Last week, I was fishing with a friend and our conversation turned to our "must-have" flies. Nymphs top my list, of course - the sunken fly is deadly for many species. Streamers have their place, too. But of course, you occasionally end up in a situation where insects are emerging and the fish are feeding on top. The guy I was fishing with had four boxes of mayfly imitations in every size, style, and color. I chuckled when I pulled out my mayfly box, and he scratched his head when he saw what was in it. I usually carry only one box of mayfly imitations, and there's only one pattern in it - the fly I call the "Klinkhammer".
I put the name "Klinkhammer" in quotes for a very good reason - the fly that Andy and I call Klinkhammer or Klink is somewhat different from the actual Klinkhammer Special. In fact, we've deviated so far from the actual Klinkhammer that we're probably just confusing people by calling it a Klinkhammer at all at this point. My friend sure was. Because of this, I've decided to write this article to detail just how we started using this fly and where it came from.
The "real" Klinkhammer Special was invented by Hans van Klinken, a Dutch angler specializing in whitefish and grayling. I stumbled on his work after reading the article "Inconnu - the Unknown Whitefish" in Rackelhanen magazine.He was a very early pioneer of fishing, especially flyfishing, for non-traditional angling targets in North America. In particular, he was interested in the more than 30 species of whitefish which are found around the world - predominantly in North America. I shared his obsession with the wily whitefishes, and read his articles on flyfishing for this family of fishes with great interest. Van Klinken wanted to catch every species of grayling and whitefish on earth. One tool he created to do this was the Klinkhammer Special - an emerger pattern which he named after himself and used for surface-feeding whitefish and grayling in Scandinavia and Western Europe. The Klinkhammer Special was essentially a dubbed, tailless fly body with a peacock herl thorax and a parachute hackle. The innovative part was the shape and proportion of the fly - the parachute hackle kept the post vertical and floated the top half of the fly while the curved hook shank, on which the body was dubbed, hung well below the surface. It was a cool-looking fly, for sure. The only pictures I found online was a pretty drawing or painting of a Klinkhammer Special floating serenely on the surface of a lake, with a nice old Dutch windmill spinning picturesquely in the background. I liked the way the fly hung down in the surface film, and something clicked in my brain - this is something worth trying.
My brother Andy and I fly-fished together a lot in the 90's. We'd fish the Trico hatch, midges, baetis. If you have the right fly, there's no more effective method during a heavy hatch. Plus, figuring out what is happening on a lake or stream with regard to the insect life brings a great deal of satisfaction. Being a student of nature and in tune with the changes around light and dark, cold and warm, the natural cycles of the living things around you, and the turning of the seasons, is a large part of the enjoyment of fishing. Paying attention to the insects swimming or flying around quickly pays off, whether the fish eating them are trout, mooneye, whitefish or sucker. And the fish can really be challenging to understand. Here in the midwest, the hatches we encounter are few, sparse, and fleeting. There just aren't the big, predictable hatches you see out west. It seems like the fish almost always key in on the mayflies whenever they did hatch, but they didn't reliably eat our flies during the main body of a good hatch. Sure, they would take nymphs before the hatch, and duns would work every so often. And if a spinner fall occurred, you could count on spentwing patterns to produce, if you could get them in front of the fish and manage to see the take. But for the majority of the hatch, many of the biggest and wariest fish ignored the duns, the nymphs, and the spentwings. We assumed they were taking emergers. So, we experimented with a lot of different emerger patterns. For Andy, the best answer was the parachute - but it wasn't ideal. For tricky fish, he would spit on the fly to get it to fish a little better. I tried a lot of different patterns: floating nymphs, CDC emerger patterns, thorax duns. All were failures in one way or another. I just can't stand fragile and finicky, throw-it-away CDC as a fly-tying material, I could rarely see the floating nymph, and thorax duns only floated in really flat water. For me, the fly that seemed to work sometimes was a rather obscure pattern called the "trailing-shuck sparkle comparadun". It sat very low in the water and featured a sparkly tail and a fan-shaped deer-hair wing. The flash and sparkle of the shuck caught the fish's attention. Half the time it sunk, which was a disaster. The fly didn't float very well, was hard to see, and it was fragile. But it worked sometimes, when the normal hackled patterns and parachutes did not. I was really fixated on the way that its sparkly tail hung down in the water, imitating an air-filled, shiny exoskeleton of a bug trapped in the moment of emergence. But fishing with it was fussy and irritating.
