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Marabou: “The Soft Sell”

by J. M. Chico Fernández
photos by Chico Fernández
In clear water or for laid-up fish, it's hard to beat the seductive moves of marabou.
Chico Fernadez

The author uses marabou flies for everything from canal tarpon to bluewater dolphin.

SOME YEARS AGO, a group of us drove an hour and a half west from Miami to fish for baby tarpon along the famous Tamiami Trail. We knew that the water was receding, pouring out of the sloughs and into the main canal, dumping minnows that had been hiding in the saw grass during high water.

Lots of baby tarpon, and maybe some snook, would be looking to take advantage of this feast.

When we arrived at daybreak, tarpon from a couple of pounds to maybe 15 pounds were starting to feed on the minnows as they emptied into the canal right against the sawgrass. Any cast close to the shore was producing strikes, so everyone was happy. We each jumped a few fish and landed some, too.

But as the sun came up, most of the water had come out, and the minnows were now scattered all over the canal. The action was no longer along the shoreline. Tarpon were rolling all up and down the canal, and a surface bust could be seen here and there. We now spread out a few hundred feet apart and started to cast to rolling fish, or blind cast, or quickly cast to any surface bust within range. There were plenty of tarpon around, but no hits.

Fortunately, I had previously experienced such a condition in a place where there was no saltwater infusion; the water was 100 percent fresh and very clear. Tarpon could easily see a long way and were probably inspecting every feather on our flies. Indeed, at the Tamiami canal, we could see a tarpon follow the fly all the way to our feet and then turn away.

To compensate for the water clarity, I tied on a longer leader, about 12 feet or so, and put on a size 4 yellow marabou streamer with a bulky hackle head that made the marabou dance just to look at it. I cast the fly in the area where I had just seen a couple of tarpon roll and let it sit for a second. Then, I simply pulled the fly in, very slowly, not trying to give it any action. Just a steady retrieve.

Huff's White LightningHook: 3/0 Mustad 34007 or any similar saltwater hook.Thread: Chartreuse.Wings: Two yellow grizzly saddles and four white saddles.Hackle: Two turns of yellow marabou covering 2/3 of the wing. Finish wrapping most of the shank with the chartreuse thread.(This is one of the great, dependable big-tarpon flies in the Keys, especially on the ocean side.)

Of course, just as a deer head or chenille head would have done, the large hackle created back currents that make feathers move a little but that make marabou go crazy. So now I had a fly wiggling all over the place but hardly moving a foot every few seconds. With this approach, the fly will stay in the strike zone for a long time, probably five times longer than the other flies we were all using that day. And in clear water, where these moves are very visible, it is irresistible. Soon I had a tarpon on, and then another and another, until finally I landed and released one.

I figured the whole gang would run over and take the fly away from me, but they just came within a few yards, smiled, and went back to fishing. As I landed yet another tarpon, my friends would approach within a few yards, say, “Nice fish,” and go back to fishing. Without getting a strike.

What they were doing was getting close enough to see the color of the fly, which was yellow, and then they went back and tied on a yellow streamer, which did not work. It was probably too stiff.

By the time they took a close look and saw the marabou, it was about 9 or 10 a.m., and the tarpon were really slowing down. I’d been successful by applying what I’d learned from past experience: Baby tarpon love marabou, especially in very clear water. And so do a great variety of other game fish, from snook to dolphin.

Nothing But Fluff

Marabou Sea-DucerHook: Size 1/0 or 1 Mustad 34007 or a shorter-shank hook if you prefer.Thread: Red flat waxed nylon.Wing: One large marabou feather wing, white or yellow, with flash on the side.Hackle: Two or three wraps of marabou for a hackle, in the same color as the wing. Follow with two turns of soft red hackle.Weed Guard : No. 4 wire.

Although marabou is one of the great fly-tying materials for freshwater patterns, and despite the fact that marabou has probably taken most species of game fish worldwide, I still find that many of us tend to neglect marabou when it comes to saltwater flies. And yet I have seen many situations where a marabou fly outfishes most other patterns.

Oh, I know that there are many patterns around, and you probably have some in your tackle box. But when was the last time you tried a marabou fly when the chips where down? Well, you may be missing out.

The trick to effectively using marabou patterns, at least for me, is to fish them when their inimitable action can be seen well by the fish. That is mostly in clear water, or maybe in slightly off-color water if you are sight casting and can put the fly right on their nose. But colored water mostly needs bulk and silhouette, and that is the job of bucktail, lots of feathers, or other types of material, not marabou.

