When I began fly fishing, tying my own flies was an obsession. It was the one thing I felt I could do with reasonable success. (Success defined here as wrapping materials onto a hook so they resembled something a fish might eat and didn’t disintegrate the first time I cast it.) Whether these creations caught bonefish was not part of the criteria. At that point catching bonefish was merely a dream, in the same class as the schoolboy daydreams of owning a small island with a secret location, building a lair inside its hollow volcano and carrying out “missions” of international espionage. In other words, unrealistic, but an addicting pastime. Nevertheless, I felt that finding the right fly, the correct fly, was the secret to one day unlocking the mouths of these fish.†
It’s romantic to imagine the sunburned guide, lime-infused beverage sweating on the table, reggae in the background, casually yet carefully tying flies in a cluttered tackle room as he plans the next day’s fishing. Reality is less glamorous; tying flies becomes a chore. I had to keep my hapless clients supplied.
In those early days we hooked fewer fish than now, but we still managed to lose an inordinate number of flies. Stray mangroves, jagged limestone shorelines and driftwood grabbed unguarded back-casts. Poorly tied knots returned as pigtails. Wind-knots parted unceremoniously mid-cast. And, the occasional fly was broken off in the mouth of an actual bonefish. It was a war of attrition and the ranks in my fly boxes bore the brunt. I began tying in bulk, using production-line strategies to shorten time spent on each fly. Finally, fatigued, I surrendered entirely and had flies produced wholesale to my specs. At eight bucks a dozen they allowed me to go years without tying a fly in anger.
Now I’m less of a full-time guide and perhaps that is why tying has once more becoming a simple joy. I like filling up those little plastic craft-box compartments with identical flies, ready to be loaded into the tiers of a pocket-sized fly box, like serried shells on a bandoleer.
I’ve also become more experimental with the colors and patterns I tie. I still think I could be given three patterns (in various sizes and weights) and fish 90 percent of the world’s bonefish successfully. But, variety, or more accurately unpredictability is at the core of this little game we play. I mean, fishing is a game of self-imposed rules and fly fishing is study in extremely stringent, not to say ridiculous rules. These are the only constant. Everything else is a crap shoot: weather, tides, seasons, migrations, hatches, and so forth.
Why not let the fly itself be a part of that complex equation? Since I don’t actually know I’m fishing the best fly at a given moment, I like to have the option of trying something different. So I carry way more flies than I need. As a result about twice a year dig through the boxes and remove an embarrassing number of unproductive (and possibly un-fished) patterns. I can’t say I remove many flies, as most have transformed into unrecognizable tangles of salty fur and flash, each leaving a dark rust spot on the once-clean Styrofoam lining. And yet after I salvage the usable bits—lead dumbells and hand-burned mono eyes—I sit at the vise and concoct something new, something never before seen in the history of the universe. Maybe it will be purple, pink and brown, or something yellow and blue. And maybe one day I’ll go down to the water and toss that thing at a tailing bonefish and that fish will eat that thing.
I dig the thought of that.
* Post originally inspired by the ramblings over on BonefishOnTheBrain.
† I still think like this some days, when the fish are being particularly stubborn. In truth, when fish won’t they probably won’t bite anything we throw at them. But, changing flies at least gives you something to do.
Norman’s Crab — by Dr. Aaron Adams — is a simple, easy-to-tie fly that was designed to imitate the many species of walking crabs that inhabit the flats of the tropics and subtropics. The pattern is an impressionistic fly that emulates the general body shape and leg orientation of most walking crabs. The rabbit strip and sililegs provide great movement with only minor movement of the fly. The pattern was originally designed for bonefish on the Caribbean, but has also proven effective for redfish in Florida.
April 26, 2005
A few notes about Andros bonefishing. If you’re after the big girls, forget light tippets and #8, weightless flies. Standard gear for big bones here is a 9-weight rigged with 9 foot, 16-20 pound leaders and #2 forged saltwater hooks, double strength preferred. (I straightened two #4 stainless Mustad 34007’s  on smaller fish—fish under 6 pounds—and the big fish there are serious.)
And by big fish I mean big. Charlie said the biggest caught from his boat was 43 inches long, to the fork! About the only thing I can say to that is no $#!t? I personally saw fish there that looked more like baby tarpon than bones. How big? Well, bones are one of the few fish that look smaller in the water than out, they seem to bend light around them somehow. A 6 pound bone can appear half that size before you hook it. Hook one of the real trophies and you’d better have strong hooks, heavy tippet, and plenty of backing. A strong guide to pole after the fish helps too.