It was July of '98, and the night-time sulphur hatch was on. After seeing that illustration of a van Klinken's odd fly on an internet forum, I tied up a few for an evening outing to the Rush River in Wisconsin, our favorite trout stream. I tied them on the wrong hook, in the wrong color, using the wrong body material, and I added a flashy tail because of my limited success with the sparkle dun. Of course, I didn't know at that time that the famous Dutch fly called the Klinkhammer Special wasn't a mayfly imitation. It was designed to imitate a "Sedge" which is a European insect similar to the North American caddisfly - a very different insect than a mayfly. As such, it had no tail. It was tied with peacock herl to imitate the glossy, iridescent underside of an addult sedge. And it was tied with a thin hackle, to match the predominantly still water conditions where the fly was usually fished. But the flies I tied were more sharply curved, tied more horizontally on a thick American scud/sowbug hook, aggressively over-hackled compared to the Dutch version, and they had tails. I tied three of them.
Corey Geving's "Klinkhammer" from circa-1998
That evening, the fishing was tough. There were a few duns in the air, but few rises. After a solid hour of catching nothing but tiddlers, the sun started to go down, so I headed for an area where I knew some good-sized fish usually showed themselves around sundown. Andy was already there, duelling a sizeable brown trout behind a midstream clump of grass and flood debris. The fat, heavily-spotted fellow was feeding pretty regularly on something that we assumed was a sulphur emerger. After a hundred or so drifts, Andy reeled up, disgusted. I stepped in and cast, dropping the "Klinkhammer" in between the clump of debris and the tall, eroded stream bank. I was surprised at how easy the fly was to see. The sunken lower half levered the extra-tall wing post into a perfectly vertical position which made it easy to pick out against the pretty little dimple it made in the surface of the water. I was feeling pretty good about my creation and was admiring it happily as it floated cockily past the grass clump. When the big fish leaned sideways and sucked it underwater I was so surprised I almost missed the hookset. Fortunately the primitive part of my brain took over, and I hooked and landed the biggest brown trout I'd ever caught on a dry fly up to that point.
Naturally, Andy and I started tying the damn things like crazy. Over the next several years, we caught a lot of fish on them. They worked pretty well. Whether the fish were taking emergers, duns, or cripples - they usually took a Klinkhammer. We tied several variations - some with plain olive thread bodies, some dubbed gray, like an Adams, some ribbed with wire or thread, some with crystal flash tails, and some with grouse, wood duck flank, or pheasant tails. They all seemed to work more or less the same. But the best ones were those that enhanced the key features of the fly: durability, floatability, visibility, and fish attraction.
The best local fishing with this fly was the evening sulphur hatch on the Rush River of Wisconsin - although different versions of our Klinkhammers worked well for the Blue-Winged Olive, Hendrickson, and other, more obscure varieties of mayflies. But the sulphur hatch brought out a lot of large surface-feeding fish, was more predictable than other hatches, and the sulphur-keyed browns slurped the Klinkhammers with enthusiasm.The thing is, when a mayfly is emerging, there's a point where it's really two bugs at the same time - one bug above the water and another bug below the water. I might not be understanding exactly how the fish sees it, but that doesn't really matter. The fish doesn't understand what it's seeing, either. What matters is that with whatever goes on in a fish's brain, something clicks when it sees something half-in and half-out of the water with some surface film distortion and a juicy body hanging down. It just screams "Here's a free meal!" to the fish, and they often take them very confidently and solidly. I don't think the actual pattern matters as much as the way the water bends around it and the way it distorts the light coming through the surface. Whatever the case, the goofy-looking things work.
Then, one evening many years ago, Andy noticed something more about the Klinkhammer. Something that was rather strange. I saw him land a good fish, and asked him what presentation he used. "Stupid thing hit it on the swing" he said, incredulously "Downstream from me. That's twice today, already." It turns out, he had been fishing a long, moderately deep riffle where he didn't have much room to cast because of tall weeds overhanging the bank. So, like any pragmatic flycaster, he casted the fly upstream and across, fished out the cast, and then waited for the fly to float downstream to load the line for the next cast. He did this so that he could easily flip it directly back up to the top of the riffle for his next drift, without getting it caught in the weeds. The trouble was that sometimes, just as he was getting ready to flip the fly back upstream, a fish would lunge out of the middle of the riffle behind him and grab the fly. Since the fly was dragging on a tight line to the reel, there was no give in the entire system. The pressure from the fish's strike along with the current would almost jerk the rod out of Andy's hand and if he didn't react quickly it would break the tippet. At first, it seemed like a strange fluke, but it kept happening - and these were no small fry. These were sizable, finicky brown trout who were hitting the damn thing with vigor and purpose. After a few nights of this, Andy began to expect it. The he began to anticipate it. And then he started making it happen on purpose. Eventually, he adjusted his tactics to take full advantage of the strange phenomenon. He would make his quartering upstream cast with the Klinkhammer fished as a dry fly, to sighted and rising fish upstream from him. These fish would often munch the emerger in the usual fashion. If a fish didn't take the fly as a dry, he'd pull on the line to duck the fly underwater. Then he'd allow the fly swing downstream, across the lower part of the riffle, with a downstream mend to extend the range. When he first shared this technique with me, I was very skeptical - until the first fat brown trout smacked the swinging Klinkhammer and made me a believer. I was hooked as much as the fish was, because it turns out that catching fish on swung wets is really, really fun - even if they aren't wet flies at all.
