Tuesday, April 8, 2014
"Forgive me Father for I have sinned." The legendary night fly that "works" when you want to move the biggest brown trout of your life.
Hank’s Creation (2014)
We’d just finished having dinner at one of the wide spots of the upper Brule River, known as Big Lake. Down stream a few fisherman in canoes had positioned themselves to wait for the Hex hatch. While we had prepared dinner for our clients we had decided that we’d wait above a place called the Rocks to see what would develop for the evening bite. My guiding partner at the time, Dave Spencer, and I parked our canoes side by side so our clients could pass the time reminiscing. They had been fishing partners, whose time on the Brule reached back thirty years. I’d just started guiding on the river in great part because Dave Spencer introduced me to it (that is a story for another time).
Neither of us were particularly chatty that evening, so we spent most of the time watching dusk come on in the mirrored reflection on the surface of Big Lake.
“You ever see one of these?” Dave said dragging me out my own thoughts. Seeing the fly in the palm of his left hand, all I could think of was “bass bug and butt ugly.”
“What the hell is that?” I asked sounding as though I was about to retch.
“I know,” he mumbled trying not to gain the attention of our clients. “It’s Hank’s Creation,” he continued in a near whisper and asked me if I had ever heard of it before.
“No,” sounding like I was denying an accusation of heresy.
“Can you tie it?”
“Why would I want to?”
“Because they work!” That’s all you need to hear from a guide who’s teaching you the ropes to drive the bug (pun intended) right in, but somewhere in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel that I was being played. Dave gave me his example. I told him that I’d give it a shot.
After examining it in “the light of day,” I realized I was looking at something incomprehensibly hideous. Hold up a Hank’s to any of the traditional patterns that have been used on trout water over the years and one can easily see that Old Henry should probably stay in the tackle box until needed for bass and pike fishing. Bill Stieger, fly-fishing writer and bamboo rod fanatic, described it as “more of a shrunken head” than a fly.
As an art form, fly tying realizes its highest expression of the art in salmon fly tying. Brian Van Erem, a competitive salmon fly tier, from DePere, Wisconsin, was recently asked to tie a display quality version of the Hank’s Creation complete with shadow box for the local fly shop in Superior. The completed project was delivered, beautifully tied (not easy to use beautiful and Hank’s Creation in the same sentence), with a short note:
“Forgive me father for I have sinned.”
I examined the fly carefully to understand its construction and to catalog the materials. I still couldn’t help but wonder, “Who the hell was Hank?” “What else could you call it, but a “creation”! and “Why me?” At the vise, when I finally got around to begin recreating the Creation, I had visions of Frankenstein’s monster with electrodes sparking it to life. “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
A good fishing friend from Florida, Ken Malmberg recently asked for “the recipe” for the Hank’s Creation. Why he wants it, I can only guess. Morbid curiosity?
The following is the current materials list:
Mustad 33903 #2 or larger (if you can find them)
#2 (or larger) Slotted tapered cork, flat-faced, painted silver with painted eyes on the flat face (black on a red background).
Deer hair for spinning.
Red kip tail.
Red buck tail.
White buck tail.
Mallard Flank feather (gray).
The original example given to me by Dave Spencer over 30 years ago was somewhat different than the current version of the “Henry.”
The original had a wood body, flat faced, that tapered down the shank to the tail. The kip tail was an original material tied in bushy, 1/3 the length of the hook shank. Onto the body three mallard flank feathers were tied in, centered on top, making sure they followed the taper down the shank of the hook, extending slightly farther that the kip tail. Then clumps of stacked white buck tail were tied onto both sides of the body at about the same line as the eyes making sure the tips extend slightly farther than the kip tail and mallard. The remaining gap between the buck tail and the mallard feathers was covered with dyed red goose wing feather making sure that the feather tips pointed down the inside center line of the fly to the tail and extended as far down the fly to the kip tail. All the materials tied onto the cork combined should create a paintbrush look to the tail of the fly.
