Figure 7), grey “NeerHair,” grey and “olive” Fishair, and olive or brown “Pseudo Hair,” depending on the kind of baitfish I’m trying to imitate. See Figure 8 for a variety. I’ve even used grey yarn when I couldn’t find the color I wanted. Your discretionary color options abound.

Figure-5 Underbellies on the Hook

Figure-5 Underbellies on the Hook

Figure-6 Grey Marker

Figure-6 Grey Marker

Figure-7 Mottled Brown Fur

Figure-7 Mottled Brown Fur

Figure-8 Faux Fur & Fake Hair

Figure-8 Faux Fur & Fake Hair

As easy as that was up to now, we’ve actually built the entire foundation of this fly. All that remains is detail. In Part 2 we’ll take this solid, simple foundation and quickly make a minnow of it.

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