Posts Tagged ‘Sylvester Nemes’

Fish Food Flies

May 9, 2014


Fish food flies

I recently ran an intensive weekend course for a group of lovely ladies who were relatively new to fly fishing or indeed complete novices. It was billed as a “Ladies Fly Fishing Boot Camp” and in a couple of short days we covered all the essential elements of fly fishing from the history of the sport dating back to the Romans to modern tackle, knots and casting. Plus a day’s fishing as well, yes more than a few of the ladies had virtually never so much as touched a fly rod, so it was a tall order to try to get them to the point of catching fish in such a short period of time. That most of them did actually catch fish and a couple their FIRST EVER fish on fly gear I think would register the program as a success.FishFoodBootCampLogoThe lesson for me though was that actually fly fishing is pretty simple most of the time, and perhaps we put off as many potential advocates as we attract by overcomplicating things. Sure we all love to delve into fish psychology, entomology, some (I tend to think overly sociopathic types) even resort to Latin names and discuss Mayfly wing venation for hours, but in reality for the most part fly fishing doesn’t need to be complex.

When one is constructing an intensive program like this one however one is faced with the dilemma of how to distil 43 years of fly fishing experience into a day’s worth of lectures and casting practise? Eventually you get to the point that you remove all of the “fluff”. Fly fishing in essence, as I told the girls, is simply a case of putting a fly that looks like food, in front of a fish such that it behaves like food and the fish eat it. Now we all know that it can be more complicated than that but how much of the time? How many of us don’t rely more on a handful of favourite fly patterns, hopefully adequate casting and a dash of on the water savvy to achieve success during most forays to the water?

So it was that after a day’s intensive training we headed out to the lake to see if we couldn’t get the girls in touch with their first trout. Bobbing about in the boat with Rena as my first pupil we rigged up tackle as we had practised. The girls only used a single fly because of course their neophyte casting status pre-empted more complicated and tangle prone rigging and I selected a pattern from my fly box, clinching it to the end of the tippet. Then the inevitable question: “what fly is that”, (the girls had been introduced to mayflies, midges, terrestrials and even metamorphosis and were sharp enough to recognise the apparent difficulty in selecting the right pattern). So I told Rena “It’s a fish food fly”. 🙂

BootCamp4FBRena with her “first ever trout” on fly tackle, courtesy of the “Fish Food Fly”

When you get right down to it most of the time that’s what we all fish, “fish food flies”. This particular pattern a long shanked construction manufactured of rabbit fur is a favourite of mine for stillwater fishing, in fact rarely off the leader although unlike the girls I do manage to have three patterns on there at once.


It has gone through a lot of modifications over the years, initially a classical style “Hare’s Ear Nymph”, then a “Monty Nymph”, which was exactly the same construction but fashioned from the hair of my long since departed cat Monty. The fly has variously sported hackle legs, wingcases and flashbacks at different times, mostly to suit the mood of the angler more than the fish. Now I tie them up in various colour combinations from bright red to the normal dull underfur tones of the original but they all work. Some have beads just to aid in the turnover of the level leader when there is no breeze and most have a degree of toning built in, generally with darker dubbing near the eye but again I suspect that is more to do with the angler than the views of the trout.

I have inordinate faith in this style of fly, it is quick to manufacture, easily adapted to varied colour combinations and sports all the attributes of, what I at least imagine, spell out the words “DINNER TIME” to a marauding trout. Subtle colouration, a generically nymph type shape and lots of movement courtesy of a healthy scrubbing with the Velcro strip that is always in my fly tying kit.

FishFoodCasual DressPolly Rosborough was famous for his “Fuzzy Nymphs”

I figure that most living things that trout eat turn out to be perfectly palatable to them and that possibly the most obvious distinction between things living and inanimate is simply that subtle movement. Real food wriggles, gills flare, legs kick whatever, movement indicates life and if you are a trout, life tends to indicate in turn the arrival of your lunch.

Most fly anglers have come to similar conclusions:

Polly Rosborough of “Fuzzy Flies” fame. (Author of “Tying and fishing Fuzzy Nymphs”) pretty much bet the farm on subtle movement in his patterns.
Sylvester Nemes (The Softhackled Fly Addict) took much the same view, although perhaps on a more microscopic level.
South Africa’s Tom Sutcliffe,(Author or “My Way with a Trout”, “Shadows on a Stream Bed” and “Elements of Fly Tying”) has inordinate faith in his “Zak Nymph”, with its buggy profile and wiggling and sparse palmered hackle.

FishFoodSoftHackleSubtle movement, even in tiny flies is often the key to success.

If all else fails the idea of incorporating subtle movement into your subsurface patterns has to be a winner. Without getting too detailed or overly complicated the simple illusion of life will pay dividends more often than not.

