Lefty with Tarpon

Attractor Flies by Lefty Kreh

There are two types of flies we present to fish in both fresh and salt water. To catch more fish fly fishermen need to understand both kinds and when to use them. Realistic types are meant to convince the fish that they represent something in their environment, which they eat. This would include nymphs, baitfish imitations (streamers) dry flies, shrimp, crabs and other creatures.

Attractor flies are just that. They are meant to get the attention of the fish. They often look nothing like the realistic patterns. Instead the fish are convinced to strike these flies because of their action, noise or visual stimulation. Attractor flies can be bounced along the bottom, retrieved deep in the water column or on the surface.

One of the most important attributes of attractor flies is that they produce a lot of life-like action, whether the fly is fished on the bottom or on the surface. It is currently popular to tie many baitfish imitations out of synthetic hard materials or epoxy. Frequently the body is constructed of braided Mylar and/or coated with epoxy. While there are a few situations where this type attractor is effective, far more appealing to fish are baitfish imitations that are constructed mainly of flexible material, such as hair or feathers that give motion and a life-like appearance during the retrieve. Good example of totally hard bodied attractor flies that produce poorly are mantis shrimp and saltwater crab imitations. Some of them I have seen look so realistic that you would think they could be cooked and served as people food. But my experience is that crab flies that are made with softer and flexible materials, have a quieter impact when cast on the water and the pattern’s action draws more strikes.

Over the decades one of the most effective attractor flies (and lures) for bass, pike and saltwater species are flies or lures that are red and white. If I were limited to only three fly patterns colors for pike, musky, walleyes, tarpon, redfish, snook smallmouth, largemouth bass and many other species in fresh and saltwater one color combination would be red and white. The Red and White Hackle Fly (often called a Seaducer) was first tied for bass in the 1800’s and remains today one of the most effective flies for all the above mention species.

For myself years ago I determined that it is important where you put the red on a fly or lure.  Look at any commercial red and white fishing lure and you will note that the body is nearly all white, with a short red portion at the front. I think there is a reason. I fished the Red & White Hackle Fly for years and did well. Then I tied the colors reversed, making a fly with a long red tail and a short white collar. I never caught a fish on this combination. Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion when a prey species attacks a baitfish from below it in the water column it sees a long white belly and at the front are the short red gills.

Anyone who has fished Atlantic salmon soon discovers that realistic imitation flies are rarely used. Instead almost all Atlantic salmon are tied mostly in bright colors that attract the fish.

The most effective materials used to build attractor patterns are flexible feathers, marabou (a super soft feather) and various furs such as Arctic fox tail, otter, beaver or rabbit hair.  Sculpins are a favored food of trout and where you have large brown trout fishing sculpin attractor flies at night can be very rewarding. One of the best attractor patterns really doesn’t look like a sculpin, but it sure draws strikes, is Dave Whitlock’s Near Nuff Sculpin. The weighted body is made from soft, flexible fur over which is wound the softest chicken body feathers. The fly is allowed to sink to the bottom and twitched along. Close examination says it really doesn’t resemble a sculpin—but trout sure think so.

The Woolly Bugger is a classic and probably best known attractor fly. It works in both fresh and saltwater. There are times when for me it has been more effective on bonefish than standard patterns. Small and medium size snappers and groupers that hold in saltwater channels really slam a slow drifted Woolly. Think about it—the pattern is tied with a soft flexible marabou or rabbit fur tail. The body is then over-wound with hackle. Experienced anglers prefer that the wound hackle not be of dry fly quality, which is stiff. Instead, the use a soft, webby feather which undulates with the current and retrieve.

Many attractor nymph patterns are extremely effective.  The body is usually of soft dubbed fur, such as beaver, rabbit or otter and a flexible feather is wound along or attached to the body. I don’t know over the years how many trout I have caught on a Muskrat Nymph. It is nothing more than a dubbed body of muskrat fur with the guard hairs left in and two turns of soft grouse hackle just behind the eye.

Some experience freshwater trout anglers have learned that on hard fished water the trout are difficult to fool with standard trout flies. They have determined that soft hackle patterns, often using two or three on the leader draw strikes. These imitate nothing in particular but as attractor flies they do the job.

A great attractor fly is one that works the surface. Popping bugs, Dahlberg Divers and Gurglers frequently will draw fish when subsurface flies won’t. Two advantages of these flies are they create noise and surface disturbance. Of course the noise will attract fish from a longer distance then a quiet sub-surface fly. But properly manipulated these flies also appear to be struggling helplessly on the water—an easy prey. The disturbance creates the impression they are large and represent to the fish a big meal. Large amberjack and cobia in saltwater are very difficult to induce to strike a streamer fly—regardless of its size. But the same huge fish will attack a popping bug if it is kept in continuous action during the retrieve. The constant motion of the bug creates such a surface disturbance that the big fish believe it is worth striking.

A fairly recent attractor pattern is the Gurgler, developed by tier, Jack Gartside. It is a combination of a streamer and popper. It does not make as much noise as a conventional popper but more than enough to bring fish to it. And because the body is fuller and usually longer than a conventional popping bug, it will often out fish all other fly rod surface patterns.

While all fly fishermen should have realistic patterns in their arsenal there are times when an attractor pattern will be far more effective.


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