What Makes the RAB work?

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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14 Responses to “What Makes the RAB work?”

  1. sharland East Says:

    Thank you Tim, very interesting article – must say I do like the RAB especially when in Rhodes.

  2. Tom Says:

    Tim I think you’re spot on, a well tied RAB presents very well and you can get some free “drag free” drift without much hassle. I’m a bit of a RAB fan, I’m often a bit rusty when I fish the streams so they are my go-to fly when I start out.

    One thing I’ve also considered is that the fly “floats” very nicely just prior to hitting the waters surface. I think that last 10cm just prior to hitting the surface is an area which fish survey, and few flies spend as much time in that zone as the RAB.

    One other key to the RAB is its “legs” and how they make the fly dance on the water in a slight breeze, they are like a tiny sail and often you get some rather odd movement on the water from a RAB that a traditional dry will not give you. This is one of the failings of the parachute version.

  3. paracaddis Says:

    Thanks Tom and I would have to agree that the standard tie does alight differently and is less prone to “show” drag and rather “dance” on the water. The drawback to me of that style is that I think that one misses more fish. Everything is swings and roundabouts I suppose.

  4. Craig Thom Says:

    I am not sure that you actually answered the question ‘Why does a RAB work”. Having given this some though recently, I think I have the answer, but need to out the theory to practice before I can make the statement.

    • paracaddis Says:

      Thanks Craig,

      I am not sure that any of us know why any of this works, we just have theories and until we learn to “Talk Trout” I suspect that little mystery will be what keeps us captivated. However I reiterate that in my opinion it is the presentation that is this fly’s greatest strength.

      As per “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.”

      I look forward to your update on your theories.. Tim 🙂

  5. free1stone Says:


    I am not sure it as much about presentation as you suggest.

    Firstly, let me state that I don’t consider the Para RAB as technically a RAB at all. It is another fly altogether (more of an ‘extended’ klinkhamer I would say) tied with similar materials to the traditional RAB. I believe it is mostly in the way the RAB sits on the water, as Tom suggests, that the secret lies. There is something about a fly that stands delicately off the water on its hackle points and can therefore move about in the slightest breeze that is enticing.

    As support of my argument I find when fishing a RAB that if the fly is tied with too webby hackles or the hackles get ‘pap’ after a few fish, presentation is not compromised at all but the fly decidedly stops working.

    By the way here is a link to a batch of ‘RAB’s’ tied by Tony Biggs himself. You will note almost none of them are the traditional ginger and white hackle ones. http://freestonebamboo.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/rab-flies-tied-by-tony-biggs/

    All the best and congrats on a great blog!


  6. paracaddis Says:

    Thanks for your input Steve and yes I am not sure that the paraRAB is really a RAB or not. I have to say that I don’t like the standard version, it is almost impossible to fish on light tippets without spinning them up and to my mind you miss way too many fish on the take. That said, I would agree that the fly in its traditional form probably has more movement.

    In either case I think that the drier and less webby patterns work better but I also think that they present better too. It is a matter of opinion for sure, I wouldn’t suggest that I had the handle on it but I will say this much, I don’t think that the colour scheme has a heap to do with it and I do know that over time the size and spread of the “legs” on Tony’s patterns became more and more outrageous, apparently with success.

    One should also bear in mind that the orginals didn’t benefit from Coq Du Leon and a variety of “legs” were used from Egyptian Goose to Peacock or Pheasant tail so the fly has been around the block and changed a lot over time. The only significant constant that I can see is the large “throw” of the hackles or legs and the soft and mobile “lively” presentation on the water..

    Either way, they do seem to have a certain “Je ne se quoi” at least for some fish.

  7. New and trying to figure out where stuff goes on the fora - Fly Fishing Forums Says:

    […] […]

  8. Mark DeWitt Says:

    Has anyone tried a RAB in France??

    • paracaddis Says:

      I don’t have any personal anecdotes Mark but I am quite sure that they have. Certainly clients of mine have made good use of them in both Germany and the UK so with France in the middle one would have to assume it would produce similar results.

      • Mark DeWitt Says:

        Hi Well I have only been here for 7 months and have plans to fish a stream that is near us, and I’m told has Trout and Perch. So let’s see what happens and I’ll give feedback on the results. I do have a lake on the property that I manage and found Large Mouth Bass, just the other day. So that was a real rush for me. Don’t find them very often in this part of France.
        Have a great one and good fishing!!

    • Craig Says:

      you would have to use the French version the bâtard arrière rouge

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