With the UK Saltwater fly season fast approaching many enthusiasts thoughts will be turning to what flies to fill their boxes with for the coming season. ‘What fly to use’ is also the first question many newcomers to the sport want to know after ‘What Rod’ and ‘What line’.
Many Anglers have a favourite pattern of fly that they are whole heartedly prepared to recommend and will religiously fish throughout the season, having ultimate faith in that pattern because they have ‘done well on it before’. Others, like myself, will carry a wide variety of flies, swapping and changing according to conditions and the mood of the fish. I am going to talk about the patterns that I prefer to carry in my own armoury and how they relate to my own fishing as an example of why they are my favourite flies.
Living where I do on the Isle of Wight we are subject to many varying weather and tide conditions throughout the year. The make up and sub surface topography around the Island also contributes to these constantly changing conditions so nothing is ever straight forward when it comes to choice of mark and which flies to use. The North side of the Island faces into the Solent, a narrow stretch of water where a great volume of water is squeezed through 4 times a day as the tide ebbs and flows between the Atlantic and the North sea creating fierce tidal flows that can be exacerbated by strong winds stirring up the relatively shallow bottom often creating dirty water conditions inshore. Good numbers of Bass can run through here but tend to be smaller shoal fish from a few ounces to over five pounds but averaging 2-3lb. Mackerel, Garfish, Pollock and Scad also run through here and can offer superb sport to the fly angler.
By contrast the South side of the Island is fronted by the English channel, much deeper for the most part with a few shallower inshore areas only fishable on the fly in favourable conditions, i.e low or non existent winds, which rarely occurs here. This side of the Island is the place for ‘Lunker’ Bass into double figures as well as huge shoals of Mackerel, Gars and Pollock. Occasionally everything will come right and the predators will be drawn very close to shore and within fly casting distance by vast shoals of prey fish such as herring fry, driving them up onto the shingle beaches as they smash into them with gluttonous abandon! If the opportunist fly angler can encounter them doing this, sport can be fast and furious !
For the most part I favour the North side of the Island and the shallower water it offers to the wading fly angler, and the relatively consistent sport it can offer. Despite the often dirty water it is still possible to find clearer areas or less turbid water where a strong colour contrasting fly will still be sighted by the hunting fish. I actually prefer some colour to the water as obviously this offers the predator the perfect environment for hunting prey, where they have the advantage over their victims due to their superior sight and instincts, as opposed to crystal clear conditions where the ambush predator is at less of an advantage and can easily be spotted. That is not to say that bright clear days are not entirely a waste of time, especially when it has been hot and calm and there is a lot a of whitebait around. The Bass and other predators such as Mackerel and Gars will work together to herd a shoal inshore, in fact I have had some good sport when this is happening by ‘matching the hatch’, catching a variety of species during a single session never knowing which species will take the fly on the next cast.
So what flies do I carry to contend with all these variables and how do I go about choosing the right one on the day ?
Well, it is all down to experience of course, having fished the fly here for numerous years now I have managed to build up a fairly good picture of what is likely work when and where and in the conditions I am likely to be faced with.
So to the the box !
The Clouser Minnow
The ubiquitous Clouser still has it’s place in my box. I say still, because I think despite it probably being the most popular fly on the planet, having caught the most different species of any fly on the planet and being the most recommended fly for the newcomer to the sport, ( on the planet! ), the Clouser is no longer my first choice fly. Of course when I was a newcomer myself it was my first choice fly, for the reasons above, and I fished it religiously every session no matter the when and where of it and so did my friends. It caught us fish, lots of fish, and we fished it and caught on it in all colours and sizes, but after a while I began to realise that maybe it wasn’t necessarily the be all and end all fly that we thought it was, and that other patterns may actually fish better or be more appropriate on a given venue in some of the conditions we were faced with. Despite this I do still find it useful to carry a few for certain situations such as where I need to get down deeper and scrape the bottom if the fish are lying low in the water column, or perhaps I need the jigging, up and down motion that this pattern promotes to stand out in the crowd of baitfish shoals that are being attacked. There is no denying that the Clouser is a very effective fly as well as being possibly one of the easiest for the newcomer to learn to tie and I would and certainly do whole heartedly recommend it as a starting point for anyone just starting out in the sport. It can be tied in a variety of materials on a wide range of hook patterns in almost any size you want. Traditionally it is tied with Bucktail and this is how Bob Clouser designed it, but I have found that Flash blend versions can be more effective due to the translucent nature of the material coupled with the subtle blended in flash and the slightly slower sink rate over Bucktail giving a more natural appearance of a stunned or injured prey fish. I keep both versions in my box for when one may have the advantage over the other depending on what the situation is at the time and what I need the fly to do in order to entice the Bass to strike.
