Archive for November, 2010

Brain Power

November 20, 2010

Are the fish smart or are we dumb?

(A not very serious look at getting skunked)

Flyfishing is one of the most written about subjects on the planet, more than likely at least in part because there is so much that can’t be explained. One generic theme that repeats itself constantly in various writings is that what with all our computing power we can’t get it right all the time.

How is it that a trout, a cold blooded and slightly slimy creature (albeit pretty and much loved one) can outwit us a lot of the time? What is it that means that a fish, with a pretty limited view of the world and a brain the size of a pea can drive us to distraction with its antics?

Hell all we are doing is trying to con the fish into thinking that a simple twist of fur and feather is actually a real and edible food item, surely that shouldn’t be too tricky, I mean we are smart aren’t we?

We have massive brains, computers, graphite fly rods, ultrathin tippet, fancy vests, myriad fly patterns and all that angling literature, it should be a doddle but frequently it ain’t.

Sure if you mess about with fly fishing for very long you start to realize that there are various means at the trout’s disposal to avoid making a mistake. The colour, shape and size of the fly being used, the presentation and of course that all important little corollary the onset of unnatural drag to give the game away, but still come on we are at the top of the intellectual food chain here, we should be winning the race.

Many people, both anglers and non anglers alike keep asking me “but surely the fish can’t be that smart”, I mean really they can’t actually learn stuff or process information in an organized cognitive fashion the way that us smart and highly developed hominids can manage?

Well it would appear that our arrogance once again proves to be a failing; recent research into the ability of fish to feel pain, (another generic theme that runs through angling literature on a regular basis) has apparently shown that fish can learn a whole lot more than we previously imagined. Of course if you have a PhD and torment fish in a laboratory your opinion is perceived as more valid than if you simply spend a lifetime trying to catch them, but I don’t need a doctorate to know that at least some of the time my best efforts aren’t enough.

That trout can learn is, at least to my mind, more than adequately explained when you watch the change in behavior over time on waters that are transformed into Catch and Release venues where the fish have the chance to add to their experience without paying the ultimate price for the first error of judgment.

Over time the rise forms become more subtle, refusals of the artificial fly and inspection rises to have a better look at what is on offer become more common and what the English refer to as “short takes” catch us out on a far more regular basis.

The evidence may well be subjective but the sheer volume of it has to stand for something and for my money the fish are getting smarter and they are becoming more and more tricky to fool. I have heard it said that trout aren’t hard to catch because they are smart but because they are too stupid to recognize a good thing when it comes along and simply eat the same old same old one after the other during a hatch. I don’t buy that for a moment apart from anything else I need to believe that they are smart to justify my own failings. It is one thing to be skunked by a highly evolved self protective mechanism in a thinking fish, quite another to admit defeat at the hands, or in this case fins, of an unworthy opponent.

However having spent years pontificating on the subject I have come to the realization that there is indeed an explanation, one so remarkably succinct, so simple , so logical that I absolutely had to share it.  Our brains are in some ways our biggest limitation, we look for complexity in everything, even when it isn’t there.

So perhaps the following charts of what goes on in both human and trout brains during the day will offer some explanation, perhaps a little solace and if nothing else a valid excuse for those days when your net remains dry.]

So there you have it, that is why, when you are struggling to come to terms with failure and the world is on your shoulders you can’t get the fish to take. In the end perhaps the most important part of fishing is to clear your mind, it may give you something of an edge when you get right down to it.



This blog post is brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Safaris, Cape Town’s premiere fly fishing guiding service.

Brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Cape Town's best fly fishing guiding service.

What Makes the RAB work?

November 3, 2010

Why does the RAB work?

Tony Bigg’s RAB (Red Arsed Bastard) has achieved a legendary status amongst Cape based fisherman and held it’s place there for a couple of decades and yet what does it imitate and why on earth should it be effective?

It is no secret that I am very much an “it’s not the fly” kind of fisherman, that is to say that for most of the time I don’t believe that the actual pattern makes a whole lot of difference. I suppose you would say I was a presentationist, believing that presentation is ALWAYS at the forefront of effective fishing even when the trout are being a little picky over their afternoon snacks.

We all have our favourite fly patterns that’s for sure, confidence being a major element of the game and to many local anglers the RAB represents the first line of attack in their armoury. Certainly the pattern has evolved a good deal, more people fishing parachute versions, variations of water mongoose and even vervet monkey fur as “legs” and the almost universal acceptance of Coq du Leon feathers as part of their make up.