Twice a week from the beginning of the season in May through to the Fourth of July, I guided for a local fly angler, Ray Russell. The Brule River had been his home river for more than 40 seasons. He was in his mid-70’s at the time and retired from the two creameries the owned in town. During one of our weekly outings I asked him if he had ever heard of the Hank’s Creation.
“Yes,” the distain in his voice was obvious. “It’s one of those night fishing bugs!” He said “night fishing” as those he were trying to clear his throat of cat hair. His love of dry fly fishing was made fairly obvious to me as well when he launched into a half-hour rebuke of all other forms of fly-fishing, other than the regal dry fly. Night fishing in Ray’s opinion was especially odious. “The dry fly is the only fair way to take fish from this river. That Hank’s Creation is nothing more than a Cal-Mac knock-off. Just a lousy popper used to catch bass! It’s a slippery slope when you start using that type of artillery.” He made it sound as though even touching one put you in the same category of loathsome character that would use slack lime, dynamite, and gill nets as a means of taking trout. “Nothing but meat fishermen those night fishing characters!” I didn’t tell him that I was tying them on the same vise that produced his beloved Rat-faced McDougals.
Vintage South Bend Cal-Mac Wood Fly Rod Popper Red Painted Eyes
Hank Denney, a grocer in Brule, developed Hank’s Creation for night fishing the Brule. The original example I used was tied using a balsa wood body flat faced and bullet tapered down the shank. On my first run of Hank’s, I stuck to using the wood body. Drilling them out and shaping them by hand was very time consuming not to mention fraught with peril. Using X-acto knives and drilling small pieces of balsa wood can lead to small cuts and holes in fingers. A poorly aimed drill bit destroyed many nearly completed bodies. Getting the straight shank to stay glued to the wood, even when using chenille, as underlayment, and epoxy, made me appreciate the ingenuity of the grocer from Brule, Wisconsin. One of my first modifications to the original Hank’s was to use cork popper bodies and specialized hooks, which eliminated the time consuming process of carving and drilling the bodies.
A first, I questioned the whole enterprise as more lure making than fly tying. Now, more than 30 years later, I’m wondering why I ever leaned away from truly calling it a “fly.” The materials used in patterns across the spectrum of tying today have crossed over boundaries that were nothing more than thinly veiled biases wrapped in the honorable mantel of tradition. Last year I caught a nice brown on a foam bodied, sulpher spinner that had not a lick of natural materials.
Within a week, I reproduced the Hank’s Creation and gave Dave his original back with a half dozen newly minted friends. In a few weeks, the phone calls started. River gossip is swift. The calls would begin something like this:
“You ever hear of a fly called a Hank’s Creation?”
“Can you tie them?”
“I’ll take dozen. ASAP!”
“How about six?”
“O.K. When can I get them?”
“Who am I talking to?”
“Hey, Steve. I heard from Wes that you were tying Hank’s Creations. Could I get….”
“Somebody told me that your were….”
I hadn’t even wet one before I had tied two dozen. In short order the same anglers were asking for more. I felt as though I were dealing heroin.
Tying just one Hank’s Creation is not very practical. Wood or cork popper patterns have to be tied in steps. Painting the body, gluing the body to the hook shank, filling in the hole in the wood or slot in the cork, painting the slot and eyes, all require time between steps. For the modified version, using cork, spinning and clipping the deer hair body behind the cork was an added step. Adding some deer hair to the tail of the fly served two proposes. The first was to fill the space behind the cork body and the long shank length of the Mustad 33903. This hook style is longer than most cork bodies available. Deer hair provided additional flotation when coated with Dave’s Flexament and helped create a more pronounced paintbrush effect to the tail.
Spinning the deer hair.
Painted bodies ready to be jointed to the spun deer hair and kip tail
Bodies glued in place ready for trimming.
Trimmed deer hair, slots filled, repainted, coated, eyes painted and ready for the over wing.
