Forty Shades of Purple by Dave McNeese

In the early 1970’s, Bill McMillan began writing a four-part series on his life as a steelhead angler for Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine (STS). These inspired writings and their revelations ignited the passions of a small but unique generation of Northwest steelhead fly anglers. Bill was a young angler seasoned well ahead
of his years and the articles centered on what he had learned since his early teens to the present day (1973).

Included in one article was a quote from Bill’s 1972 diary, “I’ve recorded a series of flies and matching methods resulting in a single season high of 218 steelhead coming to my patterns during the 1972 season, 85 being landed and most of them released.”

Imagine the thousands of anglers reading this quote and thinking to themselves, “Who is this guy?”

I remember when that issue of STS came out and the stir it created. In 1975, Bill wrote another article in the June/July issue of STS about a new angling method for both summer and winter steelhead.

This method was similar to the one that A.H.E. Wood had pioneered and described in his 1935 book Greased Line Fishing for Salmon under the pen name of Jock Scott. For several years, Bill had been testing, perfecting, and adapting earlier British salmon fishing techniques to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

The flies Bill developed between 1971-1973 and wrote about in 1975 were the Winter’s Hope and the Paint Brush, both dressed with purple hackles. When Bill visited my home recently, I had the opportunity to ask him how he created these two purple patterns.

steelhead fly patterns

From top clockwise: Winters Hope, Purple Polar Bear Matuka, Freight Train, Spawning Purple.


“In 1971 I purchased the new book Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing (1970) by Joseph D. Bates but I never wanted to tie a full-dress salmon fly. Instead, my idea was to look for patterns I could simplify and use for both winter and summer steelhead here in the Pacific Northwest.

I was hoping to discover something I might profit from by studying the flies and fishing methods of centuries-old anglers with similar rivers and fishing conditions on the other side of the pond. Three patterns struck me as fishable in a much reduced form; the Silver Doctor, the Silver Wilkinson, and Preston Jennings’ Lord Iris.”

I asked Bill what attracted him to purple hackles when so few of the classic old European salmon fly patterns or Northwest steelhead flies of the time called for purple materials?

Bill said, “I like the notion that blue and purple shades are the least impacted by the reduction in available sunlight because they are at the shortest end of the light spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum were the tried and true reds, oranges, and yellows.

I wanted to develop patterns that incorporated all of these colors in a harmonious way. But it wasn’t easy. In those days purple hackles were hard to locate, and for that matter, I needed large enough hackles for 2/0-5/0 hooks that I intended to use with the grease-line methods.

The only fly shop near my SW Washington home was the new Greased Line Fly Shop in Lake Oswego, Oregon. There I found large turquoise hackles and a box of 5/0 hooks I desperately needed for winter steelhead holding in the deep pools.

Later, the large neck hackles I ordered from Dick Staiger arrived in the right shade of purple to blend with the new blue hackles.” And with that, we witness the birth of a new fly pattern.

I made the comment to Bill that the Winter’s Hope certainly has all the right colors that work in concert with each other and it is visible to the fish under all light conditions. It’s still very popular today after forty-five seasons of use.

Bill agreed, “I’ve learned to judge beauty in different ways, not the least of which is the beauty of efficient function. I tie flies very slowly, so the less materials and steps involved, the better.”

oasis benches

As Bill was leaving my home he took another look at a photograph he enlarged for me 39 years ago which was recently framed by my friend Sean Dahlquist. The photo is a close-up shot of two of his low water Steelhead Silver Doctors and a Lady Caroline lying next to a gorgeous cane rod and vintage hardy reel. “Can’t tie like that anymore,” Bill chuckled.

One of my earliest purple-colored steelhead flies is an odd-looking critter, half-way resembling a Comet with a long tail of brightly colored hair, but with the hackles and wings of a Silver Hilton. This pattern was created streamside in February 1976 while watching the river rise and turn cloudy. The fly tied to my leader was my old favorite, the Brad’s Brat. Standing in the shallows, I dropped the Brat in and watched it disappear in less than two feet of water. I needed a pattern with both bright and dark colors which would make the fly more visible to the moving fish. The resulting fly took one steelhead that evening. The next day found me fishing about three miles up from the river’s mouth. High tide was mid-morning and by 11:00 AM I had landed my first steelhead. Two more fish followed in the next
two- hours. A week later, seven steelhead surrendered to this pattern, including a beautiful buck of just under twenty- pounds. I named the fly the Spawning Purple, and today the pattern can be tied in many variations. My approach is to tie the tail and body in spectral colors like pinks, blues, and reds, but the hackle and wings are kept in shades of purple. The two-tone colors of the Spawning Purple are more effective any time the river is off-color, whether fishing fall steelhead in British Columbia after a spate or throughout winter weather.

