A subject very close to the heart of every fly fisherman: all those boxes jammed with fur and feather, most deemed indispensable, some close to sacred, and always a few secret weapons.
How the hell we all end up with so many different and varied patterns for fishing the same water is beyond me, yet every time you talk to another fisherman, you discover another selection. This never ruffles anyone’s feathers; everybody is entitled to their own choice. One of the most generous gestures in fly fishing is when someone offers you a different fly to try on your favourite water. Sometimes it simply slips to the bottom of the bag; yet others seem like a revelation… you gently roll it in your hand, you can feel the connection – this fly will catch a fish, as simple as that.
Selection in the early years is a pretty hit-and-miss affair. This stage is by far the largest mental hurdle: so many choices, so many sizes and always that niggling feeling that you may have got it wrong. Time and experience is supposed to cure all this, but I’m not so convinced. How many fisherman have been humbled by the ‘untouchables’ at Little Pine Lagoon in the highlands, or those insanely selective midge feeders at Huntsman Lake in the state’s north? Even on my beloved South Esk the fish have been known to display extreme indifference to all known choices and tactics, leaving you to drag your sorry self back to the car with all your wordly fishing theories left lying on the bank amongst the gorse bushes and sheep shit. Very sad indeed.
There’s no doubt, though, that as time goes on an understanding starts to drift toward you and it all becomes a little clearer. All those crazy flies you bought in the beginning get shoved into a Tupperware container and stashed on a shelf in the shed; confidence begins to make its presence felt and time spent on the water starts to pay off. Now, let’s not be fooled here. We’re not talking about an epiphany or something as deep as that – this is more a subtle “that little 18 adams looks just like those small caddis on the North Esk today”. No, not an epiphany in sight; more of a gentle awakening as the connections between pattern, presentation and entomology starts to make sense.
As I started to thin out my fly box, a belief in presentation grew, the number of flies dropped and a sort of stubbornness crept in as my skill level increased. It seemed that it no longer mattered what was being put out there as long as it was ‘in the zone’.How long this continued for no longer matters. What is painful is looking back and seeing so many missed opportunities simply because the time was not taken to put ‘it’ together. There is no doubt that good presentation is a huge factor, and a good fisherman will do pretty well with half a dozen patterns – yet for an amateur (like I was at the time), all that casting practice in the park has to be backed up with the best fly choice they can make, simply to increase their chance of success.
Time spent on the water speeds up the learning process and no good fisherman ever stops learning. Marcus and I often discuss those early years and sometimes they seem a little raw. Yet take away all that stumbling around, pulling flies out of tree tops, insect netting, late-night reading – plus stalking the owner of the local fly shop – and what’s left? At the heart of good fly selection is observation, whether that be learning about your local area and what lives there, or simply seeing that what you are using is just not working. One of the most satisfying moments in fishing has to be running through a few selections on feeding fish and finally finding a pattern and size that works. You look back and wonder how you got to this point… then another fish rises and it no longer matters.
Gum beetles, ant falls, damsel flies, caddis, mayflies and so many more… perhaps it’s when we start to recognise different insects and understand some of their behaviour that we begin to move in contrasting directions. The presentationist starts buying advanced casting DVDs and taking lessons; the budding entomologist has to deal with a family that thinks he’s lost his mind (all the while studying anything he can get his hands on and wading streams with a seine net); the pattern guy spends all his spare cash on new tying materials, and freaking out his girlfriend on Sunday drives by stopping and collecting road-kill… and so on it goes. I’d like to think that I’m somewhere in the middle of all this, but when it gets down to it those old Mel Kreiger casting DVDs are still my bag.
My fly boxes did get very thin there for a while. Thankfully, they’ve grown back to a normal selection and a feeling of contentment runs through me when I open them: “Yep, that’s pretty much everything.” That moment of horror when I realise that those size 16 emergers are still sitting on the table at home, or that sinking feeling I get when watching a bay full of nymphing fish ignore all my dry choices because the box of wets is still in the car… sure, it still happens, but thankfully not very often. There’s a quote from John Gierach on our website that goes something like this: “Fish the wrong fly long enough and hard enough and it will probably become the right fly.”
I get the simplicity; it’s simply tough to get the time.
A good friend recently went to Dublin and my one request was for a certain salmon fly. When he came home and handed me the little white box from Rory’s Fly Shop, well… it was both exciting and a little nerve wracking. I’m pretty sure it was a hangover from when I was a kid, flicking through magazines and catalogues, dreaming of what could be. Tipping the salmon flies into my hand was quite surreal; they seemed to slide in slow motion from the box, the colours catching the light and the upturned eye of the hook looking like something from an age long gone. I gently rolled one around so that all of it was visible; it looked exactly as I expected, beautifully tied and with a kind of exotic Baz Luhrmann appeal. Looking pretty hard, the conclusion was finally made. Yep, reckon I could catch a fish on this. Simple as that.