One of the most interesting observations about fly selection is that successful anglers on a particular water will often rely on quite different fly patterns. This immediately suggests that the choice of fly is more important to the angler than it is to the fish.
Even when dealing with so called ‘selective feeding’ it is important to think less in terms of the fish deliberately making a conscious choice based on exact appearance—being intelligent—and more in terms of the fish being locked in to a particular feeding habit or rhythm.
Tiny caenid mayflies are a case in point. When your eyes adjust to the first light on a misty summer morning to see the water smothered in these little delicacies, it’s a mixed blessing because the fishing is likely to be tough. As the scene illuminates and the trout begin to rise in mesmerised fashion a pulled wet-fly will soon be ignored and you are faced with competing with all those naturals on top. With fish rising monotonously, showing the tips of their noses and making an audible clopping sound, their single-mindedness becomes infuriating as they ignore every small dry you can throw at them.
This classic case of selectivity drives fly-tiers to extraordinary lengths but as we have proved (at least to our own satisfaction) time and time again, these fish can be tripped up on small dries which bear very little resemblance to the natural fly—a small Iron Blue Dun for example.
The answer lies in persistent, short, accurate casting to place the fly right in front of the feeding nose, time and time again. Without this, even a live caenid impaled on the tiniest hook and attached with gossamer would probably do little better among the countless millions of naturals left uneaten, and to strike without fear of spooking the fish depends on being able to tell your fly apart from others almost touching it.
Presentation is clearly the dominant force in this situation and, in my experience, in most others. A fly of roughly the right size and shape, if presented with sufficient speed and precision, will generally do just as well as the most fastidious imitation.
FORM & FUNCTION
I have long advocated the use of ‘functional’ flies, tied simply and designed to behave in just the right way to suit the circumstances of water-type and fish feeding activity. My approach to fly selection and fly tying has always been to take an effective pattern and then try to simplify it.
The Fur Fly developed by my father in the early 70s is a case in point. If tied correctly it is little more than a bare hook with a fur collar and a twist of ostrich herl or coloured thread for a head. Simplicity and versatility are its attractions, yet people just can’t resist complicating it with variations of tail, coloured body, ribbing or soft hackle—exactly the sort of trimmings we eliminated in the first place to get back to the essential features of the fly. Complicating the pattern only increases the number of options in the fly box and confuses the decision making process even further—more time spent changing flies means less time spent fishing.
Choosing flies is really about assessing conditions and observing or best guessing where the fish are likely to be and what they might be feeding on. Then you look in the fly box, not with the eye of a child in a lolly shop, but with a view to making a more clinical assessment based on the functional attributes of particular flies—rather like picking a tool to do a specific job. The selected fly will need to be about the right size, shape and colour, but more importantly it will need to behave like the natural in the way it sits, sinks, swims or floats given the circumstances of water current, depth and wind.
As you search your fly collection you might mentally note one or two reserves as well and even pull them out and place them somewhere easily accessible. By the time you’ve properly exhausted two or three options the fishing session will probably be over and you will have time to reflect on your selections, good or bad, and plan for future encounters.
In all forms of fly fishing, whether salt or fresh, it is important to be alert for refusals, and not just those from fish in full view. Sometimes a fish turning away from the fly will show that subtle ‘wink’ or flash underwater, or leave a swirl like the softest oar stroke. Unless you are concentrating on each retrieve you may miss these telltale signs which say that a fish has looked but not been tempted to take. Refusals will sometimes force a fly change but otherwise I am reluctant to change just for the sake of it. I have caught more fish by sheer persistence and keeping the fly in the water than by making some inspired change.
MIX & MATCH
When searching blind, whether wet or dry, combinations of flies, as advocated by several authors in this issue (see Hawkins and Grose), can help by giving both angler and fish several choices at once. Even so, teams of flies require thought and balance in order to best complement the adopted fishing technique. It is not just a matter of tying your favourite flies in a row and sitting them out there like long-line baits!
I generally prefer a single fly in most sight fishing situations, although a dry fly and nymph combination—a buoyant Royal Wulff with a weighted Hare & Copper or bead-head nymph tied from the bend—has often proved more than useful in fast flowing rivers. Some call it cheating but it makes good sense when both trout and angler may be in two minds.
Experience will soon teach you that certain flies work well in particular circumstances. This is enough for many people but I really like to know why. Understanding a particular feature of a fly and its special attraction allows for more lateral thought and increases your chances of making an informed decision when faced with unfamiliar territory. Don’t be afraid to speculate, as I have in the following paragraphs, because we are still a long way from having definite answers about fish senses, intelligence and behaviour.
