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Fly-tying: Does Imitation or Approximation Produce Better Trout Flies?

Wooly Bugger Fly

What is the point of trying to tie flies that imitate the natural prey of trout when there is an ugly great hunk of metal protruding out of it's rear end?

My fingers were flying into their work. Fur, feathers, beads, lead and assorted bright and gleaming bits, wrapped themselves around hooks. My sense of satisfaction was great - right up to the time I started to think about what I was doing.

I was wrestling with tying on a tiny tail pulled from the underside of the left wing (fourth feather from the tip) of the lesser speckled Romanian Sparrow-Buzzard, onto a size 18 standard nymph hook, when it struck me. Why do we tie tails on nymphs?

Hare and Copper nymph

Have a look at the picture of a nymph alongside, or look at a nymph you have about your person, and tell me what you think a trout thinks is the curved metal thingy ending in a sharp point hanging behind and below said nymph.

Why is it seen as any different to the "bit-of-feather" tail above it?

We are talking here of a fish that can, from 50 metres away, spot the movements of a stalking-angler's eyelash if he blinks. A fish that can pick out a size 22 nymph in turbulent, bubble laden water.

It is not as though the hook bend and point are disguised in any way - no - we fly-tiers go to some lengths to ensure the gape (the gap between the shaft of the hook and it's point) of the hook is not cluttered up, so we can get good hook-ups.

So why do we spend so many hours trying to imitate the real insects that trout tend to chomp on. And, imitation can take on a whole new dimension for those tiers into ultra-realistic flies. They are such superb copies of the real thing that even humans are fooled, although fooling humans in so many ways, happens so often, it should not be the least bit surprising.

Ultra realistic Stone Fly rendering by John Betts

Once I was given a truly remarkable ultra-realistic rendition of a Stone Fly of United States parentage, a really big, menacing brute, of a fly. That is it lurking nearby.

Unfortunately I dropped it, unnoticed, onto the floor. My then, Cultural Attaché and Income Disbursement Manager, came upon the brute, freaked out, and sprayed the best part of a can of insecticide onto the creature, before completing its demolition with several hearty whacks of a large rolling-pin, finally dispatching it to the rubbish bin at full-stretch arms length.

Ultra-realistic indeed, except for one telling detail, a curved piece of steel emanating from the fly's rear end.

Most ultra-realistic fly-tiers photograph their creations from above to hide the steel from human gaze and increase the 'wow' quotient, but in the topsy-turvy world of the river, what is up, down, above, and below, is not so easy to control, so the trout watching for its next meal has full view of the fly, complete with the cold, hard and pointy bit.

Now I am of course aware that many anglers have converted to the imitative nymph doctrine, I nearly wrote 'dogma' but as an ex-tackle-store owner I am fully aware of the tackle-store owners credo for business success, 'first catch your fisherman.'

These anglers will observe a trout’s feeding pattern, may even sample the water to see what it is that the trout is feeding on and tie on an imitative pattern.

But we once again return to the perplexing conundrum - the selected nymph itself is a perfect imitation in every way, colour, size, and shape - except for that damn curved-steel bit. On some flies the in-view steel is bigger than the fly tied on the hidden bit of steel.

So that line of thought lead me to the inevitable question - if the blatantly obvious piece of steel protruding from the nether regions of the nymph, does not make the trout recite to itself, "hello, hello, what's going on here then?" and treat the fly with utter disdain, what credence can we give to the notion of imitation being important?

Now before going further with this line of thought, I have to tell you that I have tied bucket loads of flies, probably more. Each and every one of those flies a valiant attempt to replicate what nature wrought with apparent ease, but my tortured tying produces only a brutish mockery of the real thing.

But here is the thing, some of my rough creations, in fact very often the rougher the better, catch fish.

Drop one of these horrible scraggy things into the river, to drift in close proximity to a fish, and the stupid thing clamps down on the ugly thing with apparent glee and gusto. Very disappointing to those of my friends who are marvelous fly tiers.

