Al Campbell, Field Editor

October 6th, 2003

Matching hatches with just one pattern
By Al Campbell

We have all heard the argument a zillion times. In fact, bringing it up again is akin to serving leftovers to dignified company. I'm gonna do it anyway though. I'll ask the question again. Which is more important; having the right fly pattern, or having the right presentation? There, I did it. Make it one zillion and one.

Some folks argue that the right pattern is critical. They will tell you emphatically that the wrong pattern, no matter how it is presented, won't catch fish. If you peak into their fly boxes, you'll discover thousands of flies tied in every possible sub-species variation of size and color for every hatch imaginable. And, they catch fish.

Other guys will swear that presentation is the key. No matter how precise the pattern, if it is presented wrong, it won't catch fish. Their fly boxes are rather Spartan in comparison to those of "right fly Fred." Their motto is "get it close to the right pattern, and present it right, and you'll catch fish." And, they do catch fish. In fact, they catch as many fish as the "right fly" crowd.

I tend to believe both are important. I think the right fly and the right presentation are crucial for consistent success. However, I have a slightly different view than most on what constitutes the "right fly" and the "right presentation." That bothers some people a lot. In their mind, I have a total disregard for the sacred principles of fly-fishing. In this case, I'm either right or wrong. There is no gray ground of compromise in the middle.

Here is where it gets a bit sticky. I believe the right fly is often a pattern called a Shwapf (swept hackle, wingless, all-purpose fly). If the fish are after dry flies, I'll put floatant on a Shwapf, and fish it dry with good success. If they want emergers or wet flies, I frequently choose the Shwapf. I often choose a Shwapf when nymphs or streamers are the required offering.

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Some folks would argue that my choices here make me a presentationist. To a degree, they are right. I often vary the presentation of that same fly to meet the current needs. However, I choose the size and color of the Shwapf to match the current hatch. That would arguably be the symptoms of a hatch-matcher. The fact that I'm so successful in this strategy mystifies that famed hatch-matcher James Castwell. It bothers him so much, he asked me to write this article and explain my reasoning.

First of all, I believe many flies are tied to match what the fisherman thinks they should look like, not what the fish think they should look like. If you spend very much time observing insects (alive and dead), on or in the water, you'll quickly notice that they all have some common characteristics when viewed from underneath. They all have a general slope toward the back of their bodies. Their legs are often either on the water or in the water, and they often extend toward the back of the insect, especially if the insect is either dying, dead, or having a hard time escaping the surface of the water. The body of the insect is often touching the water, or just barely above the water. In the case of emerging insects, the legs are often trailing the insect in some form. In the case of dead insects, the legs often trail the insect too.

Looking at the Shwapf, I see many of these characteristics. It was designed to have those characteristics. If I apply floatant and let it drift on the surface, the hair under the fly will either support the fly with the body partially touching the water, or the body will support the fly allowing the bottom hairs to drift just under the fly like the legs of a struggling insect. Since the Shwapf can be tied in many sizes and colors, I can match most insect hatches with one pattern in several colors and sizes. And, that match will appear more correct to the fish than many of the patterns we use and think look right to our eyes. If you think about it, do you know of any insects that drift along on the water supported by just their front legs and their tails? They just don't act that way.

If you observe emerging insects, they usually utilize some sort of propulsion to move from the bottom to the top of the water. During this move, their legs spend most or at least some of the time below and behind their bodies. With legs on the bottom and either immature wings or (in some cases) a bubble of air on top; the Shwapf does a fair job of imitating this look. In fact, it does a better job than many of the flies that are supposed to look natural to the fish. If my Shwapf is about the same color and size of the natural insect, and I match the natural movement of the insect, I have an imitation that looks good enough to eat. This is especially true if the emerging insect is a caddisfly.

When caddisflies and stoneflies return to the water to lay their eggs, they often skim the water with their legs and tails as they fly upstream. The Shwapf can easily be fished in the same manner. Its taper and form resemble the natural look of an egg-laying caddis or stonefly. The shape is just right to easily skitter it across the surface of the water, in the same manner that the natural insects move.

Insects that expire in or on the water are often rough looking. Their wings and legs often slope out from the body in the same fashion as the hairs on the Shwapf. This is true of insects that just finished laying eggs and those that didn't survive the attempt to emerge as adults. This one pattern, tied in the right size and color, can do a good job of imitating both.

If small crayfish or similar crustaceans like a scud are the items on the menu, the Shwapf is a good choice. It looks enough like both to fool a fish, if it's fished the right way. Crayfish have enough legs and claws sticking out to the side and behind them when they swim, to look like a large Shwapf. Same is true for scuds and even sowbugs. If the presentation is right, the fly looks enough like the natural to fool a fish.

Using those principles, I fished the Shwapf in several sizes and colors all day on Tuesday of the Idaho Fish-In. I was able to successfully match the October Caddis, a PMD hatch, a smaller caddis hatch, and another small, light mayfly hatch. I fished it dry, wet, and as an emerger. I hooked more than 70 fish and landed 48. I was proving a point. I believe I had the right fly to match the hatch, and with the right presentation, so did the fish.

The Shwapf is more than just a pattern. It is a style of fly that can be adapted in size and color to match more of the naturally occurring insects than any of the other flies I have seen. It has the characteristics needed to look right in or on the water. From any angle or any posture, it just looks more like something natural to eat, than any of the other imitations I tie. The fish seem to agree with that thought.

I'm not trying to coax anybody into anything here. Fish what you want, where you want and when you want. However, if you wonder why I put so much faith in one style of fly, this is your answer. My successes with this style of fly seem to support my observations on the subject. It appears the fish view it the same way I do. And, that is the most important reason I tie and use the Shwapf. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

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