Taking advantage of sharks and rays’ ampullae of Lorenzini, which detect weak electrical fields such as those produced by their prey, Leonard Flemming’s Bearded Clouser harnesses the power of a weak electrical charge – using copper and tin foil – to attract and hook guitarfish and rays on the south-western Cape coastline. Crazy? No, just our mad scientist working off an idea that Mark Krige came up with.

I’ve been targeting guitarfish since about 2000, the year I started studying and when my dad gave me a car to get around. The freedom that came with a car allowed me to roam up the southwestern Cape coastline and the well-known ‘Weskus’ of South Africa, from my residence in Cape Town area, to look for good waves to surf and saltwater fish to catch on fly.

The West Coast is often covered in mist when you head out there for a dawn-patrol; here Platon Trakoshis is searching for guitarfish on an early morning outing to take advantage of a guitarfish frenzy, the last two hours of dropping tide before low.

The abundance of lesser guitarfish (or lesser sandshark – Acroteriobatus annulatus) in the shallow surf zone of the West Coast made them an obvious and easy target there, so I immediately took interest in this strange cartilaginous fish. The first fly I lobbed at these shallow-water cruisers was a chartreuse and white Clouser Minnow, of course, and I noticed how some took major interest in this fly dropping to the bottom or sliding across the sand in front of them. Unfortunately, I missed many of the takes though…

Enter Sean Mills: I discussed my guitarfish findings with Sean Mills in his fly shop at the time, and that they tried to eat a smallish chartreuse and white Clouser; he agreed with the choice of fly and immediately pointed out the hook on which he had the best success with for these fish (he had obviously been fishing for guitarfish long before me and had some good experience targeting them on fly); his favourite hook for guitarfish was the Mustad long shank saltwater streamer hook (S74SZ-34011) in smallish sizes (like #4 and #6). I found these hooks at Fred Tucker’s fishing shop in the Southern Suburbs and returned to buy a stack in different sizes after the first successful trip with them, in which case I hooked several guitarfish in the mouth.

Early prototypes of the guitarfish Clouser I tied was weighted with smallish lead dumbbell eyes and copper wire wrapped tightly over the hook shank just to get the fly down quickly and also to keep it on the sand while drawing the fly along the bottom in front of a sighted fish. They’d ‘pounce’ on it like a sluggish cat as they tried to get their ‘impaired’ mouth over the fly.

Impaired mouth? Let me explain…They have a fairly large, flat nose and head, called a rostrum, with little ‘frog eyes’ on top and while they have surprisingly good eyesight, their mouth sits underneath the wide, pointed snout and almost directly between the eyes but underneath the fish. So it relies by and large on sensing movement and an electric pulse from its prey under that wide nose once it has moved over it (small fish, crab, shrimp, polychaete worm or mollusk) to eat it.

Tom Sutcliffe with a beautiful lesser guitarfish caught on one of the early ‘prototype’ Clouser Minnows that I tied for these fish.

Enter Mark Krige: At that point I had met Mark Krige and we had already started to exchange ideas about fly patterns and how these imitations of baitfish or crustaceans could be adjusted to improve their efficacy for the different fish species we enjoyed catching. Both of us had a huge interest in fishes cruising the Western Cape wave zone, especially southern mullet and lesser guitarfish, and when I showed Mark the guitarfish Clouser he immediately remarked that the tightly wrapped copper wire (which had already turned green on some of the older Clousers in my box) over the metal hook shank would essentially represent an electrochemical cell (a weak battery) in saltwater. He then pointed out that one could improve the cell by wrapping the copper wire over tinfoil (aluminium) on the hook shank – copper and aluminium contact is well-known to cause galvanic corrosion, a strong oxidation-reduction reaction in which case aluminium transfers electrons to copper ions.

Electrochemical cell concept: An electrochemical cell is probably best described by a galvanic cell (or Voltaic cell), which is a form of an electrochemical battery where weak electrical current is generated spontaneously by oxidation-reduction reactions. Similarly, when two different metals (and usually good conducting metals) come into close contact with each other in a high salt solution (such as copper and aluminium in seawater), the flow of electrons taking place leads to corrosion of the metals (i.e. copper turning green for instance) and generates a flow of weak electrical charge known as ion current.

I experimented with this ion cell concept and noticed how guitarfish casually swimming over a dead still fly would react to it and try to eat the Clouser (in other words, there was no movement involved to trigger the strike, they simply responded to the weak electrical charge generated by the metals). Sharks are known to hunt using their ampullae of Lorenzini to detect weak electrical fields, such as that produced by living organisms, i.e., their prey. If you turn a guitarfish onto its back you will notice hundreds of little pores underneath the rostrum and around the mouth, these pores are part of its electrosensory system. So like a bushy fly moving water in low-light conditions (such as a Whistler fished at night or in murky water), generating strikes from predatory fish that detect the micro water movements through their lateral lines (a sensory system that allows fishes to detect weak water motions and changes in water pressure), the ion cell in the guitarfish Clouser generates weak current in seawater which triggers strikes from guitarfish and stingrays by stimulating their ampullae of Lorenzini.

