Heads You Win.

HeadsyouWinOut of the mouths of babes, or fish:

The past few decades have been a remarkable time for fly angling, in my youth fly fishing meant one of only a few things.

The gentry would swing wildly ornate patterns through costly waters in pursuit of Salmon. The well-heeled to the south might cast dry flies upstream into water once described as being “as clear as gin and twice as expensive”, generally hog tied by ludicrous rules of etiquette that had little to do with effective angling and much more to do with pure snobbery . The few would target grayling, a beautiful species vilified as vermin by some at the time and the occasional working class stiff would have a throw at the a chub now and then, the poor man’s salmonid.

Over the past thirty years or so that has changed completely, if you say you are fly fishing you now need to define exactly for what. Tarpon, Snoek, Bluefish, Marlin, Grayling, Yellowfish, Carp, Bonefish, Milkfish, Pike, Bass and just about every species that swims has been or at least can be targeted with fly tackle. In fact one might well argue that we should redefine the term “Fly” because many lures fashioned from fur and feather and lashed lovingly onto a hook bear no resemblance to a fly at all, not even an insect for that matter.  One can only imagine the reaction of a toffee nosed Fredrick Halford were he to be reincarnated and shown the latest rattle-trap, bug eyed popping frog pattern.

Fly fishing has undergone a revolution and it, as with so much else that has changed, started with an adjustment of mind set. The idea that one might, given sufficient understanding and experimentation come up with flies (I shall continue to use that term, although in reality it isn’t particularly helpful), and techniques to target a wide variety of fish.

Perhaps the most major adjustment, the change of paradigm, to use the corporate speak of the executive, was to stop thinking like trout and salmon anglers and to start to think simply like anglers.

To be frank, trout are easy, we understand so much about them that there is little new, and most developments revolve around refining well considered hypotheses. Trout feeding, trout behaviour and trout food are all well documented and have been for ages. The latest massive development was Skues’ audacious (at the time) idea of fishing subsurface patterns for them. A proposal which cost him access to his beloved waters.. being a luminary isn’t generally something for the cowardly or faint hearted.

Enter the era of experimentation, it was no longer sensible or effective to think like trout anglers, fishermen had to think like biologists, like hunters, like crafty con artists intent on deception of a whole new set of potential quarry, many not well understood.

If you are planning on targeting a “new” species you need to know a few things about it, how it feeds and on what. What those food items look like and where in the water column they are likely to be abundant. The first step of the process is to look at the fish, and in particular its mouth. You can tell a lot from a fish’s mouth if you know what you are looking for.

The Trout:


The trout’s small terminal mouth, small teeth, well developed eyes, and if you delve deeply enough development of that portion of the brain focused (if you will forgive the pun) on optical acuity tells us a lot. One might well deduce that the trout feeds throughout the water column, with a leaning towards surface and midwater food items which are relatively small and don’t fight back. Hence the development of flies and tackle geared to imitating small insects mostly from surface to mid-water. The flies are designed to be visually similar or appealing, copying the insects that the fish might encounter in its home environment.


Of course if you look at the head of a “Big Old Brown Trout” you will notice larger mouth, bigger teeth and start to conclude that you may very well be better off with a streamer or mouse pattern. The same species, different age and different mouth structures clearly indicate that the game has also changed if you want to target them. In fact it is generally noticeable that brown trout will develop larger mouths and bigger teeth than perhaps rainbow trout of similar size, suggesting they are more prone to switch over to large food items.

The Grayling:


Small sub-terminal mouth, limited dentition, well developed eyes. So much like the trout, focused on visually stimulated feeding in clear water with a leaning more towards the stream bed. (That sub-terminal mouth is a dead giveaway).  Flies and techniques much as for trout but with the exception of a greater focus on fishing deeper on the bottom, the advent of Czech nymphing techniques essentially revolutionised grayling fishing for the simple reason that it provides a means of putting your flies where the grayling are feeding much of the time..

The Smallmouth Yellowfish:

Head Smallmouth Yellowfish

Small sub-terminal mouth, pharageal teeth, tells you again that this is an insectiverous feeder, focusing on flies and larvae and other small items near the stream bed, the lack of clarity of the water in which these fish are found suggest that they don’t rely only on visual cues to locate food.

