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What is a fly?

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  • What is a fly?

    Steelguy’s “Spinal” got me thinking about what constitutes a “fly” in regards to fly fishing. So not wanting to hi-jack his thread, I decided to air a few thoughts on a new post.

    The term “fly” itself seems misleading. Calling our presentations a fly conjures up at least some connection to a flying insect or bug, and at least in the historical sense, that’s what a fly was trying to imitate. But flies have certainly evolved to imitate virtually anything a fish might find appetizing – insects (aquatic and terrestrial), baitfish, immature fish, small animals, frogs, leeches, salmon by-products. Maybe that’s why some of us tend to say we’re “nymphing” or “fishing streamers.” Especially here in Alaska, the majority of our flies are imitating something besides a bug – alevin, smolt, flesh, eggs, sculpins, mice, leeches, candlefish, etc.

    Then there are “attractors” which don’t look like anything natural at all, but simply rely on reaction strikes out of curiosity or anger. Maybe the best choice if we’re fishing for salmon or steelhead that don’t feed consistently once they head up river, but there’s no doubt that attractors account for a lot of resident trout, dollys and grayling.

    Our fly fishing equipment was developed as a way to cast a “weightless” fly a useful distance. If you can’t cast the fly – cast the line. But anyone who’s casted (or tried to cast) some lead-core, beadhead, rabbit-fur monstrosity knows they’re anything but weightless. I’m a fan of fly fishing with big streamers – but I’d wager I could cast many of them (sculpins, rabbit leeches, clousers, MOALs, etc) far enough with light/medium spinning gear to catch fish. And I’d save myself the occasional scare when one of those things come whipping by my head a little too close.

    The components we use to create flies have come a long way in the last century. As a fly tyer, it’s overwhelming how many options I’ve got for materials these days – countless flashes and synthetic “furs” in holographic colors of every style imaginable, stuff that glows in the dark, fluorescent beads and furs and feathers, foams and poppers and artificial “skins”, rubber legs in “natural” colors, mayfly wings precut and pre-colored, coneheads with prismatic eyes, nymphhead beads with molded “eyes”, etc. We’ve got bouncer flies with bead bellies. I saw something the other day that looks like the cone you put on a dog to keep it from chewing out its stitches that you put on the front of a streamer to impart “action.”

    Then there’s the notion that a fly is a hook with various “stuff” tied onto it. Even that conception has been challenged by MOAL and “strung out” style flies that use a string and a stinger hook, or “articulated” flies that use two (or even three) hooks tied together. All of this to impart more “action” to the fly. You can make a MOAL using nothing but superglue if you’re so inclined – maybe soon we’ll here, “I’m just at the bench gluing some flies.” I can’t believe that I’m the only fly tyer out there who has tied a pattern or two on a jig head just to “try it out.”

    I’d love to grab a couple of fly books full of the “standards,” go back in time a hundred years, and show it to a fly fisherman in the Catskills to see what his reaction is?

    Any, with all that, there’s still a strong resistance among some/many in the fly fishing community to accept anything with a spinning blade as a “fly.” Maybe it’s because these hybrid monsters blur the lines too much between “spin fishing” and “fly fishing” and bring about too many cases of identity crisis. Take the Pistol Pete that was developed some 30 or 40 years ago. Nothing but a wooly bugger with a little spinning propeller on the front (not all that different from a beadhead wooly bugger other than the bead is flat and spins). There’s no doubt that Pistol Pete’s catch a lot of fish, and although these flies have gone in and out of favor among various fly fishing groups, as a whole they’ve just never caught on among the fly fishing community as a whole. There’s just something about a spinning piece of metal attached to our fly that makes us feel uneasy (myself included).

    I found an interesting article on the Pistol Pete the other day. Check it out sometime. (Also, you can purchase the propeller blades from J Stockard’s - and I’m sure other places - if you want to cross that final line in your own home-brewed creations.)

