MAYFLY DRY FLIES - DESIGN AND COLOR Copyright, 1997, by Jim Stangowitz (used with permision)
A while back, Bud Smithers (alias Coot) began an interesting thread about parachute wings on dry flies. It soon took on a life of its own and became centered on color and its importance in our imitations. This long essay will try to address both subjects. If you are happy with your dry fly offerings and aren't interested in what others think and say about flies and fly design, then this document will not be of much interest. This deals with mayflies, but much of what is said about color can be applied to other types of dry flies. Beginning with wings and general fly design, I'd like to throw out some food for thought. Much of what follows comes my own observations, and from my reading of the writings of Gary Lafontaine. The many ideas being dealt with are interwoven. Color is not always separate from the overall design of the fly itself. Why do I think highly of Lafontaine's work? Well, every so often you pick up a book and start reading it and find yourself continually nodding your head in agreement. I have found this with three of Gary's books. Most recently it was "The Dry Fly - New Angles". Many years ago it was with "Caddisflies" and "Challenge of the Trout". Now, I find that going back an re-reading the earlier works, I agree even more than I recall myself doing back then. Even so, those are not the only reasons. Gary Lafontaine, more than anyone else I can think of, has tried to learn from the fish and about what the fish think of our flies. Not merely that the fish will take our floating frauds, but why they seem to take them. I say "seem to" because we well know that fish don't talk, so the very best we can do is observe and deduce. We may be wrong about some of the reasons our flies are accepted or rejected, but we won't be wrong about the fact that some flies work better at certain times, on certain water types, or under certain conditions. Lafontaine has spent more time under water watching trout feed on naturals and watching them accept or reject our imitations than any other writer on the subject (at least that I am aware of). He admits that some flies work well for reasons he cannot explain. He tells too of flies that work, but also of alternative designs that work better in given situations. Knowing that a pattern will work most of the time, satisfies many of us, but knowing that others could have worked better fuels our attempts at becoming better fly fishers. Simply put, adequate is just not enough for all of us. I will speak of these things in conjunction with trout, because they are the fish that I have spent the vast majority of my time chasing. That is not to lessen other species, nor to elevate trout. I live in trout country and that is what I have at my back door. OPPORTUNISTIC AND SELECTIVE FEEDING Before launching right into fly design, I'd like to touch on the topic of opportunistic versus selective feeding. I think we have a fundamental conceptual mistake here. Trout always feed opportunistically. Selective feeding on one stage of an insect's life cycle or on one particular insect through several life stages is merely a form of opportunistic feeding. Trout don't have restaurants or refrigerators. They don't decide that today's menu will feature pizza, chicken, or even trout. They get what comes along and take what's available. If there are enough little Baetis (or whatever) sliding down the conveyor belt, that's what they eat. If the food item is in great enough abundance and easier to eat than other items, that's what gets gobbled. Ultimately, the trout's diet is strictly determined by opportunity. On some insect rich streams, the trout are fortunate enough to be able to select from a sort of smorgasbord of food items. On other waters, they never have that chance and take anything that is offered. This also goes a long way to explaining why fish feeding in a manner we have labeled as selective will break that pattern to take other opportunistically offered frauds. Simply stated; what we usually call selective feeding is not separate from opportunistic feeding, it's part of opportunistic feeding. We should probably call it selective focus. DESIGN OF MAYFLY DRIES In our discussion of fly designs, some of us have indicated that we do not use conventionally tied dry flies. The claim is that they are not effective trout catchers. This, cannot be right! Too many fish have been caught, and continue to be caught, on traditional style dries for too long for this to be true. The Adams has caught more trout than any other fly pattern used on this continent. It will continue to catch fish for as long as we chose to use it. Such success cannot be ignored. I am not suggesting, however, that conventional dry flies are the best type of fly to use under all conditions on all waters. Conventional dry flies seem to work best when trout are focused on the fully mature adults (duns). They also seem to work well on slightly colored and/or slightly rough water. Even so, they do still work on flat gin clear water at times. The reasons for this are twofold. The effectiveness of these flies is most likely due to the wing as a trigger, and to the light pattern created by the hackles and tail. This light pattern is