As far as saltwater fly design goes, Craig Worthington reckons that the eyes have it...
This fly came about after a series of snorkelling expeditions, both here in the Bay of Islands and in the tropics.
At each destination I had once again peered into the many small caves and dark grottos that can be found in any decent underwater seascape. It is a bit of an old crayfish hunter’s habit, I suppose, that is hard to break.
Anyhow, most of these holes hold familiar schools of midwater swimming nocturnal fish. So familiar and common, in fact, they are easy to ignore. Most of the time I barely give them a second thought. This time, however, something clicked. For some unknown reason I did a quick mental calculation as to how many of these little nocturnal fishes there actually are.
The results were staggering, and in an instant I woke up to the big part these little fish play in the food chain on any reef. After all, they can be found everywhere: in and underneath every nook, cranny and overhanging ledge in their hundreds; in any big underwater cave in their thousands – and not just here in New Zealand, but elsewhere, too. There are tons of them in every ocean, and just about everything likes to eat them.
In New Zealand the species involved go by the names of bigeye and roughy. In the tropics they include species called glasseyes, goggle-eyes, bullseyes and cardinalfish. All share the same habitat and all are lovers of dark recesses during the day.
At night these fish come out of their caves to swim around in the open and feed on plankton under the light of the stars and moon.
But it is the daytime these little fish really must worry about. Any nocturnal, cave-dwelling fish found out in the open during daylight hours is a fish in a whole lot of trouble. In simple terms, a small, big-eyed fish out in bright daylight is nothing more than food.
You can see why: these fish are wholesome packets of pure fish flesh. They do not have spikes, spines or anything that might be regarded as poisonous. They are soft bodied, delicate and lack tough skin or heavy scales. Consequently, everything likes to eat them.
So I considered tying a fly to imitate these nocturnal baitfish. Present such a fly, I figured, to any predatory fish in the daytime and they’d have to be all over it. It sure made sense in theory.
As a result, the Big-Eyed Fly was born, basic in its concept and quite simple to tie. My first versions were simple ‘Killer’-style baitfish patterns with big eyes attached. I used homemade eyes constructed out of sequins as they adhered well to the feathers (and were cheap!). I also added a wrap of copper down the shank to compensate for the extra buoyancy of the feather ribs. The feathers effectively hid much of the hook and made for an attractive looking fly.
Those nocturnal bigeyes and bullseyes generally have deep, round bodies and are laterally compressed. Accordingly, a short tail and deep body were all that was needed in the fly. Big artificial eyes were the simple finishing touch.
These were easy flies for a ham-fisted tier like myself. I like to present these articles with images of my ‘real’ flies. Some aren’t pretty. Form, function and general size and shape are the critical factors in any fly – they don’t have to be perfect, because the fish don’t care.
An occasional blob of glue in the wrong place or a bubble in the eye is not going to catch you any fewer fish. But a fly that twists, tumbles, or doesn’t swim right can, so biff those away; everything else you can use with confidence.
I took those first Big-Eyed Flies to Aitutaki. They were still experimental then, so I only tied three. After a few days fishing them, I wished I’d tied thirty. They got hammered at every turn, with every predator or wannabe predator darting out of its hole to slam them.
The punishment from tooth and jaw meant I quickly ended up with none that were still serviceable. The eyes would fall off and the feathers forming the body would get hammered by things with tropical teeth. Too soon I was devoid of any Big-Eyed Flies, but it had been great to see they worked!
Back home, I tied up more of these flies, plus larger versions and more colourful varieties. Smaller, duller flies seem to work best in the tropics, while larger, brighter flies seem to work best at home.
The latter proved to be very effective ‘kingfish candy’. There was a good class of rat kings of almost legal size hanging around that year – nice fish to have on a fly rod – and they were all over the Big-Eyed Fly.
The pattern turned out to be especially good for any situation where you could sight the fish first before casting – such as when coming up on kingfish hanging off a marker buoy, or approaching a school of kings nailing random baitfish on the surface.
It was also perfect for any sort of fly casting where quick directional changes might be called for, or water hauling, or sudden flicks here and there – all situations where a long-fibred ‘flowing’ fly might get tangled on itself. The short, compact body of the Big-Eyed fly never gets tangled. Every time you plonk it down, you can be confident it will be swimming right. This is important for those sight-casting fishing situations where the fly needs to be near, but not too close, to the fish.
On the retrieve, however, the big-eyed fly doesn’t offer a lot, having minimal action, so is best used as a fast-delivery ‘opportunity’ fly. It is a ‘plonk it down and wait for the hit’ fly.
Bright colours in green water are helpful in this regard; being able to actually see the fly helps immensely. I don’t know what colours kingfish interpret bright pink and yellow as being, but they sure are great colours when you’re trying to keep track of where the fly is in the water. Kingies are good at spitting a fly, so watch those bright colours closely and strip-strike with confidence when they disappear from view. You’ll be punching into empty water sometimes, but plenty of other times there will be a Big-Eye Fly eating kingfish on the end. Nothing is lost by striking at the wrong time, but plenty is gained when your suspicion proves well founded and the line snaps up tight. Being able to see your fly and watch it disappear pays dividends much of the time.
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