We researched this, of course, which led to a brief but highly entertaining foray into the adventurous literature related to fishing the classic soft-hackle wets, multiple fly rigs, the famous Leisenring Lift cast, and - of course - lots of shotgun shells expended hunting for the grouse feathers so critical to tying these flies. We seemed to have inadvertantly replicated the downstream wet-fly swing with our dry fly. This old-timey wet-fly method had long been considered by me to be the realm of utter old-fart-ness in flyfishing, something practiced by tweed-wearing oldsters wearing wicker creels, waving bamboo rods with silk lines, and lamenting about how hard it is to find good catgut leaders anymore. In other words, an antiquated method that might have worked back in the 1800's but has no place in "Modern Angling". The problem is, this method was producing a lot of fish - big, hard-striking, piss-and-vinegar fish - which really surprised me at the time. I guess you could say I was a modernist angler in those days, seduced by the slick consumerism of the marketing machine to imagine that anything simple, cheap, and old-fashioned was patently inferior to our fancy modern ways. How wrong I was. It seems as though those old-timey fishermen with their strange, yet simple methods were onto something more than meets the eye. I assumed that the old codgers who swung a brace of those goofy-looking soft-hackled wets were just doing it out of nostalgia and purist notions, happy enough to be catching the small and stupid fish that would fall for such inelegant tactics. In reality they did it (and still are doing it) because it works like magic. It's a devastatingly effective tactic under the right circumstances. In the end, I'm still not entirely sure why the sunk and swinging fly is so damnably effective. Perhpas when you duck a fly underwater like that, especially a dry fly, it traps air bubbles that are very shiny and visible. Maybe it's some triggering of the predatory urge. I think it's just the fleeting glimpse of the shiny, glinting fly just below the surface, which then suddenly starts to disappear. It's as if the fish gets triggered by a tiny glimpse of reflected light, and its raw motor processes take over as it moves to take it. Then the fly races unnaturally away, but the fish's brain doesn't act fast enough to call off the charge before the fly gets chomped. The fish hit it so hard that they seem almost angry. For a few years, we used this "dual-mode" dry/wet fly method whenever we fished a long riffle, and we caught a lot of respectable fish. It's a really good method - combining two very different presentations into every cast, each of which attracts a different set of fish.
So whenever a mayfly hatch happened, we now had a decent answer to it: we fished the Klinkhammer up as a dry and down as a wet, where possible. Of course, it turned out to be even better on the weird and heavy warmwater hatches that observant roughfishers often randomly find themselves in the middle of. On the Red Cedar at Downsville, we found they were deadly on mooneyes. Smallmouth Bass and clooping Carp gobbled them up during a blinding blizzard of snow-white Ephoron leukon mayflies on the upper Mississippi near Elk River. We even caught white bass and slab-sided crappies on Klinkhammers while they fed on speckled Callibaetis in a weedy backwater of the St. Croix south of Copas. Of course they also put trout on the bank whenever we gave them a chance. We klinked up trout on the Guadalupe in New Mexico, the spring creeks of Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, the north shore of Lake Superior, grayling rivers of Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains - if there were mayflies hatching, we'd get them to take a Klinkhammer, upstream or down.
