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Fly And Lure Actions Are More Important Than Appearances

'Roughing up' flies and lures can improve catch rates


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

This rule is based on a simple premise - the better a lure or fly looks to the angler the more likely it is to be bought.

The paint jobs on some lures are so good you could swear they could be floured, battered, fried, and served with chips (or fries if you live in USA). But what is eminently edible to our eyes is not necessarily mouth-watering to a fish.

Most Store-Bought Flies are Overdressed

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. A quick fix is to glue a small strip of Velcro (the hooked 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. I am pretty unsubtle about dealing to any store-bought flies and attack them with a short piece of old 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.

Gold bead-head nymph

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 head of some nymphs is so effective - they look like an air bubble.

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Bend It, Shape It

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. Thread your trace through the lure, thread on a bead, and then tie on the hook. This will greatly enhance the action of the lure.

Four Quick Takes on the ‘Less is Best’ Theory

Skinny Smelt

Skinny Smelt fly

I tied up five or six smelt imitation flies. All much the same - a small clump of white bucktail 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 black varnish 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 or five somewhere.

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 got skinnier and skinnier. Bits of bucktail 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’. (Sadly, since writing this book the original skinny fly has died, probably severe malnutrition.)

Bloody Hook

In many lakes around New Zealand (and elsewhere), there is a small skinny worm that forms a significant part of a trout's diet. It is the Bloodworm. Well named. Around two centimetres long and skinny, it is the colour of bright-red blood. The worm moves to the surface to breath 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. I knew this customer was a trout fisherman who never went fishing in the sea so I asked him why 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 kirbed it twists and turns just like the real thing as I retrieve it”.

Bloody Hook aka Bloodworm

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. 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 we tied a single turn of Peacock herl just behind the head of the hook, and a few turns of red thread around the shank as a '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. (For more on [bead flies]).

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.

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Paint Removal

I still have a very battered Grim Reaper jig that I had custom-painted half black, half gold. This jig has caught literally scores 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.

Removing Paint Again

Little Rapala trout 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 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 beaut 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, visually at least exactly duplicating my favourite, but none have achieved the success rate of that battered beauty.

The only variable I can put my finger on, for both the paint job stories, is the varying 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.

Their actions are more important than their appearance.

(Bit of a message about life, the universe, and the whole damn thing in that last sentence - but I digress.)

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Where is More Important Than What

Despite all the above, I contend that you are much more likely to catch a trout with the ‘wrong’ fly or lure - one that does not match the hatch or is the wrong size - in the right place, than the ‘right’ fly or lure in the wrong place.

In addition, given that you are fishing where fish are - I believe that how the lure or fly is presented to where the fish is - is more important than what the lure or fly.

Often one of the biggest problems facing the angler - once a fish is spotted or a probable lie identified - is how to place a lure or fly in a position that will maximise the chances of the fish biting it. Overcoming these obstacles for a variety of water is the subject of the following chapters, but what needs to be recognised is that on many occasions a trout may be lying in a position that denies the angler the opportunity to fish with one particular method or a desired fly or lure.

For instance you may be able to see a river fish and know that it is feeding on a particular nymph. But because of the bank structure your only possible method of placing a fly or lure in front of the fish is to move upstream of the fish from the opposite bank. Then your only option is to cast across the river and swing a lure downstream in front of the fish.

It may well transpire that the fish will ignore your offering, preferring to feed on the nymphs it is feeding on, but at least if you can put your fly or lure in front of the fish you have a far better chance of catching it than if you don't.

But just to ensure that there is no confusion; the very best situation is when you can fish to where you know there is a fish, using a fly that closely matches what that fish is feeding on, and present that fly using the optimal method. That is a fishing jackpot.

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