I’m working my way through a couple of new fishing books, and I find it interesting that they take different approaches to the idea of selectivity in trout.
The notion that fish will take a fly if it looks enough like a real bug is at the heart of fly-fishing, especially fly-tying. It’s why fly-tying is such an absorbing hobby, and it’s what keeps fly shops and purveyors of fly-tying materials in business.
Just how important is having the perfect fly? The point has been debated for generations. Back in 1881, James A. Henshall wrote in his classic “Book of the Black Bass” about anglers who used just three hackled flies — green, brown and yellow, in different sizes.
“While the adherents of this latter theory are as successful, from all accounts, as those who have a list of nearly a thousand named flies to choose from, and enjoy the satisfaction of having reduced the perplexing matter to a delightful simplicity and of obviating the troubles of a repeated changing of the cast of flies as practiced by others, they must sometimes feel a regret deep in their hearts for casting down and sweeping away their idols and cherished traditions, and to a certain extent the poetry of fly-fishing, by their iconoclastic though sensible opinions and practices,” Henshall wrote.
For Geoff Mueller, not bothering to match the hatch causes even deeper regret — that of not catching fish, or at least not many.
Mueller, senior editor at The Drake magazine, is author of “What a Trout Sees: A Fly-Fishing Guide to Life Underwater.” It’s a wide-ranging book that touches on the subject of selective trout and the need to imitate the prevailing bug.
Mueller quotes Brian Chan, a biologist and guide in British Columbia, saying increasing fishing pressure has made trout smarter about what to eat and what not to. Twenty-five years ago, Chan says, “you could have gotten away with fishing a black and silver chironomid and caught tons of fish.”
Or as Mueller himself puts it, “Biologists are certain that the combination of seeing hundreds of patterns, and having been routinely caught and released, provokes a learned response in trout.”
Bob Wyatt is certain of something altogether different — that “even the best of our flies look only vaguely like the real thing.”
Wyatt, author of “What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and Other Myths,” is a guide in New Zealand who contends “trout have no idea what anglers are, or what a fly line and leader is, much less a hook.”
To Wyatt, adding more and more “detail” to a fly simply increases the chances of getting it wrong. “From a pragmatic point of view, having a boxful of vague suggestions equips you for a greater range of situations.”
Selectivity, he says, is really just “limited attention” when one kind of insect is unusually abundant. Spookiness, on the other hand, occurs when there’s not a big hatch occupying the trout’s attention, which is most of the time.
And even spookiness doesn’t spoil the fishing as much as we anglers tend to assume.
“On some rivers that are fished more or less continuously, hammered you might say, the fish have become inured to angler traffic and the constant presence of fly lines overhead,” he writes.
You need look no further than the Delaware River, with its unending stream of drift boats, for proof of that.
Tying realistic flies is fun, but when it comes to success on the stream, I side with Wyatt. Since I’ve begun using simpler, impressionistic flies, I catch more trout.
And no, Dr. Henshall, it causes me no regret.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com.