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THE LOWLY GROUNDHOG RESURFACES
Working Wonders with Woodchuck
Every February 2nd since 1887 in a small rural town in western Pennsylvania, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil has emerged from his burrow in search of his shadow. Whether he does or does not see it is not really of scientific importance. However, because Groundhog Day falls nearly equally between the winter solstice in December and the vernal equinox in March it is a signal that we are halfway to spring. Of course, only Phil can tell if the weather will cooperate.
We optimists know that longer days will soon warm our favorite fishing waters, and we dream of when desperate fish will devour each succulent new snack we have tied for them. In practical terms Groundhog Day is a reminder that it is time to hit the fly-tying bench with renewed energy, and to fill all those empty compartments in our fly boxes with fresh creations.
Depending on where you live, groundhogs are also known as woodchucks, and fly-tiers who speak in scientific terms may call them Marmota monax, as the groundhog is one of 14 species of marmots (genus Marmota). But regardless of the name, I have learned to covet them at the tying bench as an excellent and under-used resource. In some applications there is nothing better.
But I have also acquired an intense dislike for these annoying pests. In fact, you might say I have a love/hate relationship with Marmota monax. Until ten years ago I was an avid vegetable gardener. My young children would eat healthy raw vegetables right out of the garden. I harvested and froze tens of pounds of sugar snap peas and green and yellow string beans each year. I canned enough tomato sauce annually to feed my family something with red sauce every night until the next season's harvest. I did not yet know how very destructive groundhogs could be.
This low-slung, lumbering animal dines on ground-level vegetation and favors open areas along woodland edges from eastern and central United States northward across Canada and into Alaska. However, in some areas of this vast region these rodents may be on the decline. Peter Burton of Middlebury, Vermont, whose Adams Wulff, dressed with woodchuck tail and wings, is pictured in Dick Stewart's book "Flies For Trout", wonders if their ranks have been dwindling in his locale because of the relatively recent arrival of a predator well known in the American West, the coyote. (Another great fly-tying animal!)
Where were those carnivorous immigrants from the West when I needed them? A decade ago my gardening hobby abruptly stopped when at least one family of woodchucks clear-cut my vegetable beds every time a row of seeds germinated. Full plantings of veggies were reduced to stubble before I had my morning coffee! That spring and summer I captured nearly 20 of these varmints (okay, I'm a fisherman, so maybe it was only 12 to 15) in dual Havahart traps and relocated them to neighborhoods with gardens far finer than mine.
I can only imagine what I would have done with my prey had I been a fly-tier at the time. Each animal sports plenty of fly-tying material. Though members of the squirrel family, they are far bigger. Woodchucks range from 17 to 20 inches in length and weigh anywhere from 4 to 14 pounds (and maybe more after they have been in your garden). Their 4- to 6-inch tails fit nicely into sandwich-sized zip lock bags.
No one knows the value of woodchuck as a fly-tying material better than Francis Betters, the originator of the Ausable Wulff. His recipe calls for woodchuck tail hair. Though typically dark brown with tan tips, Fran prefers the bands of lighter brown found on the tail hair of older animals. He has found that the bands of different shades of brown "break up the light refraction creating a much desired effect". Consequently, even a thick bunch of stacked tail hair appears sparse. Unfortunately, you may have a hard time finding woodchuck tails commercially. The vendors I have listed at the end of this article should be able to help. But if not, body fur is more readily available and the guard hair is a perfectly adequate substitute. I doubt the trout will detect the difference.
Groundhog body fur appears reddish-brown to brown in color. However, close examination will show that the hair has four bars of color. The guard hair typically has a black base, followed by brown, then black again, and finally white tips. My favorite pelt has lighter colors: it is barred brown, tan, brown, white tips. Incidentally, the underfur is about half the length of the guard hair and usually blends with the coloration of the first two bars.
With white tips, the slightly crinkled and surprisingly tough guard hair makes very attractive and effective tail and wing material. Jim Krul of English Angling Trappings in New Fairfield, Connecticut suggests using an old pair of scissors when cutting or trimming hair. Save your sharp scissors. This stuff is the closest thing to steel wool that I have used in tying! When first working with the guard hairs, I managed to break off my thread several times while wrapping down the raw butt ends. Be neat when laying each wrap against the other and you shouldn't have a problem.
Woodchuck does not take dye easily. To get desirable results, Jim Krul bleaches the pelt before dying it. The yellow has a nice amber tint. And I recently acquired several olive and red pieces, though I have not yet tried them.
To prepare guard hair for the dry fly wings used in the Chuck Caddis and Poly Chuck Caddis, you will generally need to pull out the underfur. Don't discard it! This stuff makes tough and wonderfully bushy dubbing. But don't be surprised if you find it difficult to direct-dub your thread, even with wax. If it just won't adhere, try the dubbing loop technique. It is a little more effort, but the results are worth it. Try your hand at the Woodchuck Woolly nymph or use the dubbing on any other buggy nymph.
Because one doesn't usually associate underfur with a dry fly, Gary Borger's Hair Wing Stonefly is a unique recipe. This imitation uses both guard hair and underfur to create a very effective stonefly that suggests movement even while sitting still.
Perhaps the most famous woodchuck-propelled fly is the Llama, popularized by Eric Leiser. Like the Hair Wing Stonefly, and the Little Llama soft hackle, the wing on this old streamer combines guard hair and underfur, with seductive results.
Now is the time of year to experiment with new materials. If you haven't had the pleasure of using groundhog/woodchuck, I recommend you give it a try. To help you get started, listed alphabetically below are several mail order outfits that carry a good supply of woodchuck:
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