Flies and Fly Boxes

Originally published by Rob Horgan; reprinted in full with permission

Fly boxes, the virtually essential piece of our fly fishing equipment, come in a variety of sizes and types. What goes into one is critical for success. The range of flies available to us is mind-boggling, to many begging the question: why would you need lots of different flies, different colours, styles, and sizes? To mimic the food that the quarry is naturally feeding on, which varies from water to water, season to season, plus other factors.

A wide array of flies and variants

In any given body of water there will be a combination of different food items available, such as mayfly nymphs and adult forms, chironomid larvae, pupae, and adults, sedge larvae, pupae and adults, water beetle larvae and adults, aquatic worms, alder fly larvae and adults, crane fly larvae, shrimps, hog lice, damsel and dragon fly larvae and adults, prey fish and eggs, lots of microscopic bugs too. This list isn’t exhaustive, but in addition there are the terrestrial insects that fall from the sky or out of bankside trees and vegetation, of which there are literally thousands by genus and species. Multiply this out by colours and shades, then by sizes, and inevitably the brain starts to hurt.

Surely, it’s just a case of elementary arithmetic? Given that all these food types experience growth, the potential range of size alone is astronomic. Okay, let’s have a go, Type is what we are trying to represent and offer to the quarry, the other parts of the formula are self-explanatory, so we end up with: Type x Colour x Shade x Size = gazillions! Worse still if we differentiate by dries, wets, lures, weighted, or unweighted.

How many fly boxes do you actually need?

Just how many fly boxes will you need? The answer has to be “enough for the flies you want to take fishing”. The tide turns, … then how many flies do you actually need to take? Bewildering, isn’t it? Agreed, it would be several degrees simpler if you only fished the one water all the time, but I don’t, like many others preferring to be challenged by fishing as many different places each year as I can get to, which therefore means that I try to have suitable flies for every eventuality that I might face. Just how many flies would cover all eventualities? Don’t even try to compute that, you won’t be able to sleep nights … it would be like trying to invent the one and only fly you’ll ever need … that way lies madness.

The quest for the perfect fly pattern

Faced with the seemingly impossible, mankind usually attempts a solution. Exactly what fly-tiers endeavour to find: something that will “do the business”. That one pattern, with a good stretch of the imagination and eyes scrunched half shut, that might hint at and represent a number of food items, but as sure as eggs is eggs there isn’t actually a pattern that does represent more than two or three, the sizes alone being almost infinite. Of course, there is a balance to be found. You can’t possibly have all of the flies that exist in the world-wide world of sport, so you have to concentrate on a percentage strategy and go for those that you think you are most likely to need, whether you tie, buy, or both, so endeavouring to keep ‘infinity’ at a distance.

The next step is organising

Shazam & hey presto! We inevitably end up with a collection. If, like me, you enjoy the challenges posed by fishing at different waters, one box soon proves insufficient so you inevitably purchase another, then another, and so on. If you have tackle-tart tendencies you end up with several in very short shrift. Next the poor old cranium has to come up with some kind of order for the growing collection; grouping the styles and kinds and sizes together in some semblance of organisation so that you at least stand an outside chance of finding the one you are feverishly hunting for.

This isn’t the end of the brain strain, however, the next problem to face is one of logistics. Your growing collection of fly boxes provides a new frustration: do you cart them all around with you? Clanking about with all the extra weight throws stealth out of the window, so you need to sort out a suitable selection for the water you are going to fish, but as simple as that seems it doesn’t work quite like that for me, and I suspect others are in the same boat!

Fly selection meets the real world

I house my collection of fly boxes in my ”boat bag” tackle holdall, along with several reels, their spare spools, sets of polaroids, spare leaders & spools of tippet, towels, scales, fishing vest, lanyard with tools, floatants and sinkants, and a myriad of other fly fishing stuff. Hauling it in and out of the car is keeping my physique trimmer than it otherwise would be. If I’m going out in a boat I can lug the whole thing down the dock and Robert’s your fathers brother, but more often than not I’m bank fishing or wading. I then feel the need to be unencumbered and mobile so I attempt to carry only flies that I think I will need in the pockets of my fishing vest or jacket.

Back to that question again. You probably think I should be happy drilling down to that, but I’m not, because then my fly box choices are restricted to the available pocket space. I don’t want to carry another bag because I will already be toting rods, landing net, bass bag, camera, and sometimes wet weather gear and lunch. If, for instance, I have the pocket space for four boxes, (and double-sided ones are a major boon) how should I arrange their contents to maximise my choices while fishing? For example, say I’m bank-fishing a largish stillwater and have four pockets available in my vest, I might have set-up two rods for floating and intermediate lines, and so I want a box of buzzers combined with emerging and adult midges, a box for boobies combined with blobs for pulling, a box of diawl bachs and crunchers, and a fourth for cormorants and cat’s whiskers.

Multi-gunned as this appears to be, there are in fact plenty of patterns that I’m as a result not actually carrying. The Great Law of Sod decrees that I won’t have that particular pattern in that specific size and colour, for which the assembled trutta are going absolutely berserk, in a totes bananas stylie.

Personal reflections on my own fly fishing gear

My old fishing vest is now part of angler me, becoming in some respects a good luck charm; certainly, if I were to change it, I don’t know what demons I might unleash, so for now I intend to stick with it. The search for knowledge, in many ways an encapsulation of this whole fly-fishing thing, leads me to wonder how others manage their fly selection and collections? Is there perhaps an answer as to what combinations should be made up out there, somewhere in the ether? I’ve asked some of the people I fish with, but like the very flies themselves it seems there is no panacea; most just mutter something under their breath, others just look blank, some turn away shaking their heads.

Is it me, am I alone with this angst? Can anyone out there help a brother (or sister) angler? How do you manage your flies and fly box collection for maximum practical efficiency?