noticed by trout even before the fly appears in its "window" of vision. It alerts the fish to the possibility of a meal heading its way. The fish then sees the wing and keys on it and most often takes the fraud without any further close inspection. There are certainly variations on how traditional flies are tied and how heavily they are hackled. There is a tendency among some to equate this to what are commonly called "eastern" versus "western" ties. Of course, the better way to describe it would be to differentiate between rough and smooth waters. The heavy hackling favors rough water because the sparkle imprint of the hackles is more likely to be noticed in an environment already filled with obscuring currents. Conversely, heavy hackling can be too much of a sometimes good thing on flat water. It might even frighten the trout rather than entice it. Regardless of whether you live east, west, or in between, you would seem to be best served by having both types of flies and keying your selection to water type rather than geographical location. When using conventional patterns, color considerations (especially for the body) are probably inconsequential. Even wing color doesn't seem to be a big deal. Note how during our recent discussions many of us spoke of the importance of the angler being able to see the fly. We use white, or bright colors, or even Krystal Flash for wings and the fish still take our flies. Obviously, the wings don't touch the water so color doesn't seem to be a factor. This, I think applies equally to bodies. I fully suspect that this is due to the fact that in conventional patterns (especially "Catskill" ties, and Variants) the body does not contact the water. Clearly, the color of what the fish sees of the fly above the water is of little or no importance. Shape, and size are most certainly discernible, but not color. So, for the conventional dry fly, size, shape, and a drag free float are the major items that we need concern ourselves with. Fish taking flies from the surface may not, however, be keying on duns. They may be taking both duns and cripples, or duns and emergers, or all of them. This is when the conventional fly will often fail or will only catch a few fish. Trout may even be ignoring duns, and a conventional pattern may often entirely disregarded by the fish. Emergers, thorax style ties, Comparaduns, no hackles, parachutes, or spinners might all be better alternatives, or even the only thing that works. Pretty clearly they are all on or in the surface film. So, the body of these flies is more important (especially color) than with conventional flies. The claim, however, that the body must be a specific color of a specific material is questionable, maybe even doubtful. As we have seen, trout vision is not the same as human vision. That alone, should make us sceptical. Emergers do their best work when the mayfly hatch is just under way and the bugs are beginning to emerge (what a surprise). Sitting partly on the surface and partly underwater, they are easily the best way to give an impression of this important aspect of most mayflies' life cycles. I have not found any clear winner when it comes to emerger patterns. Those that suggest an unfolding wing and a trailing shuck of some sort all seem to work well. How the wing is tied and what is used to make it seem not to matter much. The parachute is likely the best for stillborn or drowned adults. It also seems to work best on flat smooth water. (NOTE: you might, by selecting more buoyant materials and hackling a parachute more heavily help its effectiveness in rougher water). The parachute seems also, because of its low riding profile, less effective than conventional flies for fish feeding on the high riding adults. I don't think that fish that are taking high riding adults mistake the parachute style for one of the mature insects. I think they take it as a stillborn that arrived at just the right time (opportunistic feeding). The Comparadun might be the best pattern for that transition period between emergers and adults, or even just for emergers. I've found this particularly true during Baetis hatches. Early on, the Comparadun works best. As the hatch progresses and the fish settle into a relaxed feeding pattern, a conventional fly seems to work better. The Comparadun will, however, continue to work quite effectively some time. This, I think is because there are still enough emerging dries on the water that the fish will continue to take them opportunistically. Since our Pale Morning Dun and Baetis hatches can go on for hours, however, it is wise to change to conventional designs. Of the available patterns of Comparadun, the Sparkle Dun (with its Antron or Zelon trailing shuck) seems the best. This fly design (which is attributed to Craig Matthews) works well because the wing is prominent, the shape is excellent, and the suggestion of a shuck is present. All the things one would expect a trout to accept or even be keying on. (Note: A thorax style fly might also work at this time, but I think that the Comparadun works better. Lafontaine's explanation is that the wing design of the Comparadun is a better trigger than that on a thorax fly. Sitting far forward as it does on the Comparadun it enters the trout's window at the correct