The Illusion of Life & Other Elements of Fly Design

The Illusion of Life & Other Elements of Fly Design
What is it that makes some flies better than others? Is it their size, their color, or the brand of hook they're lashed around? Why is it that fish often find a tattered-looking bundle of hair and feathers more attractive than a perfect replica? Angler Ken Abrames has written entire books devoted to answering these questions. In his book, A Perfect Fish, Abrames argues that the real goal in fly tying is not to replicate an exact image, but rather to infuse a fly with the illusion of life. The illusion of life is a unique and elusive combination of textures, colors, and movements that cause an inanimate object to be seen as a living creature. Abrames proposes a fly should not be a copy of the original, but rather a suggestion or idea of life. It is an interesting way of thinking about flies.

So many times I have sat down at the vise and strived to produce an exact replica of a particular minnow, crawfish, or shrimp, believing that an anatomically correct reproduction would surely catch fish. To that end, I have used all sorts of materials, paints, and glues. I have used up expensive little bags of fiber and even experimented with a computer printer to make skins, eyes, and other fly parts. Although many of the flies from these experiments looked amazingly lifelike to me, few of them have ever performed as well as I had hoped. In reality, abstract patterns built from a few simple materials continued to outperform those created with an attention to detail. But why?

What characteristics make one fly better than another, especially when a fly that looks like something is bested by a fly that looks like nothing? I believe the answer, in part, has to do with the mysterious spark of life Abrames writes about. Could it be the fly that looks like nothing to a fisherman actually looks like everything to a fish? Do subtle movements, blended colors, and nondescript features in flies provide a more convincing suggestion of life than a detailed copy of the original? Hmm.

A question I responded to recently got me thinking again about Abrames' philosophy and the creative process I go through when designing or selecting flies. A gentleman who I know to be a highly experienced and accomplished angler asked how much tub testing and refinement went in to creating a new fly pattern. In response to the question, I decided (against my artsy side) to make a list of every aspect I could think of that either consciously or subconsciously went into the design or selection of a new fly. The list-making process spooked me a little because it was reminiscent of an exercise one would do in a corporate training seminar. But, I have to say it was enlightening and it gave me a better perspective of what I value in a good fly pattern. I condensed the list into essentially 4 categories: 1) Illusion, 2) Versatility, 3) Fishability, and 4) Complexity.

As far as I am concerned, the bottom line with any fly (other than one destined for a shadow box) is that it must create the illusion of life. I am right in line with Abrames in this thinking. Either by size, texture, color, action, or feel, a fly must emulate a living creature, sometimes specifically. A fly must in some way suggest to a predator it is a worthy meal. When crafting a fly, knowing the features and understanding the behavior of prey is only part of the picture. Time and again I have learned that regardless of how good a fly looks clamped in a vise, fish must consistently recognize something in it as prey. Whether it is color, shape, texture, sound, or movement, the trigger predators are looking for is often hard to predict. Unraveling the mystery of exactly what entices a predator is one of the challenges of tying. Anyone who has ever watched a fish hammer a Seaducer, or a Flatwing, or even a Woolly Bugger would acknowledge that these flies have an inherent lifelike quality that is hard to for us to define, but clearly irresistible to fish.

The second important trait in a fly is its fishability. By "fishability," I mean the ease and efficiency with which a fly does its job. In short, a good fly should catch fish without a bunch of hassles. Good flies are easy and accurate to cast, they're durable, and they won't get heavy or distorted after a few dunks. They are designed with protection against weeds and snags and they should not spin during the cast or the retrieve. Flies that spin will turn the leader and line into a tangled mess in short order. Once discovered, the kinks and twists are aggravatingly tough to remove. Unfortunately, large, hard, or flat flies often suffer from this spinning problem.

The third characteristic I look for in a fly pattern is versatility. This is important to me because I fish for many different species in both fresh and saltwater. I like flies that look like food no matter where they go and I seldom spend much time or effort tying flies specifically for one fish or one place. Versatility is one reason why the Clouser Minnow, Woolly Bugger, and Seaducer are such a deadly patterns. These flies can be made to represent anything. They can be tied in very small or very large sizes and can be fished shallow or deep. It is no mystery why these patterns have remained popular over the long haul- they are simple, versatile, and effective.

The last trait I evaluate is complexity. How hard is a particular fly to tie? Can it be repeated? Is the time and expense of a pattern justified by the results? An example of a pattern that is at absolute ground zero of simplicity is the San Juan Worm. It consists of nothing more than a single piece of chenille lashed to the hook shank. And yes it looks exactly like a dang worm. The San Juan Worm is comically plain but amazingly lifelike. Without a doubt it gets my vote as the fly with the greatest return on investment.

At the extreme other end of the complexity spectrum are "realistic" flies. These patterns are works of art. They are painstakingly assembled and some of them are so detailed that under a microscope they are anatomically correct (no joke). While I appreciate the time (sometimes days for a single specimen) and skills required to tie realistic flies, I don't have the patience or the commitment to even consider tying them. Especially when I know that mine will eventually end up stuck in an oyster shell or the lint trap.

There are so many unanswered questions and so much hidden potential in fly tying. The next time you sit down at the vise or pick through a fly box, ask yourself what makes a fly tick. Is it the illusion of life, or simplicity, or perhaps anatomical perfection? Or is it something more? These mysteries fuel our excitement and compel us to look for answers. I hope we never figure them all out.