    To wrap it up, if I can feel comfortable fishing with a mass-produced, artificially-dyed sphere of plastic rendered from the 50-million-year-old biomass of some prehistoric swamp and call it “fly fishing” I don’t see how I can draw a line in the sand and say using a fly with a spinning blade is taking it too far. Maybe I’ll have to try tying up something similar to the Spinal myself sometime.

    Those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours. What is a “fly” to you?
    Pursue happiness with diligence.

  • #2
    A fly is...

    I use the definition of an "artifical fly" as found in the AK F&G sport fishing regulations: "..a fly which is constructed by common methods known as a dry fly, wet fly, and nymph, which is free of bait...".

    My primary fly for salmon and large fish is the common yard fly. I really don't know is strictly legal under the state definition or not. The F&G guys I've talked to don't know either so I guess I'm O.K. until they tell me otherwise.

    The beauty of the yarn fly is the ability to tie on the spot out an assortment of various colored yarn I carry in my vest. I thread a couple of strands of yarn through the eye of the hook and tie them at the head with braided line or thread so it appears like the common RUssian River fly except it is made with yarn rather than hair.
    Living the urban lifestyle so I can pay my way and for my family's needs, and support my country. And you?
    ".. ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" JFK


    • #3
      Agree w/ tvfinak

      on ADF&G's current definition of a fly.

      Not long ago as I recall, regs used to require material/s be attached to the hook - exception: bead affixed to line within 2 inches of hook

      Personal choice: Beyond the regs though, most controversy seems around what's pure fly fishing (remember Glo-bugs?), sporting, or good for the fish population, etc - but mostly personal choice.

      Purists: For "purists", presenting a fly dozens of times to a fish that finally takes it 15, 30 or even 60 minutes later takes time, but is more satisfying -without resorting to a spinner (or in years past, Globugs, beads). Seems to me "purist tendencies" more often will mash down their barbs, to the point of including that in their idea of what a fly should be - for the sake of the fish, and sport maybe.

      Pressed for time: If I had travelled 6,000 miles and only had 10 days to fish Alaska, I can imagine wanting a more efficient fly. Maybe I'd be less inclined to mash the barbs down.

      The pace of life competing with the art of life, maybe but personal choice.
      No habitat, no hunter.


      • #4
        Dry flies are the only true flies, they are made to imitate flies, streamer patterns are indeed minnow lures according to izzack walton anyway
        I choose to fly fish, not because its easy, but because its hard.


        • #5
          flyfishing flies

          Looks like I might have started something here, but I think wyo2AK has pretty thoroughly addressed what today's flies are meant to be. And, no doubt, you could chuck most anything with a little practice and technique, whether light or heavy.

          When I've seen lake trout jumping well beyond my casting distance, I've tied on a huge spinner and very effectively cast that out.

          As I mentioned in my previous thread on the "spinal" fly, I long ago stopped counting numbers to equate that to a successful day's "fishing". In fact, a good day has nothing to do with catching any fish at all.

          A few years ago on the Italio River, I had tied up a bunch of KILLER attractor-type smolt patterns with a substantial amount of flash for cohos. I passed them around to the guys I was with and in no time, it was nothing short of boring. So, I cut the hook bend off just to see if I could land a fish. first cast, whack. Got the fish within tailing distance and he finally let go.

          The point I'm trying to make is this: we tie flies with the materials at hand, which has always been the case. If the "old-timers" had access to more varied materials, our heritage in flies would be different today. Even some of the classic dressed salmon flies don't imitate a "fly", they were attractors.

          If you're a "purist" by whatever definition of that you are comfortable with, fine. For me, it's the total experience and challenge of doing something different from the guy next to me, or what was done yesterday and still producing the same, or maybe better result that is satisfying.


          • #6
            Originally posted by 6XLeech View Post

            Purists: For "purists", presenting a fly dozens of times to a fish that finally takes it 15, 30 or even 60 minutes later takes time, but is more satisfying -without resorting to a spinner (or in years past, Globugs, beads).


