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Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

Have you ever pondered the cost and effort it takes to get a two dollar fly to a place where a trout or other type of fish would consider eating it? Someone in my past referred to flies as “Bug Puppets” and I have adopted the term because it alludes to the need to make the fly look and behave like the food item it imitates, much like a puppet imitates characters in a play. Generally I believe that matching size and color to the food items in the stream is pretty important. However having said that, I wonder at the validity of the statement because we have all used stuff on the end of the line that looks like nothing found in nature. There is a long tradition in fly fishing of producing beautiful flies that are properly called works of art but they look very little like the food items found in the waters we fish. At the other extreme from the artful and time consuming salmon flies are what I like to call “guide ties “or flies that are simple, quick to produce and successful.

To understand the need for this kind of simplicity all you have to do is imagine a busy guide that has been working with a couple of anglers over the last day or two and they have run out of a fly that has been catching fish. The guide will be burning the midnight oil tying up a couple of dozen of these for the coming day. In this situation the very last thing a tired guide wants is a complicated time consuming pattern. Then there is the guide who has tried every trick in the book as well as all the flies that normally work but things have not been going well. A friend of mine who guided in Montana tells a story of coming up with an entirely new fly featuring some innovations that he believed would cause the fish to strike. He had a couple of clients who were fishless and unhappy after a couple of days of trying. There was one day left in the trip and only one more opportunity to put a smile on the fishermen’s faces. What might be called a “Hail Mary Pass” for a fly fishing guide worked and the last day of fishing for these clients went very well. The good thing for the guide was that he could expect repeat business for next season. A bonus was that he had a new fly pattern to add to his arsenal. Jim, the guide from the story above, showed me how to tie this unusual fly and like many others in my fly box it resembled nothing found in the stream but the fish took it anyway.

I am primarily a dry fly fisherman who was brought up in the British tradition of a dry fly fished upstream to rising fish. One of my mentors, a close friend of the family, was a retired Scottish Gilly no less and he was fussy about how you fished trout. However I’ve had my purity tainted somewhat by a group of guys called the East Texas Fly Fishers who almost all fish sub surface flies all the time. This makes sense because there is very limited success using surface flies in the tail-water rivers in the south and southeastern USA. There is just too much food available to the trout under the surface. So if you want to catch fish you have to go deep. Many of the members of this club are fly tiers and experimenters often coming up with the oddest flies.

Willy's White Thing
Willy’s White Thing

There is one fly that I will mention that has caused all kinds of interesting reactions from other fishermen. Our fly fishing club calls it “Willie’s White Thing” in honor of the member who introduced it to the club, and it works. When it first showed up in our group Willie, one of our more colorful members, tried his best to keep it a secret because it was, to be honest, a little embarrassing for a fly fisherman to be using. It was built on a small jig-head, something you would expect “Bait Chunkers” to be using. (Yes we are all fly fishing snobs and we often use that pejorative term to describe anyone who happens to be using something other than a fly rod) If you powder coat the head white on a #10 jig head and wrap the shank in white Antron yarn using white thread as the tying thread you have an example of Willie’s White Thing. One of the advantages of this fly is the speed with which you can tie it. If you are efficient you can get two dozen done in an hour. Adding a little bit of flash twisted into the yarn makes it look better to me but there is no evidence that this works better. The fly became so popular that members of our club filled entire fly boxes with them.

On the Lower Mountain Fork River in southeast Oklahoma it worked very well. I have tried it in the streams of Alberta and it worked there on Cutthroat and Rainbows. Try as we might we couldn’t and still can’t identify what this “Fly” might resemble as a food item. The closest anyone has come is the notion that it may imitate a Mysis Shrimp but there are none of these shrimp in many of the waters we fish. I have begun using it as a weight with a Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph as a trailer fly about 18-20” below the White Thing. When using unweighted midges I will only use about 12” between the White Thing and the trailer. The rig works very well in the places I fish. You can fish it like you were Czech Nymphing high sticking it through runs with a tight line or you can put a strike indicator on it making 30’ casts and dead drifting it though likely water.

