The Absence of Color

The Absence of Color

Black flies in salt water.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
Absence of Color

I've been using black flies in salt water for so long I really don’t remember the first time I learned about them—probably more than 40 years ago. Today, every couple of trips to the brackish-water world, I find a situation that, whether because of low light levels or murky water, it’s best to cast a black fly.

I could tell you innumerable stories in which a black fly saved the fishing day. But this time I’ll tell you about one of the most spectacular strikes I’ve witnessed in the backcountry, deep in the Florida Everglades. It was a cold day in December, the wind blowing out of the north around 20 mph, when a friend and I launched our skiff in Flamingo, the southernmost part of the Everglades. Because it was too windy to fish the outside bays, we headed north in the direction of a place called Hell’s Bay. Our plan was to go farther past Hell’s Bay into areas where there is more mangrove than water…where often the water is 100 percent fresh…where one is fairly protected from the wind…and where snook, baby tarpon, some redfish and even a bull shark or two are found.

Knowing how well a black fly works in these off-color backwaters, I tied a size 1/0 black Crystal Shrimp to a 40-pound bite tippet. Then I started working the shorelines. By mid-morning we had taken a couple nice snook and jumped a small tarpon. Then, we saw a nice-size baby tarpon slowly swimming along the shoreline, coming our way. He looked to be at least 30 pounds. I waited for him to come closer, and when he got to within 50 feet I tried placing the fly about three feet in front of him. But I blew it; and I can’t even blame the wind! The cast landed many feet to the left and away from the shoreline, so I figure the tarpon was never going to see it, let alone go so far out of his way for a fly—they never do.

But I was wrong. As I started to pick up for another attempt, the tarpon, with a big boil, turned and headed for the fly at great speed and pushing a big wake like a porpoise. When he got within a yard or so, the wake disappeared as he went down a little and then came up on the fly, creating a great explosion, his body coming more than halfway out of the water. I was so surprised that I didn’t strike. Or do anything.

The tarpon came down with the fly in his mouth, creating a big puff of mud from the soft bottom. Mud and foam were all over the place. But this tarpon wasn’t through playing. He ran back to the shoreline and, as he reached it, he came out of the water again, doing cartwheels at least three feet high and against the mangroves. He made a fast run down the shoreline and away from the skiff…and he spit out the fly. At a distance, I could still see his large wake going away, until he finally made a turn into a slew, and disappeared. To this day, I still think of him.

I often experience conditions in which a black fly is the best choice. And yet, with the exception of big tarpon flies, black is not a popular color among most saltwater fly fishers. So when should you use black?

Basically, black is king when a fish, due to the weather or water conditions, would have trouble seeing its prey—that is, during low light levels, like early or late in the day, during heavy overcast days, at night or in murky or off-color waters. Here a black fly more easily shows its profile or silhouette. In essence, use black when it’s hard to see your surroundings. And if you want to further increase the possibilities of a fish detecting your black fly in poor conditions, tie a bulky, heavily dressed pattern. It can be deadly.

Shady Dealings

To better understand the advantages of a black fly, let’s examine how fish or bait are equipped to stay as camouflaged as possible. Most have a coloration pattern called countershading. This is a gradual change of coloration from a light, often white belly, through mid-tones and then a dark back. Viewed from above (and particularly against a dark bottom) the fish is hard to see. If a predator is looking up at the prey against the sky during low light levels, the white or light belly is similarly good camouflage.

On a sunny day, a fish looking up at prey, with the sky as a backdrop, can manage to see the prey. But in low light levels, the white bellies of baitfish blend with the sky above; however, a black fly in the same conditions shows a clear silhouette. Even at night, black shows up much easier than white against the sky. So in low light, black is usually a productive fly color.

Chico Fernandez is one of fly-fishing’s leading saltwater experts. He lives in Miami. Purchase his book, Fly-Fishing for Bonefish, at the Buy section of flyrod


Also, in low light levels, a fish uses its sensory lateral line to feel the pressure waves of moving prey, and is drawn in that direction. But the fish is hunting blind until it gets close enough to see the prey. That predator will see a black fly before it ever sees a white fly, in these conditions.

If you’re still not convinced, try this experiment when fishing a saltwater flat or shoreline on a day when the water is off-color or murky. Tie a white or yellow streamer and cast it out 50 feet. Now retrieve it. Can you see it? Even when you can, it’s not obvious. Change to a black fly and cast it 50 feet. You’ll be surprised that in most cases the fly shows up incredibly well—very conspicuous against the brown-tinted water.

Fishing Black Flies
Even with a black fly, fishing in off-color waters or during low light levels your offering is only going to be seen for a short period before the fly disappears from the fish’s view. Work your black fly a bit slower than you would normally in clear water. You’ll find that the combination of a black fly, retrieved slowly, will produce fish. (In clear water I tend to go back to a standard retrieve speed.)

I’ve taken almost all species of salty fish with black flies. Snook, tarpon from one pound to well over 100 pounds and big seatrout are at the top of the list. Black drum I mostly fish with a dark crab fly or a black weighed fly like a Clouser Minnow. And in the Northeast, black is a great color for striped bass at night.
I’ve also done very well fishing around oil rigs and markers in the Gulf when the water is a little off color for cobia and big jacks using either a large fly in all black, or black and dark purple. In some areas of Florida, summer is a great time to fish black flies for redfish.

About the only saltwater fish I have not done well for so far with black flies are bonefish and billfish. Maybe I haven’t found the right black pattern for them, yet. I’ll let you know if I do.

Patterns and Sizes

I carry black flies in a variety of saltwater styles: Bend-Backs, Sea-Ducers, Crystal Shrimp, rabbit-strip type streamers, Muddlers or deerhair types, poppers and sliders. By the way, fishing early or late in the day in shallow waters, where one does not want the loud disturbance of a popper, a black slider is deadly. Just don’t work the slider erratically, because a gamefish will have a tough time grabbing it. Go ahead and work it in a slow, rhythmic pattern.

When blind-casting in off-color waters, I’ve taken snook, tarpon and especially large seatrout using a large black popper. Once the fish is attracted by the popping sound, in the last few feet he looks for his prey by sight. And here again, a black popper creates the most visible silhouette against the sky. And how exciting to see that silver body suddenly appear from the murky water and crash a big popper!

Fly size often has to do with water depth. In the shallows, it’s about making sure the fish is not spooked by the fly; but in deep water, it’s more about making sure the fish sees the fly. Though I may cast a size 1 black streamer for snook or baby tarpon on the flats so as not to spook them, while fishing for the same-size fish with a slow sinking line in deep water, I probably would use the same pattern but in a larger size, like 1/0 or 2/0. And I’d probably tie it more fully, so it’s easier for the fish to see, since I know they won’t be spooked by it in deep water.
Black flies? Oh, yes.

Chico Fernandez is one of fly-fishing’s leading saltwater experts. He lives in Miami. Purchase his book, Fly-Fishing for Bonefish, at the Buy section of flyrod