Ever encountered feeding fish and failed to catch them, or catch them as regularly as you thought you should? Could you rule out every possible reason why, except for your fly? When this happens it’s time for fresh ideas at the fly tying vise. Time for new flies that specifically address the demands of the fish and the shortcomings of existing patterns. Once tied, new designs get tested and revised. Always, of course, with the fish acting as final arbiters. They’ll confirm when we’ve got it right.
That’s how fly design should work. And for successful, long-lived flies that’s how it has worked. Consider the Sparkle Dun. It evolved out of the need for a fly that would consistently fool selective trout during heavy mayfly hatches. Satisfying that need suggested an emerging dun design. Good floatation and visibility were also desirable characteristics. So, too, durability. The combination of all this resulted in the Sparkle Dun as we know it today, a proven pattern for over thirty years.
The Iris Caddis is another example. In the early 1980’s, LaFontaine Sparkle Pupae were about the only flies that could catch really selective trout feeding on emerging caddisflies. But even those failed much of the time. And since they weren’t designed as dry flies, fishing them to individual rising fish proved too difficult for most anglers. A dry fly was required, one that was visible to the angler and that unfailingly caught fish feeding in the surface film. The Iris Caddis fit the bill, and all these years later it remains a most killing caddis pattern.
There’s no mystery here. The best flies evolve to solve problems: Fishing problems. Always have, always will. But cast a critical eye at fly design today, and a different methodology comes into view. You’ll see flies developed to solve problems, alright. Just not fishing problems.
Large wholesale fly companies have come to rely on the introduction of new fly patterns as a way to beef up sales. Same for fly shops. Independent fly tiers too. At all levels of distribution, new flies represent both monetary incentive and reward. Doesn’t matter a lick if the flies actually catch fish.
Look in the bins of your local fly shop. Ask yourself, what fishing problem is addressed by lashing hair, foam, krystalflash, rubber legs, dubbing, more foam, yarn and wire together on a hook? By what process does a small nymph end up incorporating more than half a dozen materials? Let me tell you. By a process where flies are designed to chase money instead of fish. Sure, this is one way to address problems in the business of flyfishing, but it does no real service to anglers (if anything it does us a disservice, making the really useful flies harder to find).
There are still plenty of fishing problems awaiting solutions. Undoubtedly, some will be solved by better fly designs. But if our focus remains stuck on creating flies to solve business problems instead of fishing problems, it’s a safe bet that those solutions will be a long time coming.