The standard fly is a big rangy Clouser tied with heavy lead eyes in Gotcha colors: white belly, tan wing, pink thread and plenty of gold flash. They’re simple to tie and deadly on big bones, and anglers. Have one of these suckers nail you in the back of the head on a windy day and they’ll be flying you back to Miami, Med-E-Vac style. So, keep those casts low and to the side, well away from the old noggin. It’s either that or a helmet… which I think just looks silly.
1 You’d be surprised how big of a deal hook selection is when dealing with bonefish. The venerable 34007 stainless steel saltwater hook from Mustad has been one of the mainstays for fly-tiers for years because of 2 simple facts: 1) corrosion resistance and 2) price. But let’s be honest, they’re cheap hooks. The temper is soft, the barb is way too big, and the points often need sharpening before you can fish them. On this trip we fell back on the more expensive Mustad Signature Saltwater Big Game Light hooks, in #2. With 16-lb tippet and drags cranked down we were able to subdue double-digit bones and not worry about the hooks at all. In fact, the materials on our flies—eyes, wing-material, thread—were regularly stripped clean off the hook or so badly mangled that we had to retie. But, back at the lodge I’d clean the remains off and tie another Gotcha Clouser on the same scarred, beat-up hook. No worries. Furthermore, years after this trip I got an email asking about full-proof hooks for monster bones. He was headed to a little place called Aitutaki and was worried about bent or broken hooks on the monster bones they have there. Good worry. Well, I recommended Mustad Big Game Lights and he sent this pic and the following report: “I took your advice on those hooks and was glad I did. I heard of two hook failures while I was on Aitutaki. One on the 34007 (bent) and one on a Tiemco (broke). [The Big Games Lights are] solid hooks for sure.” [back]
… you get into a Dick Brown book! Ok, so a little pretentious braggadocio here: my favorite bonefish fly is in Dick Brown’s newly released Bonefish Fly Patterns (2nd Ed.). Unbelievable, right? What a way to start the day!
Ok, so here’s the (super boring) story. A few months ago I ran across Mr. Brown’s website and noticed he was in the midst of producing an updated (much needed, long awaited) edition of his Bonefish Fly Patterns. I can’t remember if there was a call for entries out or I just saw that it hadn’t actually been published yet, but either way I took a shot and emailed him a pic of The Usual. I think I said something pretentious like:
One fly that seemed missing from [the original] book was a shrimp fly that both acted and looked like a shrimp. I mean, there are some that really look like shrimp, but more like frozen shrimp. Then there are others that really act like shrimp, but might not stand up to a close examination by a picky bone.
Ok, that was word for word. I went on to say I had this awesome, amazing fly and that he should publish it in his new book. He responded right away:
We are pretty far along and I don’t know if the publisher would add another pattern at this point, but send me two samples at the address below and I’ll take a look at them.
Pretty generous, I thought. So, I whipped up a few samples, took some hi-rez images, and sent the lot off. That was that. I never heard another peep until this morning when, out of curiosity, I checked his site for the release date of the book. I mean, I’ve got flies that work but you can always use others and Mr. Brown has way more contacts than I do for those “secret” flies. Imagine my surprise when I saw my name under the list of new tiers and flies!
Anyways, the book is out now and if you’re a bonefisher or plan to become one this is a MUST HAVE for your fly-tying desk. Not only does it contain almost 200 patterns, but it describes how and where to fish them. It also has a TON of info about bonefish habitat, behavior, and food preferences as well as lots of tips and techniques.Hop over to your local fly shop and grab a copy, or hit Amazon… but they only have a few copies left so you’d better hurry.
Blue Monday… please send flies to:
IT1 Barjack the Angler NCTS FE DET Diego Garcia PSC 466 Box 8 FPO-AP 96595-0008 March 7, 2011 
Monday rolls around and blue skies! Where were they Friday thru Sunday as I logged just over 50 miles on the good ol’ single speed mountain bike? I got rained on the entire time, saw zero GT’s, caught a few bones, had another shot a a permit—she flashed on my fly but didn’t eat—and got rained on the entire time.
Today for PT we ran two miles, stopping every quarter-mile to do crunches and pushups. So after work just looking at the bike made my thighs burn and ass hurt (please no jokes!…too easy). I just walked from my room and fished. Of course it was the end of the high and I saw nada, I hope I’m not coming across as a Negative Nancy, I do love this place. I am however running low on energy so here goes the call for entries:
Send me flies! Any flies: off-white Usuals-a.k.a. “Bone Crack”, any kind of crabs, and preferably big streamers. The address is:
NCTS FE DET Diego Garcia
PSC 466 Box 8
I promise anyone that sends flies will be compensated for postage and gratuity for material, and, if the flies produce, a gleaming email that will be (eventually) posted on this blog. If they don’t produce I’ll just pretend I never received them and save us both the shame.
