Film Flies: Presenting flies to fish feeding just below the surface.
Organizing fly boxes is a time-honored tradition by anglers around world. Many see it
as a requirement for success on the water. For others, “getting ready” has always been
part of the fun in this game we play, and nothing means being ready like well-organized boxes.
Saltwater anglers tend to arrange their boxes by species or forage types. Fly fishers targeting steelhead or salmon generally organize their boxes by type of patterns—say tube flies in one, articulated patterns in another, and single hook flies in yet another. Warm water
fly fishers may separate their boxes by baitfish, crayfish, aquatic invertebrates like damselflies and midges, and surface patterns like amphibians and poppers.
Trout anglers regularly carry the most boxes simply because of the range of possible scenarios we might encounter on the water. Many of us have fly boxes specifically dedicated to attractors, and terrestrial patterns tend to always have their own box. Chironomids, mayflies,
caddis, and stoneflies generally occupy their own space. Separation even further by dry fly, nymph, and streamer is always another option many fly fishers prefer.
But while my boxes are also largely based on the descriptions above, there is one other pattern type that I organize separately for all the rest of my trout boxes— boxes with patterns meant to be fished in, or just under, the surface film. I call these patterns film flies.
Film Fly Breakdown
I define a film fly as any pattern meant to be fished on or near the surface that represents trout forage at its most vulnerable stage of existence. This is key to the pattern’s effectiveness. Emerging mayflies are a prime example. Emerger patterns imitate flies either struggling to free themselves from their shuck while on the surface or struggling to break through the elastic tension cause by the water’s surface film. Naturals cannot swim or fly when they are in their emergent phase—instead they’re dealing with more immediate challenges like writing from a shuck or drying their wings. At this stage of life, they are easy pickings for trout.
That said, I consider other patterns imitating other invertebrate life stages as film flies. Chironomids and caddis go through a complete metamorphosis that allows fly fishers to imitate the pupal stage of the insects. Midges and caddis must escape the pupal shuck to reach the adult stage, and their escape often occurs in, or just under, the surface film. These bugs are as vulnerable to feeding trout as emerging mayflies.
You can also consider spinner imitations film flies. These patterns mimic dead or dying aquatic insects that lie flush in the film or sometimes slightly underneath it. Spinners generally
don’t move so they are the ultimate easy pickings for trout.
Aquatic invertebrate imitations are not the only imitations that qualify as film flies. You can also productively fish terrestrial patterns in or just under the film. Once on the water, most grasshoppers, ants, and beetles are unable to make it back to dry ground. They all eventually drown if a trout doesn’t consume them first. These bugs can elicit a fair amount of movement when they are both in and under the surface film. But once drowned, they are simply drifting with whatever current there might be. Either way, hungry trout have access to them, and
during the dog days of summer, terrestrial imitations can be the only game in town on some waters.
But trout feed on film flies for more reasons than just easy access to vulnerable bugs. One motive is that when trout food is in or below the film, be it because of a hatch or some other event, there is simply a lot of food (albeit healthy bugs) available. I observed a green drake hatch on the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho comprised of far more emergers than full-fledged adults. Close examination made it clear that trout were focusing their attention on those drakes still trailing a shuck than they were on duns during a certain period of the hatch. Fish in lakes and reservoirs can behave in a similar manner. On some stillwater bodies in Yellowstone National Park and other parts of western Wyoming, wind can blow massive numbers of carpenter ants from surrounding foliage on to the water’s surface. After a period of time, the ants are saturated with water and descend just below the surface, where fish start to feed on them in a gluttonous manner.
Another argument lending to the effectiveness of film flies is the naturals exist in a trout’s comfortable feeding zone. Renowned tier Scott Sanchez is fond of describing the intense
activity displayed by fish feeding in the top foot of the water column. By nature, trout more often than not, rise to their forage as opposed to diving for prey. Forage is easy to see when the bug bodies silhouette against a bright sky, and since trout are always on the lookout for potential predators in the form of eagles and ospreys, it’s easy to assume that feeding just below the film is
instinctually safer for fish versus being right up on the surface.
All Shapes and Sizes
What makes a good film fly pattern? The most important requirement is that it does what the naturals do—it lies in the surface film. If is not in the film, it should be just below it. Any kind of film fly, be it a traditional pattern with decades of production behind it, or the newest and latest hot pattern, needs to meet this requirement.
