I have always had an affinity for old, forgotten fly patterns. The Pass Lake Special may not be forgotten, but it does fall into the old category. The fly’s origins date back to the 1930’s. As is often the case with fly patterns, its roots are hard to pin down. Most versions of the story about the fly’s beginnings involve a minister from Wisconsin and a body of water in Ontario called Pass Lake that contained very large brook trout.
My research into the pattern revealed that the original recipe for the pattern most likely had a tail made of mallard flank fibers, a black chenille body, brown hackle fibers for a throat and a white wing of calf tail tied wet fly style. There are probably as many versions of the Pass Lake Special as there are origin stories and the one that I have adapted to fishing for panfish just adds to the list. Even though there are many examples of this fly, one aspect of the pattern never changes, the white calf tail wing. That is until I started fishing the pattern as a warm water pattern.
The Pass Lake Special tied with its traditional white calf tail wing and chenille body proved to be a very effective panfish fly. I prefer to tie a version of the fly that has a tail of golden pheasant tippet fibers and a body made of peacock herl instead of black chenille. Adding a wire rib improves the durability of the fly and adds a subtle flash component. The original chenille body is far more durable than peacock herl but I like the bugginess that a herl body gives the fly.
Many panfish, especially bluegills and crappie, often show a preference for bright colors, I started experimenting with wings made of calf tail dyed in fluorescent colors. They were an instant success. Since panfish are often found in stained or discolored water the fluorescent colors undoubtedly increased the fly’s visibility. The contrast of color seemed to add to the pattern’s fish catching abilities.
The experimentation continued, with clear water versions of the Pass Lake Special as well. In this case, the white calf wing was substituted for darker more subdued colors. There are occasions when the fish seem to prefer more natural colored flies. When fishing crystal clear water or when targeting larger, more “educated” fish a subtle, natural looking fly is often the better choice. Swapping out the white with the darker fibers found at the base of most calf tails created a very “natural” looking fly. The darker version also proved to be effective in stained water as well. The Dark Pass Lake Special provides a very distinct silhouette. This version is quickly becoming my favorite, as it has been responsible for many big, slab-sided bluegills.
I like to tie this pattern on a standard or 2x long wet fly/nymph hook in sizes 10-14. I will fish it with a floating or intermediate line and have found it to be a great open water searching pattern. It is also effective fished tight to cover and along weed lines. I fish the pattern year round but have found it performs the best during the spring and early summer with one exception. A small (size 14 or even 16) Dark Pass Lake Special was very effective fished very slowly on a sinking line last winter. I need to experiment with this pattern more in colder water; I may be missing out on something. The bottom line is regardless of how you tie it the Pass Lake Special is a panfish killer.
To see the pattern recipe click here.