Step Up and Surf the Tube: Tying Flies for Steelhead

Step Up and Surf the Tube: Tying Flies for Steelhead

I remember my first experience behind a fly-tying vise.  I excitedly pushed an old VHS tape into the VCR, squirming as it wound and whirred until the faded image of a smiling white-haired man appeared. He sat behind a desk with various odds and ends in front of him.  I anxiously determined whether or not I had the necessary tools to proceed to tie my first trout fly with him.  Vise? Check. Bobbin? Check. Scissors? Check. Thread?  I looked around. Nope.  Pressing the pause button, I ran downstairs to dig through my mom’s sewing station until I found a spool of black thread.  Check.

I watched the man carefully, my finger hovering on the rewind button while he explained the basics of fly-tying. I spent the morning pausing the tape, running around the house digging up old fur coats, toys and anything else that might suffice as reasonable substitutes for the materials he was using.

It was the start of what would soon become a complete obsession with fly-tying; its history, materials and possibilities.


A few years later, I was twenty years old and spending my winter nights around the tying table with other dedicated fly-fishermen. It didn’t take long for me to learn about productive west-coast steelhead flies, and soon I was making my own variations of more traditional patterns.


We were fishing for summer-run steelhead in a winter setting. November and December iced the river banks, but the promise of summer steelhead lurking in the depths nearby kept many of us hopeful, so we fished into the chilly dark.


Summer steelhead differ from their winter relatives in that they enter the system in an immature state. With more time to make their migration, and with increased metabolisms due to warmer water, summer-run steelhead have more energy and a tendency to take both swung and dry flies.

Those of us who had previously fished strenuously with single-hand fly rods made the switch to double-hand rods (commonly referred to as Spey rods), making it easier to turn over heavy flies and sink tips. Until the increasing popularity of double-hand rods, the preferred fly fishing approach was to use much lighter, smaller flies (simple leeches, green-butt skunks, general practitioners, etc.).

Cat and April

While at the time we didn’t have Skagit lines or such pronounced shooting heads, Windcutters and mid belly lines still offered some ability to present larger profiled streamers.

With this equipment, we were able to add more size and creativity into our flies. Flies were tied on a cut-off shank that ranged anywhere from one to three inches in length. From here, we tied in a loop of reinforced wire or monofilament, extending it just far enough past the cut-off shank to attach a trailing hook (by loop to looping the stinger hook through).


This allowed us to switch out our hook in the event that it dulled, bent or rusted, without having to replace the fly itself. It also gave lengthy flies some leverage to land fish that would otherwise have 3/0 hooks teetering on the point of untimely self-removal.


Granted, such large flies had the potential to be over-dressed and therefore too bulky to cast or penetrate the water’s surface.  The goal was to give the fly enough volume to allow it to dance and pulsate as it swam through the water’s current, but to do so with as few materials as possible.

This was done by tying in two balls of dubbing for a maximum splayed effect. One was placed in the front of the fly, the other in the back. With only a single strand of tinsel wound through the middle, each dubbing ball served to separate the sections of volume.  Such flies were the perfect compilation to show the fish something different, whilst still allowing the angler to cast effortlessly.

For simplicity sake, I’ve named these flies “two-steppers”.

Sugar pop

ADH Germany

Eventually the popularity of this fly pattern grew and today it is commonly known as Ed Ward’s Intruder (which is actually incorrect as the Intruder has its own specific pattern).


At the time many of us didn’t know the fly’s name or who had popularized such characteristics — what we did know was that we were catching more fish by using them.

To achieve such volume, there are several different materials on the market that I specifically seek out for my flies. Polar bear, arctic foxtail and synthetic ice dub are my first choices when looking for materials that are coarse enough to maintain a splayed effect, yet soft enough to move easily in the water.


Pre-dubbed brushes significantly cut down tying time, as standard dubbing can take up to three times longer for many tiers.

From here, an over-laying material is added above the dubbing to contribute to length. Again, there are many differing opinions on what works best for this. For me, it is the rhea feather. The rhea’s long fibres encompass the splayed dubbing beautifully, and the fly then holds its shape — moving with maximum action, yet with only a few very simple ingredients.

rhea banner

A couple years ago, to help educate and entertain students, I purchased a swim-tank to bring to all of my tying classes.

It’s a plexiglass tank with a pump that simulates an artificial current. The flow holds the fly in place so that observers may analyze the different characteristics of various materials and patterns.

With this, I quickly received an education on materials that look better in the water vs. those that look better on the shelf.

alfred 3

Fast forward a few years and it didn’t take long for “Intruder” variations to circulate throughout steelhead circles in both the west-coast and Great Lakes regions.

Before long, anglers all around me on my home rivers had swapped out their 9 foot single-handers and green-butt skunks for 14 foot double handers and large flies.

It was inevitable (and ironic) that I would eventually turn back to smaller profiled flies — except, rather than rid my arsenal of “two-steppers” altogether, I simply downsized my flies in half (one ball of dubbing), relabeling them as “one-steppers” instead.


While my tying style became minimized, so too did my time at the tying bench.
Often in a hurry to tie guide flies for the following morning, it was the tube fly that became my fly of choice.

Truthfully, I’d always been a tube fly fan. My early days as a steelheader meant that paycheques were few and far between — plus, the price for a package of Alec Jacksons (that I would only cut and use for the shanks), had me seeking cheaper alternatives.

