What are snake flies?
Snake flies are large fly patterns made from a long length of rabbit zonker strip. They're not to be confused with the snake flies fished by sea trout anglers, which are very different. Snakes first became popular on the Midlands reservoirs during fry bashing season about ten years ago. They quickly caught on elsewhere as they proved effective for targeting larger fish - browns and rainbows - but it's said they were initially one of those secret patterns that competition anglers tried to keep under wraps to prevent them losing effectiveness.
They're similar to zonker fly patterns, but where a zonker has a long tail and a hook at the top of the fly, a snake fly has a long tail with the hook in the tail. In general, snake flies tend to be longer than zonkers and minkies and are usually 10-12cm long. As rabbit is a very mobile material when wet, the length of the fly gives it a unique shape and movement in the water. The fur puffs up and pulsates when pulled, the hide contorts when you pause the retrieve and both of these really entice trout to chase and bite the flies.
What's the point of the snake fly?
Often when fishing lures for trout you'll get fish nipping at the tail of the fly. On zonkers and similar patterns, this tail nipping leads to lost fish because the hook is located a few centimetres up from the tail. However, the snake fly's hook is located right in the tail, so nips to the tail are much more likely to result in hooked fish.
What sort of leader works best when using snakes?
As these are big, bulky, heavy flies, you'll want to use heavier leader than usual to help the fly turnover. As the takes can also be quite savage, and the stamp of fish taken a bit above average, the stronger leader and tippet also minimises snap offs. I personally wouldn't go any lighter than 8lb for the tippet and often use much stronger leader at the butt section to help turnover.
Can I use any fly rod?
As snake flies are very large and soak up a lot of water, they are harder to cast than smaller trout flies. If you attempt to cast a snake fly on anything less than a six weight fly rod you might struggle a bit. Most fly fishers who regularly fish snakes use at least a #6 or #7, sometimes even an #8 or #9. The heavier rod and line helps turn the fly over a lot better, making for easier fishing. I'd favour the #7 or even #8 personally, as it makes them that bit more chuckable.
What sorts of snake flies can you get?
Snake flies are very versatile and come in three main forms: unweighted snakes, weighted snakes and booby snakes. Unweighted snakes are neutrally buoyant and are the most common and versatile version. These can be fished on a floating line, intermediate or sinker to allow you to cover fish at any depth.
You can also get snake boobies, which have foam booby eyes to add positive buoyancy and these can work very well on sinking lines. You can also add dumbbells, chain bead eyes or brass or tungsten beads to your snakes to help them get down deeper and give them a bit of extra action when pulled.Davie McPhail / YouTube.
What fly line should I use when fishing snakes?
It depends on which depth you think the fish are feeding. When fish are high up in the water then an unweighted snake fly on a floating line can often work very well. Sometimes, they'll either smash the snake off the top as it sits on the surface, or they'll bow wave after it and hit it when retrieved just under the surface.
If they're down a little deeper, I'd either put on a weighted snake using the same floating line or switch to an intermediate or Di3 sinking line so the fly goes down a bit deeper. If using a sinking line, I'd recommend casting out the snake fly, pulling the line to remove any slack and then watching the snake drop through the depths as the fly line drags it down. You'll often see fish come up and hit the fly on the drop.
If you're fishing deeper water, then you might want to consider a snake booby and a faster sinking line. Snake boobies have a really enticing action and pulsate amazingly when pulled. It's not that surprising that so many trout fall for them when fishing in this way.
What retrieve works best for snake flies?
As with any lure, it pays to try and variety of retrieves, as what fish want to attack changes as often as the direction of the wind. Here are the main retrieves to try:
Fast strips The standard retrieve when fishing lures for trout is to do short jerky strips. Change the length of the strip from short six inch ones to longer foot pulls and you'll change the movement of the fly. When you find what works, simply repeat.
Roly-poly The de facto retrieve for ugly lures on aggressive predators, the roly-poly is deadly for snake flies. An unweighted snake fly on a Di3 fished a couple of feet below the surface can generate some tremendous takes when roly-polyed back to the bank.
Figure of eight You might not think a slow retrieve like a figure of eight would work with a snake fly, but it does. It's especially effective when an unweighted snake fly is fished on a sinking line or a booby snake is fished on a sinker. It tends to be most effective when fish are a bit more lethargic during cold spells.
Mix it up If you find that fish are following the fly without hitting it, then mixing up your retrieve speeds and turning the rod from left to right can help encourage them to attack. Put in a pause, then return to the retrieve, or add in some faster pulls, and you might go from follows to takes.
Is it normal to miss lots of takes?
Yes. While the snake fly certainly gets the attention of trout, it's fairly normal to hook maybe half of the fish which hit the fly. This is probably because the flies are so long and some fish are hitting the head end where no hook point is present. Some people, therefore, fish the fly with two tandem hooks in place, though this isn't allowed in many waters.
What snake fly colours work best?
Like any lure, it pays to have a mixture of colours as what works one day may well not work the next. Pink is a very effective colour, but olive, lime green and white and black and silver also work very well, too. As they're pretty quick and easy to tie, I'd recommend tying up a mixture and then trying a few different shades until you find one that works.
How do you tie a snake fly pattern?
While snake flies are relatively easy to tie, they are a bit fiddly and there's a knack to getting them just right. Davie McPhail's video shows it far better than I can explain in words, so I'd recommend watching it before you tie any.Davie McPhail / YouTube.
If you don't tie your own flies, you're not out of luck. Snake flies are quite commonly sold in the shops, but the quality of some of those on offer can be rather poor. If you're going to buy some, I'd certainly recommend going for the Fulling Mill ones as they're far better tied than most of the others I've seen on sale.
Why do some trout fisheries ban snake flies?
With the exception of those patterns which can sometimes end up being swallowed deeply when fished using certain techniques, such as egg flies and boobies, the whole banning of flies thing can sometimes be a bit puzzling. What's allowed and considered normal and acceptable on one fishery can be a banned method elsewhere, often for no seemingly obvious reason.
The usual answer for this is that the fly has once been considered by the fishery to be so successful that it makes its use unfair to other anglers. However, as anyone has fished at waters that allow any flies will testify, simply tying on a snake fly will not turn you into Iain Barr, unfortunately. They're good, but they're not magical. However, if the fishery says you shouldn't fish snakes, then that's what you'll have to do. I'd always remove the barb from the top hook, as there are few fisheries that let you fish double or tandem hooks these days.