graphic of fly I could tie with flyfishing  Wayward articles  

A fly by any other name

What is it about the other person's fly? Anglers are always asking what I have on, as if my fly is somehow better than what they have on. I'm not one to take the familiar stance that mine is buggier than yours. So I at least try to be helpful by describing the fly rather than naming it, which usually doesn't help the conversation much.

"Well, it has a pheasant filoplume feather for the tail, the little dangling feather at the base of the broad tail feathers, with the same tail feather half palmered over herl . . . ," and so on. I love to tie flies from the skin of a pheasant. Such a huge and beautiful skin with dozens of unique types of feathers that have never seen a hook and thread. I'm not even sure filoplume is found on a pheasant, or maybe it is just a type of down feather, but it is the only name I have for the frailest feathers buried deep beneath the tail feathers of a pheasant.

"What do you call it?" Here, I always have to pause. I guess I should give it a name since I fish it all the time and catch about every fish that swims, including ocean sculpins, flounders, brook trout, bass and crappie. "Uh, the Predator."



"Cool. How you tie it again?" This is when I try to find an exit out of the conversation as soon as possible.  Not because I don't want to talk or get along. I really do. But half a life ago my fly tying started to diverge into a unique personal style that just about everyone puzzles at when I happen to share a fly tying moment. In truth, though, anyone who has tied flies as long as I have, develops their own style and approaches, if they aren't too committed to the usual. Wait. That is a good name for a fly, The Usual. Well, I guess not. Its taken.

Me, I don't name a fly until the fly has proven itself. And even then, I won't name a fly until I actually like the fly. Let's face it: under most circumstances just about any random collection of fur and feathers and even lint from your navel will catch fish under some circumstances (maybe under most, but I don't dare go down this road too far with myself or you).

I once tied a fly using fur from my cat and a feather I found from a duck pond. I spun some deer hair on with other materials I don't recall, and made the whole furry contraption as big and stupid looking as possible. (I was reminded of a bass bug pattern called a hair ball.) This is nothing nature ever intended. Then I went out in search of bass. Within 15 minutes I had my bass. I never fished that fly again, and to be honest I don't know if it is because I felt ashamed, or if I didn't like the unacceptable implications that tying totally random stupid idiot flies has for my sport, or because of the complexities of the random and chaotic tying procedures I couldn't ever duplicate the fly. And I'll be damned if I reach into my navel again to retrieve dubbing material.

I guess, If you name a fly, then you can't conveniently forget a fly. Now the Predator is one of only a few flies I have chosen to name, and the only reason I named it was because I gave it to someone, and I needed a way to talk about the fly. If I said something like, "Hey how did that fly work, with the pheasant rump, herl, and filoplume?" he would probably stop bringing beer. Naming things is part of communication and relationships, sort of the socio/philosophy of flyfishing nomenclature.

The last thing I want to do is give names to flies with slight variations from the original. An Adams is an Adams is an Adams, whether the tail has chicken feathers or moose hair. And you don't call it the Western Adams, or Tom, Dick or Harry's Adams just because you have cloned it for fast moving western streams. It is the only decent thing to do. Now, you wouldn't catch someone doing this with such a venerable fly as an Adams, but you see it on other flies all the time.  This must have something to do with our deep desire to announce ourselves to the world, to leave a mark, to belong to something or, more likely, to let everyone know you belong to something important.

Now there is an opposite tendency which is perfectly OK, I think. I tie a few standard patterns, such as an Adams. But it is not the usual Adams. I segment the grey muskrat body with the olive tying thread, and I build up the thorax fairly thick with the muskrat right up to the eye before wrapping the brown and grizzly hackle through the muskrat. Then I clip the underside of the hackle so the fly's body lies flush on the water. The point is it is still an Adams, just tweaked to suit. I don't get cute and call it a Clipped Adams or Adams Emerger or Wayward Adams.

If I started naming my flies I would go through an entire dictionary of words. I have thousands of flies I've tied over the years. I have fly boxes everywhere in my house. I don't dare give them away because they are historical, or better, to use a modern cool word, archival. Well, at least they have memories.