Wishing I’d tied more flies (on better hooks),
1 Ok, ok, you now know exactly where I am. Fine. Happy now? For those who’d already guessed, you win the first shot at sending me as many flies as you can tie… on the strongest hooks you can beg, borrow, or
steal buy. For the rest of you, the consolation prize is exactly the same. Get tying. [back]
March 29, 2011. (3:09 a.m.)
It’s 3 am and, finally, all the reels are spooled, rods packed, and flies tied.
This last is an act of toil for me now, but it wasn’t always so. Mostly it’s to do with the pressure and the fact that I always procrastinate this particular aspect of preparing for a trip. It used to be that my tying abilities were so poor (and slow) that I had to start early just to make sure I had any flies to fish with at all. But now that I can tie with greater ease—don’t think I’m calling myself an actual fly tier here—I can cram them all into a last minute blitz on the vise and still come off with enough to get by.
I guess that’s a long way of saying I pine for the old days—those days when the buzz of a new trip was enough to keep me home at nights tying till the wee hours, cramming box after box with whatever the guides call for and a few too many experiments besides. I miss the past trips where I might have still been up at 3 am, but it was from excitement, not because I only just finished whip-finishing the last weed-guard onto the last fly about 3 minutes ago.
Man, 5 am is going to come early.
Just found this blog—BornToFlyfish—and it has some stellar example of the lengths to which fly-tyers/fishers will go for realism… with impressive results.
Now, not to take anything at all away from these amazing creations, but I’m more in the impressionist school of tying myself; I don’t believe you have to replicate every appendage or antenna to get the “look and feel” of the animal in question. However, I appreciate the artistry of these flies as much as the next guy. They’re gorgeous, and no doubt they catch fish .
We called him Skinny, as in skinny water. He used to fish his favorite flat with a few strands of yard lashed side-ways to a hook. No rubber legs, no painted eyes, no feelers. In fact, the thing wasn’t even cut into a believable crab profile; whatever shape they took in the tying process was how he fished them. I think they were square-ish. Skinny called these things Kwan’s but even a brief glimpse of his flies revealed that to be a very generous characterization. These were yarn flies—not Yarn Crabs, just yarn flies—and the Kwan, as suggestive as it is, still has a greater level of naturalism than Skinny’s crabs, and a lot more parts. Nevertheless he caught fish. Not lots of them—Skinny’s Flat (as we came to call it) is a tough place to fish—but he caught them with a regularity that baffled me.
I realize now that he was simply a much better angler than me. I was still in the (prolonged) learning stage of fly fishing where even the act of stringing a rod wasn’t guaranteed to work out successfully, and his casual facility, not to mention constant child-like enthusiasm, became a standard for me. He was, I realize now, a hero. He’d work all day, wrap a few fuzzy things to a hook, drive like hell to the nearest flat and fish till dark. If the tide sucked for bones he’d prowl the canals for rising tarpon until the mosquitoes drove him back to the safety of the old pickup.
However, the main quality that Skinny had was a seemingly unshakable optimism. By all appearances he truly believed that the fish would be there, that he’d be able to make the cast, that they’d eat his silly little flies. And most of the time he was right. After many fishless months waving a flyrod at the water, my flybox jammed with everything from Clousers to the most realistic flies I could tie, I started to suspect that perhaps it was not the bait, but the angler. Of course, I’d suspected this all along—that I was an incompetent fly fisher—but now I could see up close what lay on the other side of the learning curve.
I think I was lucky to meet Skinny when I did. I was probably right on the edge of becoming entrenched in the belief that fly fishing (for bonefish) was this incredibly complex ballet, involving planning, choreography, and (not to put to fine a point on it) certain rules. Rules like:
- Bonefish are leader shy.
- The more believable the fly, the better.
- The farther you can cast the more fish you’ll catch .
My brief time fishing with Skinny cured me of that. Mostly. I mean, I still kept a little of my sense of doing things right—well tied flies not only caught fish but were a pleasure to tie and look at and making a good cast was at least half of fly fishing—but I began to see that perhaps I’d been taking the whole thing too seriously. A guy could, for example, tie wind-knots in his leader 3 casts out of 5, grab any old bedraggled fly out of last season’s box, toss a 20-foot roll-cast and still catch bonefish. More importantly, he might be—hell, probably is—more likely to have fun doing it.