time. This makes sense to me as the correct interpretation.) Not all mayfly adults ride high and dry, so conventional dry flies may not the best answer. On top of that some fish and fishing situations are particularly difficult. Finicky fish are a problem. There are two alternatives for chasing the ultra wary trout. The thorax style tie and the no hackle. Using a thorax is usually my response to fish that are refusing a conventional tie when I'm quite certain they are taking adult duns. (Note: If you are a thorax style fan, try making the wings longer than is usually seen on commercial flies to compensate for it sitting so low in the water.) I've personally found the thorax to be enough on my waters, but that isn't necessarily good enough for where you fish. The no hackle is often thought of as a fragile fly, but one that seems to work when all else fails. It's no coincidence that the no hackle is the chosen fly of many knowledgeable anglers who try for trout on heavily fished spring creeks (especially later in the hatch period). This reputed fragility, however, may not really be a problem. As Mike Lawson has noted, the wings on other styles begin split, so why would it matter that the no hackle's wings split after a while. In fact it seems to improve the fly's effectiveness. He may well be right. My chief complaint is that this fly fails on one count that is often the hallmark of a good design. It is a tough pattern to tie correctly. This doesn't much matter if you don't tie your own flies, but I do. I have rarely ever resorted to a no hackle, but they do work. Spinners have not yet been mentioned. For this phase of the mayfly's life, the conventional fly is rarely, if ever, going to do the job. The parachute fly might, but a better alternative is to fish a spinner style of tie. No other pattern really offers the profile and low riding characteristic of the spent mayfly the way a well tied spinner pattern does. One thing that will be covered later, should be touched on now. An effective body color for the spinner can be strange. The Rusty Spinner is a very deadly fly. That is not necessarily because there are huge numbers of rust colored insects. Rather, it might well be due to ambient light colors. Many spinner falls occur late or early when the ambient light is often orange or red tinted. The effectiveness of the Rusty Spinner is quite likely be due to the way it picks up on this ambient light and relays it to the trout. It would tend to make the pattern become a beacon of attraction to fish. If the size and profile are otherwise correct, it might even cause a trout to select your fly over and above the naturals present on the water. Table 1, Summary of wing types and applications Dry Mayfly Type Best Uses __________________________________________________________ Emerger Emerging insect at start of hatch Conventional Dry - Sparse Mature Adult on smooth surfaces Conventional Dry - Heavy Hatching Insect on choppy Surfaces Comparadun Style Transitional stage emerger to dun Parachute Style Stillborn or drowned insect Thorax Style Transitional or Mature on smooth water No Hackle Style Mature adult on smooth water Spinner Sexually mature and spent adult COLOR IN DRY FLIES The following part of the discussion centers on color. When I speak of color matching, I am directing my comments specifically at those who insist that inorder for a fly to work, the color must be just right. "Just right" usually amounts to being a specific shade of a specific blend of dubbing, yarn or fur. I will attempt to explain why I think such claims are errors. So, what about color? As we know, when we anglers are looking at our flies we are not seeing them as the fish sees them (even disregarding color). If we want to have a better idea of what our bug looks like to a trout, we should put it in water in a clear glass container and look at it from below. Even to us some materials look better than others. For example, Antron, or Antron and fur blends look better than some natural dubbing. Why then, do the natural materials continue to work? I suspect that the answer to this answers the color matchers too. The fish are not keying on that feature of the fly. They have looked at the wing, they have seen the behavior of the fraud, they have liked its size and shape, and are going to take it. Trout are apparently very myopic. They see the fly best when it's only an inch or two away from its nose. Most often, they decide that the fraud or natural looks good before they see it best. But, as they commit and rise to take the fly, they may still refuse it at the last moment. As they get very close, something might cause them to stop short. So, what about refusals to good imitations? Is that refusal due to body color or due to fly design? Probably not color, more possibly design, but most likely something else is missing or is wrong. The thing that is most often wrong is, of course, drag. Fish will refuse naturals that move or twitch at the wrong instant. That is, of course, unless they are supposed to be moving, twitching naturals. Whatever the reason, the fish refuses because it saw something that it didn't like at the last second. Whatever that something was or is, it was enough to change the fish's mind once it had been fooled. Subtle color difference