Their durability became another issue when it became apparent they were a “go to fly” for night fishing. We all accept that a good fly can fall apart after a couple of fish. Especially those delicate ties like quill-bodied dry flies. A popper should last awhile. Hank’s Creation attracts the attention of nocturnal feeding brown trout. The take of these fish can be very aggressive. Trout do crush large prey before they reposition them in their mouths to move them further down the food chute. Teeth, especially the teeth in large browns, tear a fly up when the fly is set in the lower jaw. On the first few runs of cork bodied Hank’s the more aggressive browns would tear the cork off the shanks. I started using an epoxy that would penetrate the slot and fill small spaces in and around the double humped shank completely.
When the thread would cut and unravel, I started tying the wing and buck tail onto the body by saturating the tying thread with super glue as it was spun around (be sure to wear safety glass and latex gloves). Coating the body and the face of the fly with a gloss coat lacquer gave durability to the paint as well.
The modified version also replaces the red turkey wing with red buck tail. The red turkey wing would split and tear off after one fish. The modified Hank’s could take a beating but still ends up showing battle scares and eventually goes the way of all flies “that work”: retirement.
Modified Hank’s Creation in the vise.
Battered face of a veteran Hank’s
After many toothy encounters, this veteran Hank’s shows his scars proudly, threads intact.
Tom Heffernan, a long time friend and fishing partner of mine uses a battle hardened veteran Hank’s whose Buck tail and mallard flank over wing dressing has been reduced to a shredded mallard feather and a few sprigs of bent buck tail with very little of the paint left on the body. He says it fishes well and in general, “Hank fishes better after it he’s been beat up a bit.”
Hank’s Creation works well in still flat water, slow moving calm water as well as swift water. It cork body keeps it in or barely under the surface. The design utilizing the paintbrush tail puts, an undulating disturbance in the “V” wake created by the flat face. Red and white are great attracting colors. The silver paint in the body might reflect a little light or give the fly a little silver flash. The disturbance in the water is the key to their effectiveness.
Hank’s Creation has been the source of many fishing tales on the Brule River. Until she passed away, Hester Holbrook, whose family has lived on the river for over a century, reminded me that her “monster brown” was caught on “that Hank’s you tied for me!”
One of best night fishers I have ever had the pleasure of bringing down river lost a Hank’s Creation to an enormous Rainbow in one of the big pools of the upper river. Jim Flathers had fished the Brule at night for most of his adult life. He had forgotten his night fly box with his Hank’s Creations tucked inside. He asked if he could borrow one of mine. After a few drifts, that rainbow took the fly hard midway through its swing. It surged back up stream then broke water in a cartwheeling jump. The fish broke the heavy leader as it drove for the rocky bottom of the pool. Two nights later while out with a friend, that same fish was caught and released, mangled fly still in its jaw. Jim apologized for losing the fly. A number of years after his passing, I learned that he had never broke-off night fishing.
Note that in the photo this version of the Hank’s uses the traditional turkey wing cover (what’s left of it). The buck tail replacement material in the newer versions provided better coverage and was more durable. (Yes, it is “Jim’s” recovered fly)
Most Hank’s addicts refer to Hank as a living entity. The late, Rick Mosse, fellow guide and talented artist, insisted that Hank’s didn’t work unless you verbally abused it with some colorful profanity.
Good friend and fellow night angler, Mark Sullivan, won’t allow the light of day to shine on a Hank’s for fear of losing its charm of summoning large brown out of the depths. One of the largest browns I have ever witnessed Mark Sullivan hook and land happened on a single cast into a small back eddy under over hanging cedars. The fish took the fly without a sound. Mark’s swift and sure set was the only indication that he had a fish on. One cast, one fish.
