By definition, a fly is natural materials, i.e. hair and feathers, tied to a hook. If you adhere to this definition, then a large percentage of the fly patterns sold in stores today are not really flies. As soon as you add synthetic flash, lead eyes, foam or faux fur to a tie, is it really a fly? The old standards would say no, of course. But as materials advanced and levels became more creative, the fly community fully embraced these new additions. Today, materials have advanced so far that we’ve come to stitch tails, joints, heavy masks and even soft plastic components that blur the lines between lures and flies. Some people in the fly world don’t like to talk about how many new-age patterns are modeled after developments on the conventional fishing side of the fence, but the reality is that those blurred lines go back decades in a time when what defined what counted as a fly was much simpler.
“Crimps” were not always considered cheating
There are lines in fly fishing that don’t cross much. If a product is made for the mainstream fishing market first, then in general, it will not be accepted by the fly crowd even if it is suitable for fly fishing and may even catch more fish. Trout magnets come to mind. These small soft plastic mealworm imitations weigh the same as the larger nymphs commonly used in trout fly fishing. They are the same size, if not a little smaller than some of these nymphs. I know many fly guys who keep a stash of trout magnets in their sling packs, but they are a dirty little secret, only used when fishing alone or away from prying eyes. But if you step back in time 60 years, there would be nothing to hide.
The 1950s and 60s can be considered the heyday of the “flure,” lures specifically designed to be delivered and fished effectively with a fly rod. Many big name bait companies produced a lighter and smaller version of their most popular models just for fly anglers. There were Heddon Punkie Spook, Shakespeare Midget, Creek Chub Fly Rod Pikie and Pflueger Spotted Fly Rod Biz Minnow. These selections, of course, don’t even scratch the surface of the amount of flowers once sold at each hardware store. Mini decoys were often made of wood, rubber or plastic. Many featured small diving lips, metal propeller blades, and even sharp hooks. Sales drive production, which given the longevity of these early shoots suggests they were popular. The fact that at this time it was more PC for fly fishermen to kill trout, bass or pike for the table may also have contributed to the flure’s popularity. But somewhere along the line, the fly community committed to releasing only what was made by specific fly companies. If you ask me, I say fly anglers should only focus on what can actually be cast and not who made what you are casting.
Carl Harris of CGH Custom Tackle is making it his mission to resurrect the offense. Using a computer-aided design (CAD) program, Harris creates foam and Ultra Suede patterns that mirror classic lures like the Hula Popper, hollow-bodied frogs, and even the original Rapala Floating Minnow. The most important element of their designs, however, is that they must be able to be cast smoothly and effectively with a fly rod, and each design undergoes extensive testing before going on sale. If a pattern requires too much extra effort, fake casting or agitation to get where it needs to go, Harris goes back to the drawing board.
I think proper presentation is what should matter most. Theoretically, you can deliver almost any bait with a fly rod, but it would be awkward and impractical to do so. If what you want as a fly fisherman is to send tight, sexy loops through the air, does it really matter what’s on the end of the leader if that line unwinds smoothly? Many fly anglers will say yes, but then they tie on a Squirmy Wormy, which is essentially a soft plastic bass worm. Or they’ll attach a Clawdad, which is mostly made of rubber legs and suede claws. Then there’s the Gummy Minnow made of nothing but lead and SiliSkin plastic. All of these are accepted as flies, although many, such as Squirmy Wormies and Clawdads, are equally lethal on a light spinning rod. I know this from experience. In my eyes, it’s all buds.
Although modern flies continue to strengthen the link between conventional and fly tactics, the rift between these two types of anglers persists. What many anglers on both sides of the debate often miss is how much they can learn from each other. Being able to catch fish with jerkbaits will make you a better streamer fisherman. Similarly, understanding how to make a nymph will make you more adept at fishing for hairs and feathers. History shows that during the era of the flower, there was harmony between the boys of the fly and the boys of the thorn; everyone was just a fisherman, regardless of preferred method. In my opinion, the table is once again set for this harmony, especially if we all remember that the common goal is simply to catch fish.