The Good, The Bad and the Fugly

The Good, The Bad and the Fugly

Paul Arden | Monday, 5 October 2020

I thought this week I would talk about flies. Despite what many people may think, when they open my fly box, I actually believe that flies are often the most important detail in fly fishing, after all it is what the fish eat. Of course if you can’t put the fly in the right place then you’re not going to catch the fish; so I’m assuming that you have organised your casting skills appropriately. And that doesn’t necessarily mean long casts - because most people fish their flies at too great a distance. Anyway I’m not going to talk about that; I’m just going to talk about flies and why fish eat them.

However, before I give you my philosophy of fly tying, allow me to first explain that this is not a keyboard philosophy first followed by a flurry of feathers at the vice; this is fishing first and philosophy second. I’m not interested in abstract campfire thinking if it doesn’t have the backup of results. The reason I mention this is because in this Internet age, people appear to form ideas about fly fishing and then promote them without really thoroughly testing them. I’ve been fly fishing for 40 years, have fly fished around 10,000 days in this time and caught in the region of 50,000 fish. For me that’s half a lifetime of experience. Of course what I’m about to say may be wrong and in another 40 years I might have a totally different opinion; that’s the great thing about fly fishing, we are constantly trying to improve our fishing abilities in this thinking-man’s game!


My beginnings as a fly fisherman was on the reservoirs in England. I’m sure you’ve heard it said, and you have probably even experienced it, that once a fly has caught a few fish, and is starting to look a bit chewed up, then it catches even more fish. In fact it continues to catch fish, often with greater effect, until it completely falls apart! And then we tie on a new fly of the same pattern and our catch rate suddenly plummets. If you haven’t experienced this, then I hope that one day you do, because I found this to be true at a very early stage in my fly fishing life and starting tying my flies accordingly.


On the reservoirs, with static presentations, the trout has as long as it wants to decide whether to eat or not eat. On rivers they don’t have this luxury, particularly on fast flowing waters. Very neat hackled dry flies on reservoirs and slow moving rivers, do not fare anywhere near as well as a scruffy fly presented in the surface film. In my opinion this is not in spite of the fish having longer to inspect the fly, but rather “because” of this fact.



Many years ago we had a rather famous angler in the UK who’s name was Richard Walker. Dick, as we all call him, came up with a fly theory that he called the “Chinaman Theory”. Whenever I mention this here in Malaysia , Chinese Malaysians always get very excited! And it’s a theory that while most people in the UK have heard, outside of this spectrum it is pretty much unknown. And I would like to share it with you… What did you see in the above picture?

It’s a simple caricature of a Chinaman of course - and this has universal acknowledgement world-wide, even in China (I checked!). And it shows us a very simple (and somewhat primitive) manner in which our brains function. Dick used this theory to explain fly design and why fish eat our flies.


Another interesting character in the fly fishing world, who in some ways expanded upon this concept, is Bob Wyatt. For years we had long and insightful discussions on the Board about flies and why fish eat them. Bob has a few books, his first “Trout Hunting” is an excellent read. The bit I really have taken away from Bob, is the concept of “prey image”, particularly when used to explain feeding behaviour that we once regarded as - and still sometimes refer to - as “selectivity”.


What we actually think happens is that fish, which are really rather simple creatures, at least in terms of evolutionary brain development, particularly when compared to us for example, form what we will call a “prey image” which they use to identify food.  You find this when fish become “locked on’ to a particular insect. Size, silhouette, sometimes movement - Bob dismisses colour (but I don’t because experimenting has taught me otherwise!).


If you combine Bob’s “Prey Image” with Dick’s “Chinaman Theory”, then you have solved most of what you need to know about fly section. Present the fish the one trigger it needs, and you will catch them all - because as we know, insects, fish, nature works in patterns. For example: big fall of ants, fish gets the ant prey image, identify that image with your fly pattern, and you blitz them. Don’t manage to copy the prey image and you catch almost nothing!


Steve Parton, who also wrote for Sexyloops for a number of years, had a term called “sequencing”, this is in effect, getting that image right, repeating it and catching the fish one after the other, until either they change behaviour or your fly falls apart.


I only have one thing to add to this line of thought: fish see what they are looking for. As long as you have the correct prey image in your fly, they are not going to see the hook, or a few extra legs, or the 20lb black braid attached to the eye. They don’t see it because it doesn’t fall into their prey image; if they did I don’t think we would ever catch any fish at all!


I think that there is one final consideration, and this is really reflected in the flies that I tie and use: the closer you can make your fly look like the natural insect the less well it works. That is not "armchair theory"; rather this has been formed through lots of time on the water experimenting.  Now of course if you are inducing the take then you can fish something that looks more like a model than a fly pattern, because it’s the movement imparted that causes the fish to eat. But if you are fishing static flies, which is often a large part of many fish species’ diet, then you really want to tie a fly that suggests life as opposed to one that is trying to imitate it.


You will be aware, I’m sure, of the “ultra realistic” branch in fly tying. Amazing skills - it is possible to tie flies that so closely imitate the natural that people will think that you have simply glued a real insect to the hook! As impressive as these flies are to look at, in terms of function they are a very poor shadow of a real fish-catching fly.


You are far better off, in my experience, to present a “smudge” to the fish. Make sure you have that simple trigger which represents the prey image, because that is what is necessary. Try too hard to make the fly look like a real insect and you will catch less. With fish that are behaving opportunistically and foraging, in my experience, presenting a more general pattern, rather than one with a specific prey image, is usually the more effective approach - and we have a lot of flies that fit that bill!


Incidentally if you are to take anything away from this article at all, it is that you must tie your own flies. Your fly box is your working tool box. Designing and developing flies is 9/10ths of what fly fishing is all about. But let the fish be the judge - after all, this is really what fly fishing is all about.




PS fly above is IMO slightly overdressed. However it’s a heavy wire bonefish hook necessary to land Gourami. When I look for the “prey image”, I look through the fly pulling it out of focus. With dry flies you need to photograph them floating, filmed from underneath  - both yours and the natural - and then test them on fish :D