Right from the start, fly-fishing has been an exercise in “matching the hatch.”
Ancient anglers saw fish feeding on insects and realized that to catch them, either live bait or a lure that looks like the real thing would be required. Someone decided it would be more practical to dress up a hook to look like a bug than to actually bait a hook with a fragile insect, and became the first hatch-matching fly-tier.
But the impulse to fiddle around with effective fly patterns probably set in soon after. A wing made of some fancy feather, a shiny rib, an unusual body color — the stated purpose may have been to make the fly more effective, but one suspects the real reason for the modification was that the fly-tier thought it looked cool (or whatever the Olde English term was for cool).
Ever since, we’ve thought of flies in two categories, the practical and the pretty — imitative flies designed to look or behave like natural insects or other prey, and “attractor” patterns that don’t really look like living things, but still catch fish.
The notion of tying for the tier’s pleasure, rather than the strategic demands of fishing, probably came to a head in the late 19th century, with the opulent, elaborate dressings of Atlantic salmon flies in the British Isles.
A few decades later, here in the States, match-the-hatch imitation of specific insects — usually mayflies — became a mania. An angler would fear ridicule if he or she didn’t have a fly of the same size, shape and color as the fly on the water — and know its Latin scientific name.
Today, we seem to be living in another golden age of attractor flies. You just don’t hear as much about matching hatches as you used to. What you do hear about are tenkara flies, whose inventors don’t care if they match anything; Czech nymphs, which are all-purpose grubs (often with fluorescent “hot spots”) that are fished hatch or no hatch; the Kelly Galloup school of streamer fly, with jointed bodies, rubber legs everywhere and little resemblance to any real sculpin, dace or baby trout; and steelhead flies, descendants of elegant Scottish Atlantic salmon patterns, often updated with a bit of modern flash.
None of them are realistic, but all catch fish — and delight their makers.
“I think with the advent of all the people swinging flies and actually fishing for these fish, I think there’s a trend toward movement and the appearance of life rather than matching what’s going on — especially since these fish don’t feed very much once they enter the river,” said Geoff Schaake of Ballston Spa, organizer of the Spey Nation conclave on the Salmon River. “When I fish up there, I tend to fish flies I want to catch fish on.”
Anglers using two-handed Spey and switch rods are in the forefront of the movement away from dead-drifted, realistic nymph patterns for steelhead fishing. Their flies incorporate “lots of movement and soft materials,” Schaake said. “You see lots of rubber legs showing up, rabbit strips, marabou, arctic fox.”
Schaake said, however, that when he’s trout fishing in spring or summer on a stream where trout tend to rise to prolific hatches of specific flies, it pays to try to imitate those flies. On a dry-fly river like the Delaware, that means Comparaduns, of the right size, shape and color. Or perhaps the appropriate emerger, fished in or just under the surface film.
A sulphur hatch at the Junction Pool is no place to mess around with whimsical wet flies (although a Partridge and Yellow soft-hackle might be a good bet), but on most streams, at most times, it seems we have more leeway than the strict hatch-matchers of the mid-20th century believed.
The dawn of the modern attractor era coincided with the rise of the Internet, and it seems likely the newly possible communication among anglers, and exposure to so many people’s ideas, helped loosen the grip of hatch-matching orthodoxy and lead to an explosion of creativity at tying vises across the country.
It’s kind of liberating to know that you can experiment in your tying — for your own enjoyment — and still catch fish.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.