Fishmail: It's not easy being green

July 20th, 2002

Funny stuff, synchronicity. Carl Jung defined it, the Police (a popular beat combo popular with young people, m'lud) named records after it and today, some landed with an audible thump on my desk. There I was, sitting on the sofa listening to The Colour and the Shape by the Foo Fighters (another popular beat combo, albeit one of a somewhat more robust nature), reading about black holes, when all of a sudden, an email arrived from a Sexyloops regular – called Carl, of course – pondering, among other things, why frogs are green. Colour, it seems, is flowing through my universe today, in a decidedly unconnected and properly Jungian way.

So today's sermon is about colour, a subject I've been thinking about a lot recently. This week, I wandered along the banks of one of my favourite rivers, a river which is largely troutless but which has provided me with almost limitless amounts of pleasure over the years, not just for its inherent charm and obliging fishy denizens but for some distinctly irreligious encounters and activities on its banks over the last twenty years. I shall not describe these here, not least because they may offend a Sunday audience. But I saw something this week at least as exciting, certainly to a man whose bankside antics have become a lot less boisterous over the last decade. For a couple of hours, I watched damselfly nymphs hauling themselves from the water onto the bankside vegetation and performing their miraculous transformation into adults.

Many things struck me as I watched them do this, not least the fact that I have so rarely seen it happen in 30 years of dallying at watersides all over the world. My meagre descriptive powers are barely able to do it justice, and others have done a perfectly good job of it. One thing, though, that is not regularly reported is the colour of these exquisite creatures. Open any fly-fisher's fly box anywhere in the world, and you will be forgiven for thinking that damsel nymphs are some sort of green colour; open any book on flyting on the damsel-nymph page and you will find a litany of materials listed, almost all of which are some sort of green colour. Olive marabou, olive seal's fur, green floss, dyed green partridge feathers. Green. That's what colour damsel nymphs are. Right?

Well, no. The ones I watched this week were if anything, a kind of straw colour, too pale even for golden-olive versions of the above. I put a couple in a film canister and brought them home to examine them in a fishbowl. Even in London's tapwater, they refused to turn green. Further research reveals that damselfly species all over the world have nymphs of many colours, usually a sludgy brown of one kind or another, but it seems that green is a colour that doesn't usually figure largely in Damselworld.

This is not the time of the place for an exhaustive discussion of how fish see and interpret colour. For one thing, there is a perfectly good example of such a thing already on this site. But the fact that so many fishermen use green damsel nymphs and the fact that so many trout are caught on them (even I've done it) makes me wonder again about the precise effect of colour on a trout's diet. This has been causing me many headaches recently, because of the logistics of my fly-tying operation. When I look at my collection of tying materials, I wonder how on earth it got to be so big, and how it did so quickly. But when I sit down to actually use it, I shake my head in despair. Every new pattern I fancy the look of seems to require something in a colour I don't have - thread, seal's fur, marabou, floss, you name it. And so I make do with what I have - claret seal's fun instead of black, red thread instead of orange, ginger cock hackles instead of Furness. And still, somehow, I catch fish on these creations.

Anyone who has been trout fishing for more than a few hours knows how selective trout can be, how absurdly and intractably obsessed they become with one particular food source. That we can catch them at all given this sort of obsessional behaviour seems little short of miraculous, despite the fact that most animals exhibit some sort of similar behaviour. There are many days in any given year when I will only eat curry, and I have watched Paul Arden lock on to red chillies in a way that would put any trout to shame. If it isn't long, thin and red, he simply won't eat it (although I have seen him display a classic refusal rise to a jar of pickled onions). Knowing how fussy they are, fly-tiers all over the world become equally obsessive in their choice of materials, choosing only those whose colour exactly matches that of the natural insects they are trying to imitate. People as smart about fly-tying as A.K. Best have written whole books just on dying fur and feather to achieve variations that make the average Dulux catalogue look decidedly inflexible, and they have been worrying about such things for a while now; as I write this I can see a copy of J.W. Dunne's extraordinary 1924 book Sunshine and the Dry Fly winking at me from my shelves, a book so detailed in its analysis of colour and translucency that just thinking about it makes me realise just how glad I am that I don't live nearer a trout stream.

So if all this matters so much, why are damsel nymph imitations invariably green? Why do trout eat Paul's lures tied in hot fluorescent pink, a colour rarely observed in aquatic creatures, rather than swim screaming for the nearest undercut bank? Do I actually need to spend another 750 on materials and dyes that will help me catch more fish? The answer, as usual, is that I have no idea. I suspect that as in so many other areas of my life, it is size that really matters here, with shape a close second; and that if I can fool a trout into believing that I've got those right, I've done about as much as can be reasonably expected. And on that note, I shall make myself a nice cup of green tea and get back to my reading. Or maybe I should dye some feathers in it first.

Sean Geer ( is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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