For decades, fly-tying’s thought leaders have told us we need to make our flies more realistic, because trout have figured out that all the old ones are fake.
That idea has been challenged in recent times — now perhaps more eloquently than ever by Bob Wyatt, author of “What Trout Want: The Educated Tout and Other Myths,” published by Headwater Books.
To Wyatt, the idea that fish suspect anglers are nearby and some flies are fake is silly. Their tiny brains cannot begin to understand the concept of trickery. Everything floating in or on the water strikes them as food or not food, and if it’s food, they’ll eat.
Yes, in a heavy hatch, they’ll get used to whatever’s hatching, so during a Hendrickson hatch, anything that doesn’t look like a Hendrickson probably won’t register as food.
But how much does your fly need to look like a Hendrickson or a Green Drake or Mother’s Day Caddis?
Here’s how much, according to Wyatt, who has fished the following pattern everywhere from the Crowsnest River in Alberta to the bonnie lochs of Scotland to New Zealand’s blue-ribbon rivers: a body of spiky hare’s ear and a hunk of deer hair for a wing. That’s it.
Wyatt has called it the Deer Hair Sedge since he was a kid, and doesn’t claim to have invented it. The late fishing writer Datus Proper apparently fished almost the same thing, though he called it a Hair Wing Sedge. More recently, Hans Weilenman’s CDC Elk is just an Elk-Hair Caddis with no hackle and a body of wrapped cul de canard feather, and he uses it in hatches of mayflies as well as caddisflies.
It’s not that these guys don’t know how to make fancier flies. They just find them unnecessary, and even less effective than simple patterns that suggest rather than imitate real insects.
“My fly-tying sessions aren’t about creating killer patterns anymore, but about stockpiling ammunition: easy to tie, cheap and expendable,” Wyatt writes.
Of course, armchair tying theory is lots of fun, but what matters is whether a fly works. Wyatt uses the Deer Hair Sedge and a similar style of emerger, a primitive form of Klinkhamer Special with no tail or hackle, just a curved body of hare’s mask fur that hangs below the surface and a sprig of deer hair or snowshoe hare’s foot that pokes through, on some of the world’s toughest trout.
I’ve begun experimenting with the Deer Hair Sedge, and I’m a believer. I never say never, but I plan to fish it almost exclusively this summer, even on the toughest trout I can find, which will probably be in the Delaware River.
I’m beginning to worry that all my expensive dry-fly hackles will end up in an estate sale after I’ve gone on to the great trout stream in the sky.
Yes, tying fancy flies is an absorbing hobby. Wyatt understands that what he’s proposing will render the contents of many a Tupperware box obsolete.
“Suggesting that one should sweep what amounts to the better part of fly-tying tradition into the historical wastebasket and replace it with a couple of crude, retrograde flies smacks of arrogance, if not downright silliness,” Wyatt notes. “I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, but my essentialist fly box allows me to concentrate on what I consider the really critical and enjoyable part of fly-fishing: understanding trout behavior, hunting and presentation.”
This is a movement. Thinkers like Vince Marinaro, Ernest Schweibert, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards have taught us a great deal about mayflies and how trout eat them, but their quest for more “realistic” flies has led to thousands of patterns, as Wyatt notes, to imitate a few dozen aquatic insects that don’t look all that different from each other except for size and, sometimes, color.
The new simplicity follows the teachings of W.C. Stewart, G.E.M. Skues, Ted Trueblood and Frank Sawyer: presentation trumps pattern. The tenkara guys get it. So do the Czech nymphers. Wyatt says it as well as any of them.
“As a strategy, this really isn’t as risky as you might think,” he writes. “But, you say, what if the trout really don’t want one of the few flies you have? Relax. The trick is to believe in the flies in your box and get on with it. At some point you have to say, ‘OK, I’m going to fish with this one.’ ”