Hypnotic, Provocative & Deadly: These Downed-Sized Intruders Deserve a Home in Your Fly Box
By Jay Nicholas
When Intruders were first introduced into the steelhead flyfishing scene some two decades ago I—like many anglers—jumped in with both feet. I was intrigued by what they had to offer: a fly style that demanded the attention of steelhead. And fishermen. So alluring, these Intruders reputedly exerted near-hypnotic influence over steelhead. I was enamored with how these flies undulated in the water, their profile in the water column and the undeniable fact that they were technically challenging patterns to tie.
Eventually, the Intruder honeymoon phase waned and reality set in. After years of fishing Intruders I became more aware of the times when my insistence on fishing large Intruders lessened, rather than added to my daily steelhead catch. That realization sent me to the bench to craft a variety of Intruder-like flies that were smaller than my usual 4-inch monsters. The pendulum swing between large and small flies is a theme I’ve experienced repeatedly throughout my fishing career.
Unlike some steelhead anglers who grew up fishing only flies, I fished steelhead and salmon with bait, lures and flies throughout four decades before largely devoting myself to the fly. Much of what I learned fishing all manner of baits, lures and flies over the years is extremely helpful in explaining my rationale for fishing both large and small Intruders.
Way back in the 1960s, I learned that steelhead would often take very small baits and lures better than they would take the larger gear being fished by most anglers. Lighter leaders and very small baits were routinely taken by steelhead that rejected larger baits and spinners. My friend Ermie Walter and I sat on the banks of the Alsea one afternoon in the early 1980s, watching an angler fishing a run just below the Barklay Breaks. Fishing an egg cluster about the size of a quarter, he fished the run for quite some time, perhaps a half hour. Finally he went on his way. Ermie instructed me to bait my hook with a cluster that was smaller than a dime, far smaller than the other fellow had been fishing. He stood beside me and told me to cast into the current seam, just as the other angler had been doing before me. First cast—first cast—a steelhead took my bait. It was that simple. Three more steelhead followed the first, all on the small bait. Size mattered that day on the Alsea.
Now let’s shift to a time in the late ‘80s when I was fishing for Chinook on Elk River in southern Oregon. Several years working on the ODFW hatchery research program, coupled with many days fishing the river, had indoctrinated me well in the culture of fishing bait for kings. I knew from experience that big egg clusters were most enticing baits and —like all the guides and experienced anglers—I fished a cluster about an inch and a half in diameter. I had every confidence fishing these big baits, with plenty of positive feedback catching kings to prove that the large bait was a good strategy.
Then one day a friend joined our group, fishing kings for the first time. Steve Bielenberg had no large Chinook-size hooks with him so I offered my rigs and baits, explaining that the larger (2/0) hooks with big juicy baits would give him the best chance of hooking a Chinook. For whatever reason, Steve declined my offer, and instead chose to fish a #2 hook with a bare Pink Pearl Corky. We fished a long day, putting in at the hatchery and taking out at Ironhead near Highway 101. In run after run that we fished, the kings took Steve’s little Pink Corky over my big juicy bait. Not just once or twice, but plenty of times, (6 or 7 kings to the boat) enough to prove that it wasn’t blind chance. I had been fishing the river all season, and this was Steve’s first time on the Elk. I cast to the best water and Steve followed my big bait with his small Corky. I got no bites whatsoever but Steve continued hooking kings time and time again—a striking example of the Chinook’s preference for small size lure on a that particular day.
I have witnessed similar situations where the size of a fly makes a huge difference. One such occasion occurred on Oregon’s Deschutes River back in the mid 1980s. Swinging large and small flies in the lower river below Rattlesnake Rapids, the steelhead’s choice was clear: from about 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. the best fly to fish was a 5-inch rabbit strip leach, swung slow and low in lava trenches. The first few hours of the morning and last few hours of the evening, however, the steelhead refused large flies, demanding a size 6 or 8 wet fly in the 1- to 1 ½-inch range. This wasn’t a once in a while situation, it was a regular occurrence.
As for the Chinooks, I have experienced many days fishing the estuaries when the kings were willing to grab a fly if it was under 2 ½ inches, but steadfastly refused to grab at flies over 3 inches. The salmon’s fly-size preferences shift at times though, with some entire fall seasons seeming to favor fishing far larger flies than I normally do. Three years ago during the 2013 season the Chinook seemed to respond more consistently and fiercely to flies in the 4- to 5-inch range than to my more usual 3-inch flies.
The reasons for differences in the receptivity of steelhead and salmon to fly size, during the day, within a season, or from season to season are beyond my ability or desire to explain. The exception is when summer steelhead have been in the river for an extended period of months. I believe that many of these steelhead revert to their behaviors as juveniles and begin feeding again, on everything from little nymphs, dry flies, and eggs that drift free from the redds of spawning salmon. These summer steelhead are far more likely to succumb to flies that resemble their natural foods.