There is more. A friend of mine, many say one of both of them, uses only two nymphs when fishing rivers; gold-ribbed hare's ear and a pheasant tail. He has them weighted and unweighted, beaded (and unbeaded. Beads are often added to the head of the hook to add weight and attraction) and un-beaded, and in a range of sizes. He catches more fish than me, and more than most.

Now it is worth pondering on the fact that both these nymphs were invented before imitation mania swept the fishing fraternity...

... they approximate everything and imitate nothing.

But where was this leading me? Scruffy flies that catch fish, old patterns that catch fish, are all very well, but it still does not explain the complete disdain that a trout has for the piece of steel hanging out in plain view from flies, regardless of the age of the pattern; scruffy, ugly, or a symphony in fur and feather.

Thinking a bit further around the fly, I began to wonder why on earth I was tying in a fibre or three from the Western Australian Blue Backed Gull's Under-tail to form a wing case on the fly I was making ugly.

If a trout does not give a tinker's toss about a menacing bit of steel hanging down under the fly, is it really going to give a nanoseconds consideration to the fact that the particular pattern does not have a wing case made from the Western Australian Blue Backed Gull's Under-tail as called for in the Great Definitive Book of the Most Successful Fly Patterns of All Time (in ten volumes)?

More to the point does a trout worry at all if the fly has a wing case; does it even notice?

At this point I was about to try and tie in a soft hackle from the South African Transvaal Red-Speckled Grey Partridge as outlined in The Book, when I thought why don't I just form a couple of loops with the tying thread and let then hang down, do a whip finish and then cut off the loops to produce lovely wriggly 'legs'.

You can take this sort of whittling down of the numbers of bits of dead birds, animals, sparkly bits filched from celebration decorations while avoiding the steely gaze of She Who Sees All, and clumps of fur and feather salvaged from road-kills while in clear and present danger from speeding trucks, to its logical conclusion.

Just use a bare hook! It works.

red saltwater fishing hook perfect bloodworm 'fly'

The best bloodworm imitation I know is a bare, red, kirbed, Gamakatsu saltwater-hook, size 4. Because the hook-point is offset from the shank, the hook wriggles and twists as it moves through the water - very bloodwormish. It has caught heaps of fish, for me.

But when I had my tackle shop, do you think we could sell buck-naked hooks to catch trout - no way.

Then one day one of my staff tied one turn of Peacock herl around the hook, up against the eye, and bingo, out the door they went to the triumphant sound of my ringing cash register.

I have another friend, yes, the other one, who regularly uses a fly made of a gold bead on the hook and some thread to secure it - catches fish. Mind you he is the same guy that wraps a turn of the thin foam that is used to wrap fruit, around a hook, colours it with a permanent marker, and then ties in a turn or two of some hackle or other plucked at random from my fly tying desk, with a strand or two of crystal flash, also stolen from me.

He launches this fly to huge heights above and forward of the fish and allows it to splash down like a tossed boulder. Too many times for my fragile ego to want to contemplate, a big dumb fish comes surging forward and monsters the fly - this while in the midst of a huge hatch (many insects 'hatch' from below the water at the same time to ensure that many will avoid the feeding trout) of miniscule something-or-others.

So where have we reached in this rumination on the relationship between a trout, a fly and the hook? I have to confess I have absolutely no idea whatsoever. I can find no credible explanation as to why trout apparently ignore the obvious, and sharp, bit below the fly.

Perhaps it is because fish see the sharp bit and the fly as two separate things, and do not get a 'this is not goodness' message.

Perhaps trout see the visible metal as some acceptable extension to the fly. In the relatively short time the fish has to make a bite-or-not decision, the hook does not get too much attention.

Perhaps, and we are descending into deep heresy here, maybe it is simply that a trout is as thick as a ditch-diggers sandwich.

Despite all that has been written about the wily and cunning quarry we tie flies for, all these words boil down to anthropomorphism - crediting non-human things with human characteristics and behaviours.

