Hewitt's Skater 
Spider
Learn the correct way to tie 
a classic pattern that catches
 trout almost anywhere.
by Ed Shenk

Edward Ringwood Hewitt, who is widely associated with trout and salmon fishing from the late 1800s to the 1930s, was responsible for designing a number of flies. His Skater Spider is one pattern that has stood the test of time.

Word has it that Mr. Hewitt, while fishing his water on the Neversink River in the Catskills, watched a trout jumping after butterflies, and he quickly designed a large hackled dry fly on a size 16 hook. Hewitt called it “butterfly” fishing. It turned out that the fly was basically a fish locater, mainly because the large hackle on a size 16 hook was not the best-hooking fly around.

I first saw a Hewitt-tied Skater while observing Charlie Fox fish this pattern on a bright Saturday afternoon along the meadows of the Little LeTort. As a lad of nine, I was impressed with the way the fly danced across the water on the retrieve. A few years passed, and once again I happened to meet Charlie Fox; this time we were both fishing the famed Fisherman’s Paradise on Pennsylvania’s Spring Creek near Bellefonte. We were awaiting the green-drake hatch, which is known locally as the shad fly. As a boy of 12, I had no idea what fly to use to imitate those big mayflies. Charlie came to my rescue and graciously handed me three ginger Skaters tied by Mr. Hewitt. I managed to raise and hook two monstrous trout before it was time to quit. Both fish broke off, taking those precious spiders with them. I saved the third fly as a sample, and tied a few that sort of looked like the original.

I usually carried a few of these flies for the next 20 years, but I used them sparingly. In the mid-1950s, two of my friends from Carlisle, Pennsylvania—Norm Lightner and Albert “Tommy” Thomas—began tying and fishing silver-dollar-size Skaters during their yearly trips to the streams of Yellowstone Park and Southwest Montana. Favoring the Big Hole, they proceeded to drive the trout crazy with their oversized Skaters, and each man put at least one fish on Dan Bailey’s famous Wall of Fame in his shop in Livingston, Montana. (To make the wall, a fish had to weigh at least four pounds.)

During this time, the late Joe Brooks regularly met Norm and Tommy on various western rivers. After seeing the success of these large flies, he became very excited about fishing with them. Joe subsequently wrote an article, titled “The Skater’s Waltz,” for one of the national outdoor magazines, and he also devoted several pages to Skaters in his books Trout Fishing and the later editions of The Complete Book of Fly Fishing. Charlie Fox also devoted an entire chapter to Skaters in his book, This Wonderful World of Trout.

Norm tied a few Skaters for Ed Koch’s Fly Shop and so supplied Joe Brooks with Skaters. With Norm’s passing, the task of tying true Skaters was left to me. (I was working with Ed Koch at the time.) I supplied Joe with many dozens of these flies in various colors and sizes. The emphasis was on sizes 12 to 8 instead of the original size 16; these larger hooks resulted in fewer missed and lost trout.

Skaters Catch BIG Fish
Since the mid-1960s, I have had opportunities to fish many rivers in Wyoming and Montana, with an emphasis on those in Yellowstone Park and the surrounding area. On many super-bright days, I was able to move fish with Skaters when they showed little interest in standard dry flies. During many happy afternoons on the Madison River and other waters, when fish were jumping at dragonflies and other hovering insects, a dancing Skater fished up- or down-and-across and retrieved on a tight line was the best way to move fish. I mention these cloudless afternoons because the general feeling among anglers was to forget fishing under these conditions and wait for the sun to set.

As great as those bright afternoons were, many mornings and evenings also come to mind. I recall fishing Skaters in a deep pool on the Big Hole below Melrose as the sun dropped behind the hills. The wind died to a gentle whisper, and I was casting 30 to 40 feet of line and leader, fishing across the pool with the fly swinging downstream. I would make a cast or two with my feet planted solidly before stepping downstream. The Skater reminded me of a long-legged crane fly as it was being retrieved; the fly would sometimes bounce clear of the water as it tippy-toed back toward me. I caught and released a couple two-pound fish on one Skater, and put on a fresh fly to allow the original to dry and regain its shape. I cast the Skater so it would alight just ahead of an overhanging bank. As the fly skimmed past the bank, I noticed a heavy wake approaching my offering. I lowered my rod to allow the fly to slow down. As the fish closed in, I started the retrieve again at the last moment.