            They probably still use golf clubs with wood shafts too. Maybe bake and slice their own bread. Horse drawn buggy instead of a V8.
            The two loudest sounds known to man: a gun that goes bang when it is supposed to go click and a gun that goes click when it is supposed to go bang.


            • #7
              Whatever you want it to be...

              Fly fishing is the most fun I've ever had fishing. My steelhead buddy used to pack spin gear just in case, but for me, fly fishing is just more fun. Besides, I seem to learn so slowly that I can't afford to spin fish much anymore.

              Wyo2AK asked what is a fly? The only truth that matters is ADF&G's version really. But if we're just chewing the fat, I think that definition has evolved - Innovative fly tyers lead the way, solving problems, new frontiers,etc. Some dissent, then believe. You know, time sorts out the best ideas. With time, the most language drifts.

              Steelguy - I think you're right on: "... we tie flies with the materials at hand, which has always been the case." Literally "at hand" sometimes. Wasn't that the story behind the "black dog" fly? I'll see if I can find that.

              Long ago, wasn't the controversy about dries vs anything-else?
              More recently, Howell Raines (Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis) reminded me that Globugs divided the innovators from the buggy drivers (dan) - but by and by - more fished Globugs because they worked.

              Then beads stirred things up. Next it'll be something else.
              The answer to "What is a fly?" changes with time. Like anything new.
              It's history. Evolution maybe. Isn't that what you guys think happens?

              Each Spring, I fish with a guy who ties big, heavy, ugly, ugly leeches. I like leeches, but just wouldn't fish them that big (6 inches, I kid you not) or ugly. But in our 4-5 outings together last year, I must a been proselytised. Skinny spring Dollies or fat summer Rainbows - I got it on film (disc). Tied some up this winter to try out myself. Is it a fly? Didn't really ask myself the question.
              No habitat, no hunter.


              • #8
                Can't find tale of the Black Dog Fly, but...

                this is close. The Black Dog was supposedly tied from a black dog, literally at the owner's hand. This is I guess a similar, funnier story. If he'd caught fish with this, it'd be perfect. Only 3-4 more months!


                Dog Butt Hair - Fly

                This fly is proof positive a fisherman will try anything to catch a fish. Last week my wife bathed and shaved our rottweiler. I, being to cheap to buy feathers or tails, decided to make my first Dog Butt fly. The Dog Butt is the ultimate in frugality. You don’t even have to own a dog. Just call a groomer, most are happy enough to give you clumps of clean dog butt hair. If you can’t reach a willing groomer, go down to your local shelter or humane society and ask to see the dogs, and pet them really hard. GOOD DOG! G O O D! D O G!
                No habitat, no hunter.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by 6XLeech View Post
                  This fly is proof positive a fisherman will try anything to catch a fish. Last week my wife bathed and shaved our rottweiler. I, being to cheap to buy feathers or tails, decided to make my first Dog Butt fly.
                  Yes - proof indeed. If only I could find me a pink dog to tie me some salmon flies!


                  • #10
                    Good dog!

                    Good dog! G o o d! D o g!
                    No habitat, no hunter.


                    • #11
                      A Non Answer

                      I realize that this is avoiding the question: 'what is a fly', but to me the obvious reply is who is using it. We can all spot a fly fisherman a mile away and not just from his gear, but by the way he fishes.

                      If we can all agree on what constitutes a fly fisherman, then it's obvious when he winces at using a questionable pattern that it may not fit the classical definitions of a fly. The way he uses that pattern is what really counts.


                      • #12
                        I think you need to put something real on it

                        I find myself putting something natural on some of my flies to make myself feel better. Sure, you can use peacock ice dub - but peacock herl is good too.
                        Personally I wouldn't put a big spinner blade on my fly.

                        I use a lot of synthetic materials, but I also try to incorporate something natural (even if it's dyed) in my flies.
                        My only gear sponsor is the salvation army - Dick Griffith


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