Does the fly ever really matter?
Updated: May 6, 2021
Does the fly ever really matter? A simple question with vast array of answers. Ask a hundred anglers, and each has a different opinion, offering up all manner of explanations to back up their thoughts. I myself have my own opinion, and this is what I plan to explore during this blog,
hoping to declutter the mysticism behind fly selection for the saltwater arena.
Casting back the years to a younger self, I was a passionate and dedicated young trout angler. I read all the magazines and books, gazing over each page, pressing my eye close to the text and slowly reading each sentence so as not to miss a word. To onlookers, it may have appeared that i was cramming for a test, or perhaps, trying to absorb the information through some obscure means like osmosis. I covered every form of media to learn as much as I could about fly fishing
for trout and how to select the right fly to use at the right time. I then spent hundreds of hours throughout those years tying all manner of must have flies, secret flies and old faithfuls, cramming boxes and decorating fishing hats. By the end of that period I had more flies than I knew what to do with. My fishing bag became increasingly larger (and heavier) to cope with all the fly boxes, and my success went down. I spent too much time delving through boxes, trying to decide what fly to use, instead of actually doing what I came to do, fish!
It took me a good while to correlate my decrease in success with the kitchen sink style approach I had adopted, however once realized, I changed my mindset and approach, in a bid to improve my catch rates and have more pleasurable days out on the water. Not long after this phase of my angling life, I started to get into full time guiding for Trout. This career path greatly helped in my decluttering process, as many of my once coveted secret ties ended up lost to the trees, hedgerows and any other debris that my clients could find on a wayward backcast, or slightly over ambitions reach casts into tight pockets.
This left me seriously rethinking my angling approach again, and diving deeper into minimizing my kit, however this time, only focusing on the necessities, instead of simply bringing less boxes. This may seem obvious to many of you reading this, but to an angling hoarder like myself, this was a difficult task…
So anyway, what does this have to do with what flies I pack for a dream trip to the Yucatan peninsula you may be thinking? Hold tight, this is where it all starts to come full circle.
During my trout guiding career, having greatly reduced my fly selection to just 1 box, filled with different nymphs and dries, I realized something rather important. When all is said and done, the fly actually doesn’t matter. The flies we throw are imitations of an insect, invertebrate or baitfish. Something meant to vaguely look like what the target fish is eating and then trick it into eating the fly. The trout (in this case) were not eating my size 18 hotspot GRHE because they really like that particular pattern and loved my interpretation of that pattern more than another anglers. They were eating it because it was tied with enough weight to get down to the fish, the right size/profile and presented in a way that triggered the strike. I have not doubts that had my clients thrown a hundred different variants of that fly on the same piece of water, in similar conditions, they would have all had very similar levels of success.
I found a great deal of confidence in what I was doing from this conclusion. The more I removed the actual fly pattern from the equation and focused on what I wanted the fly to do for me, the more fish my clients caught. Our consistency also greatly increased, to a point where I could pick apart a run, seam or pool and know we would pick up fish in each area, in many cases regardless of conditions. By the time I hung up my wading boots on my trout guiding career, I was left with a box of flies consisting of no more that 5 generic nymph patterns and 5 generic dries. The only variations being weight and size.
Now, let’s leave the 5X tippet and Dry Shake alone, and link this back to fly fishing in the salt. Having drawn my conclusions on the lack of importance a fly pattern has, what is the thing that really matters? Well, in my opinion, to be successful in this game, you need 3 things;
A Good Cast
A Good Strip
These three things are the keys to success on any saltwater flat and for any saltwater specie. Within reason, It doesn’t matter what fly you choose to throw (as long as it isn’t ridiculously oversized or poorly weighted), just so long as you have confidence in what you are doing. This has been shown time and again with anglers catching Permit on #11 Tarpon setups with 2/0 flies and 50lbs shock tippet, or GT’s on #7 tailing Bonefish kit and size 6 Crazy Charlies. Whilst this doesn’t happen every day, it has happened enough times to demonstrate that no matter the situation that presents itself whilst out on a flat, if you have confidence in what you are doing and you make the shot with that mindset, success isn’t too far behind.
In addition to confidence, having an accurate cast is the main key to success. If you can put a fly In the zone it needs to be in 90% of the time, you will do a lot better than an angler that is throwing the latest and greatest fly, with poorer accuracy. Fish follow basic survival rules, trying to conserve energy and exert the least amount of effort for maximum gain. Swimming 15ft to eat the latest no.1 fly from Umpquas hotlist just isn’t part of their DNA. They would far rather eat the scruffy, disheveled guide fly that landed 3ft in front of them.
