Is Our Thinking About Flies All Wrong?

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Dan Frasier

What if I were to tell you there is no such thing as a trout fly?

A few days ago my good friend and fly designer Steve Martinez posted a link to one of his flies that Orvis carries; his Frankenstein Sculpin. I love this fly, but his comment intrigued me. He wrote; “Although I designed this fly for carp, it has been a killer smallmouth fly this year here on the Great Lakes.” No doubt that’s a true statement. It’s a killer fly. But my first thought was, “Well, duh. It’s a fly that intends to look like a Goby, the major baitfish on his part of the Great Lakes. Of course it works for anything eating them.” And that is when it occurred to me; We’ve been doing it all wrong.

In my book, The Orvis Beginners Guide to Carp Flies, I emphasize repeatedly that there is no such thing as a carp fly. There are flies, designed to look like certain foods, that work where carp eat those things. If you don’t match the pattern with the food in the area that carp are eating, you’re SOL. Carp aren’t special in this way. Trout flies work under the same premise. An Elk-hair Caddis works where trout are eating caddis and doesn’t where they are eating scuds. And, an Elk-hair Caddis works on carp that are eating caddis and doesn’t where they are eating Gobies. So, is the Elk-hair Caddis a trout fly? Or is it a fly that works on fish eating caddis? I think the answer is obvious.

Yet when I look through any fly catalogue from the major manufacturers, the overriding theme seems to be to segregate flies by species. Wanna catch a pike? Better check out the pike flies. Fishing for smallies? Turn to the bass section. We ignore the fact that these species key on certain foods at certain locations just as much as trout do. We also ignore that many different species in that location will be all eating the same food organism; that a hex fly will work on smallies eating hexes just as well as it does for trout eating hexes. That’s why flies created for one species are frequently used by experienced anglers for others.

The experimentation and expansion of the species anglers chase with the fly seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.

No longer do you hear talk of certain fish species being lesser than others. People celebrate catching panfish without apology. Carp are the obvious poster child but all species seem to be looked at as something worth chasing. From gar to whitefish to musky, the world of opportunities is evolving within flyfishing, and for that reason we need to change the way we categorize flies. It’s time to stop grouping flies by fish species and start grouping them in terms of forage. Because, lets face it, the old way of thinking is not only confusing, particularly to new or infrequent anglers, but it teaches us all to think wrong.

Every trip for every species of fish should start with the same question: “What are the fishing eating right now where I’m headed?”

You trout bums already know this. You call it matching the hatch, and without it there would be far fewer trout porn pics on my Instagram feed. But new or infrequent anglers, or someone about to chase a new species of fish almost never start with this question. Instead they start with adjusting their fly selection to the fish they are chasing. They ask, “Ok, what are some trout flies?” Or the longtime angler looking at a new quarry thinks, “Ok, I should research carp flies.” This way of thinking about fly selection is engrained in us based on the habit of grouping flies by species, rather than food. Ask yourself this: if you were about to take a trip to to Mongolia for Taimen would you research what Taimen eat? Or rather would you ask the inter webs to show you some Taimen flies? Of course you look for Taimen flies. In doing so, you’d miss out on all the other flies that have been tied to look like what ever the hell Taimen eat, that just didn’t happen to be labeled as Taimen flies. Segregating flies on a species level imposes extremely limiting and unnecessary restrictions on what flies we allow ourself to use.

Under the Mongolia example you may be OK. Perhaps they are so specialized to some local food that the flies called Taimen Flies are the only ones tied to emulate that food source. But can the same be said for baitfish? Do bluefish flies and pike flies need to be exclusive? Even within similar environments we create unneeded limits. Go have a look at redfish, permit and bonefish flies and tell me that it makes any sense to think of them as separate categories. By changing the way we group flies we’d open up myriad possibilities in fly selection that would focus more on what’s important and less on taxonomy.

Of course, none of that is the real reason we should change how we lump flies together.

The real reason is that it would make us better anglers and fly designers. By forcing the discussion to focus on food source rather than species we would all be pinned to researching what is really important, because we would no longer have the crutch of species to shortcut our thinking. The food source would become our focus, rather than the fish itself. Which, in turn, would assure that we’d chosen flies that looked like what the fish were eating, rather than flies that the industry had approved for a given species. By creating an environment where anglers were thinking about their flies in terms of what they should look like, rather than what they should catch, the entire ethos of flyfishing could become centered on matching the hatch and presentation, rather than the hottest pattern and what it caught.

Design would change, too. I cringe when I see the warm water fly patterns being created. Designers don’t realize that they have absorbed certain limits and rules that define how a fly for a given species should look. That means that patterns for given species spiral out of control and become some strange reflection of our unscientific notions about the fish, rather than a reflection of what they eat. Where I live, pike eat panfish and small minnows. They eat frogs and mice and baby ducks. But when I look at what fly designers are tying for pike, all I find are flies designed to look like prior pike flies, only better. Don’t get me wrong, these flies catch, but does a fly that looks like the perfect pike fly catch more panfish-eating pike than a fly tied to look like a panfish?? I doubt it. If the entire process of flyfishing was to begin with the question of forage, rather than species, designers would inherently gravitate to understanding what fish are eating and making flies that emulate that organism.

