Our last post took a look at some foundational tricks in building flies, insights on technical aspects of tying that lead to less time spent behind the vise as well as better bugs. But what about refining patterns and building that collection of one-of-a-kind "secret flies", those flies that just drip with fishiness and get tied on it all the pressure situations? Over the years building as many bugs as I have (both commercial and personal) there are certain patterns that stick out as being perfect examples of this "dripping with fishiness", those bugs that seem to hop around on the bench and are begging to get thrown to a big gulper.
Relying heavily on the long-time favorite staple materials is the best thing you can do for your fly box: Talking about Elk, Deer, Calf tail, Pheasant tail, CDC, and natural dubbing fibers. This emphasis helps enormously when it comes to building patterns that work all over the place, not just on your home waters; And work equally well on the selective and the uber-agressive fish. Mid-summer western MT on the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Rock Creek, you can get away with throwing the most heinous birdnest of foam and spandex imaginable and it will get bit. Now compare that killer Bitterroot bug with a favorite from central MT like the Madison, Beaverhead, or Missouri. I guarantee you will see a fly built with CDC, elk, deer, calf, or just a pile of hackle. The synthetic materials are either supporting players at best or entirely non-existent. This might be read as a tacit argument for the superiority of Salmo trutta as an evasive fluvial predator (probably mos def) but that is a rant for another time. The flies that are considered sure bets on famous technical streams are mostly tied with natural fibers. The big fish and the spooky fish think they look better. Hmmmmm
This natural material bias also becomes the gold standard when tying the high-pressure patterns that get chucked at the biggest fish. My back-pocket top-secret big fish box contains no (NO!) foam flies whatsoever. To the untrained eye it is a detritus pile of ants/hoppers/cripples/tricos/emergers mixed with river mug and baked in the sun. If you tweeze out one of these flies, however, you will find a little bundle of hair and hackle that doesn't stand out or look out of place swirling around a scumline, or more likely hanging from a branch. "Damm that wind came up at the wrong time, didn't it!" These are the flies you learn to love and with time will come to rely on completely.
Gone (Rejected), But Not Forgotten:
Scrutinize the living S#%* out of every fly lying around your vehicle or fishing gear that has gotten the ever-loving piss chewed out of it: That one parachute that got crushed the first day of the hatch, 20+ fish on one bug that everytime it miraculously continued floating. . . Slurp! That one bugger the fish would not leave alone in that one side channel below Craig. Why the hell were the fish all over that fly? Why weren't they smacking the other flies in the box? Checking the throw-aways is the fastest way to get at answering this question. Build the traits of these killer bugs into the rest of your arsenal and see what happens.
Another good way to think about how flies could look is to look at those that get rejected from the bench: The ones that never see the fly box and get given away or straight chucked in the trash. Small tweeks to silhouette and body proportion are in every bug that doesn't quite measure up to what you "think" the right fly looks like. One of my favorite late-season mayfly patterns came about from one of these so-called rejects. I was short on flies for a guide trip the following day and scoured the bench for anything I thought might have a chance at catching a tree, a rock, or a fish. One of these scavenged flies had the biggest, fattest, chunkiest thorax I could have imagined on a mayfly, so fat that I had my doubts as to whether with all the gink and powder floatant at my disposal it would even float at all. It went in the box and got tied on at the first sign of the afternoon Mahogany hatch the next day, the only real top water activity that time of year. First it got slurped. Then it got chugged. Ten or so fish later it got cut off without much fanfare as I had a small reserve of the same fly that in my mind were "properly tied" and would work just as well. These pretty flies floated better and looked to my eye the same on the water but they got bit hardly at all. Like really infrequently. So much so that after 30 minutes and a few paltry bites the Chunky Monkey Mayfly got resuscitated and throw back out to be chewed into oblivion. One reject fly siring a whole clan of thick-thighed trout-hunting descendants! Natural Fly Selection at its finest . .. .
Secondly, if you blend your own dubbing you know that each drift is the first time the fish has seen THAT color / shade / combination / hue. I know, superstitious, vague, unquantifiable, voodoo jargon, "guide talk". . . . Well lemme just say that believing in intangibles like confidence and x-factors makes you a more formidable fisherman than not believing in them. And having the only homespun goldenstone floating amongst a flotilla of store-bought spandex is a pretty big intangible. If that homespun bug is also mostly natural materials and has a slightly "hefty" build to it, then i think the intangibles are all aligned in your favor and the fish must bow before you. I will take that kind of fly to the races any day.