Frank Oblak's Redfish FlyHook: Size 2 or 4 standard saltwater.Wing: Yellow or white marabou with a grizzly saddle on each side.Collar: Two turns of orange hackle.Head: Any cactus or sparkle chenille.Eyes: Small lead dumbbells, weight depending on the water depth.Weed Guard: 30-pound monofilament.

In clear water, however, the least movement creates constant action on the fly that is easily visible. Often just the current or waves — with no stripping action — will move the fly well. I have seen bonefish and redfish pick up a marabou fly right off the bottom.

And while a marabou fly can often be fished rather fast, I work them mostly with a slow or moderate retrieve. Sometimes the fly is practically at a standstill, a technique the old timers called fishing it “soaked.”

If you encounter a fish just sitting in an area, say the edge of a flat, a pothole, or against a shoreline, he may not react to just any fly. Well, try fishing a marabou pattern very slowly, or soaked. Wiggle it right by the fish’s nose. Make it easy for him, and chances are he’ll just open his mouth and suck the fly right in.

Also, marabou has its place when sight casting in shallow, clear water, where subtle approach, good presentation and a quiet drop of the fly are paramount. First, when tied on the sparse side (but not too sparse or it will close into a thread, practically disappearing), a marabou fly can be very easy to cast because it is light and has little air resistance. So presentation and accuracy are easier. But also, where you might have used an 8-weight line before, now you can use a 7- or even a 6-weight line. This makes for an even quieter presentation and, lets face it, a better fight from a big bonefish or redfish.

While juvenile tarpon love marabou, the material also works its magic on the big boys. Today’s mature tarpon from Miami to Key West are getting more and more selective, carefully inspecting flies as they follow them. The so-called “ocean side” tarpon — those cruising sandy beaches and flats that face the ocean, where water is often very clear and there is little vegetation moving around with the current to distract these fish — are especially difficult to feed a fly. Well, here too, a small 2/0 marabou pattern, worked slow and steady, may often be the ticket.

Bluewater dolphin is another species that can get selective, especially in an area where boats are trolling or chumming them on a regular basis. They will sit under any structure or under seaweed, and it seems no fly will coax them out.

In those situations, and keeping in mind that dolphin are carnivorous and eat their own, a yellow marabou fly with a little red or green marabou may have just the right moves. But make sure the fly has a weed guard because you’ll be casting over seagrass or some floating structure.

All the Right Moves

Marabou MadnessHook: Mustad 34007 in size 3/0 through 1/0.Thread: Red flat waxed nylon.Tail: Krystal Flash sandwiched between two large black, white or yellow marabou feathers side by side, concave side out.Hackle: Red hackle along the whole shank.Eyes: Big painted eyes.Weed Guard: Use a wire weed guard in weedy areas or around structure.(For a dark-water version of this fly, see Chico's article "Basic Black.")

The best marabou patterns depend on the species of fish and their size. Often a large fly, such as my Marabou Madness, will attract a big seatrout or snook. But I have also hooked 100-pound tarpon with it while fishing for seatrout with my 8-weight. After the initial shock of the hookup, trying to land a tarpon that big is quite an adventure.

In clear ocean flats, Captain Steve Huff’s classic pattern, White Lightning, is still highly productive. For years Captain Huff and Sandy Moret would fish the ocean side and take some big tarpon with this pattern. When he found out that Steve had not given the fly a name (which is typical of Steve, by the way), Moret christened it the White Lightning. If you are fishing big tarpon in clear water, don’t leave home without a few of them.

Frank Oblak’s Marabou Redfish Fly is a great fly to throw at reds, snook, and seatrout on the flats. Yellow, white, and chartreuse are excellent colors on
this pattern.

Because marabou is so soft and skinny when wet, it can be about like fishing a bare hook sometimes; therefore, weed guards are of the essence in weedy areas or around structure.

Also, I find that tying or selecting marabou flies is the art of having the right amount of marabou for wings. Too little and it disappears when wet. Too much and the bulk does not let the fly “breathe.” It takes a feel that comes only with experience. But when marabou is tied in the right proportions, nothing can match it.

Finally, I’d like to say that the late Harry Friedman — a great angler and fly tier of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s who often fished with Joe Brooks — first turned me on to marabou in the mid-1960s. I still think of him when I use a fly with his favorite material. Here’s thinking of you, Harry!

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Chico Fernández is a renowned fly fishing instructor, lecturer, and author who developed or helped develop many of the modern saltwater flyfishing techniques and fly patterns in use today. He is also on the editorial board of MidCurrent. Chico's most recent book is Fly-Fishing for Bonefish (Stackpole Press, 192 pages, August 2004). This article was first published in "Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine."
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