Plastic Q-tips, W-40 straws, bobby pins… I got creative and found that as long as I had a package of stinger hooks, I could tie materials onto just about anything.


The Europeans had long since perfected the tube fly, and some North American anglers were trying their best to do the same.

Tube flies have some advantages that shanks with looped wire can’t compete with. The amount of time it takes to tie in the stinger loop, paired with the cost of hook shanks and non-kinking wire, threw my thriftiness into a tube fly frenzy.


Using a simple tapered needle, I’d place the needle into the jaws of my vise and then slide the tubing down until it sat snug on the extension. From here, I would tie both one and two steppers by the hundreds — each fly only taking minutes to complete.

Tube dub

Now my flies were still able to interchange hooks, allow me the leverage of a short shank to land my fish quickly, and they were quick, simple and affordable.

Bare Hook

In addition to their functionality, now I no longer had to comply with the rules of proper proportions. There are no hook eyes on a tube so an over-crowded head wasn’t of any concern.

I’d cut off excess tubing and then reuse it, saving me both money and materials.

Gone were the days of cautiously mapping out stinger wire and its spacing, the tube fly quickly replacing wire that had been tied in either twisted, too far back, or too short to actually slide a stinger hook on.

Suddenly I could simply slide my tube fly down my leader and then adjust the hook as necessary to ensure no short-takes or deep-throated fish.
I was confused why so many North Americans were vehemently opposed to using them.

Cat prawn

And gone were the days of commercial tying companies using cheap, limp braided line to tie in their stingers.  I’ll tell you a secret: no, the hook does not straighten out when swinging through the current – in fact, even when it’s being fished, the limp braid swings very similar to this:


The answer hit me one day while quietly sitting in a fly shop and waiting for my class to start.

I watched a young sales associate explain tube flies to a customer. Before the salesman could even begin to place the monofilament through the front of the tube, the customer’s eyes glazed over with boredom — he literally walked away mid-sentence, heading to the familiarity of the colourful leech bin.

It was at that moment my question was answered: tube flies were less popular because they were misunderstood and unfamiliar.

As I grew older and began traveling the world in search of steelhead and Atlantic salmon. I learned that if I packed tube flies for my trips, I could simply swap out hook sizes suitable for each fishery. I carried a plethora of tubes in all shapes and sizes. For example, in the event that I was fishing in BC for large Chinook salmon, I could use a 2/0 stinger hook — if I then saw a small steelhead roll in a slower seam, it took only a matter of seconds to remove the large hook and replace it with a smaller one (while still using the same fly).


As the versatility presented itself,  I quickly had a revelation.
With all of the many talents of the infamous tube, there was one more advantage that could persuade me to use them: they were stackable.

Soon, I was only tying “one-steppers” in every colour of the rainbow. I’d tie them in two sizes: short (rear one-steppers), and long (front one-steppers).
I simply stored them in a zip-lock baggie and proceeded to travel, mixing and matching my tubes until I had the size and colour combination best suited to where I was fishing.


If a river was low and clear I would slide one small tube down my leader, securing a small stinger hook with a loop-knot (or knot of choice).
If a river was murky or suited for larger flies, I would then slide another “one-stepper” atop the small one and the current would push them together into what looked like the standard pulsating “two-stepper”.

Tube slide

If they were hitting on top, I just added some foam.


fb Steve Morrow

By leaving a little excess tubing on the head of the rear one-stepper (or on the back of the front one-stepper — this is personal preference), upon completion it gave enough space between itself and the stacker next to it to give the appearance of that same breathability, or undulation that the “Intruder” has.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 10.16.26 PM

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 10.16.40 PM

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 10.16.52 PM

If I needed to have weight on some flies, I always had a small bag of tungsten beads in my wader pocket, where I would then slide one onto the front (or back) of the excess tubing in the fly.

I no longer had to tie both weighted and unweighted flies for my trips.


If I went fishing for dolly varden, I would slide two or three stackers onto my leader, steelhead and rainbow/brown trout used one or two, etc.
Furthermore, if I needed a chartreuse/blue fly for chinook, I’d stack a blue one- stepper with a chartreuse one — upon seeing a rolling steelhead, I’d then just replace the chartreuse section with a pink one instead.


The mix and match options were endless; the colors, sizes, profiles, weights, species… as long as I was fishing in a current (or stripping flies back to myself), my small bag of flies could be transformed into virtually any streamer needed for that specific fishery.

Trip organization was no longer dependent on specific fly profiles, color combinations, weights, or hook sizes — I now had access to multiple fly patterns and sizes without being weighed down by boxes filled with flies I would likely never even use.



From my days as a girl scrambling through the house trying to find materials, to my days as a woman who tries to exit the constriction of a very square box, creativity and innovation are frequent visitors to my vise.

Over the years fly preferences will continue to ebb and flow; changing from small to large, and from criticized to accepted.

There are always going to be styles, techniques and ideas that may not be for everyone, but I urge anglers to at least open their minds to the exploration of new concepts. Sometimes the answer is at our fingertips, but we are too busy staring at what is already in our hands to clearly be able to see it.
Happy tying!

Advantages to Tubes:

-an ability to change fly profile without actually changing flies (stacking)
-an ability to change hook size without changing flies
-extra leverage when landing a fish
-no set boundaries for proportions (ex. heads)
-flies last longer (only replace hooks)
-easy to use and affordable
-adjust hook to materials & avoid short strike or “tonguing”


Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article