Al Campbell, Field Editor

June 16th, 2003

The Grand Illusion
By Al Campbell

What is that magic ingredient that makes a fish want to eat an artificial fly? Is it size or color? Does the way a fly floats or the shape of the wings have anything to do with it? Is motion or lack of motion a selling point to the fish? What magical ingredient creates the proper illusion that makes a fish want to munch on your particular offering at that particular time?

Sometimes motion is the key. Motion means life, and fish often drop their defenses when a fly is presented with the proper motion. It might be the erratic motion of a crayfish or the pulse-pause-pulse motion of a dragonfly nymph that sets their hearts to thoughts of feeding. Maybe it's the flash of a fleeing minnow that your fly presents which keys a response, or the illusion of something edible. Could it be the skittering motion of a caddis imitation the fish are waiting for?

I'm a firm believer in the idea of triggers in a fly. By that, I mean the features of a fly or group of flies that trigger a feeding response in the fish we are trying to fool. Those triggers could be size, shape, color or a certain flash that convinces our quarry that the imitation is the real thing. It might be a combination of those things or just one or two key items that sets our imitation apart from the rest. If we want to be more successful, we must discover those triggers and concentrate on those features in our flies.

Several of the flies I have designed that are very successful were designed with those triggers in mind. One example would be my Shrimpf pattern that fools bonefish very well. When I designed it, I didn't have any real bonefish experience, but I did have a lot of successful bonefish flies to examine. I looked for common features in those bonefish flies and extracted what I believed to be the triggers that made them successful. Then I put them in a fly that is easy to tie and easy to fish. It worked.

Elk hair caddis and stimulator flies have a lot of hackle on them. That hackle allows the fly to be skittered across the surface of the water. The insects those flies imitate lay their eggs by flying low above the water and laying their eggs on the fly, or by doing stop and go egg laying. The flight is usually in an upstream direction. While fish will take one of those flies as it drifts downstream in the classic drift, they usually grab it much faster if it is skittered across the surface the way real insects move. In this case, motion is a trigger to success.

How does that apply to hackle? Why do some types of hackle seem to be more productive than others? For instance, why does grizzly hackle seem to be more productive in flies than plain old brown hackle? What is that secret ingredient in grizzly hackle that triggers a feeding response in fish? Could it be the illusion of motion? Does the hackle look like the beating wings of an insect?

When you look at a classic dry fly, something about the hackle seems to create the feeling of motion. This is especially true if the feathers used to hackle the fly have a dark band in their center of if the feather has broken bands of color in its length. Take a good look at a fly that was created with badger hackle or cree hackle and it will look more alive than a fly that has a single colored hackle wrapped around it.

The mix of colors in an Adams dry fly hackle looks more "alive" than it would if the hackle were only brown. A golden badger hackle on an elk hair caddis looks more like it is moving than a ginger or brown hackle would. Why do you suppose we cherish cree hackle with its multi-colored appearance so much? I think it is the illusion of motion that sets our hearts on fire, and I also think the fish sense the same motion we see.

I'm not advocating anything radical here. I just want you to think outside the box for a minute. Is it possible that your dry flies might be more productive if the hackle you use on them looked more like the motion of beating insect wings? Could you maybe add a hackle or change a hackle to create a better illusion of motion in your fly? Am I totally off my rocker?

For a moment, just one tiny moment, consider the idea that your hackle could provide the extra illusion of moving wings. Now consider that a slight change in materials might increase that illusion. It might make all the difference in your catch rate on those tough days when fish are feeding on everything but your offerings. Would a furnace hackle be more productive on your Royal Wulff fly? How about changing the hackle on your Light Cahill to a badger instead of a cream. Would that increase the illusion of motion?

Like I said before, I'm a firm believer in the idea that every successful fly has something in it that riggers a feeding response in the fish. That trigger is a feature that creates the illusion of life to the fish. If you can concentrate on the trigger mechanism in your artificial flies, I'm convinced you'll catch more fish.

Next time you look at a fly you just finished tying, look at the possibility of improving the illusion of motion in the next fly you tie. If you do that, you'll eventually know if I'm nuts or if there is a better way to fool a fish. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice