People say some interesting things when they stop in the fly shop like “They pay you to work here? I’d do it for free” and “What’s the best fly for carp?” But one of my personal favorites happens when folks pick up one of the size 20 Zebra Midges and exclaim “What do you catch on these tiny things?” That inquiry normally comes from bass fisherman who’ve grown accustomed to hooking fish with a mouth large enough to swallow a softball or a small duck, depending on which one its overly large appetite can handle. It doesn’t seem to occur to some that you don’t need an overly large fly/hook to land some truly gigantic fish.
Flies come in all different sizes depending on a couple different factors including 1) The size of the quarry, 2) the size of the prey you’re imitating. But you don’t necessarily need to throw gigantic objects to catch gigantic fish since many times going smaller can lead to bigger results. All you need to do is look at the diet of the predator, the prevalent food items, and then match it to a hook capable of holding onto the fish once you’ve hooked up. It might have taken a monstrous hook to hold onto a fish weighing over 200 pounds back in the day when hooks were made of weaker, less robust metals, but today with the modern forged and chemically sharpened hook materials, we can go lighter and smaller; leading to smaller and more lifelike and imitative flies.
Just take a look at the two flies in the picture above. They are the largest and smallest flies currently in my fly collection. The streamer (tied for near shore shark fishing) is on a forged 7/0 Gamakatsu Inline Octopus Circle. That hook is more than large enough to grab hold of and remain latched to the sharks I’d chase off Cape Canaveral provided I can get them to eat in the first place, hence the large and colorful material. You need to get them interested in a pretty substantial meal in order to entice a strike. The size 14 Wired Caddis on the other hand is meant to imitate as specific size and species of bug that trout would be snacking on regularly, so as a result, the material is lighter and less bulky; and the chosen hook is appropriate for remaining attached after the strike.
Although the 7/0 fly is quite large in the grand scheme of “normal” fly fishing, a size 14 isn’t even considered “small” by trout fishing standards. Dry flies are routinely tied on hooks as small as size 22, while nymphs and emergers like a WD-40 that imitate midges may be tied as small as size 24 (and possibly smaller). Now THAT is small indeed. Tippet size must be decreased down to 7X or even 8X just to thread through the eye, and I don’t even know if I could tie a knot in material that light. Rigs of this diminutive size are obviously meant for small trout, light rods, and highly technical presentations.
What about throwing small flies for big fish? Tarpon well beyond 100 pound can be caught on flies tied on hooks as light as #1 or 1/0 depending on the material so don’t be afraid of lightening up. You don’t have much choice but to find a lightweight but strong option when the prey item is small like a Palolo worm in the Florida Keys, or a glass minnow along the east coast beaches. Scale the hook size up as you approach mullet, pinfish, or herring size imitations, using a model that offers just the right amount of shank length, strength, and weight so as to make an effective fly presentation.
Fish will eat (or at least “try” to eat) just about anything small enough to fit in their mouths so it’s quite likely that your target’s diet is quite diverse whether you know it or not. Seasonal favorites provide variety and you need to be ready if you expect to enjoy success year round. Tie flies in numerous sizes and see what works. Make sure the lifelike imitations are scaled to match the real thing and use a hook that provides a good platform for fly construction and the strength to land the big one.
Brian “Beastman” Eastman