Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The problem with modern trout flies… or 30 pieces of ‘flair’.


Two mayflies?


After having presented a talk on fly fishing for spring-creek trout to a gathering of anglers, one of the sports purloined me afterwards to show me his fly-box. Upon opening it, fireworks seemed to explode. Lined up neatly like a collection of miniature happy-meal toys were a phalanx of kaleidoscopic colors and shapes. Rubber legs and foam sticking out in all directions dominated the creations, and many were topped with wigs of poly-yarn. There was not a single subtle natural-looking pattern to be found.


“This is my dry-fly box,” he proclaimed, “What do you think?”


I remarked that I thought they needed more ‘cow-bell’.


If these were trout flies, they seemed to be sporting clown-suits topped by a sombrero.


What happened to the sparsely dressed flies that actually resembled the insects that trout saw on a daily basis and ate: the flies of Gordon and Flick et al? Why all these gaudy over-dressed cartoon-like hallucinations?


Well, they are popular after all… and popularity owes nothing to lasting legacy, function or form. Popularity is just that: popular because popularity begets popularity. Monkey see and monkey do, if you will. After all Milli-Vanilli was popular once, and… well… who?


For the last century of American dry-fly development, anglers and fly-tiers concentrated on matching the prevalent bugs on the water with sparsely dressed flies. These patterns relied on just a few materials to allow the fly to ride on the surface of the water, often balanced on tail and hackle: what the English referred to as ‘Well-cocked’. Fly-dressers knew through experimentation that a sparse fly floated longer and allowed the trout to see the profile and color properly. They trapped air better, and the materials were less apt to soak up water as quickly as over-dressed patterns. We seem to have forgotten that recently.


Many of today’s most popular trout patterns look like a contest was held; the winner to be the tier who crammed the most crap on the hook, and a bonus prize awarded if the resulting creation looked like something Timothy Leary might have seen after licking a few too many, ahem, postage stamps back in Haight-Ashbury.


Let’s start with the rubber legs. No pattern worthy of good standing in a bin at a fly-shop can do without them. Shrug them aside and be relegated to the also-rans in the discount bin. The problem is not only that actual trout-stream insects don’t have rubber legs, but also that rubber legs tend to sink the fly. Therefore…


Foam… lots of foam. This is both ‘cool’, and helps counteract the diving effect of the rubber legs. If one sheet of foam is good, then multiple sheets are better, especially in wild colors. Top the foam with a biggish plume of poly-yarn for visibility just in case legally blind friends might miss your new creation on the water, and you have a nice big top-heavy blob that flips on its side after landing, and resembles trout insects as much as a McDonald’s hamburger.


Adding 30 pieces of flair helps too. Why fish a lowly blue-winged olive consisting of a tail, a dubbed body, three turns of hackle and a split duck wing, when you can fish one with krystal flash and doll eyes. So much cooler that! Value enters the picture as well. If our bland olive mayfly and the new krystal flash extravaganza tied in reverse on a jig hook and sporting rubber-legs are both two-bucks… well, one is just getting so much more for their money! Chotchkie’s was right: flair sells! Despite the fact that any trout worthy of their name run from the restaurant screaming rather than eat the damn food… er… flair.


I remember my father explaining to me once upon a time a’ browsing the lure section of a sporting goods store, that “Most lures are made to lure fishermen, not fish”. I think the ‘lure’ of form over function he was explaining might prove apt today. A good question might be asked: “How many Willy Wonka flies does a trout have to eat to grow to a foot long?” The answer being zero, for trout don’t eat Willy Wonka flies.


“They eat mine!” a true believer and rubber leg cult member proclaims. Yes… but those fish might wish to apply for Darwin awards, and get removed from the gene pool before they pass on bad habits. Seriously though, as a trout guide I see anglers every week on the water throwing this month’s popular millennial IPA fly and catching a few fish. However, their success is masking their lack of success: they don’t know the fish they are missing by not using sparse and realistic patterns that match the food in the stream. Yes, these new flies sometimes have a tendency to lure Bullwinkle out of his cave to investigate what the hell that thing is and take a swipe at it, but then extrapolating a success to equate a box filled with only Chernobyl mutations is a bit of a stretch.


Why this trend came to be in fly-fishing is a matter for endless philosophical discussion, but it happened rather quickly. It took roughly ten years for ‘Match the hatch’ to be replaced with ‘Attractors’. Funny it never happened in a sport like duck hunting. To this day wielders of the shotty-gun in the cold wastes of the duck blind still place decoys out in the water that look like ducks to a duck. I have never observed anyone inflating a parti-colored beach ball and setting it a sail on the pond in hopes that a duck or three might be tempted to gather and socialize with it.


If a duck did come down to the beach ball, I would shoot it to remove it from the gene-pool, which might be the best solution for many of today’s over-dressed gaudy monstrosities masquerading as trout flies.