February 25, 2016
February 25, 2016

Santa Clouser

L ast Christmas, while sifting through my usual complement of soot, switches and lumps of coal, I found a small package. It was addressed from a fly fishing friend.

I opened the box. Inside were five hand-tied Clouser Minnow streamers. The work was respectable, the result of his new-found interest at the tying bench. But, then again, there’s not much to the Clouser pattern. Even I can lash a few together that look more-or-less OK to the casual glance.

A Clouser created by even the most talented hands is a long double haul from, say, a classic Jock Scott salmon fly faithfully rendered from exotic feathers by an artist such as Judy Lehmberg. The Clouser is simple—several pinches of long bucktail hair, a few strands of flashy stuff, and a pair of small metal eyes up near the front of the hook.

That’s basically it. I smiled as I admired the box.

But what a useful gift—mainly because the Clouser Minnow is perhaps the most versatile and effective fly pattern ever conceived. At least, that is my opinion, and this observation echoes those of many other veteran anglers.

I honestly believe that this one pattern can catch virtually all significant light-tackle sport fish. Freshwater or saltwater, shallow or deep, north or south—Book ‘em, Danno.

For example, last year I used a chartreuse and white Clouser to catch a 10-pound trevally at Christmas Island and a 10-pound silver salmon in Alaska. The two fish half the globe apart clobbered the same fly.

Granted, on a given day over given water, another pattern might be more effective, but the proper Clouser probably will bend the rod. By “proper” I mean the right size and sink rate for the circumstances.

The Clouser is a relatively new creation, at least when measured against the traditional trout and salmon flies or even the early saltwater-specific patterns.

Bob Clouser, a fly shop owner and river guide in Middletown, Pennsylvania, invented the pattern in 1987 for use on smallmouth bass in the nearby Susquehanna River. The trim streamer proved to be an immediate killer on the river bass that feed heavily on baitfish forage (as well as crawfish, but Clouser was dead-on in targeting the minnow population).

By happy coincidence, virtually every light-tackle game species worth catching preys heavily at some point on baitfish. This is a basic truth in the chain of life in any given source of water this side of the nearest bathtub. And, within a few years, it vaulted Clouser’s minnow-imitation into legendary “killer fly” status.

The simplicity of the pattern is a plus. The sparse profile is easy to cast and looks enough like a sleek minnow to draw aggressive reflexive strikes. When tied with lightweight bead-chain eyes, the Clouser has a reasonably quiet entry and a slow sink rate in shallow water. Heavier lead or tungsten “dumb-bell” eyes are excellent for reaching fish holding in deeper water, or amid strong current.

Many of Bob Clouser’s early patterns aimed at the river bass reportedly used the heavier eyes. Bead-chain eyes gained momentum as the streamer spread in popularity across the skinny water of the saltwater flats.

Regardless of material, the metal eyes really make the streamer work by providing a tad of weight up forward (similar to a small leadhead jig). They also increase the “fishy” image. Frankly, the concept is so simple I’m surprised it wasn’t concocted decades earlier. Maybe it was but, if so, apparently without any serious attempts at marketing.

Because the streamer imitates a minnow, a retrieve of long strips probably looks more realistic than a tempo of snappy jerks. Of course, a wounded minnow is apt to twitch and flutter, so maybe the cadence makes no difference. But the streamlined profile suggests a smooth motion. If nothing else, the longer strips cover more water to find fish quickly when blind casting.

As always, it’s a good idea to match the fly to the primary species; for example, a two- or three-inch streamer on a No. 8 or 6 hook for smaller stuff, and a four- or five-inch streamer on a No. 2 or even a 1/0 or 2/0 on a suitable rod for bigger game. 

Of course, since minnows are universal forage you never know what might clamp on amid the swirls and shadows of mysto-water. Years ago, I was blind casting with a puny three-inch Clouser along the mangrove shoreline of a Yucatan lagoon. So-called “baby” tarpon in the five- to 10-pound class were banging the streamer with regularity and I was feeling pretty cocky with my side-arm delivery with an 8-weight bonefish rod.

A smart double-haul drove the little streamer inside the gloom of overhanging limbs. The fly sank for several seconds then on the first strip a six-foot chromium flash churned the tannin water. A one-hundred-pound tarpon had inhaled the fly.

Uh oh, I thought. Here comes a certified national disaster.

The line surged tight and the deranged fish flew straight up, climbing into the branches. It rattled and shook and crashed, scattering leaves and twigs and doves and pigeons, then fell back free. I reeled up into the mangroves to retrieve the tangled fly line and the broken leader. 

Why such a colossus would snatch such a piddly offering is something you’ll have to ask the tarpon—or maybe Bob Clouser.

Different Clouser colors have evolved, and experimentation on a slow day is fine. However, the basic selection of white/chartreuse and white/tan, each with a few accent strands of gold or chartreuse Krystal Flash, will cover most situations. 

At least, this is the simple formula that has worked at fresh and saltwater venues around the angling world ever since this remarkable streamer gained popularity.


Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]


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