In steelhead fly fishing there appear to be two schools of thought; the first school attributes very little importance to the fly pattern and supporters will argue that presentation is what mostly counts. The second group subscribes to the idea that the fish will react to different colours and patterns in different ways. The more extreme proponents of this theory will go to great extent to change small details in flies in order to trigger strikes from fish.

Rather than providing the answer to this old dualism, which I cannot, let me explore this topic in a bit more detail and find out if we can come to some conclusions. It is well established that fish see colour. Here is a basic overview of fish vision from Wikipedia. Some fish also can see different light spectrums from humans. I previously wrote a small article about UV vision in fish:   “UV or not UV; that is the question”. So with this basic knowledge as background information let’s proceed a bit deeper into this topic.

Two friends of mine both own steelhead lodges and have guided and fished for steelhead for many years, and are what we could call experts in this field. Both guys fall into the first school of anglers who attribute relatively little importance to the fly pattern. Typically they will have a handful of flies in their wader pocket, tie one on, and happily fish with it all day. They do have preference for certain flies, usually simple patterns, and will fish with that pattern for most of the season. Both like leeches, blue, black and pink and will not venture into more unorthodox patterns or colours. Interestingly, both anglers also fish mostly with one type of line/sink tip, and will not change that very often. Basically they fish some sort of shooting head and 15′ of type 6. Also interestingly, both anglers catch a lot of fish…

Skeena River Lodge Flies - Black Tube LeechSkeena River Lodge Flies - Pink Tube Leech

Fig1: Two standard tube leeches. A good example of a simple, proven, pattern that is popular with anglers who like a simple fly and are not very concerned with the smaller details. 

In contrast to these two anglers I have a friend and a client who pay great attention to detail in their flies. They do this to such a degree that it would be difficult for me to tell the difference between some of their flies which they consider significantly different. My client would have varieties of similar flies and once he caught a fish on a fly he would often keep it for special occasions. He was convinced that the flies that had caught fish before had some specific property that made them attractive to the fish. My friend, the other angler, will have many small variations within patterns. Many with very slight colour variations. Both anglers are good anglers and catch a lot of fish…

Fig 2: Two flies from the Flies for Wild Rivers Project. Obviously Oli falls into the category of angler that is more into small details. 

These two examples represent both ends of the spectrum. Of course there are many anglers that fall somewhere in between. We can ask ourselves some questions; Which approach is more effective? Why do both schools of thought catch fish equally well? To try to answer these questions let’s dive into the subject a bit deeper.

I am going to give some examples from my own experience that illustrate that, at times, fish clearly prefer certain colours or patterns over others.

Many years ago I was fishing Bombers as a searching pattern. My preferred colour combination was a tan Bomber with a chartreuse butt. On one occasion I rose a fish to this pattern. On Bombers it is common to rise fish that do not take the pattern. It’s a big pattern that creates lots of commotion and I believe the fish slash at it. I presented the same fly again, and again the fish rose to the fly but did not take it. I gave it a rest and tried it again; same result. I tied on a small dry; nothing. Tried a small wet fly; nothing. Back to the Green Butt Bomber; rise, no take. I tried an Orange Butt Bomber, same size; nothing. I tried a Purple Bomber; nothing. I tried just about every fly in my box over a period of 1.5 hours. No rises on any of the patterns except for the Green Butt Bomber. In total I rose the fish 12 times on the Green Butt Bomber. Clearly that fish was very keyed in to this pattern.

Destroyer Low Light Fly - Jaap Kalkman SS Destroyer Bright Light Fly - Jaap Kalkman SS

Fig 3: My two colour variations for my Destroyers; a dark pattern for low light conditions, and a light pattern for bright light conditions. 

On another occasion I was guiding a client. I was standing on a high bank and had spotted a nice fish in a small depression. I guided the client so his fly would swing right in front of the fish. We tried many patterns. Most of them common steelhead patterns, such as Egg-sucking Leech, Intruder, Popsickle, and even a single egg. No reaction from the fish. If anything it seemed disturbed by the flies and depressed itself a bit deeper in the pocket. In those days I was experimenting with big saltwater patterns for steelhead. So I took out an orange Lefty’s Deceiver and gave that to my client. The first cast was a bit off, maybe six or seven feet away. I was about to instruct my client to lengthen his cast when the fish shot out of it’s lie and just nailed the Orange Deceiver….

Later in the season upper system steelhead tend to become focused on salmon eggs. I used to fish and guide a pool where there was some mainstream Bulkley pink salmon spawning happening. The steelhead would lay there and eat the occasional egg. Often I would have my client fish the spot, with a standard pattern, like a leech or intruder. Regularly that would not produce a fish. My “guide trick” would be to offer my client a “secret fly”. The single egg would very often produce a fish, or multiple fish.

Fig 4: The Steelhead Single Egg. An obvious fly for late season steelhead that focus on salmon eggs.

A preference for single eggs is also common on the Babine. Pierce Clegg would tell his clients that “you have not fished the pool until you fished it with a single egg”.  Indeed, the single egg will often produce when other patterns do not. However, I have had a very interesting learning experience where the single egg did not produce but another pattern did. The first time I experimented with the Franc ‘n Snaelda I was on the Babine. I was fishing a pool at the end of the day, after the pool had been fished all day by clients. It was late in the year and the water was cold. I fished the pool with one of my “go to” patterns; the Egg-sucking Rhea Stinger; nothing. I new there were plenty of fish in the pool so I went back to the top and fished it with a single egg. I had three light “pluck” or “pulls”. Non of the fish hooked up. I figured this was a good time to try one of the Franc ‘n Snaeldas. I landed three fish. All of them crushed my fly.

Fig 5: The FnS “Babine” has proven to provocate strikes when many other patterns will not.

My last example is from Chinook fishing. I used to fish a great pool before work (in the days that I was still crazy!). At the right time this pool would be very productive and it would not be uncommon to land three to five Chinook. The really great thing about this would be that it gave me the chance to experiment with fly patterns. What I found out was that the Chinook much preferred baitfish patterns over the standard marabou, leech or intruder patterns. I could often fish one specific lie with any of those patterns and get no fish, or light pulls. Changing over to baitfish patterns always triggered much more aggressive strikes.

Fig 5: My early experimentations with baitfish patterns for Chinook salmon led to the eventual development of the King’s Candy series.

All these experiences have taught me that the pattern and fly at times will make a significant difference. My two lodge owner friends I believe catch as much fish as they do because they do other things extremely well. They read the water much better than most people, they move through the poor water faster and focus on the better lies. They cover more water on a day then most and have excellent mending skills. All these things add up to fish caught at the end of the day. I also believe that this way of fishing suites their personality; “get things done, not very focused on the smaller details” type of personalities. Both my friend and client that focus on more detail are quite different. They will move around less and cover only a fraction of the water that the other two guys would. However, they will often find a fish by trying a variety of patterns. They do this in great detail and therefore catch fish as well.

It would stand to reason that if we could combine a bit of both qualities we would improve our fishing. Try to cover ground effectively, yet pay attention to details in order to catch less aggressive fish.

Attention to fly patterns and experimentation with patterns also leads to new insights. I believe this is very valuable. And most importantly it adds another dimension to our wonderful sport.

If you have any experiences with unique patterns or colours I’d love to hear from you. You can leave comments below.

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