It's now a little strange talking about fishing this fly, since the "real" Klinkhammer has now been adopted by Orvis and other American flyfishing outfits, which offer it for sale. Unlike Andy and I, those folks remained faithful to Hans van Klinken's original sedge version of the Klinkhammer and they dutifully market it as some kind of caddis. It doesn't really look like an emerging caddis, in my opinion, but who am I to judge. I'm not sure why it sells so well except that it has a really cool name and it's a damn fine fish-catcher in any version. Because of its floatability and visibility, it has even evolved into an "Indicator Klink" with a fluorescent red wing post. This version of the fly is used exclusively as the top fly in the two-fly dry-and-dropper configuratoin which has become all the rage here in the US. Hanging a midge pupa below it called the "Klink and Dink." Meanwhile, dozens of similar half-sunken parachute patterns have - if you'll pardon the pun - emerged in recent years. Some of these are similar to the flies Andy and I have been tying - although none are quite exactly like them. Many fly shops have still never even heard of the Klinkhammer Special, but lots of imitators of the orginal are commonly in use in America, usually tied (of course) to match mayflies and not sedges.
That's the story of the Mayfly Klinkhammer. It is obviously derivitive of, and inspired by, Hans van Klinken's namesake fly. So I've elected to call it "The Mayfly Klinkhammer" to distinguish it from the sedge-imitating European version while still paying homage to the true inventor. Plus, it gets to keep its cool name. It's now time to write down my method for tying this pattern, as I'd like to be able to point people to the instructions if they're looking for a pretty darn good emerger pattern that also happens to be a dynamite wet fly. Hell, I'm not sure if there's any emerger pattern that won't work as a wet fly, but at least with this one you can count on it to float well and not to get torn apart by the first fish that eats it. Plus, the scud hook holds large hooked fish much better than a dry fly hook of similar size because of the wide gap.
Here are the detailed step-by-step instructions.This is for the olive-bodied version with the crystal-flash tail - the one we use the most often. Bear in mind that you can tie these in colors to match any mayfly. The body color should match the nymph, and the the thorax should match the color of the dun, theoretically. Color is not terribly important, so when in doubt, choose gray.
Olive Flash Mayfly Klinkhammer
Step 1: Position the hook in the vise so that the eye points downward and the very bend of the hook is as nearly horizontal as you can make it. Attach your thread toward the hook bend.
Step 2: Tie in the 3 strands of Crystal Flash for the tail. Position them at the end of the body, approximately at the point where the hook bends. Secure with several thread wraps and cut off the excess.
Step 3: Tie in the ribbing wire and secure with thread wraps to cover the wire.
Step 4: Re-position the hook in the vise so that the "hump" of the shank is nearly horizontal. Then, build up the body of the fly using the tying thread. It should be thin and smoothly tapering up to the point where the wing post goes - about 2/3 the distance from the beginning of the tail to the hook eye.
Step 5: When you're finished making the thread body, wrap the ribbing forward in nice, even wraps that gradually increase in size, up to the end of the body. Tie off the ribbing material and and trim the excess wire.
Step 6: Tie in the post material on the top of the hook shank with 3-4 tight, closely-spaced thread wraps. Use enough post material to create a nice little puff at the top of the fly, a single clump of yarn usually suffices.
Step 7: Once the post material is tied horizontally to the shank, reposition the hook in the vise so that the shank where the wing post is attached is perfectly vertical. Then, wrap the thread around the base of the wing post to bring the two ends together. This will make the wing post stand out from the hook shank horizontally. It helps to occasionally hold the wing post with your other hand and pull down with your thread to tighten the wraps around the wing post. Continue tightly wrapping the thread the wing post until the thread base is about 1/3 the length of the fly body.
Step 8: Reposition the hook to horizontal. Wrap the remainder of the exposed hook shank with thread, all the way to the eye. Then, cover the entire fly body with a thin coat of head cement using a needle or bodkin. The whole ribbed thread body and the thread-covered part of the wing post gets covered. This makes for a very durable fly. Remove any excess by sliding a dry bodkin along the fly body, but make sure the entire fly is saturated with head cement. It should dry sufficiently while you prepare to dub the thorax. For additional durability, you can use nail polish or hard-head, but head cement is really all you need unless you're using them for mooneyes or goldeyes.
Step 9: Spin a tiny wisp of dubbing onto your tying thread. I make the dubbing rope about half an inch long and skimpy enough to see daylight through.
Step 10: Dub the thorax. You're just going to cover up the thread and hook shank, both behind the post and in front of it all the way up to the hook eye. It should just give the fly a little extra bulk and bugginess right at the water line. When finished dubbing, leave the thread hanging behind the wing post and return the hook to the vertical position in the vise.
Step 11: Strip the barbs from a section of the base of your hackle. Pinch the base of the quill against your vise and trap the stripped stem against the wing post with your thread. Secure with several tight wraps.
Step 12: Depending on the pattern, style, your desired level of floatability, and what sort of hackle you have available, you might need two or more hackle feathers. I use pretty cheap, low-grade hackle, so I need at least two feathers for each Klinkhammer I tie. Some of the new genetic hackle varieties might only need half a feather.
