My fishing buddy Dave, co-founder of Hobo Fly Fishing, is a world-class fly tyer. He can churn out flies by the dozens, and his fly boxes look like soldiers in formation awaiting an inspection. My tying skills are rudimentary at best, and even describing it as “skill” might be too kind. My fly boxes look like Sunday afternoon at a weekend rummage sale with boxes marked “free to a good home.”
So why does this matter? Because fly tying is an art that I greatly appreciate, and many flies available today look like a living, breathing creature, but sometimes, there’s a broad gray area between the perfect fly and the “good enough” fly.
With some exceptions, such as highly pressured trout or finicky flats fish, most fish aren’t looking for the perfect fly, they’re looking for something to eat. If you place something that looks edible in front of a feeding fish, there’s a good chance it will take it. Fortunately for us as anglers, it’s not an either/or proposition. You don’t have to have a perfect fly, and you don’t have to wait on a half-starving fish that will eat a fly that looks like dryer lint tied to a hook.
I raise this for an important reason. Sometimes it’s easy to let self-doubt about whether you have the “perfect” fly creep into your confidence, especially when there’s a fish in front you. You can also waste time tying on different flies instead of getting the fly you have in front of more fish, or the same fish multiple times.
I am rarely, if ever clouded by doubt about my fly. I always assume the fly on the end of my line will work if I deliver the right cast and make the right presentation, so that’s what I focus on.
I’m not naive enough to think any fly will work for any situation. Obviously, there are many flies that are ill suited for certain types of fishing. Taking trout flies to the flats won’t be a winning combination, but having a general assortment of time-tested flies for the location and a few wild cards is probably going to work most of the time.
I came to this conclusion from experience, and it’s more of an observation than a hard rule. It reminds me of a time I was helping a novice learn to trout fish, and he was flogging the water with a half-drowned elk hair caddis and catching nothing. Suddenly, there was an insect hatch, and trout started rising to feed on them. I don’t recall what was hatching, but it wasn’t caddis.
He continued fishing with his caddis fly, and I started rifling through my fly box looking for a fly to match the hatch. I tried several flies and landed a couple trout after I found a suitable match.
When the hatch ended, I rejoined my novice pupil, and I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t coached him on how to match the hatch, or given him some of my flies. But to my surprise, he caught the same number of fish I had while fishing with that same half-drowned caddis.
Bottom line, the fish were feeding, and he put something in front of them that looked like food.
Another time, I was steelhead fishing with a friend who kept looking for the perfect fly, although we know that rarely exists for steelhead because they’re so fickle. We were drifting tandem flies, and after a while, he would decide he had on the wrong flies, and go to change them. I kept fishing, and on several occasions, hooked fish while he was on the bank rerigging.
At the end of the day, I out fished him, but the main reason was simply because I had my flies in the water longer than he did.
Again, I am not saying use any-old fly and hope for the best, but I am saying use the best pattern you have, honestly focus on making a great presentation, and keep your flies in the water as much as you can.
Fish are simple creatures. They have to eat to survive. Some may be picky, but many will eat whatever is in front of them that looks similar to something they’re used to eating.