The angler, and specifically the fly tier’s goal is simple: to fool a trout. The opinions of how that may be best accomplished are widespread and multitudinous. Some tiers prefer traditional patterns, some the latest product from the current internet guru. Get them in a room together and you might have anything from friendly discussions to heated arguments erupt. Fly fishers are a passionate bunch.
I have met everything from the guy that ties and fishes “nothing but the Adams”, to the guy who carries a backpack on stream to supplement the severely stretched capacity of his fly vest. I myself hate to be caught without the right fly to match a hatch, though I have worked to downsize the number and size of fly boxes residing in my vest for several years.
In truth, a lot of us spend most of our time actually fishing a fairly small selection of flies. Whether that means an Adams or a couple of large fly boxes filled to match the hatches of the season misses the point. We may carry a lot of flies, but actually fish only a few of them on any given day.
As a fly tier, I am always experimenting. One reason for that is it interests me. I am intrigued with the idea of finding a new material, or a new way to use an old one that produces a more lifelike fly. The other reason relates to fishing pressure. Whether during the twenty-three years I lived in South Central Pennsylvania or during my recent seasons as a smiling resident of the lovely Catskill Mountains, the waters I fish see a lot of anglers.
The average trout in our heavily fished northeastern streams sees a lot of flies, and my experiences have proven to me that heavily fished catch and release trout do show some avoidance behavior. Call it pattern saturation or whatever you like, but I’ll bet you have noticed that a hot fly can be really productive for a while, then eventually stops producing the number of fish it did when it was new to your favorite piece of trout water. I tie different flies partially to be able to show them something different.
Trout have been caught on all mater of flies. Lets face it, stomach samples show sticks and cigarette butts and what-have-you when taken from trout kept for the table. Several years ago I volunteered to act as a guide for a Project Healing Waters outing in Western Maryland. The stream was small, and the stretch chosen for the day was heavily stocked club water. More fish were caught with pellet flies or very plain brown un-weighted nymphs than anything else. Those stocked trout were used to pellet feeders and that is what they responded to. They didn’t seem to recognize the natural stream fare. Cockeyed selectivity isn’t it? Though when considered, it is very logical. Those trout were conditioned to rise and take small brown pellets sprayed onto the water from above. A fly that looked like a pellet that was cast and dropped on the surface looked like, and was presented like the food they recognized. Automatic feeders are very common in hatcheries.
There are a load of theories as to why trout feed selectively, and some completely reject the concept. Going by my own experience, selective feeding is very real and very common on our hard fished eastern wild trout waters. I have observed trout feeding on various insect hatches, where they would key on a single stage of the naturals, sometimes duns, sometimes cripples or emergers, but most importantly only the insects that moved in their window! To me, that is a learned behavior resulting from years of heavy fishing pressure.
Movement, and the appearance of movement, is a key factor in tying a lifelike fly, and a lifelike fly is more likely to fool a trout, particularly a wild trout in a quality river with a good natural food base.
Take my little Cahill emerger. It has a short, ragged trailing shuck of Antron yarn and a dubbed body of natural fur blended with a bit of Antron dubbing. Those features provide natural colors and light reflections, and the Antron fibers hold tiny air bubbles on their surface. The wing is tied with CDC fibers that also trap a lot of tiny air bubbles to provide floatation and movement where the fibers touch the surface currents. A few soft fibers of hen hackle simulate the legs. All of the components of this simple fly combine to look like something that is moving and thus alive.
The classic soft hackle wet fly is a traditional example. The traditional silk body displays a nice translucency when wet, the wire rib and the natural/synthetic dubbing blend for the thorax reflects light, and the Hungarian partridge feather fibers move seductively with the current. This is another very simple tie which does its job admirably, it is subtle and it looks like something alive in the water.
What about the Adams guy? Well that fly features muskrat fur for the body which, like most water mammals, has a natural sheen when wet, brown and grizzly hackle for a vibrant mix of natural colors, and Grizzly hackle tip wings. Barred materials like grizzly hackle do a pretty nice job of imitating movement when viewed through moving water. So the venerable Adams dry fly is a neutral color and it imitates movement. Easy to see why it catches trout under a lot of conditions when you break it down like that isn’t it.
One gentleman I knew who used to say “all you need is an Adams” confessed he tied them with pale yellow and tan bodies, as well as the original gray muskrat. Those three colors do cover a majority of the mayfly hatches we see during the season, and several of the most prolific caddis.
I don’t run into that many “Adams guys” as I did years ago, so perhaps it helps that the trout aren’t seeing them hour after hour, day after day. Sometimes something old is something new to the trout rising in front of you.
You will find a lot of experienced fly fishers who will tell you that presentation matters, not the fly. I agree with them; and I disagree. My decades with the fly rod convinced me long ago that both matter most of the time. The fact is, we should all strive to be presentationists. There is no situation in which a good presentation of your fly won’t help you catch a trout. Making a great presentation with a really lifelike fly that moves in the current on a natural drift will help you catch the difficult ones.