Warmwater Tips

Ecological Consistency in Fly Selection

By Jack Ellis

The popularity of panfish poppers and nondescript warmwater attractors continues unabated, largely because anglers simply don't know what food form to imitate in the absence of an obvious insect emergence or other identifiable feeding event. Fecund southern ecosystems are much richer than most coldwater habitat, and the sunfish menu is infinitely longer. The swamp, creek or pond is only a part, although a vital part, of a larger community of plants and animals, and informed pattern selection requires some under standing of the complex interrelationships among the terrestrial and aquatic organisms that form that community.
It is not possible to study terrestrial insects apart from the plants in which they dwell. Insects, including aquatics, either feed directly on plants during some phase of their life cycle or depend, in predaceous or parasitical ways, upon organisms that do. Many are host-specific on a single species, or genus, of plants or fungi, while others utilize a wider range of habitat and foods, but most are closely associated, at the very least, with a specific botanical family. Only in understanding the role that plants play at the bottom of the food chain can the warmwater angler hope to catch a glimpse of that sublime order that governs the deceptively chaotic world of tiny creatures that buzz by the millions where the pond meets the land. Intelligent fly selection requires not only that the angler distinguish between oak and maple, goldenrod and pigweed, azalea and iris, but that he also seek to understand how these plants compliment each other in well-defined systems. Insects are a vital, integral part of all plant communities and inseparable there-from. Gardeners and naturalists will readily understand why the sophisticated warmwater fly fisher devotes as much study to botany as to entomology.

I had the pleasure of fishing a beautiful pond on a private estate last spring. The owner assured me that the pond holds a good population of large bluegill. I rigged my three-weight, launched the tube and pondered the question of fly selection because I wanted to exhaust the dry fly possibilities before resorting to nymphs. There was a time when I would have simply tied a little yellow popper with white rubber legs to a 2X tippet and starting casting blindly to the shoreline, all the while decrying the fact that I wasn't on a trout stream where the fishing was REALLY interesting. I had a working knowledge of trout stream ecology. but knew little of the organisms that sunfish eat from day to day. I usually caught a few bluegill on the popper, to be sure, but once I matured as a serious fisher of bream and graduated from simplistic attractors, I discovered that the warmwater experience can be far more fulfilling.

After a brief chat with my genial host, I gathered rod, vest and tube and strolled down to the pond. The mirror-like surface was unbroken by any aquatic hatch or other visible feeding activity, but the spring time sunshine was enhanced by a gorgeous display of bright blue iris along the far bank. It was impossible for Mononychus vulpeculus, the iris weevil, to have missed such an opportunity. It. was late enough in the spring for the plump, pink larvae to have matured and the mating flight had likely taken place. Chances were good that bluegill had recently dined on a few of the small, brown adults and remained in the area, hoping that more would be forthcoming. I selected a size-IA Black Beetle palmered with a soft hen hackle (I didn't have a brown one), and presented it to the base of the iris stalks that grew at the water's edge. I also knew that the little weevils would be virtually motionless on the water except for a slow ambulatory movement of the legs. I let the hen hackle do its job unassisted and took a nice bluegill on the third cast, followed by several more as I moved down the row of iris blooms. Would the yellow popper have worked as well? Perhaps. But I would not have had as much fun. The afternoon would have been only marginally gratifying had I incognizant settled for an attractor of some sort. I BELIEVED that my pattern was appropriate and I fished it with confidence.
These principles and strategies apply not only to fishing the dry fly but also to casting bugs and lures to largermouth bass. Bass are more easily duped than bream, since they do not subject the offering to a rigid inspection and will readily snatch any living organism, regardless of its familiarity (as long as they don't associate that food form with some past trauma).

I regularly fish ponds on commercial timber land and am often greeted by the pleasant smell of freshly cut pine. The sawyer beetle (Monochainus notatus) is strongly attracted to that fragrance and can be expected to pay a call. So, I choose a gray/brown, size-2 hair bug to imitate that large Coleoptera. I have made an informed decision instead of ju no sawyer beetles show up, whether my theory is erroneous or my fly poorly-tied, I am certainly as well off with the gray/brown bug as with a red! yellow one. There is no penalty to pay in selecting the gray bug.

I am not talking about a "hatch" of sawyer beetles, or a major feeding event of some kind, but only appealing to the bass's natural opportunism in a way that is in tune with nature and consistent with the habitat. I have good reason for confidence in my offering, and if it pays off all the better. If I see a single sawyer beetle I am gratified at my own cleverness. If I see several I am ecstatic. If a bass takes a natural that has fallen into the pond, I experience that familiar adrenaline rush that every angler knows. If I actually catch a fish on the bug I selected, I have earned the right to smugly gloat with satisfaction. Taking the same bass on a red/yellow offering, that I cannot rationalize as consistent with prevailing conditions, does not provide those coveted and cherished rewards.


The article first appeared in Jack Ellis's monthly newletter, Refections on the Pond. The newletter is not in publication any more. The reprint of this article was granted by the publisher.

Jack Ellis lives in East Texas on the shore of a secluded private lake. Jack has published two books: The Sunfishes A Fly Fishing Jouney of Discovery (A must for any warm water fly fisher) and Bassin' with a Fly Rod.