"The balance of probability, I think, leans to the theory that the trout is so obsessed by the pressure of appetite the he only sees what he wants to see – his supposed insect prey – and ignores the hook as an irrelevant detail, all of which goes to prove that the wily trout of the poets and journalists is – may Providence be devoutly thanked for it – really rather a stupid person." - Skues

Maybe the hard part about catching trout is not decking ourselves out in more equipment than a telephone linesman, not trying to tie flies that are masterpieces of imitation, apart from the damn pointy bit, and not trying to work out which of these masterpieces to fling near the stupid fish, but rather concentrating on the things that do catch fish.

Without exception the best way to catch a trout, (having found it, or where it is likely to be), is to put a fly right in front of the beast.

Perhaps where the fly is - is more important than what the fly is.

I think we have moved far too far in the direction of achieving imitation, and all the baggage built around it. I do not care how well a fly mimics the real insect, for me no fly can be fully imitative with a curved piece of steel hanging in plain view from its bum. At best, even the most skillfully tied flies can only ever hope to be an approximation, not true imitation. Once you get into the realm of approximation you of course get into the business of just how close does the approximation have to be.

A fly that has a rough approximation of imitation presented to a fish where the fish expects food to be, has much more chance of hooking a fish, than standing on the bank fussing over what 'imitation' to use.

I have never yet caught a trout without my fly being in or on the water, and do not expect to.

I do know this from my decade in the retail tackle business, the vast majority of our customers seemed to believe that buying new technology in rods and reels, and more and different flies, would somehow lift meagre catch rates. Never did of course. Spending some hours on fly casting practice so they could place a fly where a trout was, more often, would have served them a great deal better. Buying more flies in the hope of finding one that 'changes their luck' is much less arduous, but ultimately a futile exercise.

There is a final hook in my story.

All the fly-tiers I know personally, that produce wonderful imitations have one thing in common, other than their fly-tying ability, they are all only fair to middling anglers, and some rarely fish. The best fly fishers I know personally, that tie their own flies, produce flies that are, well, rough as guts.

In fact the very good fly fishers I know, who do not tie their own flies, take to store-bought flies with all manner of implements, and unsubtle implements at that, like a short bit of hacksaw blade, to rough-up the fly and uglyfy it. There has to be a message in here somewhere.

For a seemingly plausible view on why trout ignore the hook have a look here .

Gold Bead Hare's Ear Nymph - scruffy enough for any trout

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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My first trout fishing book Fishing Smarter for Trout is now up on this site and free to read. Includes regular updates and new stuff.

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Mass Migration Away From Any Notion of Imitation

Since I wrote the original version of this article there has been a veritable explosion of fly-tying materials in colours that even five years ago would have been considered crazy, and too far away from any semblance of natural colours.

There are sparkling materials, dubbing, thread, and beads, in colours unthinkable just a few years ago. Blues, greens, pinks, purples, fluorescent green, red and orange, there are many more. Even wire has fallen under the colour transformation. Let us not forget UV materials, rubber legs, epoxy and UV hardened resins. The full list too long to appear here.

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I learnt my first fishing (and some of life's) lessons on the rivers and streams of the South Island, New Zealand 60 plus years ago. Way back then the only flies used were wet flies or dry flies. When nymphing came on the scene only dark brown or darker brown nymphs hit the water. The mantra was, 'Use a small dark nymph, if that does not work use a smaller, darker nymph.'

That mantra has been lost in a blizzard of bright sparkling nymphs and wet flies. How far has it gone?

See this.

Double bead nymph

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The way a trout is held when taking a photo, (a.k.a 'Grip and grin'), can easily turn into 'grip and kill' if the fish is not handled carefully and correctly.

The area above the pectoral fins, (the fins just behind and below the gills) contains the fish's heart and other organs; too great a pressure applied to this area can lead to the death of the fish.

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Distill all the 'wisdom' down, and you are likely to come up with the following 'best times' to go fishing for trout:

  • Start before dawn and fish through till sunlight lights up the water.
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The list of bad fishing times is longer, but the notion of bad may not necessarily be based on good evidence. In fact the notion of 'bad' fishing times usually means fishing times that are not included in the list of 'best' times.

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