So sure we can complicate things, even successfully at times but when the chips are down, when you are searching out fish without a clue as to what is going on under the water, well then I am reaching for my “fish food flies”, they work for me, they worked for the ladies on the weekend and no doubt they will work for you too.


Now also available from “Guide Flies” the latest book from the author of this blog, in either eBook or printed softcover formats..

Guide Flies Front Cover

Soft Hackles and Freestone Streams

November 16, 2013


For a long time now I have been pondering what it must be like to be a small insect hatching out on a freestone stream. I know that insects are smarter or at least appear smarter than we might think. Mayflies for example manage to all hatch at the same time so that they can find a dance partner for the big shindig over the nearby trees. Given that they only have a literally ephemeral window in which to find a mate the timing is uncannily precise.

It is equally well recognised that they all fly upstream before mating or laying eggs to avoid their species gradually slipping down into the sea over the course of millennia. There are even those who postulate that the nymphs prefer days with upstream breezes, on which to hatch out, to assist with the process. Nobody seems to have a hypothesis as to how they might know which way the wind is blowing, or indeed for that matter what the hell wind is in the first place so perhaps I am wrong. But I find it hard to imagine that a good many of the bugs that hatch out on our streams don’t go over a miniature waterfall at the very point of their emergence.

It seems unlikely to me that they might predict what hazards await them, and a misjudgement in terms of position could easily see them getting washed over a metaphorical Niagara  (the term seems appropriate when compared to the size of the average insect) only moments after they surface.

In my wilder moments of cerebral waywardness I imagine what it might be like to jump in to a raging Niagara River a few hundred metres above the drop and try to remove all your clothing before being sucked over the edge. In effect isn’t that precisely what a hatching aquatic insect has to manage as it escapes the clutches of both the stream and its nymphal shuck? One missed trick and the party is over. Sadly I fear that a good few don’t make it and end up in the wash cycle, bad for the insects perhaps but I can’t help but think good for the fish and therefore quite possibly good for us anglers.

AnnieEdsonTaylorAnnie Edson Taylor was in fact the first person to ever survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

For all the trouble we put into slaving at a hot vice lashing together minutely detailed imitations of mayfly duns, caddisflies and such I suspect that some of that effort is wasted and have long harboured the notion that much of the time we might do better to imitate those unfortunate ephemerids which inadvertently do the metaphorical “over the falls in a barrel” trick.

As predators trout surely must hone in on an easy meal, they seem to already show a predilection for food items that can’t easily escape. I think of the hoppers, the ants, the beetles, the stillborn duns which get trapped in the sticky surface film and which we as anglers at least imagine the trout will target because they represent easy pickings. Surely drowned bugs must provide even easier options when available?

Soft Hackle FliesSoft Hackle Flies do a great job of imitating drowned bugs of all descriptions

It isn’t new thinking but then again it equally isn’t something that I have overly focused on either, that is until recently when the trout were being particularly tricky on a local stream. They weren’t overly keen to commit to a number of high floating artificials, either large or small and so we tied on some tiny (#20) soft hackle midge patterns behind small but visible dry flies. (The “midges were impossible to see so the dry flies offered a clue as to their whereabouts on the water and an indication of a subsurface take when one occurred). I use the term “midge” but in reality these CDC soft hackle flies could well represent anything that has drowned and taken a bit of a beating in the tumbling currents; I don’t suspect that the trout require a Latin name attached to a bug to decide to consume it.

CDC MidgeThis simple CDC Soft Hackle fly accounted for dozens of fish on a recent trip to the streams.

Anyway the upshot was that we “hammered em”, near every fish that we targeted with a decent drift ate the sunk or semi-sunk pattern. To suggest that these flies were lacking in complexity would be a serious understatement, the term “ludicrously simple” would still imply a level of engineering entirely lacking in their design, but they worked and they worked phenomenally well.

Sylvester Nemes (The Soft Hackled Fly Addict-1981 Stackpole Books) was a huge advocate of Soft Hackle Flies and of course there has been plenty of parallel evolution of similar patterns, it can’t be a mistake that they more often than not grew out of the experiments of anglers fishing freestone rivers.

I am quite sure that most would hold such flies as imitations of nymphs, emergers or stillborn duns, but perhaps much of the time they simply represent the drowned and hapless hatchlings that don’t make it.
Similar flies have been invented and reinvented throughout the annals of fly fishing’s history, Clyde Style Flies, Tummel Style Flies, Northcountry Spiders, Softhackles and all of similar ilk came mostly from anglers fishing rough streams whereas the Halfordian and Catskill style dries are mostly the inventions of those angling over softer currents.  Back in time it was always suggested that the need for crisply delicate dry flies on chalk streams and spring creeks was an indication of the greater intelligence and selectivity of the trout that inhabit such waters. Perhaps though the trout in freestone streams aren’t quite as thick as some angling snobs would have us believe. Eating drowned bugs on a rough stream would seem to be a pretty smart strategy if you ask me.