The concepts behind the RAB are almost as old as fly fishing itself, designed around what the Americans refer to as “variants”. Those being flies with overly sized hackles compared to the recognized standards. I can’t recall as I write but some years ago there was even an article entitled “Butterfly Fishing” using skated variant patterns by a famous angler who equally currently escapes my recall, but the idea is old.

It has seen some reemergence over the years, the original Klinkhammers that caused such a stir when used for Grayling had massively oversized hackles with a “throw” of inches according to Oliver Edwards in his epic tome “Oliver Edwards Fly Tying Masterclass”.  Yet in the “Match the Hatch” obsessed world of dry fly angling these patterns don’t make a lot of sense.

On our local streams there are few bugs that achieve the size of RABs with even modest dimensions, and the hints of red in the tags, ribs or other of these patterns, a universally accepted part of the RAB genre represent little if nothing actually available as food.

Some people believe that perhaps they imitate the spiders one sees dropping from the bankside vegetation or perhaps the Dragonflies which some of the fish target, particularly in the longer still pools where the trout can track them in the air but who knows? I can’t really see that as enough to make these patterns as effective as they sometimes appear to be.

In fact because I don’t understand what they hell they are supposed to imitate I have neglected or even actively avoided using RABS much of the time and years have gone by without me having so much as a single representative of this family of flies in my boxes.

However I was intrigued watching MC Coetzer tying his version of the Parachute RAB at the recent Bell’s Festival. MC is an angler of consummate skill, blessed with immense talent and equally a thinking fisherman who ties his flies with unerring perfection (unlike me where I frequently figure that fast and furious tying is just as effective and maintains fly box stocks with less effort).

MC’s flies were of such appeal that despite my misgivings I actually tied up a few, the first RABs that I have cast on a stream in years. On a recent visit to the rivers with relative novices I had occasion to try these flies. Just as expected some of the fish refused the patterns, they are large and even with high water a number of trout weren’t fooled, but then again that is true of almost any large fly on our catch and release waters. Truth be told though the RAB (para), did draw up fish and some pretty good fish at that and the occasional violently explosive take as well, something of a rarity these days. But why? I can’t fish flies that I don’t, at least in my own little mind, “understand” and the RAB is something of an anathema.

With a little more time however there was one unassailable truth, the fly presents exceptionally well without need of many of the more complex devices of the dry fly fisherman. You simply cannot present an RAB on a tight leader, the size and delicacy of the pattern in itself creates sufficient resistance that it falls gently and leaves slack in the tippet, virtually no matter how short you go with your leader make up or how aggressively you cast.

The anglers I was guiding were relative “newbies” and not comfortable with the ultra long leaders that I prefer but the RAB managed to achieve the same result as my leaders. That is the darn thing virtually presents itself. Providing delicate landings, longer drag free drifts and a hint of lifelike movement in the “legs”, and I believe that for those reasons they are effective. At least until the water gets really low and the fish particularly picky, the style represents the ideal “beginners fly”. That isn’t meant to be disparaging in any way,  but what it does do for the neophyte is overcome a lot of the problems with drag and micro drag without you having to understands a whole lot about it.

Of course I could be way off base, perhaps the pattern suggests some food form of which I am unaware, perhaps it does have some “magical quality” but for my money the real key to this style is that it overcomes a lot of the more complicated elements of presentation. I have gone back to carrying more than a few of these flies in my boxes of late. I doubt that they will become the mainstay of my dry fly attack but they sure will be whisked out for newcomers for the presentationist reasons already expounded upon above. The fly or at least the style is I suspect going to keep it’s supporters for years still, and when you get right down to it you don’t necessarily have to understand why it works to know that at least some of the time it does.

For the record the one really good brownie which refused the RAB on a recent trip to the streams eventually succumbed to a size 20 red wire brassie on the first pass, so you still need to be prepared to “go down” and fiddle about some of the time but with presentation to my mind the most essential ingredient, the RAB genre offers an advantage which is hard to beat.  In fact the above process was repeated on another beat only day’s later when another good brown trout refused the RAB and took a micro caddis pattern on the first pass, which only goes to prove that you can’t rely on one pattern, no matter how famous or effective it may be.  If there is a drawback it is that as soon as you change to a pattern of more modest dimensions you are going to be forced to modify your leader. You simply cannot present a standard pattern properly on the same leader that works with a RAB but I suppose for many anglers that won’t matter a whole lot. Whichever way, one has to consider that the RAB in one of its many guises is an effective pattern for the streams and carrying a few at least is probably not a bad idea.

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