Original Skunk pattern (from Steelhead Fly Patterns and Flies by Trey Combs):
Tail – Red hackle fibers
Body – Black chenille ribbed with silver tinsel
Hackle – Black, sometimes tied as a beard
Wing – White bucktail or polar bear
Skunk Up pattern (Marts pattern):
Hook – AJ 1 ½ , 3 or 5
Tail – Red polar bear
Eyes – Dazl Eyes Silver (size – proportional to hook size)
Body – Black Polar Bear under fur (or wool yarn) – dubbed with silver oval tinsel
Hackle – Black, Blue-eared pheasant
Wing – White Polar Bear
Step One: Tie in Red Polar Bear Tail. Not too thick. The end of the tail should be above and about even with the curve of the hook.
Step Two: Tie in tinsel.
Step Three: Tie in the eyes on top of the hook and a little forward of the hook point.
Step Four: If you are using yarn, tie it in now and wrap to just in front of the eyes. If you are dubbing PB fur, form a dubbing loop, twist up the fur and dub to a point just forward of the eyes. Tie off but don’t cut the yarn (but cut the dub).
Step Five: Tie in hackle by the tip. Loop and twist up the black dubbing.
Step Six: Wrap or dub body forward to about 1/8” back of the eye of the hook. Leave enough room for the head and to tie in the wing. Tie off and cut.
Step Seven: Wrap hackle forward, winding it up and over the hook away from you (clockwise looking at the fly from the front) and tie off at end of body. Cut.
Step Eight: Wind tinsel counter clockwise forward (this traps the hackle-stem to the body). Move the tinsel back and forth while winding so it does not trap hackle fibers under it. Just the stem.
Step Nine: Tie in the PB wing with the wing tips ending between the hook point and bend of the hook. Remember; tie the wing in like a beard on the underside of the hook. When swinging it, the wing will ride on the up-side as will the hook point because the weight of the eyes will make it ride point up.
With the weight placed where it is, not only will the hook ride point-up to make it more snag-free but while swinging, it will make the fly ride tail down giving the fly a better visual to any steelhead in the current viewing it from behind. When a fly rides without weight, it swings on a more level plane, giving a fairly narrow butt-view of it. The weighted eyes of this type of fly pattern make it ride with the tail in a downward position offering a more complete, tail-end view of the full length of the fly.
I can remember when no, and I mean not one, steelheader would be found on a river without a few Skunks. It is good when the water is low and clear in smaller sizes (#7 AJ, or #6 or 8 in other hook styles) and black is a color that shows up well in off-color water too; especially in larger sizes (#1.5 or 3 AJ or 2 and 4 in other hook sizes). I don’t know why I don’t use this color combination more often. I mean that the only black/white/red combination I have ever carried is the Skunk and Skunk-up. They both performed for me at different times, but for some reason neither of them is a go-to fly for me. I can’t imagine why I don’t use them more often or develop more black/white/red flies. I don’t think I’ve carried either for years. Maybe it is too basic. A fly can’t be tied with a simpler color combination. Maybe I try to sparkle it up too much or make it more complicated. As I am writing this, I am getting some very interesting ideas about this. If anything comes of it, I’ll write about it at a later date. At any rate I will include both patterns in my fly box this year.
If you look at many steelhead fly patterns of the 70’s, you will see that almost all of them followed the simple pattern style of the Skunk. If you take the materials that go into the Skunk, but substitute other colors you will describe most of the patterns of the times. Usually, there was a tail of some kind, but maybe not. The body is usually made of chenille, but could be made of yarn or possibly dubbed and ribbed with tinsel. Then there was a hackle wound in front of the body with a wing (usually a hair wing – mostly bucktail, but squirrel, bear, calf-tail and polar bear might be used). That was it. It was all a matter of color and flash tied to the same pattern. Look at the image of the original Skunk shown here.
The Skunk Up is tied in a few different sizes with different weighted eyes. I like using eyes instead wrapping lead around the hook shank because I can see at a glance what weight I am dealing with. Besides, I have never been good at memorizing different colors of head thread to signify a certain weight. Depending upon water depth, different ones can be used to get it swimming through the right water depth.
Although the fly can be fished with a sink tip, I usually prefer a floating line with a 9 -12’ leader. I also fish it swymph style. That is with an upstream cast to let the fly sink and nymph along the bottom until it is across or slightly downstream of me. Then I hold the line fast and force the fly to swim up from the bottom and start the swing across the current. I have had strikes from as soon as the fly hits the water, through the nymphing and swinging to 3 or 4 seconds into the hang-down. When the cast is made upstream, a few upstream mends should put enough slack (but not too much). I like to think I always have just 2 – 3 inches of slack and no more, at all times when fishing upstream so I am not pulling the fly along downstream.
I have no idea what I really have so I keep adjusting and watching my leader. If it is hanging sharply upstream from the line, I figure I am pulling the fly so I make a mend and observe the leader again to see its relationship to the line. If it is angling too far downstream, that is indicative that the line is slowing the fly’s downstream progression and causing it to rise when I want it to stay down; then I will make a slight downstream mend to take pressure off of the fly and let it sink again. I do this until the fly is slightly down river from me. Then I lower the rod tip and hold tight to the line causing the fly to start its swing portion of the drift. After the swing, I let it hang down a few seconds before starting again.
If you haven’t used the Skunk pattern, you should put a few, along with a few Skunk Ups in your box and give them a try. Or use your imagination at the vise and craft your own version. Then get it wet next time at the river.