Understanding Fish Foods
Over generations, fly fishers have created artificial flies that look nothing like natural insects, but catch fish when nothing else will. Attractor flies such as the Royal Coachman and the Humpy may work precisely because they do look different.
To survive, fish must be curious about things that may be edible and nutritious; often, they strike twigs, seeds, and berries on the water's surface. When a big, buggy-looking thing comes floating along, it often will provoke an opportunistic predator to strike.
Fish eat other fish, including their own offspring. Some fly fishers believe that trout prefer streamers that look like their own kind. Yellow-and-brown streamers, for example, seem to attract brown trout, while olive-and-pink flies trigger rainbow trout to strike.
Most fly tiers create streamer patterns to simulate minnows, but some famous flies, such as the Mickey Finn, a freshwater fly, and Lefty's Deceiver, a saltwater pattern, catch many fish, even though to the human eye they resemble nothing in nature. That may be the key to their success.
Predators strike prey that appears to be escaping, crippled, or so abundant that it will be easy to get without expending much energy. When a predatory fish attacks a school of bait, the attacker looks for prey that appears to be different from the others. A baitfish with a torn cheek, exposing its blood-red gills, may appear to be an easy target. Saltwater bait fishers sometimes dip live baitfish in bright dye that makes their bait stand out from other potential prey in the eyes of a predator. The difference may account for the success of streamer patterns that look nothing like real baitfish.
More important than a streamer's colors are its movements. Predators look for baitfish on the edge of a school, crippled fish that will be easier to attack than strong prey. Such predators as chinook salmon swim through schools of herring, smashing the prey with their powerful tails to cripple the smaller fish. Disoriented, the injured herring swim in spirals, signaling the salmon that they are easy to take.
When you are simulating baitfish with a streamer, match the fly to the size of the natural bait, and animate it so it appears to be escaping, disoriented, or crippled. In fresh water, for example, make the fly swim near fish you can see, and then pull it away quickly. Or retrieve it erratically, so it looks injured.
On the edge of a strong current or in the surf, let the water animate the fly for you. A crippled minnow is at the mercy of moving water, and predators watch for bait being washed about.
Occasionally, fish will strike other fish to protect their offspring. Male bass, for instance, guard their nests and attack marauding sunfish. However, most fish, even large predators, flee from flies that appear to be on the attack. Animate baitfish imitations so they appear to be escaping, never attacking.
In a Nutshell
1. Fish are predators as well as prey. As predators, they attack creatures that appear to be fleeing, crippled, or so abundant that the prey is easy to take without much effort.
2. To select an artificial fly that simulates a fish's natural food, determine what the fish is eating by observing it and collecting samples. Match the size, shape, and color of the natural food and animate your fly to make it look alive.
3. Attractor flies look nothing like natural insects, but they sometimes catch fish when nothing else will. To survive, fish must be curious about things that may be edible and nutritious; when a big, buggy-looking thing comes floating along, it often will provoke an opportunistic predator to strike.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication