The myth of the secret fly, irresistible to fish, has been around as long as flyfishing. Rumour has it that in years gone by, fly tiers quietly encouraged their patterns to be banned as too deadly. Perhaps a temporary dip in fly sales was a small price to pay to enhance their reputations!
These days, choosing which fly to tie on often remains half science, half witchcraft! I think it would be fair to say that even among FlyStream’s experienced bloggers, no one believes that the ‘right’ fly on its own is regularly the difference between a good day and a bad day. At the very least, these anglers would be equally preoccupied with how the fly was fished; often, this latter element would be the lion’s share of their preoccupation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the widely held belief that an angler’s success is down to their cunning choice of fly. The mystique isn’t helped by the likes of one old flyfisher I knew who, on the conclusion of a good session, would quietly remove his successful fly and replace it with a more common pattern, in case anyone checked what he got’em on!
Such subterfuge aside, where it gets murky is trying to identify exactly what part the fly plays in success. Personally, I struggle to think of an occasion where I’m certain a single fly pattern was the only viable option. Now of course there are some situations where I only feel confident with a particular pattern, but that in itself immediately begins to fray any scientific examination. In any flyfishing situation, the value of confidence is huge, so simply believing that a fish will eat pattern X goes a long way towards ensuring that actually happens. Conversely, having little faith in fly Y all but dooms it to failure.
So, as bloggers on the FlyStream site, where does all that leave us when recommending particular fly patterns? Such recommendations are easiest to make when we’ve encountered trout feeding selectively – that is, feeding almost exclusively on one particular food because it was super abundant at the time: flying ants, gum beetles, a particular mayfly, a particular baitfish, etc. For example, I have a lot of confidence in the Possum Emerger during lake mayfly hatches (so long as the trout are rising). I know it’s not the only dry that ever works in these circumstances – floating nymphs, parachute emergers and the Shaving Brush are just some alternatives that can work as well or better. But the Possum is usually taken well enough to recommend it without having to add reams of fine print afterwards!
One case where it becomes more complicated, is when a particular fly seems to be especially effective, but I’m not quite sure why. On a number of occasions, the Murrumbidgee Brown Nymph has stood out as a lake pattern to the extent that friends have been begging me for one when very similar nymphs have been failing. The same has happened with Muz Wilson’s Green Emu Bugger. Being objective, it’s a stretch to say these flies are sufficiently different from, say, a standard brown nymph in the first case or a standard green Woolly Bugger in the second case. And yet fished side by side, I’ve watched both flies totally dominate the pretenders. Is this an exaggerated example of the confidence effect? Possibly, but try asking me to change my Emu Bugger for a standard Woolly during a big day at Wartook! Whether the Emu Bugger has some has unique quality that makes it essential, or whether it’s just another member of the very effective Woolly Bugger family, my conscience won’t allow me not to name it in blog.
Then there are patterns that seem to have an edge on a given day, but not breathtakingly so. To go back a step, we could make a loose generalisation that opportunistic feeding behaviour – the opposite of selective feeding – is dominant in waters that are relatively infertile, and this is compounded where competitive pressure is reasonably high. This is the typical state on many Australian mountain streams. The trout must make the most of any meal opportunity and coupled with currents that quickly sweep food out of reach or into the mouth of a competing fish, any broadly food-like object needs to be snatched if such a stream trout is to survive and thrive. There are still selective feeding periods when it’s efficient for the trout to focus its attention on the super-abundant easy meal of, say, termites during a termite fall. However mostly, it’s no surprise when a Stimulator does as well as a Royal Wulff.
During our recent visit to the Bundarra River in north-east Victoria, Max out-fished me convincingly early in the session, and when I learned he was using a small Elk Hair Caddis versus my large Stimulator, I didn’t hesitate to change. My catch rate immediately increased. While neither Max nor I were convinced that the Elk Hair Caddis was the best fly (much less the only one that would have worked) it did well enough to rate a mention in his subsequent blog post.
Later, on the Mitta Mitta River, it wasn’t possible to identify a standout pattern – or even patterns. Max and I used a few different flies each, with which we caught or missed several trout. We were also sure that our failure to deep nymph some classic slots cost us fish, so no nymph patterns were given a fair go. On the Victoria River the day before, we’d have had almost the opposite problem nominating the right fly – a Royal Wulff did very well, but the aggressive behaviour of the trout suggested that many other generalist dries would have performed. (When forum member Merv subsequently reported many takes there on a Red Tag, it came as no surprise.)
So, the dilemna is; when is fly advice helpful, when is it of borderline value, and when is it actually unhelpful? In the Mitta example above, Max or I could have listed every fly that worked, but as well as taking up a lot of space, I think that would have been almost misleading. Sure, we caught fish on such and such patterns, but not convincingly. My tip to a mate heading up subsequently was to actually try what we didn’t!