That’s why I have such a hard time taking seriously those nit-picking fly fishers that believe you can only do things one way. Sure, you can fish bones with ultra-light leaders and hope it makes a difference, but all the trout-fishing logic in the world don’t mean squat on a bonefish flat. Same goes for those tarpon fanatics that refuse to tie up their leaders with anything but a Huffnagle. Ok, I realize the winters are long in Montana and probably require a productive way to pass the time so folks don’t get cabin fever and start eying the shotgun in the corner of the door, and labor-intensive, overly complex leaders systems are a healthy outlet. Nevertheless, you don’t actually need all those fancy knots to catch a tarpon on a flyrod . In fact, I’m a firm believer that the “wrong” knot tied properly is better than the “right” knot tied poorly. In other words, if you tie a knot that’s supposed to test at 90-100 percent but you can’t actually tie it correctly because it’s a next-to-impossible knot to tie, you might be better off tying a knot that only boasts 70-80 percent breaking strength but it’s so easy you can tie it in 30 seconds… blindfolded.
But I digress . The point is there is an inherent paradox here. On the one hand fly fishing should be about, is about taking things slower, absorbing the experience and living the ethos that less is more. Tying ultra-naturalistic flies  falls squarely within that belief-system. However, just because a fly looks real sitting in your hand doesn’t mean it’s going to act alive (and therefore real) when you fish it. This, in fact, is a major complaint regarding realistic patterns, and (I suspect) why flies that imitate active pray rely so heavily on more suggestive, impressionistic elements. Is a bonefish, for example, going to stop and count the legs on a crab before eating it—no wait, there’s only four legs there, mate; that’s not a real crab—or do they simply see a something that acts like a crab in the right size and shape and eat it. If you’re puzzling over the answer I suggest you take up bait fishing. You’ll be happier.
On the other hand, more impressionistic patterns seem to violate the slow, steady approach to life (and sport) that fly fishing espouses. I mean, just how long do you think it takes to tie a Crazy Charlie anyways? At best flies like it and the venerable Clouser Minnow embrace a more casual, let’s go fishing and get on with it attitude, and at worst can be (mis)construed as a slap-dash approach to an activity that some are trying to elevate to an art form . But wait, you say, if less is more, surely tying a more succinct, abbreviated pattern fits the bill? Well spotted, and therein lies the paradox: it takes much more time (and presumably deepens the experience of fly fishing) to tie painstaking replicas of insects and crustaceans and fish, but a more generalist approach—which leaves more time for fly fishing, I might add—can result in flies that actually fish better. I suppose it’s arguable they fish better because their owners have spent more time figuring out how to make them work, but maybe it’s because they’ve spent more time observing how the species in question actually behaves. That hardly seems like a slapdash approach, right?
Of course, I don’t actually believe I’ll change the minds of anyone (who might still be) reading this. Fishermen—and presumably fisherwomen—are the most stubborn people on the planet. But if, like I was, you’re just getting started maybe you’ll realize that the real lesson here is that you have to find your own way, and realize that will never be the absolute Right Way. It can’t be because I’ve got the patent on that.
1 In fact, to understand the true level of obsession involved here you have to visit this page and at least scan the linked pages where Peter Coetzee-Grylls struggles to crack the code on Spotted Grunter [Pomadasys Commersonni], a quest 10 years in the offing. Even a cursory glance over the pages of experimentation, revisions and re-revisions will give you some idea of the deep seated belief by some anglers in having a believable copy of the prey on the end of their line. Makes you believe there just might be something to that. [back]
2 Ok, this one turned out to be mostly true… if you replace “farther” with “better”. [back]
3 Someday when I’m in the mood to tackle some mindless how-to drivel I’ll share my tarpon leader formula. Let me just say that it only involves 2 types of knot and none of them is a Huffnagle or Slim-Beauty or any of the other popular methods. My only clue is that it has much more in common with rigging leaders for big-game spinning gear than fly fishing. [back]
4 Man, I’ve always wanted to say that. [back]
5 For the record, the term is naturalistic, not realistic. The latter is concerned with portraying things as they really are, this is true, and that seems like a good fit for this school of fly tying. However, realism is concerned more with the way things are (i.e. the way things behave and act in real life) than painstaking replication of the way things appear. That’s where naturalism steps in. It is focused on the accurate and precise details (think photography) of the appearance of things. This is an important distinction. One of the criticism of ultra-“realistic” flies is that they might look great pinned in your fly box, but underwater they act as alive as a frozen version of the species in question. Shrimp flies like the Ultra Shrimp are a great example of this phenomenon. In contrast a naturalistic fly—which is what I assume these tiers are aiming for—would both look and act like the genuine article when you fish it. I humbly offer The Usual as an example. [back]
6 Please don’t even get me started on art. Just know that craft is not art, and even if you take something to the highest level it can go that doesn’t change what it is. Follow me here, we’d all agree that craft is distinct from art. Right? And we certainly wouldn’t say that craft is a lower form of art, it’s just different. QED. [back]