Although the take was gentle, I held my breath as an oversize snout engulfed the fly. I allowed a slight hesitation, then set the hook and was fast to one of the Big Hole’s legendary brown trout. Seconds later, I was staring at a rapidly emptying reel spool. I made a feeble attempt to wade below the fish, but the streambed would not allow it. The action ceased when the line went limp; I still had the fly, but the stout hook was nearly straightened. I returned and fished the pool a couple more times, but I never saw that fish again. How big was it? It could have been eight pounds, perhaps larger; only having the trout in a net would really tell the size.

I’ve also spent quiet mornings on rivers as the mists slowly rose from their surfaces. Just being there and enjoying the solitude created a mixed feeling of sadness and joy. Quite often the morning stillness was shattered by a hearty rise to a Skater.

The Patterns
A Skater is nothing more than a hook, thread, and large hackles tied on in a special way; the only real differences are the hook sizes and colors of feathers you select. Hackle sizes vary and dictate the diameters of the Skaters you can tie: use hook sizes 10 and 8 to create silver-dollar-size flies, and sizes 14 and 12 for slightly smaller flies. I seldom tie size 10 and 8 Skaters anymore, due to the scarcity of hackle large enough to complement these larger hooks.

You can tie Skaters in a wide variety of colors; the key is the hackles you use. The colors  preferred by Joe, Norm, and Tommy were Adams (brown and grizzly hackles mixed), black, buffalo (brown hackle in front and black hackle in back), badger, furnace, and light ginger. I also have success fishing an all-white Skater during the famed white fly hatch.

For tying standard Skaters, use standard Mustad 94840 dry-fly hooks or an equivalent. I have also tied many Skaters on Mustad 7948A and 7957B hooks, which are stronger wet-fly hooks. Sometimes I tie a few of these patterns on 2X-long hooks; in this case, I leave the back third of the hooks bare.

There was once a mystique about tying Skaters, but it really isn’t that difficult. If you can wrap a dry-fly hackle, you can tie these flies. I buy hackle capes classed as streamer necks, and when I find one with feathers that have extra-long fibers and very little webbing, I literally jump for joy. The so-called spade hackles, which are along each side of the rooster neck, are generally the stiffest with the widest fiber spread. Sometimes I use long-fibered saddle hackles when they are available. At one time I used as many as five hackles to tie a larger Skater, but now I seldom use more than four; if I have stiffer-than-average feathers to work with, I’ll use only one forward hackle.

In passing, I’ll mention that after using the fly for a period of time, you’ll find that the hackles, as stiff as they are, will be forced backwards. It’s then best to tie on a fresh fly and stroke the wet feathers of the used Skater back into position so it will dry to its original shape.

Fishing Notes

If I am heading for the river with Skater fishing in mind, I forsake my short rods and go with one that is 8 to 10 feet long and handles a 5-, 6-, or 7-weight line. I prefer a relatively stiff  9- to 15-foot long leader ending with a 1X to 3X tippet; the size of the tippet depends upon the diameter of the Skater I am fishing. A Skater is wind resistant and requires a heavier tippet to properly turn the leader over during the cast. You will probably have to experiment to come up with a combination that works best for you.

I prefer dressing the entire leader with a line floatant such as Mucilin. I do not use the stickier silicone dressings, because they have a tendency to attract dirt particles found in the water of many rivers. These particles can cause the leader to sink and pull the fly under the surface.

When fishing, I often dead-drift the fly over a feeding trout, and as the drag begins to set in, I start the skating process. Sometimes I’ll use a skate-pause, skate-pause retrieve; other times I’ll continually skim the fly over the surface.

Joe Brooks, Norm, and Tommy preferred casting across and slightly upstream, and began the retrieves as soon as their flies dropped on the water. They retrieved their Skaters by stripping in a foot or so of line at a time with a fairly quick speed. A right-handed caster should hold the line between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and strip with the left hand; a southpaw would strip in line with his right hand.