is not the likely culprit. A fly that fails to show the expected keys in their proper order could well be the cause. However, if you have observed the trout and found out what stage of the hatch they are feeding on, that is less likely the case. If a fish sees what it expects as far as light, pattern, shape, approximate size and wing presence are concerned it will likely only refuse if the fly fails to behave as the natural does. Movement or another unnatural behavior is usually always the cause. (Note: Color cannot be entirely ignored. Showing a trout that is feeding selectively on tan colored duns a lime colored Wulff will not generally be a good idea. The key is selectivity. If the trout is feeding selectively, then a color approximating the natural seems to be good enough. Outlandish colors might cause a refusal). The other thing that argues against those who advocate exact color match is that natural insects are not one solid color, and they do have variation in color among individuals. Trout do not decide to take only the naturals of shade X. Even if they can discern such things (very doubtful at long range), it would be a foolish strategy. In fact, fish aren't that smart. If they were, the hook would be a dead giveaway. If you have watched fish feeding or have ever examined the stomach contents of a trout, you will know that they take things that aren't even edible much less nutritious or only a specific color. Heck, they often don't even have only one kind of bug in their gut. In a lot of cases a beetle, ant, hopper, or other critter is mixed in with the supposedly "only" bug of choice. That touches once again on the subject of selective focus. Yes, trout can become extremely selective. They might refuse all other food items except a certain form of a specific insect. Many of us have seen this. At such times you had better pick the right design of fly and present it properly or there will be no fooling any fish. In many instances, however, this is not true. There seem to be two frequent cases of this. One is, as mentioned above, that even when feeding selectively, fish often opportunistically take other familiar food items because they represent an easy meal. I have witnessed fish feeding selectively on Baetis (the only bug on the surface and one we watched them take) smash a size 6 Stimulator without hesitation. This is not an isolated instance. If you search the archives, you will find many reports of folks using an ant or beetle to entice fish that were refusing or ignoring their hatch matching imitations. This merely confirms that selective focus is part of opportunistic feeding. The second is much more puzzling. It is that trout often take dissimilar attractor flies. Flies that not only aren't the selected item, but that don't really even represent a familiar food item. At least not on the basis of color. What is an attractor? It's not a certain fly (though it can be), nor is it a type of fly (though it can be). What it is, is a fly that the fish will move beyond its normal feeding range to take. Imagine that a trout is rising and feeding in a narrow lane 12" on either side of its location. It will move 12" right of left at the maximum to take a natural insect. There are patterns that the fish will move two or three feet to take. It is a fly that almost certainly relies on some visual aspect of design to create that attraction. Regardless of whether or not color is the trigger, the fish is coming from well beyond the range where anything other than the visual is setting it off. Those are attractors. Fishing with a dry fly attractor pattern is most often undertaken during periods when there is little or no surface activity to command our attention and allow us to employ our imitative flies. There are some cases, however, where attractors will work and be as effective or more effective than flies we think are highly imitative. So, attractors are not only used during periods of inactive surface feeding. The two best cases of this are when an attractor is used because of the abundance of food, and when the fish are only getting a brief look at the bug. In the first case, a feature of the fly is used to tempt trout to take the artificial when there are lots of naturals to chose from. It might be an attraction to a color or to a feature (e.g. Zelon trailing shuck). Whatever it is, the idea is to get a trout to want your fly more than it wants the real thing. The second instance is probably best in two separate yet related cases. The obvious one is in fast and/or choppy water. The attraction of the bug must be such that it will entice a fish to move up through fast water to take a quickly passing offering. Size, color, bulk, and light pattern are all used. The less frequent (for most of us) case is when fishing from a drifting boat. Here, the angler does not have the luxury of casting several times to a specific fish. As the boat slips by likely lies, the fly is shown only once or twice. It, the fly, must have some feature that is strong enough in its attraction to elicit a reaction. Regardless of which case an angler finds him or herself in, there is a need to have some sorts of attractor flies in your fly boxes. Why fish take them and what the triggering key to attractors is, is a mystery to us. Even