Practical Fly Selection for Salt Water

Redfish after redfish came cruising down along the shoreline, searching for crabs. Their dorsal and caudal fins threw glints of sunlight as they pierced the surface of the skinny water. Periodically there was a rush and a swirl, as one of the fish zeroed in on its prey.

I stood in the shallow water watching, fly rod in hand, waiting for the fish to move within casting range. Whenever one did, I tossed my crab imitation out to it. The result was inevitable - every single fish took the fake. It was a wonderful day.

Lure selection, whether for fly or conventional tackle, is a very personal thing, based on a combination of knowledge, intuition, and past experience. A glimpse at Lefty Kreh's book, "Salt Water Fly Patterns", reveals that literally thousands of fly patterns have been devised, all with the same purpose- to entice a fish into striking.

Do all these flies work? Most definitely. Does the salt water fly fisherman need a barge to carry his fly boxes? Most definitely not.

There is an expression used by scientists, Occam's razor. The idea is that if there are two theories, each of which plausibly explains a phenomenon, the one which explains it more simply and elegantly is probably the correct one. Occam's razor explains my approach to fly selection - keep it simple.

Where you live and what you fish for most of the time will color your choice of flies, of course. In spite of this, some flies are so universal in their appeal to gamefish of all types that they need to be carried by almost all saltwater flyrodders. Certainly in my own travels along the east coast from Maine to the Florida Keys, I see the same classic patterns in the fly boxes of all the good fly fishers it's been my fortune to meet.

Lefty's Deceiver is a superb example of this universal type of fly. With its shape imitating that of so many different types of baitfish, its ability to be adapted and modified to fit differing conditions, and because it can be tied in sizes ranging from two inches to over ten inches in length, Deceivers can be and are used to catch everything from panfish to billfish. All fly fishers need to carry a selection of these flies in various sizes and colors.

PHOTO: Captain John A. Kumiski

Bob Clouser's Deep Minnow is another example of a fly that all fish will eat. A simple tie of lead, steel, and bucktail, more than fifty different species of fish have been taken on Clouser minnows. They are a standard on everything from striped bass to bonefish.

Poppers of one sort or another add so much enjoyment to the fly fisher's life. What in all fishing can be more exciting than seeing a big fish come to the surface and attack a fake minnow at the end of your line?

Diving flies have become justly popular in recent years. Larry Dahlberg developed the first diving bug, using deerhair to make the head. Foam divers are available now. Sheldon Bolstad of Minneapolis makes an excellent and durable foam diver. Regardless of the material they're made from, divers are effective on a wide variety of fish.

A variety of different crab flies have been developed. The first ones, for example, the McCrab, were tied from deer hair and were unwieldy things to cast. Fish ate them, though. Now crab imitations are tied from many different materials, and their use is spreading from southern waters up the Atlantic coastline, from being used exclusively for permit and bonefish to red and black drum, weakfish, and even stripers. Stripers like crabs!

The Homer Rhodes shrimp fly, now commonly called the Seaducer, is another saltwater classic useful everywhere. Rhodes designed the fly to take bonefish in the Florida Keys. This past summer I found that stripers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts liked this pattern a lot! Lots of different fish will take this fly and it should also be carried in a variety of sizes and colors.

For fishing in areas that are shallow and have grassy bottoms, or oysters, or rocks, or anything else that could catch the point on a conventionally tied fly, reverse-tied flies like bendbacks are a necessity. Bonefish flies use this style almost exclusively. The usefulness of this style is by no means limited to Florida, though. Anywhere snag-filled shallows hold fish that eat flies a bendback fly will prove its worth.

For fishing in deeper waters, especially those with currents, Blanton's Whistler proved its worth a long time ago. Designed to produce vibrations and work like a jig, it's especially effective in discolored water. Again, this fly takes a wide variety of species.

Some of the more recent developments in the world of saltwater flies have near-universal applications, too. Bob Popovics' Siliclone jumps to mind. Bob originally tied these with stripers in mind. The fly is fairly durable and works well on blues, too. But snook, seatrout, redfish, and tarpon also find this fat mullet imitation to their liking too - at least until they feel the steel. The fly is effective on a wide variety of species.

In southern waters a pilchard imitation often comes in really handy. Fish love these silvery little snacks, so much so that many guides on the west coast of Florida won't start fishing until their livewells are filled with them. A 3-D fly tied and trimmed to a pilchard shape can be deadly.

So we have listed here ten different patterns which will cover the entire water column from the surface to the inky depths and which will take almost any species of saltwater gamefish found anywhere. There's no need to carry a hundred different fly patterns!

Anglers who specialize in certain niches may well need to carry other patterns. Although it is not the intention of this essay to cover all of the endless possibilities, we can devote some space to the more obvious ones. Bluefishermen need flies that will hold up to the onslaught of vise-like jaws and piranha-like teeth. Bob Popovics' Surf Candy series, with their epoxy bodies and synthetic materials, resist the worst blues can dish out. A few winter days spent at the tying vise can result in an entire season's supply of Candy.

Barracuda are an excellent fly rod target, but have unusual dietary preferences. Long streamers tied to imitate needlefish are among the most effective barracuda flies. Although these are definitely one fish-one fly ties, fortunately they're easy to make.

The art of fooling bonefish has caused the development of a lot of flies dedicated to their unique mode of feeding. Once again, there is no need to carry every bonefish pattern ever made. A variety of sizes and colors of the basic, proven patterns in both unweighted and weighted versions will usually guarantee success.

Tarpon. Many anglers believe it is the ultimate fly rod fish. I'm inclined to agree. Stu Apte developed what turned out to be the classic tarpon streamer for fishing on flats. Although tied with many different color combinations, and while other materials are now being used besides the basic hackle feathers, Apte's original design is still the standard tie for tarpon flies. It's fairly easy to tie, it resists fouling, it casts well, and tarpon eat it. What more could a fisherman want in a fly?

Every fly fisher, especially if he ties his own flies, will favor certain patterns. He'll modify patterns to suit his needs. If he's observant, clever, and innovative, he'll develop new patterns to fill a need others haven't seen. His fly box will hold a combination of those classic standards that work anywhere and those special flies that work so well in his own unique situation.

Use the patterns described here to begin to stock your own box, and use your own experiences to try to finish the job. You'll find, as all other fly fishers before you have, that the job never stops. New materials, new ideas, new patterns, continually pour out from the fertile minds of great fly fishers everywhere. Let me know about your own innovations and successes. We can all use all the help we can get!