Contrast In Fly Design

How many of us think about contrast when we sit down behind our vises to tie needed flies? I’m sure some tiers do, and perhaps, many more of us should give Light on Dark, and Dark on Light a lot more consideration in our tying. Here is an article explaining why contrast should be of major concern:

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I just quickly read the article, it really gets to the point and is consistent with what I believe. I do have a pretty strong inclination to tie flies with contrast and some form of attention-getting features …at least much of the time.

Perhaps it is mostly the whimsical way I like to think about flies, reinforced by so many things I’ve read and a lot of experience on some freestone creeks, but the bar is pretty low for what will get sampled. The point the article makes about “standing out” from less nutritious things floating by is really key in my thinking.

I sometimes like dark soft hackle on wet flies with light(er) bodies and the reverse – even though that isn’t necessarily natural. During the colder months when eggs are on the menu, I’ll tie a lot of killer bugs and soft hackle flies with a yellow/green thread/body or hackle and orange/red thread/body/hackle and mix the two. I have no idea if it works better, I find it pleasing and it catches fish. I honestly don’t really want to know what would happen if I fully applied the next experiment I’ll describe to all of my fishing/tying.

The best and worst experiment I’ve run (a few months back) that really shapes how seriously I take my fly tying for the places I fish ( mostly freestone creeks) was to fish bare tungsten beads on jig hooks. I fished copper, gold, silver, and black nickel. I used very thin “Trico” thread and just a touch of head cement. From what I could tell, they all were equally effective (as well as you can control a test like this). The holes I fished were not all equal so it is hard to be objective in any way, but I caught a combination of wild and stocked fish (I forgot the ratio, but plenty of wild, maybe half or more) …at least three on each. So is a hotspot or a flashy bead what gets the attention? I don’t particularly care to know all the answers – it was fun and reinforced a lot of the “working theory” that so many great anglers have helped me to form by their writings and advice. What made this especially interesting is that since these were sleek and heavy – they were in with the fish – this wasn’t a surface reaction to a very fast presentation. Yes, it was faster water, but it wasn’t like slapping a big foam terrestrial pattern and getting a reaction without a full visual inspection – this was at least something near the level they were swimming.

Thanks for sharing the article

Definitely a feature in most of my flies, too. Sometimes it’s a contrasting rib, or dark thorax on a light body, or contrasting hackle/thread/bead, or something flashy on a dull body. I’m not sure if I set out to have the contrast, but it’s more about what looks pleasing to my eye.

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Lance, thank you for the interesting and detailed reply. When I use bead head patterns, it’s usually in Stillwaters. As to the bead color, I prefer the black nickel or mat black as I believe it simulates the eye’s pupil better then the shiny beads can do, and fish tend to target the eye as a Kill Point.

Also, more than 1 Hot Spot on a pattern tends to divide the fish’s attention and confuse it. If you are casting upstream and the fly is drifting downstream and into the fish, the Hot Spot will be more effective if it is placed near the front of the hook, and the black beads will provide more contrast than shiny beads can for Hot Spot recognition. For Stillwater patterns, where the fish will mostly overtake the fly from behind, I favor Glo-Brite FL Floss as a Tag that really Lights-Up in the water color you are fishing. Additionally, the floss has marabou-like action in the water fish find really attractive.Tags are like tails but only 1 hook gape long in length.

With reference to the use of Fluorescent Materials, the Hot Spot (be it a Tag, a Butt or a Hot Spot) should be less than 30% of the fly’s total surface area. Too much FL will overwhelm the fish’s Color Cone Cells and cause the fish to break off and reject the pattern. FLs must be used very Sparingly! The most important thing in all of this, is to listen to what the trout are trying to tell you about the patterns you are showing to them. The Right Results are the most satisfying and rewarding for me…Karl.

