Leather Leeches

By Jeff Morgan

How many fly anglers have actually seen a swimming leech ? Not many, since most of us are rightfully focused on our fishing and not on underwater critters during our precious fishing hours. Besides, leeches are largely nocturnal.

As a result, we have a rarely seen critter that is often imitated, but usually on imagined principles.

How to Look Like a Leech

Despite the fact that few anglers have seen swimming leeches, they have labeled anything that moves in a slithery or fluid manner as "great for leeches." But not all materials and patterns are suited for leech imitations. Real leeches stretch out quite thin when they swim, much thinner than most of their imitations. Secondly, they swim with a lot of trashing and squirming, but without a lot of forward propulsion. A chunky Bunny Leech pulled in 6-inch strips may look appetizing to a trout, but it doesn't look like a leech.

Leeches are modestly important foods for trout and very important for bluegill and smallmouth bass, so leech imitations are practical multi-use patterns for Western anglers. Yet, what do we have in our fly boxes to imitate this thin, spastic swimming motion? Woolly Buggers? For all their superb effectiveness, Woolly Buggers don't look like leeches. Mohair Leeches? They look like a flattened leech, but not a swimming one. Rabbit Leeches? Same problem: they look alive, but not like a leech.

Break from the Past

Part of the problem leeches pose for the fly tier stems from a reluctance to break from the standard modes of fly construction. First, most fly anglers (including myself for a long time) shy away from long extended tails on their flies, thinking that the fish will "nip" at the tail and not get hooked.

While nipping sometimes happens, it is rarely normal behavior. You may feel "hits" without hookups, the hits are most often "stunners," where a trout hits its prey hoping to stun it, then circles around to inhale it. This is a common behavior for trout because it requires less energy to swallow larger prey than to grab it and try to chew it up like a piece of living spaghetti.

Another problem is the belief that the fly must be weighted at the head. Combine this forward-weighting with a short tail, and you get flies that move like a leech in a body cast.

Leather Leeches

An alternative is to tie your leeches with leather strips--actually Ultra Suede, a synthetic material. Ultra Suede is thinner, softer, and a better alternative to the thick leather once commonly available in fly shops during the 1990s (now, thankfully, largely disappeared).

Ultra Suede is not regularly found in fly shops, but you can find it in many craft or fabric stores, where it is sold by the yard. The last bunch I bought cost, $6.00 for a 36" x 6" strip--enough for over 200 leeches. It is available in dark earthy tones, usually black, olive, dark brown, and a lighter tannish brown.

The Leather Leech is my primary pattern. It is simply a long strip of leather, with a wrap or two of swept back mohair yarn to break up the silhouette and mottle the color a bit. A beadhead combined with this long body matches the slithering motion of a natural leech. A long tail is essential for the fly--a 3 inch fly on a size 12 hook is not out of order. If you are having trouble hooking fish, "kill" your fly: drop your rod tip and stop retrieving so the fly can sink. After killing the fly, make two or three fast strips. Those strips will often set the hook because the trout sucked up your fly when it "died."

Lefty Leech

The other leather leech I like is the Lefty Leech . It is a tough one to get people to try. This one places the bead at the bend of the hook, causing the fly to "retreat" as it sinks. This motion, combined with a very short, very rapid stripping action, superbly mimics the trashing of the natural. It is perfect for shallow water, where you want to fish a fly slowly so it lingers in the strike zone.

If this fly is trolled or stripped with long pulls, it will wobble and the front chunk of the leather will flop around awkwardly. It might catch a few fish, but probably the same trout that strike at Rooster Tails. So use a short, stuttering retrieve.

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.