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Saltwater Fly Selection
by Ed Zaun

ne of the most common questions flyrodders ask themselves today is which fly should I tie on? I mean, there are literally thousands of different patterns out there, especially if you consider the color variations. I have about a dozen books of patterns, and although there are naturally quite a few duplicates and some minor variations, I still have about 500 fly patterns to pick from when I sit at the tying bench, so what do I tie and carry with me? What makes a pattern better than any other for each situation? Well, the answer might surprise you, so read on...

On any excursion out to the beach, I probably carry 15 different flies with me in varying color combinations, for a total of about 35 to 40 different options. Now, that's not all the flies I tie, even restricting the discussion to Striper fishing, but that's about what I can comfortably carry with me. I try to confine my gear to a backpack, so I can be fairly mobile if I have to walk up and down the beach following or looking for the fish.

The first thing we need to consider is what makes the fish strike. The operative word here is “makes”. Fish are not Rhodes’ Scholars, in fact I've only met a few people (well, maybe a lot considering recent elections) less intellectual than they are, but they are supremely adapted and programmed to deal with their environment. A fish's behavior is governed what the scientific set call “stimulus thresholds”. This is a certain level of sensory activity that brings about a specified reaction. In fact, because fish don’t think and plan ahead, you might say every action by the fish is in response to a stimulus threshold being met. When you unexpectedly make a big splash near a fish, it immediately heads for the hills. When you put blood in the water, you're likely to attract hungry sharks, not that I've ever heard of one that wasn't hungry. What were looking for here is the stimulus to make a fish take what were offering. Personally, I think the process of fly selection has gotten way too much mystique surrounding it for its own good. It's the same for any fly or lure. When the fly produces the correct stimulus for the situation, the fish will strike. Of course there are many other variables, the fish has to sense the fly some how and it's a big ocean out there, but you get the general idea.

For a fly to be productive, it's got to satisfy several criteria. It must resemble something a striper recognizes as food. It might look like something the cat barfed up to you, but if the striper thinks it's food, then it is food. Color can be important, but action and size are, in my opinion, critical. I know this because I'm fairly well color blind, to the point where I need my bride to tell me if I have on black socks or dark blue ones. Once I made the mistake of not consulting her and I went out in a tuxedo with one of each. Oh well. Anyway, color is important only to the point that you keep the basic hue in the fly. I don’t believe it's necessary to worry about whether to use Ginger, Tan or Beige saddles if you want a light brown effect. Just come close and you'll do fine.

Siliclone Fly ©1998-2003 E. Zaun The single biggest concern I have when selecting a fly is matching the size of the local baitfish fairly closely, but a little larger. By this, I mean that when the predominant bait in the area is peanut bunker, I'm not going the throw a 12” Siliclone, but I might tie on one or two 3” or 4” ones. I'll use different colors if I use two flies, or I might use two different patterns, but the sizes will be just a bit bigger than what I see in the water. I like a slightly bigger fly than the majority of bait in the water because I believe it gives the fish something to aim at. Think about it, when there's ten thousand spearing (silversides) in front of you, what would single out your fly for targeting? Baitfish have only one defense, numbers, so if you stand out just a little, you'll get hits but if you stand out like a sore thumb, you'll probably get to watch other people catching fish. As with any rule, there is an exception. During a blitz, you'll want to tie on something to attract attention, like say a popper or a Razzle Dazzle, but that is again to allow your fly to be targeted. The reason is that during a blitz there's too much commotion going on and you'll need something to make you stand out from the crowd.

Look around the waters where you fish. If the predominant bait is spearing, then tie on a white Deceiver, or a Ray's Fly, maybe a Surf Candy or two. Anything with a long narrow silhouette and a bit of flash will do. If you see a lot of peanut bunker, try something a little bulkier, like a Siliclone or a Sar-Mul-Mac. When the fish are deeper, try a Clouser Minnow or a Deep Candy. What's important here is the silhouette, not the actual fly.

Don’t misunderstand me, you'll also need many other patterns as well. Sometimes that threshold I spoke of will only be tripped by a certain action or color. Try to cover all your bets, but before you change flies, change your presentation. This will usually do the trick, but occasionally you'll need to do something weird. That's what the fun in fishing is all about. I'm currently developing a fly I call the Skipper. It's designed to skip over the surface of the water like fleeing forage. It does work as designed, but it needs more field-testing before I post it.

The basic rules of thumb that you would use for spin fishing apply here. It's still the same fish after all. Use dark colored flies in murky or turbid water or at night. When it's bright and the water is gin-clear, use brightly colored flies. Just remember to be flexible. If something that should work doesn't, try something else, but be a little patient and give everything you try a chance.

Remember that this is fishing. Fishing is an art and not a Science. If we could just punch all the numbers into a pocket computer and come up with the proper fly and presentation, you wouldn't be here reading this article. I wouldn't be here writing it, either, because all the mystery would be gone and it would be no fun when I get it right. The whole point I'm trying to make here is that while catching fish can be frustrating at times, actually selecting your flies shouldn't be. Just pick one that resembles the bait and try different presentations. You'll probably find something that works, but if you don’t, LOOK AROUND YOU. If the fish are there, but not taking your fly no matter what you do, just stop for a minute. This is a golden opportunity to learn something. Ask yourself, “What did I miss?” “What am I not seeing?” Chances are, there's a baitfish in the water that the bass a keying on that you haven't seen. Find it and figure out what it is. If you don’t have something on hand to imitate it, play around on the tying bench. Try to match the shape, size and coloring, in that order. You'll feel really smart the next time you get stumped and you can save the day. End

Copyright © 1999 - 2013 Ed Zaun, All Rights Reserved

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