Emergers and cripples are classic patterns purposely designed for anglers fishing in the film and often imitate the mayfly emergent phase. Most of these patterns share four trait in common—a trailing shuck, compressed body, protruding wing, and a jumble of legs. Now consider flies like the Quigley Cripple, Quigley’s Film Critic, Cole’s Split Wing Cripple, or
Booty’s Green Drake Emerger. All of them contain these four traits. Where they differ is how each body and hook lies in the film. Some are tied on straight shank hooks and built to lay
flush on the surface with the shuck and part of the abdomen in, or just under, the surface. Others are tied on curved nymph hooks, similar to the hook used for a Klinkhamer Special, and
constructed in a manner so only the wing and a portion of the thorax project from the surface. The rest of the fly is submerged under the surface film.
Other patterns are tied so much of its body suspends below the surface and just a small
portion of the fly touches the film or protrudes above it. Generally the part of the fly touching
or protruding from the film is the wing or the wing case. Some materials are ideally suited to both imitate the wing or wing case while at the same time provide the slight buoyancy needed to
suspend the fly correctly in the water.
.5mm razor foam is a favorite material many tiers use to form wing cases, as is box sheeting, poly yarn, CDC, and EP Fibers. Just a small tuft or clip of one or the other is needed. Some tiers marry the wing case and wing by placing a small slit in the case material and wrapping each slit piece around the wing. Doing this provides additional buoyancy, although many times it’s not required.
Still other patterns are intended to work well underneath the surface film, although not
by more than a couple centimeters. The most popular are caddis pupa imitations intended to
be fished and swung at the end of a drift. Strikes generally occur as the fly is swinging just underneath the surface. In fact, the take is often so close to the surface that it’s easily visible.
Soft hackles (or patterns with a CDC wing) are another long time, tried-and-true pattern either worked in the film, or also on a swing like a caddis pupa. Several tied on large size 10 to size 6 hooks imitate drowned stoneflies and grasshoppers. Typically you can tie body materials like rabbit fur dubbing, Polar Fiber, or fox fur on to the hook in generous portions and tease it out so water easily saturates it and helps the fly sink just below the surface, but not so much that you won’t be able to still see fish strike.
One of my favorite “outside the envelope” tying techniques is to add a parasol indicator to my ant, beetle, and chironomid patterns. The parasol—made up of yarn, wool, foam, or a
similar material—floats in the film, but connects to the fly via monofilament or piano wire. The fly rides suspended just under the film, sometimes by a couple of inches, and other times, by just a centimeter. Film patterns designed in this manner are among my favorite when trout are feeding just below the surface in shallow riffles and flats or in swirling foam eddies. To make it easier to see, use a fluorescent-colored parasol. The fly will slip through the foam to where fish are eating, and the bright color (which the fish can’t see) will stand out against the color of the bubbles and make it easy to detect a take.
Challenges and Remedies
Film flies are productive patterns that, at times, can outperform both larval imitations fished deep in the water column, or high riding adults. The great part is you’re still targeting fish close enough to the surface that takes are easy to detect when they occur. Nonetheless, most of the patterns illustrated here are intended to be fished in or just below the film, and keeping a visual on them can be difficult some of the time.
You can remedy this by using small amounts of floatant on those parts of the fly meant to protrude from the film, particularly the wing and hackle, and in some cases, part of the thorax. These materials will float while the shuck and abdomen lie in or just below the film. You can also apply floatant to the wing case and wing on those patterns meant to be flush or just under the surface.
That said, some film flies are meant to be difficult for anglers to see. If gaining a visual on the fly is too challenging, one solution is to secure a small piece of hi-visibility wool or yarn to your tippet approximately one to two feet from the fly. The wool will be in close enough proximity to the fly that a fly fisher can easily see a take and set the hook at the right time. By no means is this a new form of tackle or tactic. Anglers have been fishing yarn indicators with their film flies for several decades. In fact, there are several commercial brands of wool indicators on the market specifically designed to be used in this manner.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, film flies run the risk of riding too high on the surface or not enough beneath the film. Yet using split shot or a sinking solution can be overkill, causing the fly to descend too low in the water column. A better remedy is to focus on the leader material. You can apply a degreasing agent, like Loon Products’ Snake River Mud, to the first three or four feet of the tippet above the fly. This allows the section of leader to cut through the surface film during the drift or swing. The fly will slowly make the same descent, but rarely sink more than half an inch. Another option is to use a small piece (four to eight inches) of fluorocarbon as a tippet section between the fly and the leader. The fluorocarbon will perform the same as a degreased monofilament leader by slowly descending through the film, making the fly slowly descend as well. Of course, fluorocarbon has a bad reputation for its high biodegradable threshold. If it breaks, whatever is on the water will be there forever. My advice to those using fluoro material is simple—use as small of a piece as you can, be confident in your knot tying abilities, and never break that tippet on a snag or a fish.