FLY OF THE MONTH- October- 2019


Tom Sutcliffe's Zak

In past issues of Fly Lines we’ve included a number of South African flies in our Fly of the Month section. Here is another. Devised by Tom Sutcliffe, a retired physician and one of South Africa’s best-known trout anglers, the fly has caught trout in streams in many places. It certainly looks like something that a trout would be very happy to eat.

The story behind the development of this fly began some 40 years ago when Tom was touring the Dargle Valley of Natal. Along the way he met and befriended a Zulu man named Mzelwa Gwala. Tom called him Zak. They formed a lifetime fishing friendship.

Together this unlikely duo fished countless mountain streams and still water lakes in search of trout. “We travelled a long way together over the years,” Tom says of his great friend. During their expeditions they studied the bugs and insects they found in the many streams and lakes they visited, with Tom giving particular attention to the three most common African Baetis Mayfly nymphs. He then set about creating a general, all-purpose pattern that could be used on South African freestone rivers and streams.

The finished product, created in the 1980s, was dark in colour, cigar-shaped, and had lots of shine and hackle. The original tail was made from the fur of a water mongoose, a common resident of the Dargle area. Tom fished the fly extensively in the Highlands of South Africa and the trout loved it. He later fished it in Germany, England, New Zealand and America, and trout everywhere had no hesitation taking the pattern.

Here are Tom’s notes on the Zak:

You want at least one mayfly nymph that is an all-purpose pattern, the sort of fly you can safely tie on and feel confident will come close to matching pretty well any mayfly. The pattern should, of course, be durable and easy to tie, because, like me, you probably put your fair share of flies into trees.

The Zak has worked well for me as a general all-purpose nymph and may well now be the most used nymph in South African rivers. It certainly also proved effective on large browns in the South Island streams of New Zealand.

You will need to tie it in different sizes, because real nymphs are available in different sizes, and of course you will need different weights. Pick up a few stones from the streambed and you will quickly get an idea of the general size of the nymph population in the water at the time. As an example, on a recent trip to one of my favourite local waters I found that all the nymphs were small, maybe 18’s, at most 16’s, so those were the sizes I fished.

Over the years I have changed the Zak a little as I discovered better materials, or better tying methods, or deficiencies in the original pattern. The idea is to give the fly the semi- crustaceous looking abdominal segments of the natural with the breathing gills and a prominent and dark thorax where you want to subtly suggest legs. Overall, the fly must have movement and it must have the right colour and shape. This means a long, wispy tail, a cigar-shaped body, a prominent dark thorax with a hint of hackle, and a generally overall dark colour. If those characteristics are not immediately evident in any Zak you tie then discard it, particularly any that are over-hackled or that have dense, stubby tails. This is not another Woolly Worm or domestic bottlebrush.

Zaks fish well on a floating line, with or without a strike indicator. Fish it just as you would fish most other nymph patterns - getting takes on the drop, especially in lakes or slow-moving rivers, or drifting it deep in fast runs, or tumbling in riffle water. Then on the swing-out you can add a little movement to the fly or simply retrieve it. On small rivers I use 16’s and 14’s. On lakes I stick to small patterns.

I weight the flies with a code: unweighted flies are tied with black thread, and weighted flies with red thread. This way I can get the fly to drift near the top or to sink like a stone, depending on conditions. The distance I tie the indicator from the fly is roughly twice the depth of the water I’m fishing, and for weighted Zak’s I often use two, or even three indicators, at various distances from the fly.

Materials for the Zak:

Hook:    1X or 2X longshank nymph hook, sizes 12 to 18.

Thread: Black or red, 6/0. Black for unweighted flies and red for weighted flies.

Tail:        5 - 6 water mongoose fibres. (Water mongoose is definitely a South African material. However in an email Tom wrote this: “Regarding the water mongoose tail, it could be changed to any soft-haired animal fibres, possibly from dogs or cats - as long as the fibres are dark, soft and wispy. Squirrel tail fibres will do. Cock hackle feathers are too stiff and too straight.”)

Body:      A composite of one unstripped peacock herl and two stripped peacock herls. Also brass fuse wire or lead wire – these are optional, depending on weight requirements.

Hackle:      Dark dun, or natural black.

Rib:             DDMC or Accent Yarn thread in metallic blue or green, and copper or brass fuse wire.    

Bead:           Brass, gold, tungsten or dark green or blue glass.

Tying Procedure

  1. Add a bead to a long shank hook if you prefer using beads. It’s optional on this pattern and the jury is still out on what works best. I use dark green or blue glass sometimes on unweighted patterns and fluorescent orange tungsten beads for weighted ones.
  2. Tie in the thread behind the bead. Then add a few turns of lead wire behind the bead at the thorax for extra weight if you want. With unweighted patterns build up a thorax with a single strand of natural wool until you get the right shape for the fly.
  3. Dress the shank with thread, but bring the thread down further around the bend of the hook than you normally would. This will serve as a visible indicator of how the fly is weighted - black for unweighted flies and red for weighted flies.
  4. Tie in a sparse tail of water mongoose guard hairs, or, if you don’t have water mongoose, a few wisps of dark or black animal hair, such as squirrel tail. The tail should be about one and a half to two times as long as the hook shank, and it must be sparse. Press your thumbnail against the tail fibres at the point where they leave the hook shank to splay the fibres out. This gives the tail a more natural look and invites more movement in the fly.
  5. The body components include (a) three peacock herls, with two of them stripped clean. (It is only necessary to strip the bottom half of each herl.) Then (b) add a piece of shiny, purple/blue thread. Krystal Flash does, but I now use a metallic thread called DMC Fil Metalise, colour number 4012, or blue Accent Yarn, both of which are available from haberdashery stores. Finally, (c) add a short length of fine copper or brass fuse wire to provide strength.