Buck Bug Magic: Catch More Atlantic Salmon

(Portions of this article were published in The Canadian Fly-Fisher Magazine, November/January 2009 issue)

This article describes the traditional riffling hitch and a new method that beginner and expert Atlantic salmon fishermen will find easier and more productive. The new method, called Buck Magic, emphasizes spun deer hair fly patterns (buck bugs & muddlers) tied on single down-eye hooks and their proper method of presentation.

Traditional Riffling Hitch
Let’s begin with the riffling hitch. Any fly making a wake upon the water’s surface will attract Atlantic salmon. The riffling hitch is one method of presentation in which a hitched wet fly makes a wake upon the surface of the water. Here are the steps to "hitch" any wet fly, in this case, a Rusty Rat, an excellent wet fly pattern.


Step 1
- Knot your leader to the eye of your fly with the knot you usually use per the photo. I am holding the fly with my right thumb and forefinger and the leader is held in my left hand.

  Step 2 - Hold the fly between right thumb and forefinger and with your left hand make a loop around your right index finger as in the photo.
  Step 3 - Remove loop from right index finger, insert head of fly into loop, and hold loop in place behind hook eye with thumb of left hand.
  Step 4 - With right index finger, keep loop around the head of the fly in place. Your left hand draws the leader to close the loop around the head of the fly.
  Step 5 - This step is a further confirmation of step 4. Your right thumb and forefinger hold the fly while your right index finger holds the loop in its position as your left hand draws the leader to close the loop. In this photo the loop is almost closed.
  Step 6 - Close loop completely as shown in the photo. The loop is now tightly closed and securely fastened behind the eye of the hook. In an actual fishing situation one hitch is not enough, a second hitch is required to secure the fly properly, so steps 2 through 6 must be repeated to make a second hitch - with just one change - In the first step 2, If your leader forming the first loop began - under or over - your index finger, reverse this - under or over - order when forming your second loop and position the second hitch behind your first hitch. Note: since my right hand has been holding the fly, the hitch knot's position is away from the camera. This hitch happens to be a "right bank" hitch. By definition, the river bank where you are standing - left or right - is determined by facing downstream. Before applying a hitch, I face the river and orient the fly so it always faces upstream. My hand holding the fly will always be my downstream hand and for this reason I recommend learning to hitch with both hands.
  Step 7 - The finished hitch! The photo is still a "right bank" hitch. Because the hitch faces the fisherman and not the camera, I had to hold the fly with my left hand instead of my right hand so the camera could "see" the hitch. Since the camera can "see" this hitch the river flow would be from left to right. I apologize, but this can be confusing.
Hitched wet fly presentation requires the cast to be made downstream at almost exactly a 45 degree angle to the current. Just as the fly strikes the water, roughly one foot of line is retrieved quickly to ensure that the fly, instead of sinking, will plane across the water ’s surface, leaving a wake. I can vouch for the riffling hitch as an effective method because my Atlantic salmon presentations from 1998 to 2003 were almost always hitched. Art Lee’s book Tying and Fishing the Riffling Hitch, (1998), is an excellent source of more information about the technique.

Buck Bug Magic

Pure luck helped drive me to use deer hair patterns tied on single down-eye hooks. In 2002 at the George River in Northern Quebec I landed a grilse that I wanted to release. Stéphane Pelchat, my guide, correctly told me the fish was bleeding badly and could not survive. Since my double hooks had caused this situation many times, at the end of the season, I trashed all my double hook flies. By the start of my 2003 season, my fly boxes contained only single hooks, both up-eye and down-eye. As time passed it became obvious, for some reason, that the down-eye single hook deer hair patterns, fished unhitched, were more effective than deer hair patterns on up-eye hooks, and wet fly patterns tied on up-eye hooks fished with a hitch. Gradually, without understanding the reason, I stopped using the riffling hitch in favor of unhitched deer hair patterns tied on single down-eye hooks. On my way home after my 2005 trip to the George River, I discovered the reason single down-eye hooks are so important. I visualized the offset up-eye and down-eye extensions shown in the diagram. Finally, I understood the problem.

The answer was simple mechanics. Look at the up eye hook in the diagram. At first glance the up eye looks like the front of a barge that would cause the fly to plow across the water ’s surface. But by extending the up eye it can be seen that the opposite effect is achieved. The up eye acts as a lever inclining the body of the fly downwards so the water pressure will be greater on the top surface than on the underside of the fly. The resulting pressure differential will force the fly downwards away from the surface of the water, so it definitely will not make a wake. In contrast, the down-eye hook inclines the body of the fly upwards, so the current pressure on the underside is greater than the pressure on the top of the fly and the fly rises to the surface and makes a wake. When I realized that my patterns tied on up-eye hooks would not wake, I retied these patterns on down eye hooks. These patterns now make wakes and are productive. During my 2006 season I stopped using the riffling hitch. For me, spun deer hair patterns on single down-eye hooks have resulted in more hook-ups, a higher percentage of landings, no bleeding, and the fish released are in a better condition to survive.