Enter Jimmy Eagleton: When I hooked up with Jimmy Eagleton to search for guitarfish and more shark species along our West Coast, we exchanged many thoughts about the cell concept in flies; but besides the cell concept (Jimmy was looking for a way to generate an even stronger electrochemical cell than the ion cell concept that I was playing with) Jimmy’s guitarfish flies sparked new interest in tampering with my existing Clouser pattern for flatfish. He was tying a fly called the Raccoon and other small crustacean flies for guitarfish at the time and he made use of materials such as fuzzy fibers and hackle fibers ‘sticking up’ on top of the flies to tickle the rostrum of guitarfish when it would swim over the moving fly, and hence trigger strikes.

So the original guitarfish Clouser was slowly ‘up-graded’ over time by adding two additional steps as influenced by Mark Krige and Jimmy Eagleton; 1) by wrapping aluminium foil around the hook shank before the copper wire is wound over it, and 2) by adding a bucktail ‘beard’ to the head of the Clouser to keep the hook tip facing perfectly upwards when the fly is fished over sand and to tickle the rostrum of the guitarfish when it swims over the fly.

How to fish for guitarfish: One could fish anything from a 5 wt to a 10 wt for these fish and the preferred line setup is a fast sinking line (you could get away with an intermediate line in very shallow water) with a short leader (approx. 1 m long) and 15 lb fluorocarbon tippet (you can drop down to 12 lb tippet, but beware, these fish are surprisingly strong and can easily snap light tippet when they suddenly bolt away from you); site fishing is the most successful way to target these fish – cast ahead of a cruising guitarfish and make sure that the fly and line gets down to the bottom to get under the fish; slowly draw the fly over the sand, timing the speed and length of draws so that the fly roughly meets the mouth area of the cruising fish (this may take time to get used to). Most of the guitarfish respond quite aggressively by slamming down (‘pouncing’) onto the fly and puffing sand out of the gills as they try to suck it in.

The Mustad saltwater streamer hook, S74SZ-34011, is still my preferred hook for this Clouser – please do pinch the barb before fishing the fly!

These Mustad hooks are made out of a high-quality steel that doesn’t corrode easily in saltwater, another reason why I really like using them.

I selected a #6 Mustad S74SZ-34011 for this fly, my preferred hook size for guitarfish.

Tie thread onto the hook shank, Danville’s 210 Denier white flat waxed nylon used here, and cover a 3rd of the hook shank behind the eye with the thread, creating a base for the dumbbell eyes to sit on.

Tie in small, painted (chartreuse or white) lead dumbbell eyes (Hareline Dubbin PLES54) on top of the hook, leaving space for tying in the bucktail in front of it later on…

Tie in a piece of copper wire along the shank of the hook;

Fold a small piece of tinfoil around the shank;

Make sure that the tinfoil is folded nice and tight before trapping it with the thread by nice and wide winds with the thread back towards the eye of the hook, keeping the tinfoil in place but also ensuring that as much of the surface of the tinfoil is exposed;

Wrap the copper wire with tight winds over the tinfoil to cover the entire shank of the hook behind the dumbbell eyes;

Flip the fly around and tie in white bucktail (approx. twice the length of the hook);

Tie in chartreuse bucktail on top of the white bucktail and spin some of the base hairs of the bucktail on top at the eye of the hook to form the beard of the Clouser.

When timing the strike right, the Bearded Clouser almost always connects in the corner of the mouth or in the lips of the fish, I have even pinned a few fish in the mouth while fishing blind for them in the wave zone.

Smaller eagle rays often show a lot of interest in chartreuse and white Clouser Minnows fished near the bottom and I have caught several of these fish in the mouth with the Bearded Clouser as well (also see Stray Crays for Big Rays).

A lovely little eagle ray pinned in the mouth with a Bearded Clouser while targeting guitarfish in the middle of winter along our West Coast with Platon Trakoshis. Juvenile eagle rays love this fly and they will swim over it and ‘tail’ on the fly to try and eat it if presented carefully in front of them (without spooking fish) while they are feeding in shallow water.

Guitarfish hooked on a Bearded Clouser with a Solid Octagon 9 wt, a great fly rod for flats fishing.

‘ET go home…’, a guitarfish pinned in the corner of the mouth by Garth Wellman, 1st cast ever to a sandhsark, the timing couldn’t have been better!

2 thoughts on “BEARDED CLOUSER”

  1. Thanks for sharing Leonard, very interesting indeed. Perhaps I also need to try this “battery charged technique” on Spotted Grunter.


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