Neil Travis - Nov 03, 2014

The reason we fish is a completely open-ended question, and the reasons are as varied as the number of people engaged in the sport. If we break it down farther, "Why do we fish with flies?" it becomes even more ambiguous.

Over my 50+ years of fly fishing I have become a quiet observer of my fellow fly fishers. It has been my good fortune to have been able to fish many of the finest trout waters in America and to have known many of the premier fly anglers of our times. This has allowed me to observe and to question why we do what we do.

I find it most interesting that one of the seemingly great frustrations that causes fly anglers to fuss and fume is their inability to catch fish that are apparently feeding with abandon but not taking their fly. I presume that one of the reasons that one fishes with flies is the challenge and nothing is more challenging than feeding fish that ignore one's best offerings. Yet I have heard more grumbling and complaining, more cursing and displays of temper when anglers are unable to fool them.

Trout can be very, very frustrating when feeding in a very specific manner. Case in point is a situation that I have observed on one of our local trout waters when the fish are feeding on midges. Now midge fishing, in and of itself, is not a game for the uninitiated, but even for very experienced anglers trout feeding on midges can offer the ultimate challenge. On this particular piece of water the midge population is very healthy and midges occur in a variety of colors and sizes and they are present throughout the year. Trout living in these waters are very familiar with midges and when they are feeding on them they can become very selective. Like a connoisseur that orders his steak medium rare and rejects anything that is not perfectly cooked to their specifications, midge feeding trout on these waters will not accept anything that is not exactly to their liking. So why do we try to catch fish feeding on these insects? It's the challenge; the challenge to try to figure out what the fish are eating and then the challenge of offering that specific fly in such a manner to make the fish believe that it is real. If you don't want to take that challenge then find fish that are feeding on something else.

One of the other frustrating things that occur is when individual fish are feeding on different insects during a major hatch or on different stages of the same insect. I often encounter this situation on spring creeks and tail waters. There may be two or more insects present in significant numbers to constitute a major hatch and many fish are visibly feeding. What complicates the situation is that each fish may be feeding on a different insect and, more significantly, on a different stage of each insect. Like diners in a restaurant some fish are eating the appetizers – nymphs or emergers, some are feeding on the entrée – the adult insects on the surface, some are feeding picking at the leftovers – the cripples and others are sampling a bit of everything. Then, of course, there is always that one fish that is feeding on none of the things that are obvious but sipping in an occasional something that is completely hidden. Ah, there is a challenge.

When fish are feeding on a multiple hatch it may be necessary to change flies after each fish. After you catch a fish on a dry fly you discover the next fish is feeding subsurface so you switch to a nymph which requires the addition of some weight to get the fly down to the feeding level of the fish. This may require several attempts before you get it right. If you are successful in catching the fish that is feeding on nymphs close to the bottom, the next fish refuses your offering because it is too deep. It's time to remove some of the weight and maybe even change flies, since the fish does not seem to be taking nymphs but emergers. The question is what emerger? More experimentation and just when you think you have it figured out the fish decide to start taking something on the surface or maybe just in the film.

Figuring out what the fish is eating is just one step in the process of actual getting the fish to take your offering. In fact, sometimes the easiest part of the puzzle is figuring out what the fish is eating. The real problem is getting the fish to take your offering. This involves the next challenge for the angler; presentation. Once the angler has selected a fly to offer to the fish the angler's ability is about to be tested in the most critical manner. This is especially true when the angler is presenting his offering to a fish feeding in clear, flat water such as those waters found in spring creeks and tail water situations. Submerged weed beds create micro-currents; subtle drag that grabs leaders and causes an artificial to act in a way that appears to the fish as being unnatural. It will be necessary to put the fly to the fish in such a manner as to reduce the distance that the fly has to float before it reaches the fish. This is no place for a two foot float or even a one foot float. The fly needs to be placed in the fishes feeding lane within 6 inches or less of where it is rising. In addition, it may be necessary to repeat this cast several times without spooking the fish.

The weed beds that make presentation a challenge also make landing a hooked fish on a fine tippet equally exciting. While I am resolved to land the fish I believe that I have been successful if I fool the fish into eating my offering. However, the mark of an accomplished angler is not only the ability to hook the fish but to bring it to hand. For this reason I never use a tippet than is finer than necessary to accomplish the task, and I rarely find it necessary to use anything finer than 5x. I rarely resort to 6x except when I'm using flies smaller than size 22. The heavier tippet allows me to have a better chance of landing the fish without fighting it to complete exhaustion.

I fish with flies because of the challenge; the challenge of locating a feeding fish, the challenge of figuring out what is eating, and the challenge of making it eat and then bringing it hand. When I'm fishing it doesn't get any better than that.

The reward of taking the challenge.

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