Have you ever encountered feeding fish and been unable to catch them, or catch them as regularly as you thought you should? Were you able to rule out every possible reason why, except for your fly?
When this happens it's a good time for fresh ideas at the fly tying vise. Time for devising new patterns that specifically address the demands of the fish and the shortcomings of existing patterns. Once tied, it’s off to the water, where those new designs get a little testing. Perhaps they end up getting revised. Maybe again and again. Naturally, the final arbiters are the fish themselves. They always let us know when we've got a new fly design right.
This, to me, is how fly design should work. And for most successful, long-lived flies that's how it has worked. Consider a fly like the Sparkle Dun. Craig Mathews and I evolved this pattern out of the need for a fly that would consistently fool selective trout during heavy mayfly hatches. Satisfying that need suggested an emerging dun design. Good floatation and visibility were highly desirable characteristics. So, too, durability. The combination of all those factors resulted in the Sparkle Dun, a proven pattern for over thirty years.
Simply put, the best flies evolve to solve problems—fishing problems. But these days, when I cast a critical eye at fly design, a far different methodology comes into view. I see plenty of flies developed to solve problems, alright. Just not fishing problems.
Look in the bins of your local fly shop. Ask yourself, what fishing problem is solved by lashing together hair, foam, krystalflash, rubber legs, dubbing, more foam, yarn and wire onto a hook? By what process does a small nymph end up incorporating more than half a dozen materials? The way I see it, by a process in which flies are designed more for chasing money than fish.
Over the last decade or so, as the growth in the number of fly fishermen has plateaued, it’s become harder and harder for the large wholesale fly companies to grow or even maintain their sales. As a way of combatting this, the introduction of new fly patterns is something they’ve come to rely on. The same is true for many fly shops and independent fly tiers. At all levels of distribution, new flies represent both monetary incentive and reward. How well they catch fish isn’t nearly as important as how well they sell.
But when the onus behind fly design is centered around solving sales problems rather than fishing problems, the market becomes distorted. It’s how we end up with so many overdressed, look-alike, patently derivative small nymph patterns. Or foam grasshopper patterns. Or midges. Or…whatever. As a fisherman, I’m bothered by this. Because tucked in among the yearly cavalcade of “hot new flies” are some new patterns that offer legitimate solutions to the angling problems we face. They’re just hard to find.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on the fishing business. Maybe the drive to increase sales has always driven the introduction of new flies. I’m not sure. But things today just feel different to me than they did thirty years ago. I fully understand that the current situation is a way for the fishing business to address its growth problems, but it does no real service to us as anglers.
I think a better route, one that I tried to follow, is to always concentrate on the fishing problems still awaiting solutions. Without question, many of them will be solved by better fly designs. But if the fishing industry remains stuck on creating flies to solve business problems rather than fishing problems, it's a sure bet that those solutions will be a long time coming.