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Sunday, March 3, 2002

It takes a lot of work to fool a fish

Staff writer

One late summer afternoon, in the village of Oshino, Yamanashi Prefecture, I was sitting by a stream against the backdrop of Mount Fuji, my fly-fishing rod at my side. On a gentle breeze, a large mayfly came along and started fluttering on the water. It soon fell, getting its wings wet while trying to get back into the air, and was then swept away by the slow current.

A few seconds later, a big splash gulped the mayfly out of sight, leaving only ripples. I hastily picked up my rod and then opened a fly box to change the fly from a small caddis-fly pattern to a large mayfly pattern, which I had tied the night before, using hen-hackle tips as wings. I carefully cast my rod, aiming at the point where the mayfly had been sucked into the water.

As soon as my fly landed, another splash broke the silence. What I landed was a sizable brown trout with the imitation mayfly hooked in its mouth.

In fly-fishing, "matching the hatch" means finding the kind of insects that trout in a particular river are feeding on at a particular time of day. It is a complex guessing game, involving knowledge, intuition and sometimes chance. Even perfectly tied flies may not work if the insects that they replicate are not common to that river. And even if you can find the right insect, the fish might ignore your fly if it's the wrong size.

You can buy all kinds of fly patterns in various sizes at fishing tackle shops, but many fly-fishers prefer to tie their own flies, not only because it's more economical, but also because it's a challenging part of the game.

"If fly-fishing did not have the joy of fly-tying, this hobby would have been merely a mediocre form of entertainment," wrote Yoshio Tabuchi, a naturalist and outdoor writer, in his recent column in FlyRodders magazine. "Bill Gates of Microsoft can buy the most expensive flies available around the world, but I am absolutely sure that it is more fun if you fish with the flies you tied yourself."

Tabuchi calls fly-tying a "ritual." "A fly fisher commences a special ritual at night in hopes that he can catch tomorrow the iwana trout that got away that day," he says. And the ritual needs a prayer. "Giving thanks for the fact that he can go to the river again tomorrow, the fly-fisher ties his flies."

The ritual begins with setting a hook firmly between the jaws of a 19th-century-ish tying vise. The materials differ according to the types of flies, but the essentials are thread, feathers and hair.

On a typical tying desk, you'll find tools such as bobbins (about a dozen), fine-point scissors, a half-hitcher, a bodkin, a hair stacker and hackle pliers, as well as tying materials and cases of variously sized hooks.

After the intense process of tying a few dry flies, the tier takes a break and floats them in a water-filled glass, looking from the bottom to see how they look. The floating position is key. Will the flies fool the trout?

"You're just praying and telling fish, 'Doesn't this look tasty? Go ahead and try it, you little fishies,' " says Yukihiro Furukawa, Japan's leading pro fly-tier of midge-size flies.

Furukawa says the beautifully crafted flies (at least to human eyes) are not necessarily exact replicas of flies that attract trout.

One of the most effective and popular patterns in Japan, if not the world over, is called elk-hair caddis. Almost all fly fishers have this pattern hidden in their fly boxes. Its simple and practical shape cannot be described as state-of-the-art, but since the introduction of this pattern by American fly fisher Al Troth in 1978, it still works.

This makes elk-hair caddis one of the few exceptions. Furukawa says he constantly tries new materials to represent the tails, wings, thorax or other parts of aquatic insects. He once took apart the motor of his son's plastic model and found an extremely fine copper coil inside. He used the wire for tying the body of a midge pupa, which became "popular among trout" -- but only for a while.

"After seeing similar flies drifting on the water one after another, fish get smart and soon start to ignore them. Tying flies no one is tying is a key to success in Japanese rivers full of stream-smart fish," says Furukawa, who produces 15,000 flies a year.

If you want to see the real stream-smart trout, go to Oshino -- the spring creek considered to be one of Japan's fly-fishing meccas. Thanks to the catch-and-release practice used by most anglers there, the river always has plenty of rainbow, brown and brook trout, in addition to the yamame and iwana trout native to Japan.

It also means that these trout are, having been deceived in the past by certain flies, much the wiser and seem to know the difference between what is real and what is not. They may follow your drifting fly, scrutinizing its authenticity, and then wiggle their tails and turn around to go look for real food.

But even these savvy trout can sometimes lose control. On one summer afternoon, after a huge number of large mayflies started hatching on the water, I saw fish jump at almost any fly and had to question whether the principle of "matching the hatch" could be assumed to work all the time.

When anglers are lucky enough to land a fish, they pump its stomach with a plastic syringe to see the contents. They are often full of surprises and discoveries, such as hundreds of ultra-small caenis (a type of mayfly) spinners or pinky-finger-size caddis pupa.

Some enthusiasts even take these stomach contents home in small bottles for future reference. It's all part of the ritual for good fishing again tomorrow.

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