October 06, 2021
First things first: What follows is presented with tongue at least partly in cheek. I know it’s going to make me look like a curmudgeon who’s stuck in the past, longing wistfully for the good old days, a Statler in search of Waldorf (Google it if you have to). after careful consideration, I’ve decided that I’m okay with that if you are. But, a warning: I’m going to generalize some, maybe a lot. We all know generalizing is bad. I don’t care.
In the—ahem!—good old days, fly fishing was a game played with a certain objective, a more or less standard methodology, and a subtle set of unwritten rules (I hereby eschew the word “code”). These three ideals in combination established fly-fishing convention. Because the premise of the sport is (or at least was) to imitate a fish’s natural food items using artificial flies, things play out best when we find fish that clearly are eating something. Since this all began with trout, and trout like to eat insects, that something is usually some kind of bug. And when the bugs are numerous enough, the fish eat them at the surface of the water where fly fishers can see it happening. Cue the dry-fly fishing. This sequence was to many fly fishers the defining encounter and challenge of our sport: I see that the fish is eating something on the surface, so I’ll try to catch it by using an imitation of the food it’s eating.
For a long time this was considered the pinnacle of the fly-fishing aesthetic, thanks perhaps to early writers who espoused and promoted it in North America: Theodore Gordon, Art Flick, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, and of course Ernest Schwiebert, who coined, or at least chose the phrase Matching the Hatch for his first book title.
Fair enough. Fast forward to today when dry-fly fishing is still popular. You don’t have to look too closely, though, to see that it’s often a quite different type of dry-fly fishing. Fly fishers still seem to enjoy knowing what’s hatching, and they still buy or tie dainty little emergers, duns, or spinners to imitate the current hatch before heading to the water. But it’s both my observation and my impression that often these flies never leave the safe haven of their new owners’ fly boxes. Instead of using the imitative flies to fool fish that are feeding on the surface, many fly fishers turn instead to prospecting with large and sometimes ridiculous-looking dry flies.
In many places where the rubber meets the road, it’s really a case of the rubber meeting the water: “What’d ya catch ’em on?” “Big foam bugs, man! That’s all you need for this river.” Then it’s home to quickly post a fishing report on the website/chat room of choice (if it wasn’t already done streamside): “Had a great day today on Stony Creek. BWOs hatching like crazy and fish rising everywhere. Slayed the fish on size 6 Chernobyl Ants and Club Sandwiches.”
Is the big-foam-fly trend dominant everywhere? No, but I warned you I was going to generalize. To be fair, streams like the Henry’s Fork, Silver Creek, and some others are still bastions of hatch matching. Some big Western rivers like the Missouri and Bighorn, though, are especially interesting. The hatches are heavy and rising fish abundant at the right times. Nearby fly shops stock great quantities of delicate bugs to match those hatches. And you will see a few fly fishers on foot, walking the banks or wading the flats slowly, hunting for and finding rising fish, then casting to them with tiny pieces of fluff tied to 5X fluorocarbon. But for every one of these, there are five drift boats working midriver with nymphs and big indicators, or nymphs beneath big foam bugs. Hatch matching seems to be fading, even in places where it could flourish.
Fly fishers like big foam flies because: a) they’re easy to see; b) they’re practically unsinkable; c) they don’t require fine tippets; and d) they work. Prospecting with them is easier than finding, stalking, and approaching a rising trout. How can all this be bad? My problem is that many of the flies look like they’ve been tied just to prove that a trout will eat a fly that looks nothing like a real food item. Should I care about this? Probably not. Do I care? It seems so. I wonder about the collateral damage this trend might be causing. Effectiveness often comes with some casualties. There’s less incentive to learn about trout entomology and fish habits, there’s less need to learn to cast well. And perhaps the biggest disincentive: When one method is used to the exclusion of others, it can stall a person’s development in the sport.
Let’s consider the fly-tying part of the equation. I believe that the quest for more imitative flies is what drove people like Schwiebert, Swisher and Richards, and René Harrop to learn about the creatures that fish eat, the way these creatures appear to the fish, and the way they behave in each stage of their lives.
These people weren’t trying to find successful flies through random trial and error. Obsessed folks like Charles Brooks and Gary LaFontaine took extreme measures by going underwater with wetsuits and snorkels to see what the fish food looks like from down there, and to observe the way the fish respond to it. They wanted to learn, and this was one way they did it. This process spurred the creation of patterns like LaFontaine’s Emergent Sparkle Pupa, Brooks’s “in-the-round” nymphs, and the first trailing-shuck dry flies and emergers. Curiosity and observation have always been cornerstones of the fly-fishing process, and this kind of critical thinking makes them the natural progenitors of fly tying.
Having said all this, is it not possible to use foam, jiggly rubber legs, and sparkly synthetic materials to create highly imitative flies? Of course it is, as evidenced by beautiful patterns like the Morrish Hopper and various dainty ant and beetle imitations. Do these more imitative flies work better than a Club Sandwich? Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not my point. My point, if I really have one, is that more imitative flies should work better, and I wish it were so. If it were, it would validate the foundational principles of fly fishing. I don’t like the idea of taking advantage of the fact that fish are sometimes embarrassingly gullible.
Am I saying we shouldn’t use flies that don’t specifically imitate something fish eat? Am I saying that I shouldn’t do it, that I don’t do it? No. Am I being hypocritical? No, of course not. Well, maybe just a little. Is fishing a big foam bug any different than throwing a Royal Wulff, you ask? Because neither of them imitates a real bug, you say? Uh, let me think about that a little. Hey, is it getting a little warm in here?
One of my favorite thoughts about fly fishing is that we don’t do it because it’s easy; we do it because it’s not. This idea that once seemed noble now comes off as mostly snobbish. But it does seem that today catching the fish is de facto more important than how we catch the fish.
I could be wrong about the significance of hatch matching in our sport. I suppose it’s possible—whether I like it or not—that it was simply a 50-year or so trend, a relic of the 20th century that was born, grew, and is dying.
Maybe it boils down to this: I feel better using a fly that is intentionally created to imitate something. Is it okay to catch a fish with a stupid-looking fly? Of course it is; I just don’t think we should take quite as much pride in it as we sometimes do. I’ll paraphrase Norman Maclean, who in A River Runs Through It, wrote, “If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to catch a fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” I’d make a slight change: “You should not be able to catch a creature as smart as a trout on a fly as stupid as a Purple Quad Wing Triple Decker Club Sandwich.”
But you can. Thank God for René Harrop.
Jim McLennan was one of the first fly-fishing guides on Alberta’s Bow River, and is the author of four books on fly fishing. He is a contributing editor for Fly Fisherman and operates McLennan Fly Fishing Schools with his wife Lynda in Turner Valley, Alberta.