Working Wonders with Woodchuck - Global FlyFisher

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THE LOWLY GROUNDHOG RESURFACES
Working Wonders with Woodchuck

by Peter Frailey


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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:

English Angling Trappings
Box 8885
New Fairfield, CT 06812
Tel: 203-746-4121
Email: alcoif@aol.com
Hunters Angling Supplies
Central Square, Box 300
New Boston, NH 03070
Tel: 1-800-331-8558
www.HuntersAngling.com
Whitetail Fly Tying Supplies
7060 Whitetail Court
Toledo, OH 43617
Tel: 1-800-579-5549

 

Adams Wulff

Adams Wulff

Peter Burton developed the Adams Wulff at least in part because he liked the aesthetic appearance of the banded guardhair when stacked for wings and tail. He then added what we all know to be proven fish-getters: muskrat dubbing and mixed brown and grizzly hackle.

Hook: Dry fly, 2XL, size 8 to 18
Thread: Black
Tail: Woodchuck body guard hair
Body: Gray muskrat fur
Wing: Woodchuck body guard hair
Hackle: Mixed brown and grizzly

Tip: Because Wulffs are known for their high visibility, I used hair dyed yellow on the fly pictured here.

Ausable Wulff

Ausable Wulff

Originated by Francis Betters in 1964, this Wulff is named after the Ausable River in the New York Adirondacks. Fran favors this pattern for rough water, where he prefers it in sizes 10 and 12.

Hook: Dry fly, 2XL, size 8 to 18
Thread: Fluorescent orange
Tail: Woodchuck tail
Body: Australian opossum dyed rusty orange
Wing: White calf tail
Hackle: Mixed brown and grizzly

Tip: If you have difficulty working with calf tail, as I do, you may find calf body fur easier to handle. As an alternative to both, in the example pictured here I used white poly-yarn.

Chuck Caddis

Chuck Caddis

Eric Leiser developed this fly as a dubbed-body variation of the Eddy's Fly, which was tied with a body of burnt orange monochord.

Hook: Dry fly, size 12 to 18
Thread: Gray
Body: Dark gray dubbing
Wing: Woodchuck body guard hair
Hackle: Mixed brown and grizzly

Tip: In smaller sizes Leiser suggests using red fox tail because the fibers are thinner.

Llama

Llama

This old streamer was popularized by Eric Leiser. He gives credit for it to a Menominee Indian named Mile Tourtilloutt. To utilize the full length of the woodchuck guard hairs and underfur, Leiser suggests a Mustad 9575 hook, size 8.

Hook: Streamer, size 4 to 12
Thread: Black
Tag: Flat gold tinsel
Tail: Grizzly hen hackle barbs
Body: Red floss
Rib: Flat gold tinsel
Wing: Woodchuck guard hair and underfur
Collar: Soft grizzly hackle tied back.
Head: Black with black dotted white pupil

Tip: Try different combinations of floss and tinsel. Good choices are yellow floss with silver tinsel, fluorescent red with gold, black with silver, or white with silver.

Poly Chuck Caddis

Poly Chuck Caddis

To give the original Chuck Caddis a bit more flotation I added a bit of synthetic yarn as an underwing. Synthetic material has the advantage of coming in many colors, allowing you to match the hatch.

Hook: Dry fly, size 12 to 18
Thread: Black or color to match body
Body: Dubbing of your choice or peacock herl
Underwing: Zelon or poly-yarn in color to match the hatch
Overwing: Woodchuck body guard hair
Hackle: Mixed brown and grizzly

Tip: Try using a "loop" of Zelon or poly-yarn to add width to the wing.

Little Llama Soft Hackle

Little Llama Soft Hackle

Because I love soft hackle wet flies, for this pattern I have shrunk the Llama and made it thinner. To give credit to the original pattern that inspired the design, it seems fitting to call it the Little Llama soft hackle.

Hook: Wet/nymph, 2XL, size 10 to 16
Thread: Black
Body: Yellow Wool
Rib: (Optional) oval silver tinsel or wire
Underwing: Woodchuck guard hair and underfur, dyed yellow
Overwing: Natural woodchuck guard hair and underfur
Collar: Brown hen hackle to match overwing

Tip: You can use floss for the body as in the original Llama pattern. However, a wool body will help sink the fly by absorbing water. If you use a rib, consider using wire instead of tinsel to add weight. Try some of the alternate body/rib combinations suggested for the Llama.

Hairwing Stonefly

Hair Wing Stonefly

Gary Borger likes to use woodchuck for big stoneflies, size 2 to 10. This is his recipe.

Hook: Dry fly 3XL, sizes 2 to 10
Thread: Color to match the hatch
Tail and Underbody: Natural colored deer body hair
Overbody: Dubbing to match the hatch
Hackle: Mixed brown and grizzly, trimmed with a V-shape on top and bottom
Wing: Woodchuck guard hair and underfur.

Tip: Gary uses up to 3 hackles on the larger flies. After wrapping the first hackle, he counter-wraps the second hackle so that it crosses the first. If a third hackle is used, he wraps it in the same manner as the first. The deer hair underbody is created with the same hair that forms the tail. Lay a clump of deer hair along the top of the shank with the tips forming the tail. Starting with your thread just behind the eye, lash the deer hair on top of the entire length of the shank by using tight open wraps to the rear of the shank, where the thread will then be ready to apply the dubbing.

Woodchuck Wooly

Woodchuck Woolly

The inspiration for this nymph is fairly obvious from the name I have chosen. Similar to a Woolly Worm and Woolly Bugger, this fluffy nymph looks as buggy as you can get.

Hook: Wet/nymph, 2XL, size 8 to 16
Thread: Black, brown, or red
Weight: Wraps of lead wire or brass bead
Tail: Clump of woodchuck underfur, tied marabou style
Body: Woodchuck dubbing, applied with a dubbing loop
Hackle: Brown rooster saddle, palmered

Tip: A great way to make dubbing is to cut ž" pieces of the underfur and mix them in a Mini-Chopper or other similar kitchen appliance. For extra spiky dubbing, Peter Burton suggests adding the top halves of a bunch of guard hair.




User comments
From: jack wolbach · Jackwolbach·at·yahoo.com  Link
Submitted January 9th 2013

You forgot the best chuck pattern of all - the usual. you can see the chuck vs. snowshoe fly in 'Wyoming or Bust' on the Wyoming Fishing network. I showed the chuck pattern to Fran and his eyes lit up.


From: Eric Leiser · ericords·at·aol.com  Link
Submitted July 7th 2006

Happy to see that after all these years woodchuck is finally getting its due...

where can I buy some today



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