Content Warning: Anyone of a purist dry-fly persuasion and is of a delicate disposition should proceed under caution.
I was first introduced to foam flies around six or seven years ago. One of my favourite dry flies up to that piont was the big ugly 'Madam X', which is basically a big clump of deer or elk hair, over a yellow body, with rubber legs in the shape of an X, hence the name.
Madam X was very successful for me, but it had a major draw back, the one that affects all fur, hair and feather dry flies, you have to dry the damn things every five seconds.
So when I saw foam flies I was hooked, and as it transpires so were plenty of fish. I would back a big fugly foam fly splashed down over fish feeding on miniscule somethings, to an imitative pattern any day.
Now the range of designs of foam flies is only constrained by the tyer's imagination, and some of the flies almost defy imagination. The "Bionic Bug" tied by Stu Tripey of New Zealand has just won the US Fly Tying Federation's best fly of the year award, but it has little or no similarity to any natural fly or bug I have ever seen; though what happens in the dark, dank depths of the bottom of the South Island are perhaps better left undisturbed.
So what is the attraction of these monstrosities?
Let's start at the trout's end of the proceedings. Why would this creature who has spent milenia honing it's predation skills, rush to the surface to scoff down these floating horrors with obvious glee and gusto, (if you will permit me lurching into a bit of anthropromorphism).
Well I have not an inkling of a clue - but fish do come from a long way down to hit foam flies, and they usually take them in a big splash. Once I was casting to a fish near the far bank; I dropped the fly about 2 metres ahead of the fish and watched it drift back. I saw 'my' fish make that body stiffening movement they often make before they rise, and then it started towards the surface. So fixed was my gaze on 'my' fish, I failed to see another fish racing dowmstream after the fly. The fly dissappeared under a screen of spray, one fish was hooked, the other departed. I do not know which fish I hooked.
I think the attraction of foam flies is simply that they look big and buggy, and represent a decent amount of return for the energy required to rise and grab it.
OK, that is well and good, in Summer when terrestrials are plopping into the water, but at other times? Well that is the thing; over the last two Winters here in New Zealand, I have been fishing foam flies, and getting results. I started fishing foam flies with a nymph tied off the bend of the foam fly, to try and entice Rainbows out of fallen-tree infested pools. And it worked. But it was always the foam fly that got clobbered, never the nymph. So I retired the nymph, and nothing changed. This is over fish supposedly not interested in feeding while they make the upriver run to the spawning grounds. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that spawning rainbows will not move further than the length of a gnat's eyelash to take a fly, but it seems it ain't necessarily so.
So why do they take foam flies? My theory, and it is just a theory, is that trout have limited 'seasonality memory' with regard to feeding. They feed on what is around them at the time, but what is around them at any time is constrained by the seasons. I do not believe trout have the brain power to view potential prey and decide not to bite it because it is the wrong season. So, plopping down a thumping great terrestrial in plain view of a trout any time of the year, at the very least will excite keen interest.
I have some evidence of sorts. When I was around 9 or 10,(50 years ago!?) a friend and I would collect Grasshoppers and Cicadas in Summer, and store them in tightly sealed tins. Over the rest of the year we would climb out on the big branches of Willow trees overhanging the Waimakariri River just North of Christchurch NZ, and 'dap' the bugs onto the water's surface on nylon hand-lines. We could catch trout all year round.
Now what about the attraction of fugly foam flies to fly flickers?
Here is the quick run-down:
How are they fished?
In general, foam flies are fished in much the same way as fur and feather dry flies. Cast above the fish and let the fly drift to and over the fish. But there are a couple of techniques that can prove deadly.
Cast slightly on the 'up', so the fly is about a metre or so above the target area, then give the line a short (5 cm) pull on the line. This should drop the fly onto the water with a nice plop. If the fish is holding close to a bank, firing the fly onto the bank and then pulling it back into the water works well too.
In rough pocket-water type fishing foam flies really come into their own. Let them surge down schutes of water and drown at the end, it will soon pop back up, often enough milliseconds ahead of a fish.
On still lakes allow the fly to settle, then give it a small tug, just enough to send ripples radiating out from the fly, repeat as necessary.
There is an old fly fishing saying that goes; "The answer to the question - is this fly too big - is always yes". Well in foam flies terms this answer is not necessarily so. While it is true that there are many foam patterns, especially for ants and beetles that can be tied imitatively and down to sizes 12, 14 and beyond, I put these flies under the general heading of dry flies, they are both designed to look the same.
But Fugly great foam flies are usually tied on 6 and 8 hooks, as are all the flies in the photos accompaning this article. Big beguiling bugs.
That is about it really - except to note that the best book I have found on building foam flies is 'Tying Flies with Foam Fur and Feathers' by Harrison R Stevens III. This book covers tying imitative and ugly foam flies.
Tie some up, buy some or beg some, but get some. Watching a trout absolutley smash a foam fly is one of fishings most exciting moments.