DRESS & DESIGN
Overdressing flies is counterproductive. In recent times dry flies have taken a step backwards thanks to endless genetic hackles being wound on and on. Dries should be sparsely hackled ‘so the light shines through’. In most circumstances a dry sitting low in the water and showing some ‘meat’ underneath will be taken more readily in any case (the dries advocated by Neil Grose are great examples). If you want a fly that rides high, a mayfly spinner for example, palmer the hackle by all means but still make it sparse, and choose an appropriate lightweight dry fly hook.
The same is true of wet flies, even saltwater patterns. The illusion of size is generally more important than actual bulk (in clear water at least) and this can be achieved through careful choice of materials. Appearance in the water is all important. In the same way, weighted flies, designed to sink quickly, will also benefit from a sparse body dressing.
Particularly annoying are those flies which tend to ‘tail wrap’ when cast (the tail wraps around the hook bend). A tail-wrapped fly will often produce refusals from fish which might otherwise have taken, and valuable time is wasted whenever you pull in and attend to the fly. So, keep tails short or try other patterns. A Fuzzy Wuzzy or Hairy Dog for example will not tail wrap, but a poorly tied Matuka will.
Some of the lightweight synthetic wings used on modern wets and saltwater flies look great but wrap around the hook when cast into a wind. If this happens, give them the flick and find a more user-friendly alternative.
FLASH & COLOUR
Movement is one of the big differences between real flies and artificial ones and this is undoubtedly a key which says ‘edible’ to the fish. We can retrieve a wet or tweak a dry to give some life but that doesn’t help much when circumstances demand a static or free-drift presentation.
The answer lies in flash and sparkle —the way light reflects off a fly—creating the illusion of life and movement. At close quarters I have often seen fish start to turn away from a fly, then suddenly be drawn back as though the fly has kicked or struggled. I suspect that the fish has been tricked by a glint of light as its angle of view has shifted slightly.
Traditionally, wire ribbing, tinsels and shiny natural materials like peacock herl were used to give life to a fly—even clipped deerhair can have this effect (see FlyLife #5 ). Nowadays all sorts of brilliant synthetic flashes are added willy-nilly, but again, it is important not to overdo it. Just a subtle hint of glint should add enough realism to trigger a positive response.
The importance of colour in flies is another interesting topic. Many fish, including trout, do have retinal ‘cone’ cells which are associated with colour vision, but it is unlikely that they perceive colour in the way that we do. It seems that most fish rely on contrast and movement across a broad field of view rather than acute colour vision at a sharp point of focus.
I have to tell a story at Phil Weigall’s expense to illustrate the fallibility of our own colour perception when selecting flies. When preparing the Milly Midge article for an earlier edition, Phil mentioned the Dunkeld as a fly which had worked well during green-midge hatches and he suggested that the colour similarity made it a logical candidate. When I phoned and politely hinted that the Dunkeld might be orange, he was mystified. You see, Phil is one of many red/green colour blind males in the angling population.
Likewise, when I first started fishing with Greg French, he was more than happy with the green tails on his ‘Red’ Tags! If some of our best fishing writers can’t tell the difference, can we really expect the fish to be able to?
BUY & TIE
Those who don’t tie flies need to be even more critical about fly selection, and all the above points are relevant. In addition you must look for quality above price because there are no short cuts to tying good flies using the best materials on quality hooks.
Dries that are dragged down by heavy hooks, for example, or unravel at short notice, should be consigned to the bin. Balance and proportion are also important, so the fly will sit nicely and/or swim as it should.
In the salt water I have had less experience but all the same principles seem to apply. Avoid flies with long synthetic wings which tail-wrap, dress fast-sinking flies sparsely to achieve the same effect with less bulk and less weight, and as Chris Beech often reminds FlyLife readers, don’t overdo the flash.
All the experts I’ve fished with seem to prefer relatively small flies and more particularly small hooks (#2 and less) in the salt, even though the fish are often big and toothy. It makes sense, because small hook points and small barbs penetrate even hard mouths more easily.
Going barbless is another suggestion, especially in salt water. Barbless hooks are much easier on the fish and much less damaging when you are trying to recover the fly. Just flatten the barb with pliers and leave a little bit of grip if you are feeling insecure.
In a fly fishing life most of us go through a 5 to 10 year period of trial and error and extensive experimentation. By that time we have developed a successful formula with our own special places and favourite flies. Soon our habits are well established and it is easy to become complacent and set in our ways. To avoid being too dogmatic about fly choice and perhaps missing out on new developments and opportunities, it is important to keep an open mind.
By all means, try other people’s suggestions, especially if they are backed by solid experience. A flexible approach to fly selection will always pay dividends.