I think most people will agree that the argument can be made that big flies don’t always win the day. And in fact, most often it’s the smaller patterns that come out on top. Thus my fascination with Micro Intruders.
Before I dissect a Micro Intruder style fly it’s important to address the Intruder, the fly that spawned the Micro Intruder. As a tyer and angler I’ve listened to the conversations of steelhead anglers talking about these flies, a class loosely referred to as Intruders. These conversations tend to be downright animated—and this applies equally to discussions about tying as well as to fishing the fly. I’ve also come to believe that whatever Jerry French and Ed Ward had in mind when they developed early Intruder patterns now exerts only a little influence on thousands of tyers who are remaking the fly style to meet their own skills, waters, materials, and imagination.
I, for one, have been crafting modestly proportioned Intruders for only two seasons, coining the phrase “Micro Intruder” to describe them. Meanwhile, other tyers like Brett Jenson have developed flies they refer to as “Micro Intruders” without being aware of my fly style or having seen my book Intruder Essentials (Published in 2015 and available on Amazon or at local fly shops by request). By my own definition, a Micro Intruder is any fly less than 2 ½ inches (an approximation, not exact science) that maintains some semblance of distinct butt and shoulder stations. Be forewarned though, it is difficult (a daunting challenge) to achieve nearly as much motion and wiggle in a 2-inch fly as you can in a 4-inch fly.
It should also be pointed out that I distinguish Micro Intruders, as a class, from flies I refer to as Half-Intruders. Micro Intruders are scaled-down flies that retain distinct butt and shoulder features, while Half Intruders are scaled-down flies that chiefly retain the features of an Intruder’s shoulder, omitting the butt feature of the fly-style.
Meanwhile, Brett Jenson’s Micro Intruders have a completely different look, with a compact head station and a sparse skirt of barred trailing legs. While I’ve been fishing my Micro Intruders on low flows in Oregon coastal rivers, Brett has been fishing his Micro Intruders on the Klamath River, where he has found summer steelhead particularly responsive to the little beauties.
The case for fishing Micro Intruders
Let’s consider two baseline assumptions about Intruders and see where they might take us. First, Intruders are relatively large, and second, Intruders are very effective flies. Based on these two assumptions, why not always fish large intruders? The answer is so simple that some anglers often overlook it.
No single fly, technique, or presentation is superior all the time. Choosing to fish a large Intruder all the time would be as shortsighted as choosing to swing a Green Butt Skunk all the time. Whether fresh from the sea or hundreds of miles upriver, steelhead are often moody and selective in their response to various fly styles, fly sizes, and fly presentations.
Big Intruders are at times steelhead magnets. But I have often seen steelhead show obvious interest in large Intruders while refusing to commit to the big fly. These steelhead approached the fly to take a look. Sometimes they nipped or pulled at the large fly. Sometimes they actually moved away from the large fly. When given the chance, some of these same fish eagerly committed to eat a greatly downsized fly—which is one of the reasons why I like fishing Micro Intruders.
So while I’m all-in on Intruder’s possibilities, practical experience has proved time and again that the big bait, big lure, and big fly won’t always earn the grab. Fly size does matter, and the times when steelhead insist on smaller flies are as frequent as the times when they insist on larger flies.
A week in September fishing the upper Dean River in British Columbia proved that it was silly to presume that big Intruders would always produce big grabs. I arrived on the river prepared with boxes stuffed full with modest to super-sized Intruders when I began fishing; my versions of flies I had seen pictured hanging from the yaps of steelhead in the lower Dean. Here is what I found: steelhead in the upper Dean had little interest in doing anything but nipping at my big flies, but these fish grabbed viciously at flies (crudely tied each night in camp) downsized to just under an inch and a half.
Summer steelhead in the Deschutes have repeatedly demonstrated their preference for smaller flies. Morning and evening steelhead typically responded better to size 8s than to size 4s (traditional wet flies on the swing). These same Deschutes steelhead would snooze when shown a small wet fly in mid-day, but would clobber a big intruder swung through deeper slots. Frank Moore, the Dean of the North Umpqua, taught me that a size 10 Muddler could be absolutely deadly when a larger fly would only receive looks and boils from summer steelhead.
Bottom line? Big Intruders are deadly effective in the right time and place, but steelhead don’t always respond well to a large fly. No matter how well an Intruder swims, how much it wiggles and glows in the river current, there are times, places, and individual fish that call for a smaller fly.
When I first wrote my book Intruder Essentials I wanted to provide a platform to introduce the Micro Intruder to tyers and anglers, but not all readers were satisfied. One reviewer complained that the book showed photo images of these flies without including recipes or deeper discussion of the fly. Because I never intended Intruder Essentials to cover the entire scope of the fly style’s many variants the critique is accurate. And it is laughable that I now find people thinking that I’m claiming credit for originating the Micro Intruder. Quite the contrary. I imagine that I’ve simply described a fly style that anglers knowingly and unknowingly have been tying and fishing independently for years.