This is already the case WITHIN many species genres. Fly designers invent flies to look like what trout are eating. But it doesn’t happen across genres very well. Few designers will think, “I’m going to design a fly that catches fish that are eating crayfish, regardless of species.” Why? Carp eat crayfish. Smallies eat crayfish. Trout, pike, walleye, catfish, largemouth. They all eat crayfish. We are doing a disservice to anglers to not have a crayfish section and instead have different crayfish patterns sprinkled throughout the various species lists.

By breaking flies into categories that focus on species rather than forage, we are immediately teaching people to think wrong about flyfishing.

This methodology trains people to believe that carp flies catch carp, bass flies catch bass, and trout flies catch trout. That base level thinking inhibits our ability to became better anglers more quickly and makes crossing over into different species of fish more difficult.

Dan Frasier
Gink & Gasoline
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18 thoughts on “Is Our Thinking About Flies All Wrong?

  1. Your point is well taken but seems to have overlooked the very large group of flies that elicit reflex strikes – flies that have nothing to do with imitating prey items or triggering a true feeding response.

    • I hear you Rick. I think there are a lot of flies out there that are attractors rather than imitators. But even then, I don’t think they are species specific. Isn’t it a disservice to someone looking for panfish flies that the Stimulator is listed as a trout fly?

      Just a thought.

  2. Great article. I can’t say I haven’t been confused when I see one crayfish pattern that’s recommended for bass and another that’s recommended for carp.

  3. I like your point of view.
    Recently after a revelation moment fishing for brown trout, I wanted to know more about specific brown trout flies. Try searching the internet for brown trout flies. I was really disappointed to find out that they just lump into all trout flies. This directly conflicted with the revelation I experience. Without going into detail what I discovered just by chance while fishing a well populated rainbow/brown fishery was that a specific pattern was keyed upon by browns far more than the rainbows. And I repeated these findings several times. Back to your point of view, had I considered what forage is available instead of trout flies I might have come to this conclusion much sooner. The experience taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t assume all related species eat the same things all the time.
    Thanks for the “Different Way of Thinking”

    • Thanks Greg. I think you’re right. I think if we think about forage first and then fly selection, rather than species and then selection we may be able to shortcut these learning curves.

  4. Great article, I think you hit the nail on the head. Teaching people to look at the forage and “match the hatch” is much better than go and but the collection of “trout flies” Great read as always

    • It is, isn’t it AK? That book is actually the genesis of this thought. People wanted a book about carp flies, but I knew carp vary immensely by location and forage in what they eat. So the book had to be broken into categories by food source and water body type just to make a dent. And then, so many of the flies in the book are flies that crossover amazingly to other species that eat the same thing that it became more and more clear that this wasn’t about carp as much as how to fool fish that eat certain foods in certain situations.

  5. This was interesting be a use over time I have focused on that. Even my spey flies are thought of as forage. Not a fly so to speak. He’ll I’ve caught crappie on intruders. Lots to discuss on this issue

  6. Been thinking about all this a lot lately due to articulating a few flies that are common on saltwater reds. Thinking of naming the articulated version of the “redfish crack” fly a “redfish meth” fly.

    Caught plenty of other species on carp flies. I can almost always get a flats bass to take a carp fly. They’re just mean that way. Had a freshwater drum chase down a carp fly just last week on the flats.

  7. Nice piece of of “out of the box” thinking. One of the great things about flyfishing is innovation and constant development of tackle, ideas and methods. I occasionally wonder where will our sport be in a hundred years time? (That’s if we haven’t destroyed the planet). Whilst I’m sure the concept of thinking in terms of forage, common to a number of species, is probably not new, articulating it in this way maybe.

    Sounds like Mr. Frasier might be thinking along the lines of a book along on this theme? (Rhetorical question). It could be a milestone in flyfishing literature. I’d certainly buy it.

  8. Sound thinking. Years ago when I was cutting my teeth on smallmouth bass in Tennessee streams I threw all kinds of flies at them, including “trout” flies. I kept coming back to a yellow marabou muddler.

    Duh! It looks like small panfish.

  9. Sounds like the ol evolutionary biology debate between lumpers and splitters. People are always looking to complicate matters. It wasn’t until I had a separate fly box filled with bass, brown trout, big brook trout, carp streamers (mainly sculpins) that I realized most of the flies could work for one species as well as the next. Now I tie the flies I have the most confidence in and bring them out for whatever I’m fishing for. I still have too many flies however…

  10. Last fall I fished a small high elevation creek in the Sierra. As I brought in a standard sized rainbow (~ 7-8 inches) I saw a much larger rainbow (~14 inches) slash at it.

    The only large flies I had with me were some streamers I use in the SoCal Pacific kelp beds for Calico and White Sea Bass.

    That large rainbow, and a number of his brothers and sisters over the course of the day, proved very willing to eat a salt water fly.

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