Al Campbell, Field Editor

March 29th, 2004

10 Top Secrets to Catch Fish
Al Campbell

This is a fly tying column, but I'm not going to teach any patterns, show any new techniques or reveal any new materials. Instead, I want to discuss the idea that a person can design a new fly and be confident that it will work before he ever introduces the fly to water. It is about basic form and principle rather than a detailed description of a specific pattern.

Some of you have been following my "too simple" series of fly patterns; and you may wonder why such simple flies seem to work so well, especially since they don't take a lot of time or energy to tie them. Others may wonder why I can have so many of my own patterns that work, and work well. I think I need to let some of you in on a little secret that might change your whole outlook on fly tying.

It would be a feather in my personal fly tying cap to be able to tell you I have spent countless hours developing each pattern, and just as many hours verifying that each pattern worked exactly the way I intended it to work, but that would be a lie. In fact, many of the patterns I have developed were tied with great confidence that they would work from the very start. Before I wrapped the first wrap of thread on the hook, I knew they would catch fish.

I know this sounds like heresy to some of you, but it's the truth. I was totally confident that the fly would work before I placed a hook in the vise. I didn't doubt for even a moment that I had a success brewing on my hook. That is especially true with my simple patterns that are so easy to tie. And, if you are willing, I know you can create a new pattern with the same confidence. Are you up to the challenge?

Ok, before we go there, I want to discuss with you some basic things that are universal in fly tying and fishing those flies. These are solid principles that you can count on every time you get ready to tie a fly or cast a fly to a fish. If you let them, they will transform your fishing and tying abilities to the point that you'll be able to tie new patterns for anywhere and fish them successfully with the confidence that they will work. And, I'm going to defile the myth that fish are hard to catch unless you have a specific pattern in your box.

    Rule number 1 - Fish are easy to catch. They have specific habits and live in a place that makes them easy targets for the person who knows a few simple facts about them. The main reason people have trouble catching fish is that they don't know their quarry well enough to know how to fish for them. And, they don't know what fish eat well enough to tie flies for them.

    Rule number 2 - Simple flies catch a lot more fish than complex flies do. That statement is likely to hurt a few feelings, but it is the truth. Complex flies challenge our skills and design wishes, but they don't do a thing for the fish. In fact, complex flies, by their very nature are doomed to catch fewer fish than simple flies do. The more specific the pattern, the more likely it is to be rejected by a fish that is looking for something that looks like a meal.

    Any fly that looks somewhat like an insect is fair game to a hungry fish. Most fish suck in all manner of debris during a day's time, only to blow it back out of their mouth when they discover it isn't food. In fast moving water, they only have a fraction of a second to make up their mind, if they plan to eat that day. Anything that looks close and passes into their feeding lane is likely to get a response from a fish.

    Simple, generic looking flies like a hare's ear, are so very productive because they look somewhat like a lot of insects to a fish. If you examine a lot of nymphs, you'll quickly discover that most of them look a lot alike in general, and the only thing that really separates them from each other at fist glance is size and color or general shade. A hare's ear doesn't really look like anything specifically; but it looks enough like a lot of things to make it look edible to a fish. The same holds true with dry flies too. Since most adult insects on the water have wings that are swept back over their abdomens, a simple dry fly with a swept wing (in the right shade and size of course), will look close enough to fool most fish if it is presented right.

    Rule number 4 - Most people fail on the water and ultimately at the vise because they are unwilling to learn what the fish are feeding on. It is as simple as using a nymph net to collect a sample of the insects in the stream, but 90% of the fishermen I see refuse to collect even a few samples. They just blindly select a fly by the principle of "I always use that fly" or "someone told me that they work." The same holds true as far as observing the insects on the surface, and observing their habits.

    One of my favorite baetis nymph patterns is nothing more than some dark brown (nearly black) punch embroidery yarn wrapped around a hook. Like I said; nothing more, no legs, no tail and no specific thorax. I just sample the stream with a nymph net to determine the size of the nymphs and match that size to a yarn fly in my box. It fools the fish very well, and it doesn't take more than a minute to tie one of those flies. However, it only works if there are baetis nymphs moving along in the water. That's exactly why I use a nymph net.

    Rule number 5 - Presentation is at least 50% of the equation; and truthfully, it's probably a lot higher than that. I can take a simple bunny emerger or a simple yarn nymph and catch fish if I can present it in a manner that looks like a natural insect, and if I present it in the feeding lane of the fish. Here is where so many fly fishermen handcuff themselves. Common belief is that a fly must be presented by drifting that fly to the fish. Hogwash! Except for mayflies, most insects are pretty active on and in the water, and even mayfly nymphs are often pretty active in the water.

