Despite the hype from tackle merchants, most artificial flies only ever catch humans. Trout, it seems, don’t share our obsession with 'match the hatch' says Richard Wilson
Despite the hype from tackle merchants, most artificial flies only ever catch humans. Trout, it seems, don’t share our obsession with ‘match the hatch’. Trout fishing is a battle of wits, pitting wily angler against crafty fish. It is an undisputed fact that it takes a canny fisher to catch a canny fish. We know this to be true because clever fisherfolk write books and articles in which their sophistication and guile always win the day. For the rest of us there are no bragging rights in dumb failure, so we scour magazines and the internet hoping for enlightenment. This quest for wisdom amounts to just one all-important question. It’s the one we ask of every angler we meet on the bank. And it’s the first thing we say to anyone who’s just caught a trout: “What’s the fly?” Not “How long is that rod?”, “Nice waistcoat” or “That’s a cool net”. Nor do we ask about spiritual incantations or performance-enhancing drugs. Just the fly.
MATCH THE HATCH – IS IT NECESSARY?
So when it really matters and the chips are down, the summation of centuries of piscatorial knowledge can be distilled into one universal question: “What’s the fly?” There’s nothing wrong with the question, but the answer has caused endless human misery. Look around you. Magazines promote fancy patterns and bloggers tie sensational flies made with just the hair of their dog. The omnipresent Mega-Weba-Store offers click-bait flies distinguished only by their pornographic names (trout are suckers for sexual innuendo). This fly-choice conundrum lies at the heart of fly-fishing’s collective neurosis: if we make a bad decision and fish the wrong fly, we will go home empty-handed on a day when everyone else is catching fish on alternate casts. This is the worst humiliation a fly-fisherman or woman can suffer.
And there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. Thanks to smartphones we can consult the wisdom of the ‘interweb’ 24/7, and even midstream if we are so minded (I’m not). Assuming we have a serviceable rod, line and reel, then all we need to do is ‘match the hatch’. Who’d argue with that? It’s all about the fly, isn’t it? Yet this smug little phrase opens the door to a world of pain. It’s a triumph of slick sloganeering up there with my favourite, ‘naughty but nice’, which promoted cream cakes back in the 1980s and now explains ‘match the hatch’ (MTH) perfectly. Anyone who bought a ‘naughty but nice’ chocolate eclair expecting the implied sexual gratification would have been sorely disappointed. Likewise, the MTH promise is clear: if you, dear reader, can truly match the hatch, no wily trout will ever outwit you again. The river will be your servant. You will be invited to fish the finest beats and people will point you out at the Piscatorial Society Annual Dinner.
Becoming an MTH-maestro takes decades of hard graft and nobody ever knows it all. When, eventually, you are confidently armed with enough MTH knowledge, you head for the river, observe a major Ephemerellidae die-in and reach for your spent-wing spinners. Sadly you’ve brought the wrong fly box, so you tie on a Patagonian Gordo Alberto Black & Green Barbless Groucho Bonkster (size 12) and catch the first fish you cast to. And the second. So much for MTH.
The father of all fishing wisdom, Ed Zern, nailed the match the hatch myth back in 1945: “Every once in a while a fly-fisherman catches a trout on a trout fly, and he thinks this proves something. It doesn’t. Trout eat mayflies, burnt matches, small pieces of inner tube, each other, caddis worms, Dewey buttons, crickets, lima beans, Colorado spinners and almost anything else they can get in their fool mouths. It’s probable they think the trout fly is some feathers tied to a hook. Hell, they’re not blind. They just want to see how it tastes.” Quite so. And well said, Ed. I don’t know whether Zern had an epiphany or if he laboured hard, testing his evolving theory on fish and fly and fag-end combinations. I like to think that, as a prolific and creative writer, he snatched it from the ether under pressure from an imminent deadline.
My enlightenment was not a life-changing bolt of inspiration. It seeped in as part of a long, slow, teenage slouch through life, enhanced by seven-days-a-week access to a wild chalkstream. I could cast well enough, name maybe a dozen flies and had little interest in entomology. And I should fess up to a slovenly intellect. I was also a teenager with no Mega-Weba-Store on a smartphone to seduce me with centrefolds of shiny tackle. In fact, I don’t remember buying any fly-fishing tackle. It was all hand-me-downs from old people, or acquired from my father, or mongrel flies I tied for myself. In my world view only grown-ups did entomology – and why would anyone do Latin outside school?
Most importantly, whatever it was that I was doing, it worked. I was catching fish, and enough of them to get noticed locally. Hardly fame, but enough to induce a quiet confidence in an otherwise wobbly teenage life.
Hindsight and self-delusion are the two elemental forces of fishing so, like most humans, I needed a theory to rationalise my modest achievement. It was clear to me that fly choice was only cursorily related to catching fish, making entomology dead in the water, just like Latin. Although given the maxim that you can’t catch a fish without a line in the river, it seemed prudent to put a fly on the end. After that fly size mattered somewhat, but not much else. So that left presentation, which was all about casting – and that suited my slouchy narrative well.
There was, I decided, a commanding skill to be drawn from reading water and wind and then subduing them with my split-cane wand. The summit of achievement was landing a fly with delicacy and precision just above the nose of a chosen trout. At the time I didn’t talk about this, because I thought any grown-up with half a brain would have seen my approach for the slacking I knew it to be. Only later in life have I come to think there was truth in my stoner logic. And these days I’m rather less fantastical about my much better handling of carbon rods.
Most of my fly-tying focused on making size 16 flies that sort of resembled proper fishing flies, but within the limits of materials scavenged at home. I can only claim one original creation and its purpose was to extend fishing time into near darkness without missing last orders in the pub at 10.30pm. It was big, fluffy and white and could be seen under the far bank as the last of the grey bled slowly out of the dying day. It caught fish – occasionally big fish – thereby delivering further evidence that whatever it was that flies did, it wasn’t preordained by the pseudoscience of MTH. And it kept me on the bank into that magical time when the light fades and all is hushed, except the bats.
So fast forward to today. How did we end up in a world dominated by a rigid fly orthodoxy so closely matched to the stock offerings of multinational tackle companies? A world where the majority of artificial flies only ever catch a human? Ask yourself how many flies you own and how many fish you caught last year. What was once a slow-moving evolutionary struggle between fish and man has become a turbo-charged arms race fuelled by merchants and influencers keen to sell stuff. And while humanity has made an intense intellectual and financial commitment to this fight, the fish are less bothered. Indeed, the fish seem to be just as relaxed about it as they ever have been. The canny angler tries to think like a trout and second-guess his enemy, but no trout has ever repaid the compliment. I can’t say whether this makes trout clever or not, it’s just that fish don’t waste as much time on us as we do on them. They have better things to do.
Nature ensures that dim-witted fish are as widely distributed as their smarter brethren, and probably in much greater numbers – just like fishermen, you might say. And yet, for reasons I can’t fathom, smart fishermen never waste their time catching stupid fish. At least not in print. Perhaps it’s too easy? So dumb fish, it seems, are only caught by dumb anglers relying on dumb luck. Hmm. It works pretty well for me.
So, after a lifetime on the bank, here’s what I know: dry flies come in three sizes: small, medium and large. They have wings, mostly. They are barbless. How well they float depends on their mood. That’s it.
Richard Wilson writes FishRise.substack.com, a monthly newsletter offering a wry look at the quirky world of fishing
Illustrations by Simon Trinder