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In response to Lance’s bead head jig hook experiment, in the beginning of my fishing I fished with bait, often salmon eggs. And even with Ultra-Light Spinning Tackle, some weight was needed in order to cast. It was a constant frustration for me that the trout preferred to hit the Split-Shot rather than take the salmon eggs on my hook. So much so that I wrote letters to the salmon egg companies urging them to produce charcoal gray and black dyed salmon eggs, to which I never got a response. It didn’t matter what color the eggs were, the trout preferred to take the split shot.

Kris’ tying techniques mirror the Light on Dark and Dark on Light Contrast Rule. But contrast should also be sought to contrast with the whole fly against the background the fish will see the fly against, that’s why determining the water color is so important. Most anglers see water as being only clear, when in reality it’s Blue, Green or Red/Brown in an infinite verity of shades, so you want the fly to be easily visible in the water color you are fishing, with the Hot Spot really standing out like a little beakon.

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My waaaay most effective flies (greater than 4:1) have hackle with light/dark barred patterns such as natural (un-dyed) Griz, Partridge, Guinea Hen and upper Pheasant Rump. A light/dark pattern hackle provides contrast whether the fly body is light or dark and in my mind; right or wrong cries out, Movement! While my belief is based on records, I haven’t used a mono-colored hackle as a control because I’m success oriented-selfish and flies with the barred patterned hackle just seems to work everywhere.

For saltwater one of my two most productive patterns imitates a cephalopod with a longer reverse hackle Golden Pheasant cape feather and a pale orange body and a shorter GPh feather for a tail. The other is crustacean (shrimp) pattern that uses a big yellow chenille head, with a reddish-pink body, and a soft, white acrylic or squirrel tail wing.

I also believe using “flash” as contrast on buggy dark bodied flies is effective; i.e. olive ice dubbing vs Peacock Herl on a Pheasant Tail body (occasionally I’ll include fine copper wire ribbing). I recently tried a Takayama sakasa fly having fiery red thread head and tail hotspots, with a Pheasant Tail body and olive ice thorax. I tied it on at the end of the day and caught fish but didn’t really get a feeling of how comparatively effective it was compared to using a standard black thread.

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What you’re saying makes a lot of sense, but I’ve had so much luck with completely silly flies that I’m almost embarrassed! I’m not saying that this would work in a spring creek or tailwater, but especially lake run rainbow/great lakes steelhead are suckers for my “creamsicle” – mcfly foam ribbed with thread, wire, pearl, or nothing at all. I tie a lot of flies for the fun of it in all kinds of varieties, so I mix in these silly ones with those that attempt “normal” much more.

That’s a funny story about the eggs. The closest experience I have that is similar is last summer I was fishing the transition between a Trico and BWO hatch (that time of year over several outings) and while I was fishing with tenkara rods, I was using simplified tapered leaders instead of level tippet – western dry fly fishing with size 20, 22, 24 and such. Even small trout were hitting my surgeon’s knots over the flies at times. I’m used to that with bluegill, but…

As for the creamsicle fly, I’m not 100% sure it is color, it is possible that the foam that “gives” a little and keeps it from being rejected immediately. This season I’m doing a similar fly with ostrich herl instead of foam and some soft hackle. They defy most common sense, but they’re effective about every time I’ve fished them; I’ve given them to friends and they’ve done well. We’re fortunate to have some easy-to-catch fish. I’ve done all kinds of variations from tiny short cylinders to tapered bodies, to elongated ones.

I’m not proud, but after reading some great looks (like “fly fishing heresies”, “what the trout said” and “what trout want”), I don’t think my experience is all that surprising on the freestones.

I do think it can be important to have some sort of belief or principle when trying out/creating patterns… if you want to attempt a real evaluation – I definitely am with Kris on ribs and features of that sort much of the time. Color themes and contrast make a lot of sense.

As much as I love to fish, I wonder if somehow I was rendered unable to tie if I would enjoy the whole process as much – I doubt it would be as appealing.