Festival 2Gerrit Redpath releases another trout taken on the minute soft hackle flies we were fishing.

So I would suggest that if you fish on freestone rivers, particularly those with boulder strewn pocket water, having a few highly suggestive and simplistic fly patterns that you can fish in the film wouldn’t be a bad shout.  I like nice neat crisp flies, I love artistic interpretation with fur and feather, hell I even try to tie my softhackles with architectural symmetry but there are times when I wonder if perhaps stamping them into the mud a few times before casting wouldn’t prove to be “just the ticket”.

Festival 1Eating drowned bugs on a freestone stream is a smart strategy for the trout.

A quote: Most fly-dressers fail to make really good flies because they put too much stuff on the hook rather than too little. Many of them, and this applies especially to the producers of London flies, have no knowledge of the living insect of which they are presumed to be making something of an imitation.(The soft hackled Fly Addict)

Drowned bugs are food and I am pretty sure that they are food that trout like if only for their ease of capture, it would seem foolish not to copy such morsels when on the stream, at least some of the time. Plus of course similar flies do a good job of imitating any number of other bugs from cripples to spent spinners, they are easy to tie and highly versatile in terms of their application on the water.

The CDC soft hackle is one of many simple and effective flies featured in the author’s newly released “Guide Flies” eBook. The book will be available in print shortly and is currently available on Compact Disc (includes text, graphics and embedded video clips on tying all the flies)

Guide Flies Front Cover

Available directly from the author
R199 including postage in South Africa
R250 (approx$25) to international clients postage included.

Enquire or place an order HERE

Cheater Soft Hackles

July 28, 2011

Cheater Soft Hackles.

We all I am sure have at some point tied and fished soft hackle patterns; there are those of us who embrace these simple and mobile flies to the same degree as Sylvester Nemes who proclaims addiction to these amazingly effective and relatively simple patterns.ref:  (“The Soft Hackle Fly Addict”).

Having fallen in love with these patterns though I can’t be the only one who has ventured forth and purchased a packet of grouse or partridge hackles only to find that the feathers are all too large to tie the flies in the classical style. Even if you buy a skin there are going to be a lot of feathers that you can’t use on trout sized patterns. It looks lovely and simple, perhaps stripping one side of the hackle and tying it in point first to create a highly mobile emerger wet fly. But what about all those over sized feathers?

I fish predominantly small streams with good insect populations the vast majority of which are tiny, a size 14 would be a veritable “whopper” and that leaves me with a lot of hackles that are simply too large to tie in the normal manner.

Well having played about with a lot of different experiments, most of which failed dismally it has to be said, I have found a way of using oversized hackle to manufacture very nice and more than acceptable wet fly or soft hackle patterns without wasting. Now I am free to tie patterns of almost any size, for stream or stillwater use and no longer am frustrated with the wastage that occurred previously. In fact it opens up a whole new world of tying flies because you can utilize all manner of feathers which you thought previously were unsuitable.

Here is how you do it:

  • First pull the fibres at right angles to the stem so as to align the tips of the fibres as much as possible.
  • Then cut or tear the fibres off the stalk and hold them on top of the hook shank, points forwards over the eye.
  • You now need to measure them so that you get the degree of “overhang” that you require, this will determine the “size” of the hackle in the finished fly.
  • Swap hands and tie down the hackles leaving the points hanging over the front of the hook, they will be fashioned into a wet fly or soft hackle collar later on.
  • Cut off any excess and add a tail (optional) and a body of whatever material you wish to use, silk, floss, dubbing.
  • Once the thread is back at the eye of the hook you now pull the fibres down and around the hook before bending them backwards over the body and form a neat head of thread in front of them. The fibres should now look to all intents and purposes as though you had wound them around the hook.
  • Form a neat whip finish and you fly is complete.

Below are graphics of the process from my soon to be launched eBook “Essential Fly Tying Techniques” this book provides graphic and on page video clips of all the key techniques required to tie myriad flies.  This is but an excerpt and example of a little bit what is contained within the book.  There are over 100 pages, over 80 graphics, 35 video clips of key techniques and entire flies , basic entomology and fly identification and lots of great tricks which will help you tie flies like the one shown here. The video clip below is an indication of what you can expect from the eBook but is not in the exactly the same format. If you would like to pre-order a copy of the book please drop me a line on the following link. Pre-order enquiry Essential Fly Tying Techniques

Click on the images to see them at full size for greater clarity if you wish.


The possibilities are endless, here are a few different versions of cheater soft hackles just to show some options.

Olive Cheater Soft Hackle with tails

Orange Cheater soft hackle

Silver Cheater with golden pheasant

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