The last and often most crucial part of this is the strip. The strip is often overlooked yet so important when it comes to hooking that tailing dream fish, or watching him eyeball the fly, before giving you the ‘middle fin’ and cruising away. I strongly believe that some of the best anglers out their are the ones that are able to manipulate the fly in a manner that no-one else can. This can be done with movements of the rod, cadence of the strip, pauses etc. The possibilities are endless, however there are those of us anglers that do it so much better than others.
You could have the greatest ever fly tied on your leader, with the exact weight, size and profile that matches what the Permit is wanting to eat. You could throw that shot right in-front of the fish, landing it exactly where it needed to be, and letting it sink to the exact depth. Everything could be perfect, however when you start moving the fly and produce a dull, lifeless whimper of a strip, that Permit will take one look, before hightailing it out of there.
The difference between a successful strip and one that gets little interest can be as simple as a quicker tempo, adding a few bumps, or not moving the fly all together. The trick is reading the fish and knowing just what kind of strip they want. There are anglers out there that have this so dialed, they could make a hellish ball of fur, fluff and rubber legs out fish a modern classic like Veverka’s Mantis Shrimp. Whilst at the same time there are anglers that can make a Strong Arm Crab look like a wet sock. The importance of learning what reactions are caused by the way you manipulate the fly can’t be understated and can really be the difference between a great day and one where you leave scratching your head.
With all this in mind, I feel like now is a good time to reveal what is in my fly box and why. When packing for a day wade fishing on the flats, I will generally bring 2 small fly boxes. One will have a small range of crab and shrimp flies and the other a number of baitfish/popper flies for Jacks and Cuda and a few Tarpon streamers. If I am on the skiff, I will bring more gear, more so because of the flexibility the skiff affords in terms of water to cover and species to target.
Speaking strictly to my Bonefish/Permit box here, I really don’t bring a wide range of kit. I will bring a drab tan shrimp fly (something like my Skruffy Shrimp fly), a spawning shrimp fly and something a that is a little more flashy. For the crab flies, I bring a Strong Arm style crab in a tan color, a Bauer crab and another Merkin variant. Of these 6 flies, I will have a couple of variants in terms of size and weight. I normally have a row of size 6, a row of size 4 and then variants in weight along that row. I mostly fish tan flies here as we are fishing over lighter bottoms and the odd grass flat.
I do have a few Olive variants of these flies in the skiff for targeting fish in Chetumal Bay, where we often fish over darker bottoms, but for this blog, we are focusing more on the wading aspect. It is worth noting that I always bring a selection of Sharpie pens with me in a range of colors to add highlights, hotspots or change up the colors on a fly depending on the reaction of the specie I am targeting. This can make a big difference, especially when targeting pressured or wary fish.
I try to aim for 3 flies in each variation to give me enough for the day, and invariably I will have a few more stashed away in the truck should we run out at any point. The last row of my fly box is filled with a few simple ‘Charlie’ style patterns to throw at triggers, along with one or two patterns I am messing around with at the time, for example a floating crab fly or unweighted shrimp for tailers, but still continuing with the less is more ethos. Ultimately you only need one fly, fished correctly, to have success, so there is little need to fill a box with others that may never even get a dunking.
Having counted the number of flies in my box, I average around 50-60 flies at most, with the bulk of that being multiples of the same generic pattern that behaves in the way I want it to, so as not to run out. As mentioned earlier, keeping the flies generic, but having confidence in what you are doing, accurately delivering the fly to its target and manipulating it in a way that triggers the desired response are the most important factors, over throwing an ‘Avalon fly’ VS a ‘Rag Head Crab’.
This outlook works the world over, in pretty much every fishing scenario, from the English Chalkstream, to the Rocky Mountains, and south through the Caribbean. Sure some guides may have their special fly, and as anglers, many of us covet one particular pattern over another because it caught a number of fish on the previous trip, or has a certain feature that call our attention, but the point of this blog is to offer you a different view, one that is less intimidating than staring at the fly bins or a wall of flies in your local fly shop and trying to pick what will work best for a destination you haven’t visited before.
So the next time you are planning a fishing trip and trawling through the Facebook pages and online forums for the latest killer fly, don’t get too hung up on a specific pattern or fly that is billed as the be all and end all for saltwater flats fishing. Go out and buy/tie a couple of generic looking shrimp and crab flies in a mix of sizes and weights to match the fishery you are going to visit and bring a set of sharpies to add a little different look to the fly if needed. Above all else, bring with you a suitcase full of confidence, a well practiced cast and an enticing strip. If you have those three things dialed, everything else will fall into place and that dream fish capture won’t be too far away.