The Hornberg Special is a classic trout fly that was developed in the 1920’s by Frank Hornberg. Frank was a game warden in Portage County Wisconsin, and his fly pattern went on to become a classic that has lived on for generations. The Hornberg Special was initially designed as a dry fly to imitate down winged insects like caddis and stoneflies. Somewhere along the line someone drowned the fly and took fish with it under the surface. Soon the fly gained the reputation of being effective fished both as a dry or as a wet fly or streamer.
It was this dual-purpose feature that made me curious about its effectiveness as a warm water panfish pattern. I often fish traditional dry flies for panfish on still water. The usual method is to cast the fly and let it sit motionless in the surface film. Bluegill and other species of panfish are notorious for staring down a fly resting on the surface of the water, seeming to wait an eternity before deciding to make a move and eat. Sometimes a subtle movement will bring a strike, but too many twitches and that traditional dry fly will sink. This is where the Hornberg comes into its own. With most dry flies when the fly becomes waterlogged and begins to settle towards the bottom the typical response is to pick the fly up off the water, dry it with a couple of false casts and present it again. With the Hornberg, when the fly fails to elicit a strike on top after multiple twitches, it will become waterlogged and will begin to sink. Once submerged it can be retrieved with a steady hand twist, or stripped back like a streamer. This combo technique is what makes this fly a deadly pattern on panfish of all types. At times, the fly is far more useful as a wet fly/streamer. Because of this one of the many variations of this fly that I tie uses a soft hen hackle in place of the rooster feather, creating a fly that will not linger on the surface but immediately sinks and can be retrieved as a wet fly or streamer.
In fact, the Hornberg lends itself to all sorts of variations. I have recently been fishing the fly with a wing of yellow calf tail instead of the traditional yellow hackle. I love working with calf tail as it can be proportioned to work with flies of any size. The only thing that I don’t change is the mallard flank wings. To me, the fly is just not a Hornberg without mallard flank.
In the past, when tying the fly for warm water applications, I tended to eliminate the jungle cock eyes. Although jungle cock is a very durable material, far more durable than most people realize, it is quite expensive, and I usually reserve it for other types of flies. It’s not that the bluegill is not worthy of such a pricey material added to their flies, but I have found that it is just not necessary. Recently I came into possession of an old decaying jungle cock mount; it’s feathers falling off the skin and collecting in the bottom of the plastic bag where it is stored. Since many of these feathers are split and have seen better days I have been putting them to use on all of my warm water Hornbergs. I have to say the pattern just looks better with the jungle cock eyes!
Pattern Recipe: The Panfish On The Fly Hornberg Special
Hook: 4x long streamer size 12-6
Thread: UTC black 70 denier
Underbody: Silver or gold tinsel (I tie both colors)
Wing: Yellow calf tail
Flank: Mallard flank feather
Hackle: I tie two versions one with a soft hen hackle and one with a stiffer rooster hackle. I prefer a mix of brown and grizzly or a Cree grizzly when I can find one.