Hook Weight

The heavier the hook the more current pressure is required to make any fly rise to the surface and make a wake. Relative hook weights are difficult to determine by simply holding them side-by-side in your hands. The weights for each hook in the chart were obtained through use of a jeweler’s scale.

All the Mustad hooks shown are suitable for buck bugs. However, the Tiemco 700 standard heavy salmon/steelhead hook will require a thick body and strong current to wake. The size 4 Tiemco 700, for example, weighs 0.33 grams. The comparable Mustad 9671 size 4 2X long shank weighs 0.23 grams. The Tiemco 700 hook weighs a whopping 43 percent more!

Heavy up-eye hooks are very useful in situations where a sinking fly is required. . Atlantic salmon are not surface oriented where the water temperatures are in the 30s and low 40s. Such conditions require sinking the fly down to them to attract their attention. On the Matapedia and Restigouche Rivers there is a catch and release season that runs from ice out April 15 to May 31. Possibly due to the low water levels to come later in the season, very large 30 and 40 pound Atlantic salmon arrive early and are caught on heavy up-eye hook patterns here during this period. I have no experience with Atlantic salmon at very low water temperatures. Using a waking method, I have caught bright Atlantic salmon at water temperatures as low as 47 degrees. The surface fly versus sunk fly approach temperature break-point is probably in the mid to low 40s.

Unhitched wet fly patterns on single down-eye hooks will swim higher in the water column than their up-eye counterparts. Sometimes they will even make a wake. Trimmed deer hair patterns make wakes more readily than traditional wet flies on single down-eye hooks because they have a larger diameter body than the slimmer traditional wet fly. The larger diameter body gives the trimmed deer hair pattern a longer wingspan, so to speak, and therefore greater lift.

Make a Good Presentation

In his book Bugging the Atlantic Salmon (1995), Michael Brislain describes the proper buck bug cast as across the current and slightly upstream. In his book he comments that buck bugs are a better than ordinary wet flies for "slack water lies" which he defines as generally the tail section of pools, water depth from 4 to 6 feet, and insufficient current speed for an attractive presentation causing these pools to be fished only occasionally.

About buck bugs and "slack water lies" Brislain writes: "A bug is in the salmon's element. It drifts in the subsurface of the current flow, and, because of its tendency towards neutral buoyancy, it rides horizontally (where a wet fly just dangles downwards). The fish sees it broad-side when it has been fished on an upstream cast. Its submerged float looks natural, it enters the salmon's cone of vision from some distance upstream, and it approaches the salmon at the same speed as the current. I am convinced that the slow, deliberate, overhead approach of the presentation I have described induces the rise of fish in slack waters."

I agree with Brislain on "slack water lies." But where the current speed is more normal, after making a cast your bug tied on a single down-eye hook, lands in the water at an approximate 90 degree angle across the river or even slightly upstream from where you are standing, it sinks, drifts momentarily with the current, and then the increasing current pressure at some point during the drift causes your fly to rise to the surface and make a wake.

Comparison of Buck Bug Magic with the Riffling Hitch

The use of spun deer hair fly patterns on single down-eye hooks is an

easier, more effective method, than using the riffling hitch and wet flies. Here's why. First, the riffling hitch is restricting. The cast must be made at a 45-degree angle to the current, not across the current and even upstream, because the hitched fly needs more current pressure than a buck bug to wake. Second, riffling requires the additional time-consuming step of attaching a hitch to the fly so that the line attaches just behind the eye of the hook or directly behind the head of the fly. Third, immediately after the hitched wet fly hits the water, about a foot of line must be pulled in very quickly to make sure the initial speed of the fly enables it to plane over the surface of the water and not sink. Fourth, the riffled fly covers less water. The across-the-current and slightly upstream cast of a buck bug covers more water than a riffled fly. Fifth, and most important of all, on a very long cast it is difficult to see if your riffled fly is on plane over the water’s surface. Was my cast too far upstream from a proper 45-degree angle? I have to wear my glasses and still can’t see far enough. If your hitched fly sinks and fails to wake properly, the current will make it gyrate and corkscrew wildly. Such motions are guaranteed not only to produce no strikes but to frighten the salmon.


Here’s the recipe for buck bug magic: First, use spun deer hai buck bug or muddler flies with down-eye single hooks. Second, cast your floating line and leader across the current and slightly upstream and get a good wake.


Brislain, Michael, Bugging the Atlantic Salmon, (Gooselane Editions, 1995).

Lee, Art, Tying and Fishing the Riffling Hitch, (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1998).



© 2009-12 Jerome Farnsworth • All rights reserved
All photography and information on this site is the property of Jerome Farnsworth.
It may not be used without written permission.

Web site designed by Valentine Design