    Caddisflies and stoneflies usually lay their eggs while flying upstream, pausing only occasionally to deposit their eggs in the water. That upstream motion is a key to dry fly success, but most people still drift their caddis and stonefly imitations because they don't observe the natural insect doing its thing. On the other hand, mayflies lay their eggs while drifting on the water. The right presentation is the key to success, at least as much or more than the right pattern is.

    Most nymphs are pretty active when moving through the water column. If they were dislodged from the bottom, they are often busy wiggling back toward the bottom to hide again. If they are in the process of emerging, they are usually actively wiggling toward the surface. That twitching, wiggling motion is so common that many fish look for food based on motion first and size, color and shape second. I can only say that the reason most people are surprised when a fish hits their fly when it finally begins to move at the end of a drift; is that those people have little or no understanding of the habits of insects and/or fish.

    On the subject of presentation, crayfish and minnows move. I think that is why a wooly bugger is so effective if it moves in the water. Fish look for that movement and zero in on it when they see it. I guess that's why I shake my head when I hear of someone drifting a wooly bugger under a strike indicator. Sure, it might even get an occasional look, but not nearly as many looks as it would get if it moved like a minnow or crayfish. A nymph suspended below an indicator on a lake is far more effective if there is a chop on the water. That is because the chop makes the nymph move. A simple twitch of the fly on calm water would do the same thing, but most of the time I can't convince other fishermen to try it.

    Rule number 6 - Any fly, no matter how poorly tied it looks, will catch fish if it is the right size, shape and color; and if it is presented properly. It is a bonus if the fly looks nice, but only because it looks nice, not because it will catch more fish. The more exact the imitation is, the more specific you have to be to match the right hatch with your fly. The more generic your imitation is, the more likely it is to look close enough to something edible to fool a fish, and the more likely it is to match more than one hatch.

    Rule number 7 - Learn how to cast. I don't mean you need to learn how to cast a whole line, unless the fish you want to catch are that far away. I mean, learn how to cast your fly to where the fish are. If the fish are feeding four inches from the far side of the stream, learn how to cast accurately to within four inches of the far side of the stream. Learn how to drop your fly next to that boulder or under that branch where the fish are feeding. Learn how to present your fly in the feeding lane of a seam or the edge of an undercut bank. If you can't get your fly to where the fish are, you won't have a lot of really successful days.

    Rule number 8 - Tie flies that match your local insects. I don't care how pretty your new creation is, if it won't catch fish because it doesn't match what the fish are feeding on, you just wasted your time tying it. This brings us back to the nymph net and observation thing. You need to know what the fish are eating if you want the creations of your vise to be successful. A poorly tied, butt ugly fly that is the right size, shape and color/shade will catch a lot more fish than a beauty of a fly that matches nothing on the water.

    Rule number 9 - Learn the basics before you leap into the complex. If you never progress beyond basic flies, you'll be a lot more successful than the guy who dabbles here and there on his way to pretty flies, but doesn't understand what those flies are supposed to imitate. Observation on the water is equally as important to your fly tying success as knowing advanced tying tricks, especially if you don't know what you are trying to imitate. A person who knows insects and how they hatch and lay eggs will be far more successful catching those fish with simple flies, than the guy who has mastered advanced tying skills but doesn't have any idea of what his flies are supposed to imitate. It's simple, learn basic fly tying techniques and learn the insect, and you'll catch more fish. If you ignore either of these principals, you'll be doomed to catch fewer fish.

    Rule number 10 - Never, and I mean NEVER be afraid to try something new. If you have armed yourself with a workable knowledge of the insects and some basic fly tying skills, you are prime to create some fantastic imitations that will fool fish. You don't have to know the name of an insect (in English or Latin); in fact you don't have to know for certain whether it is a mayfly or a stonefly. As long as you know what it looks like, how it behaves, and how to tie something that looks fairly close to that insect, and you can present it properly, you'll catch fish. Your fly doesn't have to look pretty or fancy to work, but it does have to look like something the fish are feeding on.

    In case you missed it, my ten rules stress knowing what the fish are eating more than knowing how to tie cool looking flies. Nothing about my EZ Nymph looks cool, but to the fish it looks like food. At least it does when I fish it at the time when fish are eating things that look like my EZ Nymph. Don't be duped into the idea that you must follow my patterns exactly. In fact, you should never concern yourself with exact imitations of another person's patterns unless you are merely trying to duplicate his efforts. Branch out and use what others can show you to improve the success of your own patterns.

    You've made it this far, so now is the time to throw the worm box away and work on some more exacting creations of your own. Now is the time to get past the "what fly catches fish" mentality and learn WHY that fly catches fish, and when it catches fish. You can do it if you try; but you'll never get it done if you don't start observing what is going on around you. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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