I guess I couldn’t attach two images or maybe I just don’t know how – this was supposed to tag along. I tie most on jig hooks and the shapes/proportions vary a lot but this is the basic creamsicle …

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Hi Lance. The Creamcicle, to me, looks to be a highly effective fly pattern, especially for Pre and Spawning Fish. Keep up the good work…Karl.

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Thanks Karl – it is fast and easy and a junk fly for sure. The migratory fish we have around here aren’t particularly picky – but I remember one time when I had made several presentations of a chartreuse version of the same only to be ignored. One plop of something like this, the tangerine color McFly foam version, and a 20+ inch rainbow cruised over and took it. I don’t put a whole lot of credibility in too many bits of fishing wisdom, but occasionally I do believe that not only contrast but general color themes (and this could have more to do with the relative color of the water or detritus most present at the time) can make a difference as you and others have brought up.

In the fall of 2020, I fished a lot of unweighted killer bug types (admittedly on heavy hooks much of the time and often with heavier wire ribbing) – caught many lake fish in the creeks. In one instance I had drifted my previous “confidence” hotspot – chartreuse or fluoro green through a dozen times and I don’t recall getting a strike – maybe some, but not much. I switched to orange/pink in the same run and immediately took a few fish.

I believe the bar is often pretty low to get fish to sample our offerings, but when it isn’t it does help to have a system (and flies to deploy it) for trying something else.

Most of my “less shameful” flies are far more dull, but I often at least use a bright thread that is seen at the head or under some body material – and almost anything seems to be productive in the spring. In months when the water is below 40F, the heavy (weight) attention getters (bright/flash) seem to keep me from being fishless.

When it is not so hot, I’m often out twice a day if only briefly – a great situation to learn when you’re willing to fail. The “Creamsicle” is one I keep around and give friends who only get out once a month or a few times a year – just based on the experiences I have had with it. Confidence is important – a friend this spring got his largest fish ever (~23") on one – using his brand new rod for the first time and his first outing of the year. The funny part is that I fished the run he got that fish in for 30 minutes before he got there and managed nothing comparable. There are dozens of flies that would do the trick, but subjective confidence does help.

As we all know, there’s no shame in keeping some reliable junk in your trunk.

One of the not apparent things that’s not commonly known is that Yellow Colors Shift to Green with depth and distance, which will have increased contrast with the Pink/Orange colored materials over and above the way the fly looks to us because we can’t see the color shift.

On the fish’s rejection of too much Chartreuse/Green things, my first prototype Slinky Pattern was tied with 2 Chartreuse Mini-Barred Ostrich herl flumes, and FL-Chartreuse Mini-Ultra chenille, which attracted the lake fish’s attention very well. But in gin clear waters, the fish would refuse to take at the last instant nearly every time. But in stained waters, the fly did well. The problem was too much fluorescence!

I solved that problem by changing to a Black Chenille Body, splitting the tail on the first chenille wrap, rapping in the rest of the body up to the bead head, Palmering the tail material up the body, and finishing the fly off with a Collar Hackle of the tailing material (Picture a Tenkara friendly Ostrich Herl Wooly Bugger Pattern here), All tied in with Black Thread, so there is No Hot Spot behind the Bead Head, which turned a troublesome and inconsistent producing pattern into one of the most productive flies I have ever tied.

Flash was added eventually, but that’s another story.

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Fascinating. I do find Ostrich Herl, CDC, and small fur strips as “tenkara friendly”. Very good point about the color. I listen to many fly fishing podcasts and stillwater as a whole is intimidating to me, I’ve never fished it. Some friends do very well with Maribou jigs float fishing, often very dark colors.

Whether it’s the open ocean or deep lakes, salmon and steelhead’s eyes are tuned to see the blue and green color spectrums because those are the colors the white bait fish’s bellies reflect from the water around them. As the Pre-Spawn fish enter the shallower waters, their vision shifts to the Red end of the spectrum, so the yellows, oranges, pinks and reds become much more important to spawning fish, and the chartreuse’s effectiveness will fall off…Karl.