the keen observers will, if they are honest, tell you they don't know why trout will move further to take some artificials than they will to take the real thing. I certainly can't claim to know why, but I do know that trout will do so. There is one possible explanation that makes sense to me. It doesn't explain the effectiveness of all attractors, but it certainly seems to explain why some of them work. I spoke earlier of ambient light. This is a key to Gary Lafontaine's color theory of attraction. It explains, for example, why the Royal Wulff and Royal Coachman are still catching fish and are widely used as attractors. The red of the floss and the greenish bronze of the peacock herl are going to look good to fish no matter the time of day. When the light favors the floss, the herl is not a stop sign; when the herl looks best, the red looks nondescript and won't scare away fish. So, given that the fly is in a size that suggests bugs with which the trout is familiar, then it will always have an attractor color and never have a color that spooks fish. Apply this color theory to pink or orange tones (e.g. the Usual, Blonde Wulff) and they are great attractors early or late in the day (when there is lots of reddish or orange ambient sunlight), or in autumn (when there's lots of red and orange foliage along some streams). Pick green for streams lined heavily with trees or along grass banks. Go with yellow, or some creams and tans in bright light. Pick grey (gray) for low light and cloudy days (might explain why BWO imitations that tend towards grey are often more effective than olive colored flies). Select white for dusk and dawn or in deep shadows (where it will pick up what little light there is). Use black after dark where silhouette, not color, becomes important. The key idea is that by picking a body color that has affinity to the ambient light color, makes the body stand out as a sort of beacon. I have not consciously done this in the past, but it makes sense in explaining why certain colors of Stimulators or Trudes seem to work better at different times. Last year, for example, Tony Blake had a strangely colored Stimulator that fished circles around ours. It was an almost fluorescent reddish pink and on an autumn day on the Bow was nailing big rainbows far better than my standard orange fly. I fully suspect that at that time, his fly was simply the better answer because of its color's attractive properties. For whatever reason, the fish did not even hesitate, they pounded the fly, and they were not small fish either. Tony won't brag, so I will, his first 4 fish were all over 50 cm. (20") long and took the fly on the first drift that came near their lies. Color, then, becomes an attractor rather than an imitation. It's not hatch matching, but is most certainly an effective strategy at times. It might also go part way to explaining why a certain body color on a certain pattern is effective on certain waters at certain times. However, it flies pretty squarely in the face of claims that only that color will be universally the "correct" color to elicit a strike from a trout. The color of the body, provided the fish can see it, might make a certain sort of an attractor of a hatch matching imitation. It might make that fly (yours) preferable to the trout even over and above the many naturals. What I'm suggesting is not that you've done an excellent job of matching the real thing, but that perhaps you've created a bug that's better than the real thing. Imagine your fly in the midst of a huge Trico spinner fall or midge hatch being even more attractive to feeding trout than what they are wanting to eat. It happens, but I'll be the first to admit we really don't know why. Try a Griffith's Gnat with a tiny tag, tail, or trailing shuck in red. I was told that it worked because it suggested the color of cast off exo-skeletons of emerging midges. Given that I most often fish it late in the day during times of reddish ambient light, I'm no longer certain the prior explanation is the correct one. It sure is fun to try and figure out though. Table 2: Attractor body color and light conditions to use it in Attractor Fly Color Best Applications? _____________________________________________________ Reds and Oranges Early or Late in day, Autumn, Yellows Bright Light on fairly open water Greens Tree or grass lined streams Whites and Creams Very early or very late, on shaded water Greys Overcast days Royals Brightest light on sunny days Black or Dark Brown After dusk, very colored water FINAL THOUGHTS Comments are certainly welcomed. Some of this will undoubtedly upset folks.Such is human nature. Remember though, that I offer it as food for thought and for dialogue. These comments reflect my own experiences and my understanding of another man's work. My mind is not closed on these matters. I've employed rational thought in considering them and presenting them. How, I will view these topics in years to come is still a mystery to me. SPECIAL THANKS go out to L. A. (Bud) Smithers, Tony Blake, George Jacox, and Alan Grombacher who all took time to read draft versions of this essay and to comment on the contents. Any errors are mine, but their suggestions made for a better result. Copyright Jim Stangowitz, 1997, All Rights Reserved