So what makes a fish try items in the drift? A couple of years ago I watched a DVD showing trout feeding. What I found fascinating is they were trying, or taste testing if you will, all kinds of stuff in the drift including twigs, leaves and small chunks of moss as well as real trout food. They quickly spat out the stuff they didn’t want to eat and they sucked down the stuff they did. This video clip made me re-think what I thought I understood about the doctrine of matching the hatch. One might believe after watching this video clip that you could throw anything out there and if presented properly the fish would try it and indeed under some circumstances that works. However on occasion I still experience the frustration of watching rising trout having them ignore everything I toss at them. There are clearly things about trout feeding that I do not yet understand.

I really like the concept of triggers that make a trout more likely to strike. These things include movement, color, size and depth in the water column. Another item which we now consider when designing our flies is UV materials. So far I am not convinced that this isn’t just a fad. However one has to admit that something that glows in the water is probably easier for the trout to see when compared to an LBB or “Little Brown Bug”.

One of the things about fly fishing that I love is that you can never become a “know it all”, you can only ever be a “know it some.” There is a long way to go for us to figure out in fine detail what trout eat and why. In some ways I hope that we never get there but I am sure given enough time we will. In the mean time I am going to thoroughly enjoy building and fishing my bug puppets.

An addendum to the story of Willie’s White Thing…… it seems the fish got together and sent out a memo warning their fishy neighbors about this dangerous fly. The success rate at the Lower Mountain Fork River with the White Thing has fallen off somewhat. Perhaps the fish got too used to seeing it and stopped grabbing it.


  1. I concluded some time ago that the main reason fly fishing works at all is that fish don’t have hands. As Phil points out, when a fish sees something interesting that might be food it has no alternative but to take it into its mouth to find out. That’s all we fly fishers need. As to why hot fly patterns all seem to lose their allure (ahem) after a while, my theory is that any fish who has had a bad experience or two with the fly in question starts showing an avoidance response to it. Other fish nearby instinctively pick up on this and also shy away. The more anglers use that fly, the faster this reaction spreads through the fish population. Maybe this is the fishy version of going viral? This is one of the many unfathomable mysteries of fly fishing. But coming up with theories like these is one of the sport’s great pleasures.

  2. I too like the trigger concept, although I don’t take it to extremes. Trout might think, “It has a dorsal fin of the right color, therefore it must be a small brook trout,” but still I can’t bring myself to drag nothing but a dorsal fin through the water. But I will believe in them saying, “It has eyes so it must be a fish.” I guess in the end I’m subject to triggers too–some of them will convince me to tie the fly on, some won’t.

    I heartily agree they “taste-test” stuff. I mention this in an article that’s queued up but has yet to be posted. Mary’s comment about them “handling” items like we might when walking through a grocery store is probably spot-on.

    Willy’s White Thing looks more like an earring than a stream critter to me, but then I’m not a trout. It could look like an engine exhaust valve for all I care, as long as it works…and as long as I can think up some impressive hatch-matching nonsense, to tell anyone who sees it on my line.

    Thanks Phil! Enjoyed the article.

    – Mike

  3. Phil,

    You commented: “Another item which we now consider when designing our flies is UV materials. So far I am not convinced that this isn’t just a fad. However one has to admit that something that glows in the water is probably easier for the trout to see”

    There is wide scientific consensus that vision in fish includes the ability to see reflected light in the UV spectrum. That’s an ability not found in humans. The “glows in the water” analogy isn’t really what’s in play here. Adding UV treated components to a fly makes those components visible to fish in a manner that is difficult for humans to discern. The real challenge with UV components is using them in a manner that enhances visibility of flies in a way that makes sense for the fish. That’s a challenge that will eventually separate fact from fad. Here’s a very interesting article in Wired that describes how UV reflectivity is used by a species of reef fish discern friend, foe or food.

    1. Thanks Mike, I’ll read the article and get back to you. Is use UV materials but not enough to really comment on their success rate when compared to the older more traditional materials.


      1. Hey Mike,

        I had a look at the article and it would seem to me based on the research the pattern of UV reflecting material would be really important. I wonder what we are saying to the fish if we randomly use UV materials to construct a fly. I think there is a case for matching the hatch in more ways than one.

        Phil R.

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