Every fly anglers dream is to stumble on to ‘ Blitzing’ fish, this is to say where the predators are smashing into shoals of baitfish forcing them up towards the surface and causing a huge commotion, the fry erupting in an explosive and spectacular fashion as they try and escape the impending doom from below, nothing gets the fly anglers adrenalin pumping much more than this sight ! This activity is often reinforced by a large flock of Gulls flapping around above the shoal, screeching as they join in the feast, mopping up injured fry that are floating on the surface.
This is where you will need to ‘Match the hatch’.
In this situation if you are unable to replicate the type and size of fry that the fish are pre-occupied on, it is unlikely that you will fare very well when it comes to enticing the marauding predators to eat your offering. Often it isn’t just Bass that are the culprits here, there will also be Garfish and Mackerel joining in the feast, large flies are unlikely to be entertained and only something that is a fair representation of the prey will be taken by any of the species.
Generally speaking Bass that exhibit this kind of behaviour are the smaller younger shoal fish, anything from half a pound up to 2-3lb. So you will need a fry pattern tied on a smallish hook that is still capable of hooking and playing a hard fighting fish of this stamp. I have landed plenty of Bass on small hooks and fry patterns, anything from size 6 to size 2 is fine as long as you use a strong, sharp pattern. Generally speaking, in my experience, the stamp of baitfish being preyed on often relates to the stamp of predator doing the preying, So I carry a small selection of fry patterns in various sizes to account for this from size 6 to size 2. If you get the chance it pays to try and assess what the fish in your area are feeding on, a lot will depend on the time of year but also the venue. Where I live we get a wide variety of Whitebait ( a general term for many species of immature fish ). On the North side we tend to get a lot of tiny fry no more than an inch or so long which attracts smaller Bass and Pollock as well as Mackerel and Gars, whereas on the South side the fry tend to be larger,consisting mostly of herring species and being two to three inches thus attracting the larger stamp of predator. So in my box I carry a few different sized fry patterns, anything from tiny inch long epoxy type flies to small two to three inch baitfish patterns tied from various materials such as Flash blend or supreme hair, all of which have the same ethos of being translucent to some degree which most immature baitfish are, again generally speaking the smaller they are the more ‘see through’ they are.
Sandeels occur along sandy beaches and also on offshore sandbanks and are a staple diet for any Bass frequenting this type of habitat. If you fly fish from a boat or wade shallow sandy beaches in search of Bass then a few Sandeel patterns in your box are a pre requisite. Most Sandeel patterns are based on the famous creation by Bob Popovics – The Surf Candy. Though not originally designed specifically as a Sandeel imitation the Surf Candy does lend itself to being a realistic representation, and I tend to tie mine ‘skinny’ to give a more realistic profile. I have found this pattern to be very effective when targeting Bass that are hunting Sandeels along the low tide mark in super shallow water. There are other ways to tie Sandeel imitations other than Bob’s pattern and I keep one or two varieties in my box.
By Baitfish patterns I mean flies that are made mostly from synthetic materials and have a realistic fish profile. Not a ‘traditional’ style of fly, a more modern development and one that if I had to pick a favourite fly to fish with when ‘hunting’ out lone larger specimens, this would be it. The truth is I have found this type of pattern to be extremely effective in recent years and I personally prefer them over the traditional ‘Deceiver’ type patterns made from Bucktail and feather, being much easier to cast and having a better more realistic profile in my opinion. Bigger Bass are very wise creatures, often unwilling to expend valuable energy chasing small prey and preferring to wait in ambush for a larger more worthwhile meal. This is where Baitfish patterns come in. On a standard 8 weight Saltwater outfit and tied up at about 4 inches or so on a 1 or 1/0 hook they are the perfect size, not so big they won’t cast and just the right size mouthful for an ambush predator lying in wait, yet not so big that an average sized fish will not engulf it too, basically an ideal all rounder. Once again I carry a variety of colours and patterns in my box to cover most situations I am likely to encounter.
This Seasons Box !
So there is a brief outline of what you might call some of my favourite flies. Not a vast selection of patterns but some that I have found to be more or less perfect for my own fishing. I carry all the above in a variety of colours and sizes so I can ‘match the hatch’ or the situation I am faced with. I will of course experiment from time to time just to make sure I’m not missing anything, to not continually move forward and learn would be a mistake so it pays to try something different now and again. Anyway I hope you enjoyed that insight and found it helpful and informative. I am always happy to offer advice so if you would like some, either fishing related or fly tying related then do please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my Webshop Silverscalesflytying.co.uk where you can find a selection of tying materials and ready tied flies available for purchase. I also custom tie to order. Tight lines for the season ahead !