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What’s wrong with my fly?

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It seems that the debate about the relevance of different fly patterns, how they are tied and how well they function, continues as an age-old controversy. Every spring, with the opening of another trout season, that dialog continues in earnest. It begins after the first few outings when anglers have been skunked despite finding good hatches and actively feeding trout.

After these fishless trips, it is not uncommon to hear this complaint from anglers: “I tried everything in my fly box, but nothing worked.” The faith that fly fishers put in fly patterns—when compared to so many other factors that involve trout-feeding behavior—should be examined by every angler who fly fishes.

For example, have you ever fished in a favorite pool as trout were rising all around, yet became frustrated as the feeding trout refused pattern after pattern? The fact that fly fishers have a tendency to change flies when their imitations are repeatedly ignored by rising trout has always been perplexing to me. And to a degree, that is not surprising, in that the human mind would logically rationalize that the reason an artificial fly is being refused is because it is the wrong color, size, or type of tie.

In his book “Flies,” J. Edson Leonard lists around 2,200 different patterns. Granted, not all of them are for trout, but that book was first printed in the 1950s. Therefore, knowing how many patterns have been added since that time is impossible. Why so many patterns, when there are about a dozen species of eastern mayflies, half a dozen of caddis, a few stone flies, some terrestrial insects and a few species of bait fish that trout feed upon? Probably because under certain fishing conditions, they all worked.

And, if you think about it, that should tell you a great deal about trout feeding. In fact, I’m sure that those who have done any amount of fly fishing can remember, at the end of a successful day, how many different fly patterns took trout during a specific insect hatch. Check that out next time an occasion permits. You might be surprised.

As humans, we are inventors and problem solvers. So each of us, after a frustrating day on the water, either seeks advice from others or turns to the fly-tying bench to create a new pattern or modify an existing one, with hope that it will do the trick next time out. Part of this fly-pattern be-all-end-all mindset is based on the history of fly fishing itself, the literature and the success of specific fly patterns, some of which are centuries old. It is therefore normal and logical, with this philosophy in mind, to think in terms of pattern rather than a variety of other factors that impact one’s ability to fool trout simply by changing flies. So when anglers are stymied after exhausting their fly box, it is time to look to other things that may be causing a lack of success.

In an article written for this column in December of 2017, I talked about the impacts that water temperature have on trout feeding behavior. Anglers need to keep environmental factors like water temperature in mind throughout a trout season, especially in the spring when the water is very cold, and later in the year when warming trends can put trout off their feed. In future articles, I’ll discuss a number of other factors that anglers need take into account before blaming what’s attached to the end of the leader as the reason they don’t raise trout.

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