Holding the rod low is a big advantage under windy conditions, but do not point the rod directly at the fly; hold the rod at an angle to the fly so there is some give when a good fish snatches your Skater. At all other times, I prefer holding the rod high to keep as much line as possible off the water. This helps keep the fly riding on the tips of its hackles as it bounces and skims across the surface. I fish my Skaters more slowly than other anglers do, and I give it an extra bounce or two with slight twitches of the rod tip.

The Skater is most effective when fished on fairly flat pools. The fly’s skimming wake is more noticeable to the fish on smoother water. Fish pocket water using a short line; skimming a Skater in tiny pockets can bring very quick, explosive rises. It stands to reason that these fish have to grab their food quickly before it is swept away.

The pools on some of the western rivers that I’ve fished can be hundreds of yards long. I generally begin by entering the head of the pool and making my casts slightly up-and-across stream. Look for current changes around rocks, sunken logs, and anything that might hold resting fish. Stay alert for feeding trout and subtle rises.

During the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure of fishing for Canada’s Atlantic salmon. Charlie Fox caught many salmon on the Little Southwest Miramichi River using Skaters. I have not used Skaters much while fishing for salmon, but I intend to in the future. How does a 20-pound Atlantic on a Hewitt Skater sound? I’m looking forward to something like that, but heck, I’ll settle for a 10-pounder.

I’d be remiss not to mention the effectiveness of fishing Skaters on ponds and lakes, preferably on calm early mornings or late evenings. One ploy is to locate a cruising fish, cast beyond it, and skate the fly so it crosses a foot or so ahead of its path. Although I’ve done this many times, one particular morning comes to mind. This was on a western pond famous for containing large 
brown trout. I watched for a cruising fish, and finally spotting one, I dropped an Adams Skater beyond the trout and made a few pumps of the rod tip. The fish quickly turned and inhaled the fly. Twenty heart-
stopping minutes later, I beached a healthy male trout that measured 27 inches long and weighed nearly eight pounds!

I rarely use Skaters on my home waters anymore, but I have had some success fishing a smallish all-white fly in the early evening when the Ephoron duns (white fly) are sailing back and forth a foot or so above the water. The trout jump at the naturals, and a skimming Skater sometimes fools a few of these fish.

Charlie Fox, Joe Brooks, Norm Lightner, and Tommy Thomas have all passed along to the big rises in the sky. Undoubtedly they’re fishing Skaters over celestial trout. Sometimes, when I’m fishing one of those long, still pools on the Big Hole and glance up suddenly, I imagine I see my old friends skating spiders in the mist.

____________
Ed Shenk is a legend among Pennsylvania’s famed limestone anglers. He has known and fished with most of the great anglers of the past 60 years. Ed is still very active fishing, tying, and writing about his adventures.


Tying the 
Hewitt Skater
Image1  Strip the fibers from the bases of two hackles.  Note how the author stripped a few extra fibers from the sides of the stems. These bare stems will lie against the hook shank when wrapping the feathers on the hook.

 

 

 

 

 

 Image2 Start the thread on the hook. Wrap a layer of thread on the shank, stopping just short of the bend. Tie on the hackles with the shiny sides facing the hook end. Allow short sections of the bare stems to show.

 

 

 

 

 

Image3 Wrap the first hackle to the middle of the hook. Tie off and clip the excess tip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image4 Wrap the second hackle up the hook. Wrap using a slight back-and-forth motion to weave the second feather through the first; this will help prevent binding down any of the fibers on the first hackle. Tie off the second feather in front of the first, and clip the surplus tip. The shiny sides of both hackles should be facing toward the end of the hook. Force the hackles tightly together using your thumbs and forefingers. Do not attempt to force the hackles together using a tool, because this might break the stems.

 

 

 

Image5 Prepare and tie on two more hackles with the shiny sides facing forward, again leaving a little of their bare stems showing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image6 Wrap one hackle forward, tie off, and clip the surplus. Wrap the next hackle forward, again using a back-and-forth motion to weave the feather through the first. Press all the hackle together, and tie off the thread head. Clip the thread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image7 Here’s our spider with four wrapped hackles. The shiny sides of the feathers should be facing the back and front of the fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image8 Check out the Skater from the front. All those hackle fibers give the fly a lot of buoyancy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image9 Dab some cement on the tips of the hackle fibers, and stroke the fibers between your thumb and forefinger into a series of spikes. Allow the cement to dry.

 
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