Carl Richards’ and Doug Swisher’s book Selective Trout signaled the end of a classic fishing age, and helped usher in a new one.
[by Will Ryan]
SOME OF THE MOST EDUCATED trout on the planet swim in Connecticut’s Farmington River. So I found myself rooting for a brother of the angle who was tangling with a good one in a wide flat. As I passed behind him, I sent him a “Nice fish!” and asked if he wanted a picture. “Sure,” he said. I waded over and snapped a photograph of the 20-inch brown as he brought it to the net. He popped out the barbless hook and introduced himself as Craig. We watched the fish disappear in the flow.
He’d taken the trout on a lovely little blue-winged olive emerger, which he handed to me for inspection.
“Spring and fall, my go-to pattern,” he said, whipping it dry. “Just a brown thread body and CDC wing. Rests in the film and floats like a cork.”
We talked some more, swapped thoughts on favorite patterns and email addresses and said our goodbyes. On the way home that evening it struck me that here was the modern fly fisher—observant, friendly, part of a larger fly-fishing community; a delicate caster armed with sparsely dressed flies, fishing over highly pressured brown trout in transparent water. Of the several different flies he’d shown me, not a one had hackle.
For many of us, this is the sum of contemporary trout fishing. If it has a starting point, it may have been with a book that burst on to the American fly fishing scene nearly 45 years ago—Selective Trout, by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards. Much of what they promoted—no-hackle, body in the film, barbless hooks, catch and release—could be seen in Craig’s fishing. In angling’s ultimate tribute, their title has become our figure of speech.
Simple Observations Become Revolutionary Concepts
Selective Trout has a staying power because it puts the onus on us to figure out the trout. Swisher and Richards conceded that there were times when traditional patterns worked. But they were interested in catching the “educated” trout that seemed indifferent to the best standard flies. For many of us across the country, these were the fish that we weren’t catching, either.
Their approach? Observe. The idea was not exactly new; every writer from LaBranche to Bergman promoted the “sit and smoke a bowl of tobacco” technique for watching fish. But Swisher and Richards were “really into it,” in the vernacular of the day. They were brilliant researchers, tyers, anglers, and most of all, really good watchers. They collected insects, set them up in aquariums and took stunning close-up pictures—from angles typical of trout. These images became the source of their authority. They weren’t professional hook and bullet writers. Richards was a dentist, Swisher a salesman. They could have been anyone. They were.
Their photography conclusively revealed the limitations of current dry flies. For years, hackle had been used to imitate the legs of mayflies. Anglers of the 1950s and 60s believed that you weren’t getting your money’s worth with sparse hackle. Most tyers wound on two hackles so that the flies would alight with just hackle and tail touching the water—“It stands on its tip toes” was a common expression. Selective Trout photos showed that such a design hid the two elements on naturals most visible to the trout—wings and body. So Swisher and Richards lost the hackle.
Two things happened. First, the wings became visible. Second, the body rested flush in the film, like a natural. Swisher and Richards showed that if the body were made of spun fur (rather than quill, for instance) the flies would float and, as they put it, “when properly treated with floatant, it is almost impossible to sink them when you try.”