Late one July night nearly thirty years ago, I guided a dentist from the Twin Cities down from Stones Bridge. We had been having a fairly good night catching about a half dozen browns, two of the browns pushed twenty inches. Close to midnight and with the moon starting to peek over the treetops to the east, I pushed Bill Berge down to the last good spot of the night. The moonlight hadn’t touched a shallow spot just off a little side chute in the river. About a week before a client had moved a large fish it that spot. With moonlight already illuminating the other side of the river, working that spot would be our last chance at a good fish. Holding the boat in the run opposite the side chute, Bill cast his Hank’s into the darkness hoping to catch a seam between the side chute and rocky shallows. After about five casts, Bill was ready to head for the landing. I wasn’t hearing the Hank’s hit the water the way I expected it and the way that the fly swung out from the chute told me he wasn’t getting the cast in far enough. Bill adjusted his cast by adding three feet of line. The fish blew up on the fly so hard you could see the take through darkness. Bill, always strong on his set, moved the canoe as he set a number of times, the large brown thrashing in the shallows. The line shot off the reel when the trout headed down the riffle into the deeper water below. Bill reeled up on the fish only to have it race down the full length of the deep pool and clear the water in a jump that had hung time an NBA star would envy. The fish in the bright moonlight, the water drops, silver pearls in the cool blue light still are etched very clearly in my memory.
Bill Berge “moonlighting” on the Brule
On the last day of the season, a number of years back, a long time client of mine and I were closing in on midnight. The season would literally be over in a little less than an hour. We had fished the best water of the upper Brule and had fair evening of fishing. A few years earlier, Carl Nelson started a new job after working many years for Honeywell in the Twin Cities so he hadn’t been on the Brule for a few years. This was his big outing of the year!
My approach to guiding is that every trip could be the last time this fisherman is on the Brule so give them the best trip that my efforts can summon from the available conditions and time. I create memories.
His fatigue showed as we shared a cup of tea. I told him we were going to fish the run just across the river from where we stood.
“We can skip it and head for the car, I am beat.”
“We have a shot at a lake run brown in this hole,” I urged trying not to be too pushy.
“That’s, O.K., Steve, we can it skip for another time.”
Generally I don’t push when a fisher wants to call it a night. Yet, I knew this run was ready, it had to have a good fish in it, and I really wanted Carl to hook a memorable fish. I just wasn’t going to let Carl miss a chance at a big lake run ready to rock.
Reluctantly, Carl agreed and promptly put his first back cast into the trees. It took us the work of a few minutes to get old Henry out of the cedar behind us. I checked my watch: 11:40. With his reluctance newly restored, I had a hard time coaxing Carl out on the river for another chance at the run. Three casts later Carl was into one of the largest lake run browns I have ever landed for a client. After we released the fish, Carl sat back in the front seat looked at the bright stars and said, “That was great!” After paddling fisherman for a number years on the Brule you can read in the set of their shoulders and from how they carry themselves in the front seat, how they may be feeling and what they may be thinking. Carl is not a chatty fisherman. The rest of the trip was filled with the sounds of traveling the river at night. As I paddled us down river looking at the moon lit pines and star frosted sky, I was guessing that Carl felt a little less tired and his thoughts were on the fish he hooked, fought and landed, and perhaps he felt he was reaching out into the night sky. I know I was.
Hephaestus, Greek god of metalworking, depicted as swarthy, heavily bearded and hairy. The reaction he received from his mother, Hera, at his birth, was to be thrown off of Mount Olympus resulting in his being crippled. I think we can take that to mean that she didn’t find him an attractive child. His personal story is always one of being at times marginalized and ridiculed for his looks but lauded for his cleverness and thoughtfulness. I think that if the Greek gods fashioned flies for trout fishing, Hephaestus would have made something like a Hank’s Creation. Not very appealing, but very clever.
All of what we do in fly fishing distills down to a moment where an object, most of the time smaller than your thumbnail, sparks the attention of a creature we have given so much energy. Even though our encounters with them are relatively brief, the meaning we derive from these encounters can last a lifetime and can be so personal and so affirming that we have trouble putting words to them. Hank’s Creation has turned many an evening of sliding down a dark river, staring into the darkness hoping, into one filled with illumination and wonder. My initial rejection of Hank’s Creation has been replaced with admiration and respect. Hephaestus’ charm was in his thoughtfulness of his creations and what they could do. Over time Hank’s utilitarian value has helped mitigate his lack of aesthetic appeal. After all, my motivation in tying my first Hank was because “they work.” They work their way into our night fly boxes, and they work into our affection as well.
Keep a tight line and an open mind,