Rusty Rat salmon fly

by Matt O'Neal of Savage Flies: Find him on his YouTube channel at Savage Flies 

Now there’s been a bit of controversy over who created the salmon fly pattern I’m going to tie for you today. It is a pretty old pattern, but it’s not at all a forgotten fly. There are lots of references to it online, and it’s in at least five of my books. It’s in Stetzer's Best 1000, Dave Hughes' American Fly Tying Manual, and the Federation of Fly Fishers Pattern Encyclopedia.

One side note, it’s tied slightly different in at least four references. The main difference is in the wing material - it’s either silver fox, red fox, or gray squirrel and slightly different color bodies, and even different feathers for a collar hackle.

Rusty Rat fly pattern

Now the history goes back to 1911, when a guy named Roy Angus Thompson came up with a style of hair wing salmon fly pattern.

Did you catch that name? Roy, Angus, Thompson – R A T. So the series of flies came to be called the Rats.

I’ll buy that story, but there’s another claim out there that a guy named Joseph Clovis Arsenault first came up with the Rats. There could be some truth there, but if so, why would he have called them Rats? I don’t know, but Arsenault was a well-known east-coast salmon fly pattern tier in the 1940s and, according to him, he had given Joseph Pulitzer some black rats to fish with. He had used a rust-colored thread underneath, and they did well for Pulitzer, so well that they got chewed up and the rust color came through. So he tied a bunch more for Pulitzer – in this new color and named them the Rusty Rat.

Maybe Roy Angus Thompson did indeed come up with the Rats, but Clovis Arsenault came up with the rusty orange one that became known as the Rusty Rat. Either way, it’s been a pretty popular and successful salmon fly pattern.

Now one other point to make before you go because you don't fish for steelhead or use salmon fly patterns: lots of salmon and steelhead flies can be tied in lots of variations for all kinds of species. I’ll get some hate mail for saying this: you can tie this thing smaller or put it on a streamer hook. Of course, some purist will leave a snarky comment and say you can’t call this a Rusty Rat if it’s on a streamer hook.

Sure you can! We can do whatever we want. The Golden Girl was originally a steelhead fly pattern, now it’s a very popular streamer. One of the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught was about a 20 incher in Southwest Virginia I caught on a skykomish sunrise – tied and fished as a streamer.

My philosophy here – and you can take it or leave it – is if you see a cool looking salmon fly pattern, but you don’t fish for salmon, put it on whatever hook you want, and chase whatever fish you want with it.

I do respect the history and tradition of our sport, but it’s also okay to experiment, change things up and, above all, just have fun with it!

Rusty Rat Salmon Fly Pattern Recipe


Michael Vorhis

Michael Vorhis

The whole fly looks superb to me Matt. Now I may be wrong, but I haven’t seen any fish of any species pull a caliper out and check precise length ratios before they decide….

Tradition is important because it’s fun and promotes respect for predecessors. It should never stop being fun. A great litmus test of whether a tie is truly an example of an established pattern or not is this: If you tie it and claim you invented it, and someone from the textbookish side of town tells you that you didn’t, then you did indeed tie the pre-existing pattern. Variances are a welcome part of our world.

I tied a salmon fly that looked quasi-similar to your fly about 5 years ago in advance of an October trip to a river where the Chinook were running en force. I wasn’t savvy enough to know that fly color (chartreuse, blue, pink, rusty orange, black) can make a difference the further from the saltwater or estuary the fish have come…but I decided to try the rusty orange one first.

When I got there I met a guy from Finland who knew Chinook better than I did…he told me he’d caught one the previous year on a pink fly. So at the last minute I dropped a pink fly 30 inches down from the hook bend of the rusty orange one. I did end up catching a chinook, but it was on the pink…which meant that the long 30-inch 3x stuff that had sat in the heat of the attic for a decade, plus two extra knots, were now between me and the fish.

Long story short, I was terrified to put any real pressure on the fish, so the fight lasted 3.25 hours. And I never knew if the rusty orange one had played a part in attracting it. I’ll just have to try again, and use a Rusty Rat! Tnx Matt.

- Mike

Alan Haines

Alan Haines

Nice try, but… the floss body should only be 1/2 of the total body length. The tinsel wraps are uneven; traditionally there should only be 5 of them. The floss underwing/veil is much more appealing when it is 1/2 to 2/3 of the tail length. The wing, hackle, and head look good.

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