Swedish version


Trout Hunting, by Bob Wyatt

Trout Hunting
the pursuit of happiness
by Bob Wyatt

Unpacking the 'Selective Trout' theory

Since its publication in 1971, with sales of over 150,000 copies, Selective Trout has firmly imbedded the idea of the suspicious trout in anglers’ minds. In its opening chapters, Swisher and Richards lay down the premise for their approach, stating emphatically that the most important factor in an angler’s success is the fly’s capacity to convince a trout that it is a real insect. You can’t argue with that, but they go further, stating that realistic imitation far outweighs the role of presentation, which they lump into a handful of “excuses” for not catching fish. They claim that trout are getting more selective as they are increasingly being fished for, caught, and released, and that the only antidote for this is even more realistic imitation.

Despite the tremendous quantity of sound information that Selective Trout contains, especially its emphasis on essential triggers in a successful fly’s design, I think there is something fishy about the theory that underpins it. The idea that angling pressure and spookiness produces heightened discrimination in trout is common currency in fly-fishing discourse, and to question it is to challenge some of the greatest contemporary authorities. The fly-fishing discourse is a kind of long-running debate, spirited but friendly, so in keeping with that spirit maybe it’s time we unpacked the selective trout theory.

It’s a mistake to think of all trout as picky eaters. Unless you specifically target selective feeders, and restrict your efforts to spring creeks or chalkstreams during major hatches, what you are far more likely to encounter these days are disturbed and spooky trout - not the same thing as suspicious and selective trout. Swisher and Richards are at pains to link trout selectivity to spookiness. They don’t separate these behaviours, making it difficult to say just which is the primary response, and claim that selective behaviour is increasing on hard-fished streams. Their theory puts the trout’s capacity to learn above deeply ingrained, probably genetic, behavioural traits. Spookiness may be increasing with increased angling pressure, but it does not follow that selectivity is increasing because of it.

Behavioural ecology treats spookiness and selectivity as distinct behaviours. To my knowledge, no causal link between the two has been established. In fact, contrary to Swisher and Richards’ claim for such a link, biologists have established that when animals like trout are in a predatory search mode their search-image leaves little room for anything else in their brains, including their own safety. Even large brained predators, including us, are at their most vulnerable when engaged in hunting. Limited attention is a feature of all predatory behaviour. This suggests that not only is selectivity not caused by spookiness but that trout in a non-selective feeding mode are probably at their spookiest, a fact born out on New Zealand backcountry streams. Closer imitation will not overcome a disturbed trout’s spookiness - only careful presentation can do that.

Trout Hunting: the pursuit of happiness by Bob Wyatt is published by Swan Hill Press UK (Quiller Publications). Distributed in North America by Stackpole. Available on Amazon UK and at Wilderness Adventures Books.

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