Sculpins

By Rick Hafele and Dave Hughes

I was fishing a small stream in northern California once with Ralph Cutter, the noted writer, and Joe Tomelleri, the noted fish artist. Ralph knew of an uncommon sculpin species in the stream we were on, and Joe wanted a sample for his art. So we got down on our knees in a shallow riffle and tried to capture one.

We saw them by the hundreds. They like to hide under rocks, so we lifted the rocks and went after them. We tried to catch them in our hands, in aquarium nets, in trout nets, in our hats. They darted and squirmed out of everything. It took three of us over an hour to subdue one.

What does that mean to your fishing? First, it means that sculpins live in shallow, rocky riffles, as well as in the deep pools where we usually think trout chase them. Second, it means trout see them often in that kind of water. Third, it means sculpins are always flitting when exposed, so trout have to take them with a pounce.

Try fishing a sculpin pattern across a shallow tailout. Swim it through the shallows. Strip it fast, then let it pause. Make it dart. When you see a V-wake start to well up behind it, keep doing what you're doing! If you jerk the fly, you;ll pull it away from the trout. If you stop the retrieve, the trout will turn away from it.

--Dave Hughes

The Ubiquitous Sculpin

Sculpins are a diverse group of fish found across most of northern North America They are not minnows, but belong to the family Cottidae and genus Cottus. Over 20 species occur along the Pacific Coast, but only two or three species are present in the Rocky Mountain region.

Sculpins have adapted to many stream and lake habitats. Large rivers to small headwater streams are equally used. In many high elevation mountain streams, sculpins will extend farther upstream than trout. The shorelines of lakes, especially near inlet or outlet streams, are also common places to find sculpins.

In streams, sculpins often make their homes in rocky riffles. Their large pectoral fins grip the bottom like claws, and their streamlined shape and camouflaged colors make it easy for them to hide among the rocks. In lakes and slow-water areas of streams, a substrate of rocks, sand, or wood debris provides suitable habitat. Wherever they are found, sculpins are bottom dwellers.

Trout and Sculpins

The interaction between trout and sculpins is more complex than just that of predator and prey. First, trout and sculpins live in similar stream habitats. But more importantly they eat similar food--primarily aquatic insects, although sculpins do not feed on surface foods. Both trout and sculpins will eat each other at certain times.

Sculpins tend to be big bites for trout, so their imitations tend to catch big fish. Sculpins are available to trout year round, but fall and winter seem to be the best times.

Sculpin Behavior

The behavior of sculpins directly affects the tactics used to imitate them. First and foremost they are bottom dwellers. Thus, to be most effective your flies should be fished near the bottom. This means weighted flies and sink-tip lines are often needed, depending on the depth and velocity of the water being fished.

Secondly, sculpins swim with erratic darts. A short, quick strip-retrieve will generally impart a similar action to your fly.

Finally, since sculpins inhabit most water types, their patterns can be used wherever good holding water for fish exists: from shallow fast riffles to slow deep pools, or even along the margins of lakes. However, good holding water is not always obvious.

Tactics

Several different tactics can be used when imitating sculpins. Presenting a fly on an upstream dead drift is an excellent one. To fish in this manner, cast upstream, or up-and-across, and let your fly drift downstream without any added action from the rod or line. The current will add the essential life-like action. This method gets the fly deep in fast water, which is just where you want it when imitating a sculpin.

An upstream strip-retrieve is also effective, especially when fishing slower water and when you want to impart additional action to your fly. The cast is the same as the upstream dead-drift approach described above. Once the fly has reached the bottom near a fish or good holding lie, start retrieving with a series of short, sharp strips. This moves the fly in a lifelike manner and often triggers a vicious strike.

The final method worth trying is the standard across-stream, or down-and-across retrieve. Cast straight across or slightly down-and-across. As your line begins to belly, give the fly a swimming motion by lightly twitching your rod tip. Follow the fly with your rod and be ready for a hard strike. This method does not allow your fly to sink as deep as the upstream methods, so it works best in shallow water.

Tackle

This is not delicate fishing. Like the flies, tackle is often on the large size. An eight to nine foot rod for a six, seven, or even eight weight line will prove most comfortable and effective. A sink-tip line is helpful in deep water, but a floating line will work in many situations. Leaders for floating lines should measure eight to ten feet long; for sink-tips, a three to four foot leader is better because it keeps the fly from rising in the current. In both cases a fairly heavy tippet (3X or 4X) will be needed to turn over the fly and hang on to the fish.

Patterns

There are many proven patterns for imitating sculpins. Of major importance is action. Soft hackles, long soft hackles or wings over the back, and marabou tails are useful ingredients. Breast feathers, for imitating the pectoral fins, are features of several patterns, adding realism and action.

Some good sculpin patterns are:

  1. Matuka
  2. Muddler
  3. Troth Bullhead
  4. Whitlock Sculpin
  5. Woolhead Sculpin
  6. Zonker

--Rick Hafele

Rick Hafele is a professional entomologist and fly fishing writer living in Gresham, Oregon. His most recent book is Nymph Fishing Rivers and Streams. Rick's good friend Dave Hughes is fly fishing's most prolific author, with over 30 books to his credit including Trout Flies. Together they are the authors of Western Mayfly Hatches.