Head Rubberlips

The adaptions of some of them ,the so called “Rubber lips” subset strongly suggest that they will turn over rocks and suck food items from them. Hence fishing for smallmouths is much like fishing for grayling, just perhaps a little more extreme in terms of its focus on the lower layers of the water column.

The Largemouth yellowfish:

Head Largemouth Yellowfish

The juvenile Largemouth appears more like the smallmouth and it quite obviously feeds in much the same way. However as it grows the mouth, as the name suggests, becomes considerably larger, the teeth are pronounced, the eyes large and well developed. All indicators of an ambush predator targeting larger food forms which can get away. Thus fishing techniques focus on larger fly patterns, generally imitating the small fish species in the Largemouth’s environment, there is more attention given to movement and size of pattern than exact imitation. Additional focus is put on fishing near to structures which may well provide cover for a predatory species. The Largemouth is more geared to eating large food items on a less frequent basis than the Trout, Grayling or Smallmouth Yellowfish. Equally the size of the Largemouth indicates that it eats large food for the most part, really big specimens can reach 20 Kilos. Although a freshwater species, the similarity in structures of the head of a Largemouth Yellowfish and those of saltwater Barramundi are notable. They effectively have adapted to the same feeding strategies in differing environments.

The Orange River Mudfish:

Head Mudfish

A face that only a mother could love perhaps, but quite obviously nature’s version of a vaccum cleaner. Just looking at the mouth tells you that flies hard on the bottom are the way to go if you want to target this fish. For a mudfish to attempt to take a dry fly it would have to swim upside down..

The Pike:

Head Pike

Not unlike the Snook, the pike is quite obviously a piscivorous ambush predator. Large terminal mouth, large and impressive teeth, camouflaged colouration. A dead giveaway that if you want to target Pike you focus on large fish imitating flies, fished near to structure. Again one would expect that size and movement in the pattern is more important than exact imitation.

The Milkfish:

Head Milkfish

Development of effective techniques for catching this superb game fish was comparatively recent. The size of the fish belies the fact that it feeds on small items which don’t attempt escape or fight back. But the mouth gives the game away, small terminal mouth with little by the way of dentition. The milkfish sucks in small food items near the surface of the water. Weed flies of relatively small size revolutionised targeting this species.

The Snook:

Head Snook

Again the large and upwardly slung mouth of an obvious ambush predator, large flies fished mid-water to the surface would be a good bet if you had nothing else to go on. The snook looks to all intents and purposes like a saltwater pike and surprise surprise similar tactics are likely to work on both.

The Barramundi:Head Barramundi

To me there is a striking resemblance between the Largemouth Yellowfish and the Barramundi, and not surprisingly really, two ambush predators adapted to fit what in effect is the same biological niche simply on different continents and different types of water. One could easily suppose that the fishing techniques and flies that work for one will work for the other.

The Bonefish:

Head Bonefish

Relatively small sub- terminal mouth designed for capturing prey items on the bottom. Given the marine environment the obvious conclusion is that the bonefish feeds on small crabs and shrimps which are sitting hard on the ocean floor. Tackle and flies have then been adapted to imitate such food.

The list could go on endlessly, but in reality it isn’t necessary, if you are planning on targeting a new species a good starting point is to investigate its mouth, it can tell you a great deal that you may like to know in terms of how to go about catching one.

Obviously there are variations and exceptions, a bonefish will take a streamer and you can catch even a big largemouth yellowfish on a nymph but the general principles hold true. They do so because in looking at the structure of a fish’s mouth you are looking at evolutionary adaptation to feeding in a particular way. Understanding that provides good clues to the innovative angler on how to exploit one’s knowledge to better effect.

As a true fly angler one quickly recognises that when you head out to the water you are entering a game where nature holds all the cards. You can only fit in to what is going on at the time, it is pointless to imagine that you might sway conditions in your favour.  What you can do is understand the game and therefore be better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities it affords you.. Taking a close look at your chosen quarry isn’t a bad place to start.


2 Responses to “Heads You Win.”

  1. Miss P Says:

    Great article!!!

  2. paracaddis Says:

    Thanks Miss P.

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