Written by: Dave Brown, Dave Brown Outfitters And Channel & Brown Outfitting Company

Clockwise from top left: Sawyer’s original, Troth’s Americanized version, a Beadhead Flashback PT, and a version with a CDC collar on a jig hook.

Last April I booked a day at Nelson’s Spring Creek in Montana’s Paradise Valley in hopes of enjoying a textbook blue-winged olive panty. Upon arrival, I geared up with a yarn indicator, a weighted scud pattern, and then 12 inches below a pheasant tail nymph. The weather was perfect: snow squalls and clouds moved in and out of Paradise Valley, providing perfect conditions for BWOs.

I walked to the bottom of a rifle and then carefully waded out to get a good throwing position. After my first couple of drifts I adjusted my spinner so that I wasn’t catching on the bottom as much and then the spinner actually stopped and I was close to a good rainbow trout. It was flushed and repeated for a while – with the size 18 Flashback Pheasant Tail doing its job – until adult olives emerged on a slow flat and the trout began to rise to the mayflies. What followed was a wonderful afternoon of dry fly fishing.

1685555979 700 Pro Tips Why You Should Always Carry Pheasant Tail Nymphs | AdayAwayFishingAdventures.com
The author with a beautiful still water cutbow who fell in love with a pheasant tail nymph.

In early July a friend and I had good success on a series of lakes and ponds on a Wyoming ranch with small Simi Seal Leeches fishing deep and slow. Towards evening crossing trout started feeding just below the surface and I noticed a few of them In Callibaet Mayflies on the water. I quickly converted to a size 12 Beadhead Pheasant Tail and threw it at crossing trout who ate it as soon as I started the slow strip retrieval. Once again, the PT provided non-stop action when presented correctly. It is a fly that regularly produces trout in a wide variety of fishing situations.



The original pheasant tail nymph was created by the late English river warden Frank Sawyer in the 1950s to mimic a variety of mayfly species found in English chalk streams. Its original version uses only two materials: pheasant tail fibers for the tail, belly, and wing sheath; and fine copper wire for the ribs, thorax and head. In typical British fashion, Sawyer fished the Pheasant Tail upstream to find sighted fish and no doubt the selective River Avon trout rushed it. Despite the switch to more Americanized variants, the original pattern remains in effect today.

The pheasant tail nymph most fly fishers have come to know was a version of legendary Montana outfitter and fly tyer Al Troth (known for his elk hair caddies). He added a peacock herl rib cage and created legs by tying back the fibers of the pheasant’s tail before building the head. More recently, flash was added by tying a strand of flashabou for the wing casing, resulting in the flashback pheasant tail. The advent of beads led to PT patterns with even more burr and weight. On other levels, a CDC hackle is incorporated as a collar, providing more movement and downright sex appeal. More recently, the jig hook revolution also included the pheasant tail, a favorite among nymph fishers.

Fishing the pheasant tail nymph


The pheasant tail nymph mimics a wide range of aquatic insects, from mayflies to stoneflies (in larger sizes) to still water damselfly nymphs. Its streamlined silhouette is key to its success and ability to fool even the most wary of trout.

I fish all variations, including Sawyer’s original pattern, on many waters. When ephemera predominate, this and the Flashback version are excellent choices, especially when trout are lurking for nymphs that ascend the water column to hatch. I attach these flies 6 to 12 inches below a dry fly and in most cases a surface feeding trout will eat the nymph above the dry fly. The PT is also a good choice when fishing deep near the bottom. The pattern also shines in still waters where I have fished them below the surface with great success In Callibaet hatches and along the reeds when dragonfly nymphs migrate. Because of all these different uses, I carry a selection of pheasant tails in sizes 10 to 18.

Orvis offers (believe it or not) fifteen Versions of the pheasant tail nymph. See them all here.

To learn how to tie several more versions of the pheasant tail, click here.

Dave Brown is the owner of Orvis-backed Dave Brown Outfitters, which offers fly fishing and wingshooting excursions in Alberta, Arizona and Saskatchewan. He is also co-owner of Channel & Brown Outfitting Companyan Orvis-supported fly fishing tackle service on the banks of the Missouri River in Montana.

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