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What makes a great fly?

by: David Coulson 5/10/2017
What makes a great fly?  Iím willing to bet that for the majority of you, your first response is, ďit catches fish.Ē The funny thing about flies is they all catch fish.  Yep, every fly you see in the fly shop, tackle catalog, fly pattern book, or fly box will catch a fish at one time or another.  It just depends on a whole lot of factors, such as place, time, species, angler, and presentation.

So if they all work, what makes for a great fly? I know many will persist with the fish catching aspect and applying the ďdegreeĒ it works argument.  But a lot, if not the majority of flies work great in the hands of the right angler, on the right day, with the right species . . . yada, yada, yada.
I argue what makes a great fly has little to do with its ability to catch fish, or its fish appeal if you will.  Rather, a number of other factors make the fly great.

First and foremost, the fly must have angler appeal.  Thatís right it must look good to you.  If it doesnít, youíll never tie it on the end of your line.  Thatís right, it doesnít matter how well a fly might work, if you donít fish it, itíll never, ever catch a fish.  Donít know about you, but Iíve yet to have a fish jump into the boat and take a fly from one of my boxes. 

Simply, if you have confidence in a fly and fish it, youíll catch fish with it.  Itís a reinforcing phenomenon.  Tie up a new pattern and try it, if it catches, youíll continue to fish it.  If it doesnít you may never fish it again, regardless of whether or not it might be effective under different conditions.  

Second, a great fly is one thatís durable.  Nothing worse than catching one or two fish on a fly and having to tie on a new one because it shredded.  I know some flies have short life expectancies, such as pike flies, but even there I can reasonably expect to catch several fish before having to replace it.  
As I tie my own flies, great patterns are those that are simple to tie.  I appreciate the ďartĒ aspect of fly tying.  Some tiers produce patterns worthy of showcasing on the wall.  Personally, Iím not willing to put an hour or two into tying a piece of art, when I know a simple, easy to tie pattern will produce fish just as well.

Finally, great patterns are those that blend seamlessly with you fishing style.  For example, these days Iím primarily a streamer fisherman.  I like to cast and retrieve.  Not only that I like to vary up my retrieves, imparting a various actions to the flies.  Consequently, I value patterns that accentuate my style of fishing.  Thus, patterns with materials that provide a bit of action, such as marabou or fox hair, a bit of flash, or a bit of movement on the pause (drop or rise) make it to my list of ďgreatĒ fly patterns.  Whereas, those who fish with strike indicators, Czech nymph, adore dry flies, fling top water bass bugs, or any of the other variations of fly fishing will value different attributes.

Bottom line.  To my way of thinking, great patterns are flies that have eye appeal to the user, are durable and easy to tie, and work well with your style of fishing.  And yes, when those criteria are met, those patterns will also be fantastic fish catchers.

Blog content © David Coulson
Member comments
Jacob J, CO   5/10/2017 12:21:36 PM
Don't forget the hook. Hook's material is also important. Lost a few fish when trying to bring it to the shore and hook just cracked and fish is free.
David Coulson (Flyrodn), CO   5/10/2017 1:17:47 PM
Quality hooks goes along with being durable. Many tiers unknowing damage their hooks by concealing the point in the vise jaws. The pressure can "fracture" the hook around the barb, causing it to fail when under pressure.
Jacob J, CO   5/10/2017 1:56:10 PM
Yeap. Just imagine the feeling when you got something sizable hooked and bam... halfway it is gone... Not to mention the effort to tie size 20 with our vision being different from 20 years ago :-) Tight lines!
bardkin, CO   5/10/2017 2:29:13 PM
I have tied up some crazy looking flies and successfully caught fish with them before. Some were just kind of... Wasp/Hornet looking with black, yellow and red on them. One of them actually helicopters down when you cast it. Sometimes it lands upside down. You'd laugh if you saw it... But the 1st thing to look at when choosing the fly is what is going on around you. I get more luck NOT matching the hatch. And let's face it- when your fishing the rivers, the fish don't really get a chance to take a good look, they have too much competition and hit fast and hard. If they did have a good look at ANY of the flies we use then we'd never catch them. But I 100% totally agree- having confidence is the best tactic of all. I say when your fighting the skunk, try something way out of line, You might be surprised.
Jacob J, CO   5/10/2017 2:38:39 PM
J. Gierach in one of his books said: tying the right fly is 10% of the success, believing that you tied a right fly is 20% of the success... I agree, sometimes not following common rules brings more fish than otherwise
David Coulson (Flyrodn), CO   5/10/2017 2:43:05 PM
Jacob, as to breaking off big fish, been there, done that, including the hook failing. Sunday I broke of two carp, and one Monday, using lighter gear, and it cost me. Part of the game. As to the rules, those are a human trait, rules are something fish don't have.
Tbubb, CO   5/11/2017 10:40:26 AM
I think a great fly is one I know how to use... I know that the presentation of any lure/fly is a key element to succeeding with it. I've swapped 'hot' lures with pals and we've both got blanked that way - we had the wrong gear or presentation for the other's lure, I guess. I've given the people next to me flies/lures that I was on fire with and watched them blank on open water far from structure or current where "location" was not important. I've been blanked on other people's stuff as well. This leads me to the conclusion that "the one that works *FOR YOU* is a key element. Apparently I know what to do with a BH hare's ear or a Copper John, but clousers and streamers... not so much. And that's even for bass & Crappie!
007, CO   5/11/2017 1:40:51 PM
One incredibly large element of a great fly is missing in this article (and comments). If the fly can look like multiple food items (this could be different lifestages and/or species or genera of fish or bug), it is much more likely to be eaten than a fly which might be ultra-realistic but does not represent what the fish are actively eating. A "buggy" looking non-descript squirrel hair collared nymph or muddler minnow can represent a whole host of potentially available food stuffs. Sure you might catch more trout if you match your ultra realistic fly to exactly whats hatching, but when the hatch changes in 1/2 an hour from ephemeralla to brachycentrus, I'll still be catching with my ugly hybrid buggy fly, while you are out of luck!
David Coulson (Flyrodn), CO   5/11/2017 1:49:16 PM
The assumption that a fly looks like anything specific or even several food items is a human thought. To our eye, at least mine, most patterns are at best a coarse representation of something, and those that are great representations rarely fish well. At least they don't for me. I agree "buggy", generic if you will, patterns work well. It's not because they imitate anything specific, rather because they imitate "life", and living things are what most fish eat.
opencage, CO   5/16/2017 11:03:05 AM
Yeah, like everyone's said: confidence. My favorite fly for just about anything right now is a dark, drab colored mop fly (read worm fly), tied in different ways, but it works, a lot, for many different fish.
David Coulson (Flyrodn), CO   5/16/2017 1:42:33 PM
Mop fly! Not one I've been willing to try. Tis the rage it seems.
nparker, CO   5/18/2017 11:36:28 AM
In my mind a great fly is one that catches fish consistently for me. I agree that catching fish requires more than the fly but those considerations make the fly no less important. It is still a great fly. I am willing to admit that there are a lot of great flies and probably a lot of greater flies than any fly that I think may be great. Eye appeal is for anglers and sells lots of flies. Great flies are those that catch fish, and they may be quite ugly. This weather makes me crotchety.
David Coulson
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