John Shewey, who was working at my shop at the time and chasing steelhead nearly every evening after work, developed a retooled version of this pattern that uses the same general color scheme, but is much more trimmed down for summer run fish and low water conditions. An orange-dyed Golden Pheasant crest replaced the long tail of orange polar bear on the original, and fluorescent orange floss was used instead of a thickly dubbed body of seal fur. Four separate spikes of purple marabou tied-in along the front half of the shank replaced the sections of polar bear hair. John’s fly was similarly named which has created some confusion over the years. It was originally called the Spawning Purple Spey because the very earliest version of this fly sported a pair of peacock secondary wing quill segments tied in like a Dee-type wing, as well as a few turns of long, flowing heron at the throat.

Over time the strip wings and the throat of heron hackle were dropped and the dressing was simplified, yet the fly still carried the name “Spey”. For the sake of clarification it has since been renamed Shewey’s Spawning Purple.

If you thought the Spawning Purple was an odd-looking fly, this next pattern takes first place, and with good reason. The Purple Polar Bear Matuka was a creation between myself and Forrest Maxwell in July 1978. We first met when Forrest walked into in my fly shop to look around. At that time he was new to fly fishing, but was very good at other forms of angling. With his high-intensity personality he quickly became an expert at anything he did, including fly tying. As Forrest began spending more time at the shop I began teaching him how to tie flies, including Matuka-style patterns.

He watched as I cranked out a sample Matuka for him using fluorescent purple hackles and then I left him to practice tying on his own. Previously I had also dyed up a thin strip of polar bear hair the same shade of fluorescent purple, so I sat down at the vise to try my hand at creating a hairwing version. My thinking was that perhaps a hairwing fly would be effective as and certainly more durable than the featherwing version.

Forrest and I finished our Matukas; his dressed with hackles, mine with hair. The next day we were together on the North Fork of the Santiam River at daybreak. In those days, this beautiful river located just east of Salem, Oregon contained huge numbers of hatchery summer steelhead. I took several steelhead early in the morning but had to leave to open up the fly shop. Forrest was able to continue fishing and ended up also landing four- or five- fish.

The verdict: both the featherwing and the hairwing version of the Purple Matuka are great flies.

Among the thirty or so purple patterns I’ve created over the last 45 years, this has been my most reliable “go-to” fly when it comes to taking summer steelhead.

I do feel that the Matuka hairwing has an edge over Matukas tied with wings of rooster hackles. It has a broader profile and a better overall silhouette, making it remarkably visible from daybreak until dark. Another advantage of the hairwing version is that it also has lots of movement, even in slower currents.

For these reasons, it is an excellent searching pattern which suits my style of fishing.

I try to cover a lot of water quickly, looking for players, and reducing the number of casts needed to produce a strike. If there’s a fish there, it’s probably going to grab my Matuka.

Many others besides myself have observed that steelhead come to this pattern fast and without hesitation. The hairwing Matuka never as popular as the featherwing version and this may be due to the scarcity of polar bear hair and jungle cock cheeks. At the time, it was easily the most expensive fly in my shop. But even if the materials were available, the fact remains, the hairwing version takes twice as long to tie, even for expert fly tiers. For these reasons it was virtually unknown outside of my local area, although a few angling friends reported phenomenal success fishing Polar Bear Matukas up to four-inches long in the famous British Columbia steelhead rivers.

The 1979 edition of Kaufmann’s Streamborn Fly Shop Catalog features about thirty subsurface steelhead patterns. They represented the most popular steelhead flies in the Pacific Northwest at that time, and yet only two of them are purple, the Del Cooper and the Purple Peril.

That same year, Randall Kaufmann and his brother Lance purchased a home in Maupin, Oregon on the Deschutes River as a way to expand their business into guiding and fly fishing schools. Within a few years Randall had crafted four purple steelhead flies: the Freight Train, Signal Light, Purple Flash, and Ferry Canyon.

Thousands of dozens of these highly effective flies were sold and fly tiers
began developing more purple patterns. I believe Randall Kaufmann was the one angler / tier most responsible for the expansion of purple-colored flies through his shop’s extensive catalog sales during the 1980’s.

purple flower flies fishing

Flowers are most often my inspiration for all the colors of the spectrum. Even though purple is not a spectral color, but a mix of many spectral colors from, pinks,blue’s and reds.

Almost four decades later, purple-colored flies and materials are now abundant in the fly fishing world. It’s amazing to see how this color went from total obscurity to absolute domination of the color palette for steelhead flies and has become a solid color for trout as well. Many purple trout patterns are now popular today, from the purple Quill Gordon to the purple Chubby Chernobyl.

Anglers have asked me for years what makes purple-colored flies so effective. My reply is that Purple is close to black, but not quite. It has a strong reflective color that other dark colors often lack. I’ve been told by my customers that solid strikes come far more often to purple patterns, and this has been my experience as well.

- written by Dave Mcneese

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