Fly Tied by Ed Van Put
“Up On the Esopus”-Bucktails: A Catskill Tradition
In Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing, Joseph D. Bates, Jr., perhaps the definitive authority on streamers and bucktails, defined the bucktail as “a fly possessing a predominately haired wing, whose shape and intended action are to represent a baitfish.” Bates went on to write: “A hair wing fly of this type is called a bucktail regardless of the kind of hair used.” This definition was given the stamp of approval by A. J. McClane in both McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, his angling Bible, and The Practical Fly Fisherman. However, McClane did suggest that the name is derived from the use of hair from the tail of a deer for the wing. Regardless of the hair used to tie a bucktail, who can argue with this? Not me!
Bates also wrote that “the origin of both the streamer and the bucktail is lost in the dim history of the past.” But then he quickly adds, “It is certain that the American Indians used similar flies in the first half of the nineteenth century.” Further, he suggests that the origin of modern long-shanked flies can be traced back to the Catskills. In Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing, Bates devotes a fair amount of ink to the Bumblepuppy, which he notes was originally tied as a bucktail and streamer as early as 1880 by Theodore Gordon and later by Herm Christian, perhaps Gordon’s only fly-tying understudy.
Angling historian, author, and fly fisher Paul Schullery weighs in on this matter, noting in American Fly Fishing that “primitive bucktails” were used for smallmouth bass in the 1870s. Schullery goes on to add that the Orvis Company sold bucktails in the early 1890s.
And speaking of Orvis, Mary Orvis Marbury, in her classic Favorite Flies and Their Histories, included an 1887 letter from J. H. Stewart of Jackson, Mississippi, noting that flies made by North Carolina Indians used deer hair for wings, but that the hair pointed forward, rather than backward, toward the rear of the fly. Marbury claimed that this type fly was “used by the North Carolina Indians for generations.”
Ernest Schwiebert, in Trout Volume II, also notes that North American Indians used a “bucktail-type lure” to catch fish before such flies were used for sport fishing. Schwiebert concludes that the bucktail was an American piscatorial concept, regardless of who receives credit for its conception. In fact, Joe Bates wrote about Alaskan Eskimos who used a fly made of hooks of bone and hair that later morphed into the Alaska Mary Ann Bucktail originated by Frank Dufresne.
Perhaps the best link connecting bucktails and the Catskill tradition was offered by Preston Jennings. In A Book of Trout Flies, Jennings wrote the following about streamers and bucktails: “Just when the flies were first used is difficult to say, but the Bucktail has come into prominence in the Catskills since the Esopus has been kept in an almost constant roily state, by the introduction of the clay-laden water from the Schoharie; in fact, the first one of these flies to come to the attention of the writer was called the Esopus Bucktail.”
Jennings wasn’t alone in this belief. In Taking Larger Trout, Larry Koller wrote: “In Eastern fishing the bucktail has now achieved a firm place in the angling field. Probably the Esopus Creek has had more to do with its establishment than any other, for this big stream, high and often silt-laden with water of the Schoharie pouring through the portal, is bucktail and streamer water more than anything else in the fly-fisherman’s repertory.” Koller went on to write that the first bucktail he ever used was also the Esopus Bucktail.
Perhaps one of the best-known Catskill bucktails is Art Flick’s Black-Nosed Dace, originally tied with natural polar bear hair. I often call upon the services of this pattern, mostly in memory of Art, when I wander Flick’s Schoharie Creek watershed.
The strong association of the Esopus Creek with bucktails is expanded upon by Ed Van Put in Trout Fishing in the Catskills. Van Put includes three bucktails that originated on the Esopus. The first was the creation of William Mills and Son—the Esopus Bucktail mentioned above. It was favored to catch “large brown trout” in the stained flows. A second pattern was known as the Phoenicia Bucktail, which according to Van Put is an adaptation of the Black Ghost. The third fly, which Ray Bergman also credits to the Esopus, is the Brown and White Bucktail.
A cursory review of angling literature suggests a few other favorite bucktails were fished in the western Catskills. In Catskill Flytier, Harry Darbee wrote that the Black and White Bucktail was a “real killer on the Beaverkill and Delaware,” and he included this fly as one of Darbee’s deadly dozen. Eric Leiser’s book The Dettes mentions two: the Ken Lockwood, plus a Red-and-White Bucktail, not to forget Leiser’s own Llama, tied with woodchuck guard hairs.
I’m not sure how many fly fishers still toss bucktails these days, but they have their place among every serious angler’s flies. I find sparsely tied bucktails in small sizes great late-season fish locators when fished along undercut banks and deadfalls. And come November, there’s nothing quite as magical as the Mickey Finn, made popular by John Alden Knight.
Here is one of the bucktails associated with the Esopus Creek, the Phoenicia Bucktail. The one pictured here was tied by Ed Van Put, and a photograph of it appears in his Trout Fishing in the Catskills.
The Phoenicia Bucktail
Hook: Standard streamer hook, size 8
Tail: Double section of dark yellow wool
Rib: Gold tinsel
Body: Black silk, dressed heavy
Wing: White bucktail
Cheeks: Jungle cock (optional)