Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Recently several things came together in my mind about the role of “Contrast” in tying effective flies. The family was in the market for a new TV and as it had been eight years since the last one, we were quickly overwhelmed with the plethora of acronyms that describe today’s TV characteristics. One of those was “High Dynamic Range” or HDR. It was apparently a good thing for a TV to have. The greater than range of contrasts between the darkest and lightest parts of the picture makes it look more naturally like what humans see with their eyes. A few days later, my Autumn 2017 issue of Fly Tyer magazine showed up and it had two articles that prompted me to think more about contrasts in artificial flies.

One of those articles was “Trout Magic-Al Ritt shares a secret every fly tier should know: The Color Orange Catches More Fish“. The other article was Bill Logan’s “You Have to Believe”. Both provided some insights about why contrast matters in our flies. As Logan ponders all the inexplicable reasons why trout take our flies he makes this compelling statement: “I’m convinced trout operate very simply in either/or moments, punctuated by however long it takes for such moments to occur. There they lie, finning, breathing, finning, breathing, waiting—you get the picture. Absolutely nothing is going to happen unless food comes along or a threat is sensed.” In nature, it is the presence of contrasts, not necessarily color that signals the brain that food is about. Although there are many variations on the definition of the noun “contrast”, the one I find most useful is this: “the state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association”.

On the back cover of every issue of Fly Tyer magazine is a gallery of photographs of the flies featured in the current issue. Without exception, every fly pictured has some form of distinct contrasts in its makeup regardless of purpose or target species. Almost universally, the gallery displays flies that have contrasts created by a wide variety of methods and materials. Many of those methods and materials are staples within our fly tying routine.

Feathers and hackles: Grizzly and Furnace hackles, regardless whether natural or dyed, provide instant contrast when added to our flies. Partridge and other small bird feathers have mottling that create subtle contrast. One of my favorite soft hackle patterns, the starling and purple is effective because of the subtle contrasts between the light brown edged starling neck feather with its dark, iridescent center. When one thinks about the ubiquitous and universally effective Adams dry fly, it is to some extent the subtle contrast created by combining grizzly and brown hackle that should get some of the credit.

Body materials: So many of our flies are tied to resemble various forms of aquatic insects, all of which have some segmentation in their bodies. We try and recreate that segmentation with ribbing or stripped quills. The appearance of segmentation is a result of the contrast between the body material and ribbing material. Beautifully tied traditional flies like the Quill Gordon are effective because the light and dark edges of a perfectly wound stripped quill create a distinct contrast. Even subtle dubbing is rarely without some contrast in colors when wound around the hook shank. Add a little mylar and our dubbing creates contrasts due to flash and reflection. The Salmon Fly nymph in the photo was fresh out of the water. The subtle color variations on the legs, tail and antenna are easily visible underwater as is the shiny exoskeleton’s segmentation.

Winging materials: Again, most adult aquatic insects are not of a homogenous color. Their wings always display some sort of contrast due to veining or color variations. We replicate those contrasts with all sorts of mottled feathers or in our attractor patterns, with starkly bright wings never seen in nature.

When it comes to fish foods other than aquatic insects such as terrestrials, baitfish, crustaceans and annelids contrasts are evident everywhere. Not long ago I was on the stream with a friend and while I watched him work a run, I sat quietly at streamside and marveled at the huge number of trout fry milling around in the shallows near the edge of the pool. The small ones (~1 inch) were rainbows while the larger but fewer ones were browns (~2 inches). There may have been a few whitefish fry in the mix as well. From a Heron’s perspective, they were easy to see from above. But having tried to photograph trout fry underwater, they are nearly invisible from the side. (see some East Gallatin trout fry underwater ) With the 100s of fry moving about there were a few that were clearly not going to survive. As they rolled on their sides, there was a glint of a flash, that fleeting contrast between the light bellies and dark back enhanced by tiny translucent scales. They might be invisible to a hungry trout if they were holding perfectly still, but as they move; especially if they are injured or dying, that subtle flash creates a contrast the trout can key on. If you examine the grasshopper photo, how many distinct areas of contrast can you discern? Hopper patterns ought to have contrasts in wings, body and legs.

In most typical streamers, we incorporate various types of flash to simulate the flashy sides of some type of baitfish. But in reality, flash is just another method of creating contrasts in the fly. A great many saltwater baitfish patterns go to great length to create profiles that are dark on the top but light on the bottom, many times with distinct lateral lines in between. It is the contrast that different hues of materials create that makes the pattern attractive to fish. The addition of large eyes with black pupils and white (or colored) irises creates even more areas of contrast.

Of course, tying flies with different colors of material is one of the easiest ways to create contrast. The Royal Wulff is classic in this regard. Light tan deer, elk or moose hair is contrasted with an iridescent green (peacock herl) and red (floss) body, a rich brown hackle and a white calf tail wing. From a matching the hatch perspective, it matches nothing. But when it comes to contrasts, the Royal Wulff is a classic HDR fly.

Although I don’t entirely agree with Al Ritt’s conclusion that orange flies catch more fish, I do think that the color orange is a great way to create contrasts in any fly, especially fluorescent orange. In a previous blog post on Hotspots, I talked about why fluorescent materials can create advantages underwater. The contrasts they create as well as their visibility at greater depths make flies more attractive to fish. There will always be the Yin and Yang of imitative versus attractor flies. I admire those tiers that can craft nymphs, pupa, adults, baitfish, etc. patterns that are unmistakably imitative of the real thing. Those flies catch fish or they wouldn’t tie them. But, even the best imitations have distinct contrasts. But for me, the most productive flies tend to be those with the greatest array of contrast or HDR. I am always reluctant to religiously follow any given fly pattern and rarely tie the same fly twice. It is clearly a lack of discipline. If you went into my favorite box of Pine Squirrel Woolly Buggers, you’d find very few, if any identical flies. But you would find flies with lots of natural and/or flashy contrasts because in my view, it is the “High Dynamic Range” or HDR contrasts that make the fly.


  1. Very nicely done. You define and describe what we all try to incorporate into every fly we tie even though we may be doing it because it just looks good to us. You also explain why non-natural looking color patterns like electric chicken, catch fish. I have always strayed away from using wild, “unnatural” colors because they don’t look right to my eyes, but in the water, maybe 3′ down with the right presentation, the fish will grab it. Thank you for giving me a logical explanation to use wild combinations that now look very natural to me. There is always something new to learn.

  2. One thing I’ve learned from the patterns you tie, Mike (and you’ve sent me a few, and your ties are as extraordinarily well done as they are productive), is that you always seem to incorporate some kind of contrast–either of color, or of texture or movement or profile, or a contrast of reflectivity…or more than one type in the same fly. It has made me think about the relative merits of continuity vs. contrast. There’s no doubt but that any contrast catches eyes, both fish and human, and piques interest.

    Like you I rarely tie two files the same. At some point during mid-tie I get an idea, and the next one differs. As such my fly box is full of one-offs–a hodge-podge of choices when I get on the water, and if I get strikes and lose one, as like as not it’s the first and last one exactly like itself that I ever had. But then that’s the fun of tying. If I lose one and can remember what it looked like, then all the way home I’m committing myself to tying up a full dozen…but then after one, the recipe again goes to the ad-lib phase and the cycle begins anew.

    Well at least I try to inject core attributes into each–like movement…like hot spots…like contrast. Thanks for making a fundamental point.

    – Mike

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