Tying the Egg-sucking Leech: An Essay on Tying Flies and Social Change
By Tim Mead    June 9, 2011

Tapply, The Fly Tyer’s Handbook.
    Tapply, The Fly Tyer’s Handbook.

The following article is copyrighted by Tim Mead and may not be duplicated or reproduced without his expressed written permission

It all started 60-years ago.   For Christmas, my folks gave me a fly tying kit.   While the kit got me started, it had many deficiencies.   For one thing, the vise held the hooks after being tightened by a thumb screw.   Fingers alone could not secure the hook and a pair of pliers was required.   Even that did not work well.

In the machine shop where Dad taught, he made a vise which was a major improvement.   I still have the vise Dad made, fastened to the side of the tying bench that he also made.

At least, that’s where one thread started.

The second thread started as I listened to Squeak Smith talk about steelhead fishing in Michigan.   Squeak, though younger than I, is one of my heroes.   Named by Trout Unlimited as “One Who Made a Difference” for his work for cold-water fisheries, Squeak and I come from the same part of the world, share lots of interests, and get along well.   By standing in the wings and shuffling my feet, I got an invitation to fish for steelhead in Michigan’s Betsie River.   And I loved it.

Those threads began to intertwine as I contemplated fishing steelhead on my own.  

Squeak ties egg patterns on the stream.   He supplied me with materials and instructions before we headed for Michigan.   With those in hand, I caught a steelhead on an egg that I tied waist-deep in the river.   But I wanted to push ahead.   Modest research led me to the egg-sucking leech, a popular steelhead fly in Great Lakes country.

My career as a fly tier began with no formal instruction.   The kit my folks bought had a 3 or 4 page mimeographed set of instructions.   I still have those pages.   Not much use.   Mom, however, had anticipated the paucity of instructions in the kit and also supplied H.G. Tapply, The Fly Tyer’s Handbook.   As you can see from the top of the home page, Photo 1, I still have this modest and useful book.  

Photo 2 - #6 Mustad #9672 hook is used
;                 Photo 2 - #6 Mustad #9672 hook is used

Much more detailed and instructive, however, was a more sophisticated book Mom bought (is there a theme here?) at a later date, J. Edson Leonard’s Flies.   I took Leonard’s book to my room, propped it up on my fly tying table and started to tie.   I tied at least one fly from each of the thirteen “how-to” chapters.   With Leonard’s instructions, I learned to tie fan wing dry flies that would land upright on the water, float, and catch trout.   Fan wings, as best I can tell, are passé.   I have not seen one in a fly shop for years.   (A few years ago, I spoke with Leonard about his book and its contribution to my career as a tier.   Delightful.   Contact your heroes; they’ll be glad to hear from you.) The photo on the home page includes Flies.

Leonard’s book does not include the egg-sucking leech among the 2200 patterns listed in chapter 15.

Photo 3 - Fine lead wire tied toward eye
;                 Photo 3 - Fine lead wire tied toward eye

Not to worry.   YouTube contains multiple tiers showing off their skills tying the egg-sucking leech.   Unlike my introduction to tying where a once established fly pattern became the only way to tie a given fly, the YouTube examples have multiple examples of materials and skills used to tie the same pattern.  

And that’s where the change comes in.

Basically, the egg-sucking leech is a streamer with a dark, usually black, tail and body and a red or pink head suggesting some critter latched onto an egg deposited by a spawning trout or salmon.   Each of the dozen or so tiers I watched on YouTube tied the fly differently.   So I could pick and choose my materials as suited my advantage.  

Hooks come in nearly an inexhaustible variety.   For streamers I like Mustad #9672.   Here I used a #6.   See photo 2.

Photo 4 - Black Zonker body
;                 Photo 4 - Black Zonker body

The tiers I viewed on YouTube used different materials for the tail of their egg-sucking leechs.   Among the possibilities some used four black hackle feathers, matched with the curve of the feathers facing one another.   Others used black marabou.   Marabou, in particular, makes very attractive streamers as the fibers undulate seductively in the water.   For big fish, these materials are fragile and flies tied with them don’t last long.   Both options as streamer tails are discussed by Leonard.   As I worked on the egg-sucking leech, I tied several flies with these tail fibers.  

In the accompanying photo, the tail is a black zonker strip – a narrow section of rabbit fur with the skin attached.   Leonard mentions rabbit hair only as possible dubbing material.   Dubbing is a method of creating a fly body.   I like zonker strips because they are nearly indestructible.

Leonard suggested the length of the tail should be roughly one-third the length of the streamer and I follow that rule.

Photo 5 - Eggs are created with pink chenille
;                 Photo 5 - Eggs are created with pink chenille

Material Leonard never considered is the myriad synthetic sparkle fibers now available.   In Leonard’s day, tinsel was used to wrap fly bodies, particularly sub-surface flies.   The tinsel then available was very fragile.   I still have some, but I no longer use it.   While not all the YouTube tiers did, I like a little flash on streamers.   Here I added a few synthetic fibers.   It is very easy to overdo sparkle, so exercise caution.

The egg-sucking leech, if it truly imitates a leech sucking on a drifting egg, needs to hug the bottom.   If I want to weight a fly and not use dumbbell eyes or a bead- or cone-head, I use a lead wire wrap.   As will be seen below, dumbbell eyes or a bead- or cone-head do not suggest an egg.   In Photo 3, I have attached a fine lead wire and it will be wrapped toward the eye of the hook.   A couple of wraps of thread over the wire holds it in place.   Often commercially tied flies with lead in the body do not have the thread wrap over the lead and the lead soon becomes undone.   As best I can determine, Leonard did not contemplate weighting flies in this manner.

Photo 6 - The finished egg-sucking leach.
;                 Photo 6 - The finished egg-sucking leach.

In Photo 4, black zonker strip is used for the body, wrapped forward to within a quarter inch of the hook eye and tied off.   An alternative body is a wrap of black chenille under a Palmer-tied black hackle.   Palmer-tied hackle starts with the hackle tip tied near the rear of the hook and then wound forward up the shank.   The Palmer-tied egg-sucking leech is a more subtle variant than the zonker-tied version.   I liked those I tied.   Chenille and hackle, of course, are materials of long-standing and discussed at length by Leonard as well as the YouTube tiers.

The egg of the fly is suggested by some sort of fish-egg-colored material.   A couple of the YouTube tiers used a synthetic fiber, like Estaz Grande, certainly not available as I learned to tie following Leonard’s instruction.   I had some Estaz Grande in opalescent pink.   While it made a spectacular egg at the head of the flies I tied, I suspect it is quite fragile.   As shown in Photo 5, I tied the most satisfactory eggs with pink chenille, wound over itself several times.

Photo 6 is a finished egg-sucking leech.

Materials not available when I first began tying flies under the tutelage of J. Edson Leonard and visual instruction via YouTube – these things certainly make tying different than when I began.   While I maintain my debt to Leonard, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a-changin.”

Leonard said (p. 95), “The perfect streamer should have (1) a streamlined silhouette when wet, (2) maximum action, and (3) appearance reasonably similar to the object it is intended to represent.” Tied this way shown, the egg-sucking leech meets these standards.   I’m on my way to see if it also catches steelhead.


      Click on the Paddles to e-mail Tim.

           Last updated on ... June 9, 2010