Eyes on Flies
By: Mark Bachmann
"Yes, you guessed it. I'm playing with my newest picture making toys. Some of these toys are optical. Some are digital. Every picture in this presentation was taken with a digital camera and then altered with Photoshop software. No attempt has been made to hide or deceive; quite the contrary. Every attempt has been made to clarify and communicate the power of the eye to your eyes.
The eye might the greatest instrument of perception for the creatures that have them. Sight allows us to assess information quickly which allows for quick reaction, often a matter of life and death. However the blessing may also be a curse. If you are the prey, being hard to see is important to your survival and your eyes may be some of the hardest parts of your body to hide. Which means it may be the easiest feature for a predator to target. At least that seems to be true in the case of some schooling bait fish and some of the predator fish that feed on them. Patty and I encountered this situation while fishing around the shoreline rocks south of Barra De Navidad, Mexico. Jacks, Sierra Mackerel and Corvina were feeding on a small baitfish that was perfectly matched to a #4 olive & white Clouser Minnow. For a while it was a fish every cast. Then we ran out of those flies. The next fly tried was a "Bend-back" of exactly the same size and color. It was tied from the materials, but had no eyes and no eye target. No hits at all, over an extended period. The next pattern tried was an ALF of same color and size, but with prominent reflective silver and black eyes. I was instantly back into numbers of hook ups. The eyes were the key to catching fish for the next several days.
At left is a Flatiron Herring called a Sardina from the Sea of Cortez. Note the very prominent black pupil in the reflective iris. The pupil itself may be the key. Several species of saltwater game fish exhibit false eyes at the tail end of their bodies to confuse predators that might want to feed on them. Mot notable are the Redfish that inhabit coastal areas of the south east U.S.A.
With eyes being so important as targets for predatory fish, it only stands to reason that some discerning fly tiers would put eyes on their flies. Who was first? No one knows. One of the first applications that became popular was the use of Jungle Cock Eyes on flies tied to catch Atlantic Salmon. These eyes are the tips of neck hackles from the Gray India Jungle Fowl. These feathers have an eye-spot in the enamel-like coating. The use of Jungle Cock Eyes also became popular on streamer flies that simulate fresh water bait fish.
Is a cluster or school of many eyes harder to target than one eye? Schooling baitfish use "too many targets" as a defense mechanism. The Jungle Cock neck might also provide an answer. The Jungle Cock neck is probably the result of genetic selection? It would be interesting to know which predator targeted the eyes of jungle cocks and was finally rendered ineffective by the school of eyes on it's neck. It may have happened. At any rate this adaptation has provided fly tiers a supply of eyes for flies for many years. Unfortunately Jungle Cock feathers are expensive, somewhat fragile and not always easy to come by.
In many cases it is easier to paint eyes on the head of a fly. Flies that have large heads facilitate this process. Bass popping bugs are prime candidates for these kinds of eyes. With the example furnished here, several coats of paint form the background color and then the eye. Then the whole head of the popper is coated with clear epoxy which adds luster and extreme durability. Popping bugs float on the surface of the water and attract fish by making loud disturbances. Under these conditions it is hard to determine whether eyes on poppers are made to attract fish or fishermen. We have fished poppers with and without eyes and I always thought that the ones with eyes caught more fish. Doing this kind of research is a pretty good job even if it isn't entirely scientific. I have little doubt that eyes make a lot of difference in the productivity of flies that are tied to represent bait fish. If normal size eyes are a target for predatory fish, then productivity of a certain fly pattern might be increased simply by increasing the size of the eyes thus making the target easier to see. Some anglers go to an extreme. At left is a Big Eyed Baitfish. It is tied like many "Deceiver patterns", but has oversized doll eyes glued to the sides of an over sized head. The pupils in these eyes are mobile and add movement and sound as the fly is retrieved. The air trapped inside the eye gives the fly a heads-up attitude. This pattern has been proven to be very effective, but the jury is out as to whether the over size eyes produce more strikes than normal size eyes. (We would love your input on eye size and will be glad to publish your comments). The clear lens of real eyes are in most cases hemispherical.
However the lens is rarely discernable. The iris and pupil are the features of the eye that are easiest to see. The iris is relatively flat at first appearance. The pupil is a hole, but at a glance it also appears to be flat. Recently some really neat looking hemispherical 3-D eyes have become available. We wondered if they might get more strikes than flat ones. So far our tests have been inconclusive. As to colors of eyes? We have tried yellow, silver and red iris color. They have all caught fish. Most baitfish have reflective irises. Many have silver irises. However reflective silver irises on our flies haven't proven to be any more effective than painted yellow. Using red irises is a trick that Captain Bob Marvin out of Naples, Florida turned us on to. He said that many times when predator fish attack a school of bait fish, their first intention is to cripple as many baits as possible. Then they can pick up the crippled fish in a more leisurely fashion. This is more efficient than killing only one at a time. Often the crippling blow comes from the slap of a tail or ramming of the head. The bait is often severely bruised and the eye ball often fills with blood giving the eye a red iris. Red eyes can signify an easy meal. The pupil is the aperture through which light passes to the specialized nerve ending in the back of the eye ball which sends the illusion of sight to the brain. By its very function it has to fit certain configurations that are not easily disguised. A baitfish pupil nearly always looks like a black dot. If the pupil is the real target, can the iris be eliminated from the fly? Once again no conclusive evidence exists. Flies like the one above that uses plastic dumb-bell eyes have proven to be more effective than the same pattern with no eyes at all. Flies with eyes painted on lead or brass dumb-bells have proven to be very effective. The eye target is very prominently displayed and the heavy weight concentrated near the eye gives the fly an erratic, wounded action when retrieved.