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Rough-up Flies to Catch More Trout

It is the first rule of successful fishing tackle retailing - first catch your fisherman.

I saw far too many illustrations of the truth of the 'first catch your fisherman' rule in my decade in the tackle business to argue against it.

This rule is based on a simple premise – the better a lure or fly looks to the angler the more likely money will change hands. The paint jobs on some lures are so good you could swear they could be floured, battered, fried, and served with chips (or 'do you want fries with that', if you live in the US).

But what is eminently edible to our eyes is not necessarily mouth-watering to a fish.

Most store-bought flies are overdressed. Bit like wearing a ball-gown to a barbecue.

Nearly all flies bought from a store have far too much fur and feather on them. This is to make them more attractive to the buyer’s eye. It is actually harder to tie a fly with less fur and feather.

A quick fix to the over dressing problem is to glue a small strip of Velcro (the 'hook' side) onto an ice-cream stick, and rub this over the fly to rough it up and pull out some of the fur and feathers. Using a small wire brush works well, as does a short piece of a hacksaw blade.

It is also important to remember that a fly or lure does not rely on its visual appeal alone to convince a trout to bite.

The action of the fly or lure (how it moves in the water) and the movement of the materials that make up the fly or lure can also be extremely important. Roughing up a fly can give the fur and feather more natural movement underwater.

Roughing up a fly has another plus.

Many nymphs collect air bubbles around their bodies, legs, or head to help them on their journey to the surface. Roughing up a nymph or fly can help to trap air in the fur and feathers to further help in imitating the real thing.

This may also explain why the addition of gold beads to the heads of some nymphs is so effective – they look like an air bubbles.

Skinny Smelt

A couple of years ago I tied up five or six smelt imitation flies. All much the same – a small clump of white buck tail for a body, a couple of short peacock herls for an over-body, and two strands of pearl Krystal-Flash down each side. A tuft of red wool under the throat, some red nail-polish to seal the head binding and they were finished.

Not, as I am aware, a pattern that has yet graced the pages of a fly-tying book, but it is probably in one somewhere.

no-name smelt fly

All these flies caught fish – but soon fish and snags reduced my flies to just one. It continued to catch fish, and with each fish the fly got skinnier and skinnier. Bits of buck tail pulled out or broke off. The peacock herl reduced to a scraggy tuft behind the head. The Krystal-Flash was reduced to one strand down one side. Still it caught fish.

It still catches fish.

Two years on and skinnier still – it goes on catching fish. When I finally lose it, or it is down to a bare hook I will have to try and replicate it.

If I don’t discover it in a fly tying book I think I might call it ‘Ruffazgutz’.

Take the minimalist story a little further, and to just about its logical conclusion, and you end up here.

In many lakes around New Zealand, and the World, there is a small skinny worm that forms a significant part of a trout’s diet. It is the Bloodworm. Well named. At up to two centimetres long and skinny, it is the colour of bright-red blood.

The worm moves to the surface in a frantic twisting and curling motion.

One day in Just Fishin’ (then, my tackle shop) a customer of ours was buying a packet of small bright-red Gamakatsu kirbed Suicide-pattern sea hooks. Now I knew this customer was a trout fisherman who never went fishing in the sea so I asked him what he wanted with these hooks.

"Best bloody Bloodworm imitations I have ever used", he replied.

"What do you dress it with?" I asked.

"Nothing", he replied, "I just use the bare hook. Because it is a kirbed hook it twists and turns just like the real thing as I retrieve it."

Despite the high ‘yeah, right’ factor I tried the bare bloody-hooks down at Lake Aniwhenua and Lake Otamangakau (central North Island, New Zealand) and they worked.

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So I tried to sell the hooks to fishermen who were going to lakes where there were Bloodworms but they would not have a bar of it – the ‘yeah right’ factor just too strong.

So Mark Kitteridge who worked with me back then, tied a single turn of peacock herl just behind the head of the hook, and a few turns of red thread around the body – and they sold.

As my American friends would say, "Go figure."

In fact to go figure some more, I have tried fishing a hook with just a gold bead on it and caught fish. So has a hook with two or three brightly coloured glass beads threaded on the hook. A mate of mine fishes with a bare gold hook behind a weighted nymph with success. Another mate, (one of both of them – some say), uses a pattern that is just copper wire wrapped along the hook shank.

Metal Magic

It is not just flies that can do with a touch of alteration. Metal lures can sometimes do with a bit of modification. Some metal lures can be bent. Some plastic lures are supple enough to bend, others can be bent by gently heating them in warm water.

Sometimes subtle changes to the way a lure moves in the water can increase its efficacy.

This can be especially true of jigging lures. Adding to, or putting in a small bend, can increase the ‘fluttering’ action and more closely resemble the action of a crippled fish. This is especially useful when jigging in shallow water.

Tasmanian Devil Lure

If you are using trolling lures of the winged Tasmanian Devil type, the first thing you should do is get rid of the wire gizmo that is threaded through the lure to hold the hook. Instead thread a bead onto your trace, thread your trace through the lure, and then tie on the hook. This will greatly enhance the action of the lure.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a beautiful paint job is the key to fish catching nirvana.

I still have a very battered metal jig that I had custom-painted - half black, half gold. This jig has caught literally dozens of fish. But it is a black and gold lure no more. It is now a bit of black, patch of gold, some of the underlying original chrome, and other patches of grey from the base metal showing through. Still it catches fish.

At the same time as I had this lure made up I had several more made at the same time. These all catch fish, but none as regularly as the scruffy jig.

Yet all the jigs came out of the same mould, and all had the same original colour scheme. Perplexing.

Rapala Rainbow Lure

I owned a little Rapala bibbed diving lure. This lure started life with a superb paint job that would have made Renoir proud – a near perfect imitation of a little rainbow trout. Boy, did this lure catch trout. Put it in the right place when trout were about and I would back it against all other lures.

In a short time the battering the paintwork took from trout teeth reduced the paint job to a shadow of its former glory. But still it caught fish. Towards the end there was so much of the balsa-wood body showing through I tried to repaint the little beauty back to something like its prior brilliance. I failed utterly. But still it caught fish!

Finally something too big for my skills took the lure away.

I have purchased several of the same lures since then, all visually at least, exactly duplicating my favourite, but none have achieved the success rate of that battered beauty. Weird.

Better 'eat me' signals

The only variable I can put my finger on, for both the paint job stories, is the very small differences in the actions of the lures. The original lures simply sent out better ‘eat me’ signals that had little or nothing to do with their visual appeal to our human eyes.

I guess what it boils down to is that the store-bought gloss and floss does not always translate into making a trout open its mouth and munch on your offering. The way flies and lures move can be as important as colour, and in my experience, probably more important.

Their actions are more important than their appearance. And there is a bit of a message about life, the universe, and the whole damn thing in that last sentence.

Skinny spider fly

Article written by Tony Bishop


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