Besides, and this is the most important reason I have for not naming all my flies: My flies are in an eternal state of flux. I never tie the same fly twice, except for a few rare standby flies that I need when all else fails (like the Adams, woolly bugger, cahil, that kind of thing). Iím always experimenting, and coming up with that unique fly that no one has ever seen (like everyone else who has tied flies for longer than a few decades). And once you tweak a fly, older versions just fill up my fly box until I need to clean house or until someone comes along who wants to learn fly fishing. Fly fishing, I suspect, is like baseball or golf in that 50 to 90 percent of the success is a function of the fly fisher's confidence, respect, obsession in little things like the new way you tied in the tail in the fly you have on. Most of this is silly of course and non-founded, but if it keeps your head in the game, why not?

Another mild and  barely defensible argument can be made for not naming flies. If you name a fly, you become committed to tying the same pattern  over and over again, and maybe not adjust your flies to the water conditions and insects on the water. Maybe that's why I tend to tie fluffy nymphs and trim them along the stream with a pair of scissors I keep in a vest pocket. And maybe that's why I sometimes have a hard time communicating with other flyfishers I meet along the stream.


"Uhh, mayfly pattern..."

"Really, which one?"

"Uh, Royal Adams." I can sense their brain twisting after something like this. An Adams with a red belly, hmmm. I can see them at the bench that night trying to tie one up.

Or I'll get even nastier. "Well, its a male zug bug pattern."

"I didn't know they had a male zug pattern."

"Oh, yeah. The males are emerging right now. See? Look there. Male patterns are getting pretty popular now. See ya. Enjoy the fishing." Something like that. I wish I could tell them that a gender-specific searching pattern makes no sense, unlike tying a male trico pattern that some tiers do.

Then there are the other folks who have tied every fly that exists, and have all those flies with them, and ten thousand more with as many names. I call them the analytic anglers. Never mind that they are catching more fish than I. That's not the point. The point is . . . well, I'm not sure what the point is, but they can be difficult people to fish with sometimes.

"Whatchagoton?" I asked stupidly of a particularly obsessive fishing friend of mine.

"Well, I started out with a #14 flavilinea nymph, poxyback green drake, then jumped to a darker olive emerger with some olive badger, until I realized that flav duns were coming off, so I switched to a thin paradrake. The paradrake did it. Should of known. Someday I'll master the flavs."


Now, I do some strange things, too. Like I've tied flies that were way too beautiful to fish. I still have them, all 30 of them, in 5 sizes and 6 patterns. Mayflies with beautifully cut wings cut from a pattern I applied to various primary features. These things are the flies themselves, quite beautiful. But I after I was done designing and crafting them, I suspected that they wouldn't cast well enough. They would probably propeller in the air; though in truth, I never gave it a try. After all, to try would mean to get these little darlings wet, or worse, stuck in a trout. Let's face it: We are all a little weird inside. Normal is boring.

Then there is the perfect streamer I've tied, with a long yellow grizzly hackle tied over a wool body, not dubbed in, but just lying flat along the entire length of the fly, like stuffing to give the small fish some depth. The gills are two pheasant rump feathers, with some red wool underneath for gills. Along the top is blue wool. The wool unites all the other materials with interlocking fibers. Sort of a poor man's Atlantic salmon pattern. The whole effect is beautiful, but I can't remember how exactly I tied the details of the fly, and since this is the only one I've tied, if I actually fished it, I might lose all information about how I tied it. I know. Stupid.

And there is my fly of marabou, stripped herl, gold wire, and a light yellow/pink fur ala Tups Indispensable. I desperately want to catch a fish with this fly, but I haven't yet, and I've been fishing it constantly for over 4 months. I know I should stop, but, like you, I like to experiment, and maybe prove some silly psychological truth, like fishing success is 50 percent confidence. So I'm trying to make a fly effective by pure use of mind and will. I know. Stupid. I have to be very careful here. One rule of flyfishing is that no matter how idiotic the fly, if you hang it in front of fish long enough, something is going to bite--which you shouldn't take as some sort of validation of the value of the fly. It is human nature to all too quickly validate our thinking with the flimsiest of excuses mixed with flitting bits of reality.

Now, I'm not really this anal in my tying. Well, OK, let's be honest again: Being anal obsessive about things you enjoy can be a LOT of fun.

