Designing Trout Flies

by Gary Borger, Fly Fishing Editor

Fly tying, like art, is an expression of individual preference for materials and techniques. Like the artist, the fly tier is always experimenting with new materials and techniques, or modifying existing ones, to achieve a better result. In addition, tiers are always designing -- developing and testing new concepts that better fit fly fishing's evolving understanding of the fish and its food organisms. But unlike the artist's work, the fly tier's efforts are critiqued by the fish.

My goal as a fly tier has always been to achieve continual critical acclaim from those fish; to understand why trout take the fly -- what features of the natural trigger the fish's feeding response and how specific materials and tying tactics can be used to design artificial that best display these triggering characteristics.

Many of my flies are quite simple, for three reasons: First, my tying time is limited, and easy-to-tie designs mean more flies per hour. More flies per hour means less time tying and therefore more hours available to spend on the stream. Second, I keep trying to reduce my flies to their very essence in order to discover what it is that induces the fish to eat them, to remove all unnecessary materials and tying steps, and to do away with complexity for complexity's sake. It is a continual and on-going process. And third, to me, there is great beauty in simplicity. I gain pleasure from carefully crafted flies; from the thoughtful melding of feathers, fur, and steel.

Good materials plus considered construction equal a positive piscatorial critique.


Fly tying is not an art unto itself. It is as old as fly fishing and inseparably linked to it. Inseparably linked because the fisher's success depends in large part upon the tier's skill at representing the fish's food organisms. So whether you tie or buy, there is a real need to understand the design principles behind fly construction.

Fly tying has as its basis the intent of deceiving the fish by designing and creating imitations of its food organisms. To produce consistently successful designs, then, the fly tier must understand both the fish and its food. In addition, the tier must have a good working knowledge of the materials used to construct the artificial; information such as color, texture, light transmitting or reflecting quality, and durability. And, the tier must be acquainted with a range of techniques for applying the materials as well as the angling techniques that will be used to fish the fly. For example, if the artificial is to be skated on the surface, then it must consist of materials that represent the natural while simultaneously helping the fly to float, and it must be shaped in such a way so that it not only imitates the natural but will skate as well.

I begin all my designs with the fish. Like other animals, they can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. There are salmon fishers on the West Coast that take great pains to minimize human odor on their flies, but taste and smell are not of concern in the design of flies. Touch becomes important only if the fish has an opportunity to chew the fly before the angler sets the hook. Basically, trout and salmon are sight-oriented hunters that occasionally also rely on their hearing. It is these two senses that the fly tier must understand when striving to produce consistently successful designs.

Because the trout's eye produces such a crude image (relative to our eye), highly realistic flies that satisfy the human desire for perfection in detail are not essential for consistent angling success. For angling purposes, the goal of fly tying, therefore, is to create an impression of the food organism, not a carbon copy of it. Fly fishers have wrangled with this concept for centuries. One of the earliest discussions that clearly put the idea of impressionism into perspective, so to speak, occurs in G. P. R. Pullman's book, Vade Mecum of Fly Fishing for Trout published in 1851. He describes the need to suggest size, color, and form which he states together... "constitute the character of the insect...," and goes on further to say that the character "...can be represented without counting the exact number of legs, or microscopically examining the fibers of the wings; on the same principle that, in individual portraiture, what is alone sought to be attained is not minute imitation but individual character and expression."

Impressionistic designs seems to impress the fish


Perhaps the most eloquent and thoughtful arguments for impressionism in flies were put forth by Jack Atherton in his book The Trout and the Fly. Atherton focused the ideas of many writers; he gave us theory to explain our experiences. Like Pullman, Atherton drew a parallel between fly construction and the goals of portraiture; specifically the work of impressionistic painters such as Renoir and Monet. As the name implies, the impressionists were not interested in a photographic representation of the subject. Rather, they tried to capture the essence of the object: that which made it recognizable. Atherton applied these concepts to fly design. Instead of trying to create patterns that were exact copies of the insect, he sought to represent the essence of the insect; to create an impression of life. And always, it was the impression that the pattern made on the trout, not the impression that it made on the angler, that was important to Atherton. He said: "The flies used for so discriminating a fish as the trout should, first of all, have the appearance of life."

Scientific findings have reinforced the thoughts of Atherton and those before him, shoring up the empirical theories resulting from nearly five centuries of careful observations by the best original thinkers in fly fishing. In addition to investigating the visual acuity of trout, scientists have also studied the ability of the fish to respond to various traits of the food item. It is eminently clear from these technical experiments, as well as observations made by fly fishers, that the four characteristics which most strongly represent the essence of life, and therefore trigger the trout's feeding response, are size, shape, color, and behavior. Trout respond to these four traits of the food item whether feeding opportunistically or selectively.