Angler Types in Profile: The Substitution Guy

by | Mar 20, 2019 | 7 comments

“Nice fly,” he said. “Can I keep it?”

I flinched a little when Bruce asked the question, because those damn Full Pint streamers take half of a Zepplin album to tie. (I often measure time in Spotify playlists.)

But Bruce didn’t seem to notice my awkward pause, and he kept holding the fully-dressed streamer between his fat thumb and forefinger, at head level, gazing past the two sharp hooks and straight into my eyes, just daring me to say no.

“Uh . . . yeah man, sure. I don’t care,” I lied.

Not only do I feel a loss of invested time when a fly goes missing, there’s something deeper too. I get attached to my streamers. After all, some of the long flies in my box carry enduring memories of big trout and happy times that flood back just by looking at them. Because a well-tied streamer can be around for quite a while if you don’t mind climbing some low tree branches or dunking your whole arm into the icy depths to save something special. I don’t mind.

“Great. I have some ideas on how to make it better,” Bruce said flatly.

That stung a little too. What improvements are needed? I wondered while Bruce stashed my beloved streamer into his fly box. I watched until the end, until the shadow of the closing lid engulfed the mallard flank, and the glint from the copper conehead was no more. Farewell, good friend.

Seven days later, Bruce sent me photos of his “improved” version, noting that he’d substituted white for tan marabou, changed the collar dubbing to something “with necessary flash,” and added opal tinsel to the tail. “The fly just looks bare without it,” Bruce assured me. Accompanying the pics and descriptions of what he changed, Bruce ended with the following: “This spruced up fly gets a lot more attention!!”

Now how the hell does he know that, I wondered. It’s only been a week.

READ: Troutbitten | Is your new fly really new? What makes a fly original?

Photo by Austin Dando

Some anglers habitually employ substitutions to flies, leaders, rigging and tactics. They change and tinker incessantly, for better or worse.

And I’m all for experimentation. Hell, I’m the captain of Team Variant. (I made that up.) But I branch away from substantial things and for thoughtful reasons, rather than chopping everything down and growing a whole new tree.

I know some anglers who’s substitutions get in the way of their own progress. They change so much, so soon, that nothing in their system remains proven. They’re in a constant state of experimentation with lines, leaders and flies. And while experimenting is at the heart of their enjoyment, there’s also something to be said for the tried and true stuff. Community consensus, sometimes, happens for good reason. And you can save a lot of time and testing energies if you start with the standard and deviate only after that standard is understood and assimilated.

This is how I limit my own substitutions. When I tie and fish a new pattern, I make a point to tie it exactly as the original pattern calls for, because I assume there are good reasons (and seasons of testing) behind the creator’s final form. I take the same approach with leader and tactics — spending significant time learning the strengths and weaknesses of a system before I begin meddling and cobbling together a list of improvements.

At his best, the substitution guy finds success pretty often. With his relentless desire to change everything, he stumbles upon some great ideas. But the real trick is to recognize those quality developments and stand pat — know when to stop the substitutions and recognize a winner.

At his worst, the substitution guy looks for anything to change, rather than looking for what might be an improvement. He varies patterns, rigs and tactics for the sake of novelty and not by following logical steps toward any end goal.

Change some things. Change not everything. And make change for good reason.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. My first thoughts lean heavily toward ambivalence. Changing a proven fly is like reinventing the wheel. I understand, however, as humans our species is wired in that way. Me, I’m always looking for the next best thing, but I find very few. I guess it comes down to personal preference. I try new flies all of the time, but I’m superstitious when it comes to tinkering with a proven pattern, but that’s just me. You gotta do what makes you happy.

  2. Grand Adventures in Experimental Fly Tying -R-Us. Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! I do it all the time. In my defense I don’t mess with the sacrosanct, the hallowed and infallible. …but I do go all Dr. Frankenstein-y at the bench late at night, under the influence of a tasty Pale Ale and the Dead. I love to waste expensive materials in utterly futile gestures of tying’s version of grandiloquence. My efforts rarely see water…, now and then, maybe. Once in a blue moon I’ll stumble on a ‘variation’ of my own design that seems to have a working connection to one of my haunts, but not often. As for Bruce… I understand the mind set; but I would have employed a little more tact, diplomacy, and discretion when trying to bogart your baby.

    • Mike I’m right there with you. I am guilty of the same thing at the vise on a regular basis. Also like you, when I get on the water, I most often end up fishing with the same tried and true patterns I have success with regularly (there’s a reason they’re tried and true). But I probably won’t stop messing with things either, as I enjoy doing that too.

  3. While guilty of all sorts of vise experimentation, I’ve stuck to my basic rigs. In fact reading troutbitten has actually expanded the variety of rigs that I use. So thanks for that Dom. But I rarely try an “experimental” rig unless one that’s new to me and from a trusted source of information.

  4. I enjoy tweaking traditional patterns but I usually keep it to myself. I usually do that when I don’t have the materials that the recipe calls for so I just improvise! I would never tell another tier that I am making his fly better! Especially a guide or someone that is generally thought of as an expert!

  5. “Change some things. Change not everything. And make change for good reason.”

    Option A:
    And change ONLY one variable within your control) at a time if you want to know if “it” (weight, pattern, tippet, etc.) had the intended effect (more eats). Factor in the variables you can’t control and the difficulty in drawing conclusions is compounded, but not impossible. Changing fly pattern not only affects color and flash but also depth, posture, and action.

    Option B:
    Randomly change multiple variables and remain clueless. But that ignorance can still provide some bliss.

  6. I certainly fall into the tinkering profile; however, I don’t go all Liberace with the flash and bling. I’ll mostly substitute because of a lack of needed materials and substitute something close. Modifying rigs and leaders are a different story whereas I make adjustments on the water based on the conditions. A very enjoyable read, Thanks Dom!


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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