Somehow, though, not naming flies encourages me to focus on the fly and its fly-ness. I'm not sure exactly what that means. I think it means that we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we should tie flies from the perspective of the fish, not from our vane desire to codify and list out things while impressing others. Bear with me here.

I sometimes tie along the streamside, where all human vanity must be arrested if you are to respond to what is happening in the water. There, you must focus on the basics. This is not the place for fussing over the color of the mayfly's tail. Now, I'm talking about having just a few basic fly tying materials, not a large kit that is more a home kit carried out onto the stream. I have just a few materials in a pouch, with some hooks, and lots of marabou dyed different shades of olive from dark brown olive to a very light olive. I figure I can tie most bugs with these shades, with a minimum of tying procedures. I also have little swatches of fur, wire, and some other things. I leave the goose biots at home.

Now, when I spot my mayfly on the water, I go to work. Usually, I can capture the nymph or dun. And when I do, I put it in my collections vile--alive. I practice catch and release for insects. Mayflies are the cutest bugs. I'm hoping to pick up extra karma points this way, and maybe I'll be forgiven for all the ants and mosquitoes I've stepped on or swatted on the way to the river.

You don't want to get too complicated with a fly pattern when the hook is being held by only a locking forceps. The best you can do is a dubbed body of fur or marabou with a soft hackle collar (maybe a little dry hackle), or maybe marabou for all parts of the fly, but that's enough challenge for me on the water. Maybe, I'll pick up a few materials from the ground, a breast feather, and a little fox fur stuck on a bush, just to add a little adventure to the fly. I probably have a better, nicer imitation buried in my vest in one of many fly boxes. But I'm having fun this way, which is the only reason I'm on the water in the first place. I'm taken back a few centuries to the years when Dame Juliana Berners was laying down her favorite flies, one per month. Judging by the simplicity of those flies, I imagine she wasn't at a vice, but was probably using her fingers, maybe at the streamside as well. I'm also reminded of those living tiers who tie with their fingers, creating flies finer than most people could produce with a $600 Renzetti. My flies, though, are pretty ratty, or worse, in comparison.

Naming the fly you produce under these circumstances wouldn't make a lot of sense. First of all, the typical fly (and certainly my own) will be a fairly rude affair and out of line with current fly expectations. Not that it won't be effective. I mean, I tie the fly according to the insect in front of me. The hue is fairly close, the size is good, the shape about right, and its got that fuzzy buggy look that tiers strive for and that the fish aren't complaining about.  Like I already said, you only name a fly if you want to communicate with someone about the fly, and if you showed such a stream-tied fly to someone, they would probably laugh as its rough form. Giving it a name at this point would forever label you as bizarre.

"Hey, remember that fly you showed me. What was it called again, The cedar tree nymph, or the tricky tied trico?"

"No, not really. I only tied the one. Did you lose it in a trout? " I would reply.

"No. Thank God, I lost it in a tree first."

See what I mean? I keep it to myself. And I certainly don't want to answer a question like "What material did you use?"

I don't want to respond with, "Well, let's see, I found some fox fur on a bush, and a wood duck feather next to the lake, and with a little marabou that I always have with me . . . ." I have enough social stresses as it is.

And how can you name a fly that you could not duplicate at the tying vice. I mean, I don't tie such ratty flies with my home vice. I have some pride. The best I could do with a name is call it a dark olive baetis nymph, with no additional naming effort. I mean I couldn't call it the "Fly I tied to look like that fly over there."

Besides, I just can't get my fingers to duplicate a fly. I always want to change it up, add materials, tie a material in a slightly different way, maybe with the tail tied in at a different angle, maybe with a new feather that I've never seen before under some old familiar feathers, or a feather I found next to a duck pond.  Each one is different, and not because of lack of consistency on my part (well, maybe some of that, too. I'm not Art Flick).

Perhaps I should name them Dark Olive baetis, variation 1, variation 2, like a great symphony. Oh, well.  Or perhaps I should have titled this article Confession of a bad tier. Maybe then I would have a lot less explaining to do, and feel a little more normal.

--All the flies I tie this year go waisted next year because I have a whole new set of flies and new designs. Not that this is always critical. I fish a lot of freestone creeks, where matching the hatch isn't always critical, and where anything coming by close to the size of the fish's head is toast.

--Toney J. Sisk


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