Step 13: Wrap the first hackle from the top of the wrapped post to just before the bottom. Leave a small gap between the fly body and the end of the hackle wraps. This gives you a little room to tie off the hackle and helps prevent stray hackle barbs from projecting downward where you don't want them. Secure it at the bottom of the wing post with two tight wraps of thread. Then cut off the leftover hackle tip.
Step 14: Repeat with the second hackle, if necessary, tilting the second one through the barbs of the first one to free any trapped barbs. Pin the second hackle to the post with two tight wraps and cut it off. Secure the hackles with two more tight wraps.
Step 15: Spiral-wrap the thread up the post, right through the hackles barbs. Do this carefully and keep changing the thread angle as you do it, to avoid trapping hackle fibers under the thread. I didn't do a very good job on this one.
Step 16: Whip-finish on the top of the wing post. This takes some practice. I like to lengthen the hanging thread to be long enough so I can set the bobbin down and manipulate the whip-finisher with very little tension on the thread. Andy wraps his thread back to the eye and whip-finishes there. Do whatever works for you. After you whip-finish, tighten it by pulling on the thread with one hand while holding the half-inch stub of the wing post with the other. Then, cut the thread and check for stray hackles. Sometimes a few barbs stick downward below the fly. I like to clip any stray hackles off, if possible. It probably doesn't matter very much, but you definitely don't want a lot of hackles pointing down below the fly because those can prevent the body of the fly from sinking correctly. Bend the wing-post over with your fingers and, with a thin needle or fine bodkin, apply head cement to the whip-finish point so that the cement saturates the whip finish and soaks down the post to reinforce the thread-reinforced hackle turns. Be careful not to overdo it with the head cement if you whip-finish on the post; doing this will ruin the fly at the last second.
Step 17: Trim the wing-post to its final length: about 1/3 the body length should stick up above the hackle. Fluff the wing post by patting the top of the fly. This makes it spread out evenly and gives it more volume to trap bubbles and reflect the visible light. You accomplish this by roughly tapping the top of the post repeatedly with your finger, like you're patting a good dog on the head.
Here are several more versions of this fly. In general, the flash-tailed ones are a little bit more attractive as dries in riffles because they catch the fish's eye with surface sparkle, and the natural-tailed ones are better as wets or on flatter water. With pulsating pheasant or wood duck tails, they are more subtle, have more natural movement, and work better when swung in the current.
Here's the "Mahogany Mayfly Klinkhammer" which is rust-brown with an Adams-style mixed hackle. This imitates mayflies with brownish nymphs. The recipe for the Mahogony Mayfly Klinkhammer is below.
Mahogany Mayfly Klinkhammer
Here's a klink which better matches the sulphur or PMD. You simply change the thorax to light yellow to more closely imitate the adult sulphur, but keep the body of the fly brown or gray, to match the nymph.
In #20 or smaller sizes, the Klink can be a dandy midge imitation - highly visible and with a nice wide hook gap for a midge pattern. Tying these little devils is no picnic, though. Fish a midge-sized Klink with a tiny brassie or midge pupa hanging a foot beneath it during a midge hatch and you'll fool a few fish. Stick to the short sparkle-tail (one strand only) for these tiny versions, or leave off the tail entirely. You might call this thing a Midge Klinkhammer. Or a Midgehammer. Yeah, that's it. Midgehammer. I like it. Here's a black Midgehammer in #20. Also works for plauditis and other bastardly tiny mayflies if you feel like torturing yourself.
When fishing any version of this fly, you should always apply floatant to the wing post and hackle ONLY. It sometimes helps to rub spit on the lower body of the fly to help it sink up to the hackle the way it should. If the fly floats on its side or the post doesn't point straight up, then you need to spit on it.
I can't emphasize enough how this fly works as a swung wet - it's a little strange. Try it. You might need to read up on classic wet-fly fishing first - and the right sort of water is necessary. You need a pretty wide area with fish both upstream and downstream from you. Most middle-depth, moderately-flowing riffles will work. Of course, it's really an emerger and it's worth tying for that express purpose. Also, it's a really good indicator fly. You can tie it with a white or fluorescent wing post if you want, but that hurts the effectiveness of the fly as a swung wet. However they are somewhat difficult and time-consuming to tie, so I tend to save them for hatches when I really need them and don't just throw them out there to serve the same function that a little foam ball could do just as well.
I hope you enjoyed this little tale, and I hope you find success with this effective little fly from Holland.