It came to me about 15 years ago while fishing the channels on the Madison River. I’d hooked a nice brown on a fly I can’t remember. When it came to hand, it was regurgitating several still wiggling leeches. They were fat and large—at least 3 inches in length. What struck me was their coloration—a mottled olive brown. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any “leech” patterns with me at the time but made a mental note to do some research and tying when I returned home.
While researching various pattern references, I stumbled on a leech pattern that used zonked Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus) in a fashion similar to traditional bunny leeches. What struck me at the time about this particular pattern was the way the tyer had palmered the zonked pine squirrel to create the body of the fly along the entire hook shank. The tail of the fly was still the traditional strip of zonked fur and the fly was heavily weighted with a large cone head. I didn’t have any zonked Pine Squirrel at the time but quickly found some at one of Bozeman’s many fly shops.
I didn’t fish heavily weighted flies so the cone would have to go. No need for the weight with a good 30’ sink tip. Also, I wasn’t fond of the zonked fur for the tail. It just didn’t give the fly the profile I wanted. This is where the “dog” comes in. Finn Raccoon “dog” fur was ideal for tails on longer, woolly bugger style flies. There were lots of colors available and it became easy to craft what I started calling: Pine Squirrel Woolly Buggers. They have evolved a bit in the last decade, but they still are my “go-to” fly for slinging streamers on SW Montana rivers. On a guided float several years ago, the guide happened to tie on a “Sparkle Minnow” that proved pretty productive on the day. Today, many of my Pine Squirrel Woolly Buggers include elements of the Sparkle Minnow pattern.
Why does the Pine Squirrel Woolly Bugger work? Here’s my theory. Depending on color(s) it might resemble one or more of four common trout foods in SW Montana rivers. Clearly, leeches are available to trout in a lot of water. Sculpins, juvenile whitefish and suckers, and trout fry are also available just about everywhere. In any water where the Salmon Fly is prevalent, predominately black buggers certainly resemble the large salmon fly nymphs. Finally, confirmed by regurgitated nymphs, large dragon fly nymphs can be found in a lot of backwaters along our rivers. Charlie Brook’s Assam Dragon isn’t far off from the Pine Squirrel buggers.
Basic Pattern recipe
Hook: #1-4 streamer (Firehole 811 is my favorite)
Thread: UTC 140 (I tie most of mine with Fl. Orange)
Weight: 10-15 turns of .015 lead free wire at the middle of the shank
Undertail: Angel hair tied full and clipped short
Tail: Two layers of Finn Raccoon separated by a few strands of flash
Body: Palmered Zonked Pine Squirrel
Rib: Medium or BR Wire
Variations and tying tips.
Tails can be made from marabou although it is not as durable as Finn raccoon or arctic fox. The Angel Hair clump at the hook bend provides stiff support to the tail hair, keeping it from fouling around the hook. Two colors of pine squirrel can be used to create a bi-color fly. Substituting a flash chenille such as Palmer chenille or EP Minnow brush for a portion of the body gives the fly a Sparkle Minnow look. Red or orange gills can be simulated by coloring the 1st 3/4” of minnow brush with a permanent marker. Probably the single most important tip when using pine squirrel zonkers in this way is width, how they are tied in and the creation of a smooth underbody. The ideal zonker strip is 1/8” wide. Narrower than that and the stretch will thin out the fur. Too wide and coverage is uneven. Once the tailing is in place, the zonker strip is tied in at the hook bend with the fur side down and fur pointing backwards. When tying in tailing, it should start behind the hook eye to create a smooth, larger diameter underbody that provides a clean foundation for the pine squirrel strip.