I dream of Genie!
To be clear, I don’t dream of the beautiful, scantily clad character played by Barbra Eden back in the 60s….anymore…Though, I think I did as a teenager (!?!), but I did, without a doubt, sometimes dream of one of my favorite steelhead fly patterns that I developed and named “the Genie”, due to the fact that I tied so many of them that I saw them in my sleep from time to time.
There was a time years ago when, working in a large Fly-fishing shop, that I spent many winter nights tying flies to fill the shop’s fly bins. Unlike some fly shops today, (un-named, big-box store inserted here), we were diligent in providing flies for our customers that worked in our local waters and were appropriate for the current conditions. In Michigan, Steelhead fishing is a BIG deal and for fly-fishermen the season can start as early as January, IF a January thaw provides a bit of run off in our steelhead rivers. Winter fishing can provide some incredible action…and solitude, if the conditions are right. In any event, for me, January is when thoughts of steelhead begin to occupy my mind, regardless if the season starts early or kicks in slower, running it’s course before the peak in late March through April. Because of this, January is when I typically get cooking on tying flies for the upcoming season. In the past, there were winters when I tied hundreds of dozens of flies, in numerous patterns, to ensure there was a ready supply for my customers…and myself. Commercial fly-tying can be drudgery…and trust me, you WILL see flies in your sleep if you choose to give it a try!
I started tying flies in the early 70’s…yes, I am that old…though I did start as a small child. One of the lessons that I learned over the years, after spending an inordinate amount of time copying, in exacting detail, all the really cool, eye-catching flies I could find, is that most fly patterns are created to catch fishermen but that often the buggiest, most impressionistic flies, are the ones that catch the most fish. Winter steelheading in Michigan means fishing in water filled with structure and snags, which claim many many flies, meaning that flies that are fast to tie, and are highly effective, tend to be my favorites. Impressionistic patterns tend to be quick to tie, but still must be well conceived and ultimately, effective!
There are a number of “go-to” patterns in my fly boxes for winter steelhead and they run the gamut from small free-swimming green caddis larva, little and medium black stone-fly nymphs, various mayfly nymph patterns, a huge variety of egg patterns and minnow or attractor patterns. Usually the smaller and more natural looking fly, the better for our spooky fish.
One of the most prevalent aquatic insects in terms of shear tonnage (yes, tonnage) of protein available to fish in the great lakes region and it’s vast watershed, is the Hexagenia Limbata mayfly. The Hexagenia Limbata, the Hexagenia Recurvata, Hexagenia Atrocaudata, Hexagenia Bilineata and a few other closely related, and some probably un-documented members of the genus hexagenia, (family- ephemeridae), are generally referred to as Hex flies, or regionally as “fish-flies”, or even “Michigan caddis”, though they certainly are not a member of the caddis family, but instead a giant mayfly with a meaty 1-1/2” body and a 3” wingspan.
The Hex hatch is a legendary dry fly hatch on Michigan and other Great lakes region trout streams in late June through mid July. A midnight hatch that produces blinding clouds of huge mayflies, and brings huge nocturnal trout to the surface is a totally unique experience in fly-fishing and has to be tried to get the full effect, yet it can go unnoticed because the entire process occurs in the dark of night. In many lakeside or lower river delta communities, the hatch becomes obvious as light poles, buildings, bridges and even roads are blanketed in mayflies. Some towns even employ snow plows to clear the slippery mass of bugs from roads. The hatch is usually spread out over a few weeks with alternating waves of emerging “duns” and “spinners”. For dry fly fishermen the dun is usually an olive bodied, slate grey winged adult, with egg-laying “spinners” having yellow bodies and clear wings after molting their first phase adult duds.
Panfish, bass, walleye, trout, salmon, steelhead and many more fish owe their existence to this mind blowing bio-mass of nutrition that the “Hex” fly provides throughout the Great Lakes. For winter Steelhead the Hexagenia nymph, aka “wiggler”, or “Genie” as I refer to it, is a key offering. Whichever flavor of hexagenia we’re discussing, the sub-adult, or larval and nymph stage is always a burrowing aquatic insect for the vast majority of its life-cycle. The adults rarely last for more than a couple of days after hatching as winged insects, looking to mate, and lay eggs back in the water from whence they emerged. From egg, to larva to nymph the Hex may take two years to develop under water, thus the importance of the hex nymph to the winter/spring steelhead fisherman.
Hex nymphs tend to be close to 2” long, cream to yellowish in color and animated. Animated in that they are swimmers and the largest, which are closest to their adult stage, begin to get active in late winter though spring when the water temps get above the 42 degree mark, which is also the magic temperature for steelhead to get really active. Hex nymphs have large feathery “gills” lining both sides of their abdomen which add to their lively animated looks. Hex fly adults lay their eggs over slower water with lots of black marl which is where the larval stage develops and hunts smaller prey. As they near adult size, large Hex nymphs begin to crowd the marl and clay beds where they began as eggs. Spring run-off flushes them out into the main flow, and fish, steelhead especially, take the opportunity to pick them off at will. It’s surmised that steelhead don’t really eat when in the rivers to spawn, but I’m not so sure. Many come into the rivers in the fall chasing salmon, brown trout and lake trout, feasting on eggs, then stay in the river over the winter before finding their own spawning groove in the spring. Until spawning hormones kick in, I think that steelhead do eat while in the river. Unlike salmon, many survive the spawning season and return to the big lakes, post spawn.
The Genie fly is an impressionistic fly that closely resembles the hex nymph, but like most good fish catching flies, it has a fish catching, buggy look that can be mistaken for other aquatic morsels. Because of this, it can be tied, and successfully fished in a variety of sizes and the body color can be modified to match local conditions. There are many great Hex patterns available to try. Many are very realistic in appearance, complete with large eyes (like a real hex nymph), and detailed legs. I use these too sometimes, but I can honestly say that in the 30+ years since I first tied it, I have had much better success with my Genie fly, I’m sure in part because I have confidence in it and as such, fish it a lot. Tie a few. You’ll be amazed how easy and quick they are to tie, and how the fish pounce on them.
Brandon’s Genie: (standard steelhead version, with options for modifications)
Hook: Heavy nymph hook, 2x short, size 6 (option size 12 – 4)
Body: yellowish-olive dubbing, medium thick body (options olive, black, brown, orange)
Thread: 8/0 black or olive
Tail: 6-8 Pheasant tail fibers tied in even with hook barb, to extend one body length.
Under tail: phylo plume section from the base of natural hen saddle feather.
Hackle: brown speckled Hen saddle feather, tied in tip first at hook bend, then palmered forward evenly over body dubbing.
Back/wing case: 10-12 peacock hurl fibers, tied in, tip first at hook bend, pulled forward and tied off at hook eye.
Attach thread to hook
Tie in downy phylo plume at hook bend, to extend ½” beyond bend.
Tie-in pheasant tail fibers, 1” past hook bend, or equal to body length.
Tie-in tip first, brown speckled saddle hackle, at hook bend. Leave hanging.
Tie-in peacock hurl near hook eye, then overwrap with thread back to hook bend.
Add yellow dubbing (or yellow yarn) at hook bend, wind forward to create a tapered, cigar-shaped body. End at hook eye.
Wind brown saddle hackle forward over body, tie-off at hook eye.
Pull peacock hurl forward over the top/back of fly, tie-off at the eye. Form a small head and whip finish.
Story and photo by Brandon Vaughan
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.