Like every life-long fishing aficionado out there who may be reading this, there was a time during my love affair with the rod & reel that I obsessively bought and collected virtually every fishing lure that I laid my eyes on! And, the ones I didn’t own, or could afford during the days of my youth, I jealously coveted! Every Saturday morning, after watching the usual line-up of my favorite fishing shows, I’d reorganize my tackle box and gawk in wonder as I fantasized about what I might catch on each lure in the days ahead. Indeed, fishing has always been a great exercise in faith, positive thinking, and hope!
After the weekly routine of fishing lure fantasizing, and careful examination of the contents of my own tackle box, every once in a while I’d sneak into the basement and take out my dad’s fishing gear to have an envious look. As I would slowly, reverently open up that enormous tackle box of his and smell the aroma of dried fish slime and stale lake water, as if it were ritualistic incense rising heavenward, I would gaze in complete awe at the hundreds of lures he had in there. Being in the presence of that tackle box made me feel like Moses standing before the burning bush. To behold the contents of that majestic tabernacle of tackle filled me with an overwhelming sense of awe and respect! In fact, it still does! He has lures in there that date back over 100 years…even some original, hand-carved lures by James Heddon: inventor of the first artificial lures. The fishing tackle in that box bears witness to the history and development of sport fishing itself. In more recent years I would beg him not to use those lures, in fear that he would lose them, as many of them are more fit for a museum, rather than a bass’ big mouth! But, despite my concerned promptings, he’d still fish them anyhow. He had regularly caught fish on those lures for many decades, and he wasn’t about to stop now!
Cut through the clutter and focus on what works!
Over the years of fishing with my dad, I noticed that even though he had hundreds of lures crammed in that box of his, he seemed to only use a few every time we went out. One day he shared with me the wisdom behind his actions, as he stated, “Most fishing lures are made to attract fisherman, not fish.” That was certainly a lesson I would learn as I got older and got more bass under my belt. To solidify his point even more, he would often tell me the story of an old, legendary local fisherman whose tackle box was nothing more than a small, beat-up cigar box filled with just a few styles of lures which he consistently caught monster bass on. He fished big, long, plastic worms under an egg sinker, and deep-diving crankbaits, most of which had the paint chipped off and looked like something he bought at a garage sale. Nonetheless, he knew exactly when, where, and how to make an offering that big bass could not refuse. His tactics did not so much revolve around fancy lures and equipment, but much more so, solid knowledge of fish behavior and preferred habitat on any given day, in any weather or water condition.
As I matured and developed as a fisherman over the years, I eventually adopted that same mindset and applied it to every style of fishing I did, especially fly fishing. While I fly fished and even tied my own flies as a kid, I didn’t get deadly serious about it until my late teens and early twenties when I became a helpless trout fishing addict! Much like the bass fishing lure obsession I had as a runt, I became transfixed with the idea of tying at least a dozen of virtually every fly pattern known to man, and then having them meticulously organized in different fly boxes according to their category: dry flies, streamers, nymphs, attractor patterns, etc. I would spend hours upon hours, hunched over my fly tying bench, squinting my eyes and steadying my hand like a microsurgeon as I strived to make every detail perfect! My deer hair mouse flies had to have matching, symmetrical whiskers, the ribbing on my pheasant tail nymphs had to be evenly spaced with exact precision, and the dubbing on my scuds could not be pulled out and fluffed beyond a certain point. Any slight mistake or overlooked lack of detail and I was sure it would cost me the elusive, behemoth fish that I relentlessly pursued.
What I eventually discovered though, after many frustrating outings where the trout refused virtually all of my offerings, is that 95% of the dozens of flies in my dozens of fly boxes were nothing more than snobbishly crafted, pretty little tufts of fur and feather which only impressed other fly fisherman…not the fish. I also noticed that the 5% that did produce consistent results were rather simple patterns, such as wooly buggers, leeches, micro jigs, and generic dry flies. What’s more, I noticed that this handful of elementary patterns actually performed progressively better the more they got chewed up, mangled, and radically disfigured from catching so many fish. I’m convinced that this is because the more a fly is fished, the more human and chemical scent is washed off of it, and, the more fish that fly catches, the more it is saturated with fish slime, blood, and the natural scents of whatever body of water it is being fished in.
My current theory, after several decades of fishing all over North America, as well as working as an Alaskan fishing guide and rubbing shoulders with some of the best fishermen around, is that the only things that vitally matter to fish is replicating the most basic size, color, shape, and action of whatever particular food source one is trying to imitate with a particular fly pattern. This, along with the issue of scent which I described in the previous paragraph, is what will consistently catch fish. All the fine, intricate details that I used to be so obsessed with and spent hours trying to replicate on my fly patterns didn’t matter one bit to the fish. It was mostly a fun, though self-indulgent, waste of time as far as ultimate fish catching productivity.
Forget the Gadgetry
Many young anglers, or, those who are simply new to fly fishing, tend to get caught up in all the gadgetry, as there is certainly no shortage of it! I was no different. In time though, one learns that no amount of flashy, expensive gear can substitute for sound knowledge, on-the-water experience, and routinely practiced skills. The most productive piece of fishing gear is not in a tackle or fly box, but rather, in your skull. Your brain, filled with essential fishing knowledge, is the ultimate key to consistent success! That’s why the best fisherman are not those with the most (and most expensive) gear, but rather, the most knowledge.
A scenario that I’ve witnessed countless times, especially in Alaska, is a fisherman showing up on the water with brand new, out of the box, high-end waders and boots, a fly rod & reel combo equivalent to a mortgage payment, and a fly vest containing several boxes of flies that he or she bought at a local shop at a salesman’s prompting, and not much of an idea how to cast effectively, what flies to use when or where, or how to even properly approach a stretch of water where fish may be holding. I’ve even seen newbie fisherman work over big pools along popular rivers for hours upon hours…that didn’t even have one single fish in them! Which, they could have easily discovered for themselves by simply having a look from a nearby elevated vantage point. Now I’m not making fun of such inexperienced anglers, as I was once one as well. The point is that a little time in the library, online, or talking to a fisheries biologist, researching and learning about one’s target fish species and the places they call home, would have been a much greater investment than the fancy new $150.00 designer fly fishing shirt.
The fish catching puzzle is really not all that difficult when you get right down to it. The pieces include general knowledge of the species of fish itself, it’s available and preferred food sources and habitat, spawning habits, how it acts and reacts to changes in weather conditions, light, water temperatures, clarity and levels, etc. Even knowing the details about a fish’s memory can be a huge advantage. For example, most salmonid species of fish have a memory span of around fifteen minutes. If fish stop biting on your red-hot fly in a particular spot, they are most likely simply tired of seeing the same thing float by again and again. Give them a fifteen-minute break, or use a different fly, and chances are excellent that they will turn right back on for at least another fifteen minutes or so.
When it’s all said and done, there are only so many places for a fish to live and hide in any given body of water, only so many available things for a fish to eat, and only so many things they regularly love to eat! Discover where and what those are, and you will find and catch fish…or at least have the best chances of doing so. Now this may take some diligent effort and experimentation, and even if you find the fish, you can’t always make them bite…no matter what. Sometimes they are just not hungry or active and nothing you can do will ease their lockjaw. Period. But hey, that’s why it’s called fishing, after all, and that’s why it’s so challenging, fun, and a great source of educational adventure. The more you learn, and the more you solidify that knowledge with experience, the more successful you will be. And, the less you will have to rely on (or even desire) fancy gear and flashy lures or flies that are only made for fisherman, not fish. So keep it simple, do your homework, and start catching more fish!
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