Paw through a tray of flies or the pages of a catalog and you’ll invariably see redundancy, an old pattern doctored with a new color scheme, incorporating new materials, or grafted onto another pattern repackaged as something “new.” An example: Montana Fly Company’s offering two new scuds, a flashback version of the Feather Duster Nymph, and a new Blue-winged Olive colored Klinkhammer in their 2016 catalog. In an op-ed titled A Failure of Modern Fly Design magazine, designer John Juracek laments the state of modern fly tying, suggesting modern developers have moved away from developing patterns to catch fish and towards developing variants to sell product.
Does this new trend represent a failure of modern fly design?
Is it even a trend?
Not every fly design is the result of careful study or intentional design. The Trude has been a staple of the west for more than a century and begat the Picket Pin. The Picket Pin begat the Sofa Pillow, which begat most every stonefly and many of the terrestrial imitations used throughout the west today. The Trude was tied as a practical joke.
Gary LaFontaine spent years studying aquatic insects and developing patterns to match them at every imaginable life history stage. He was the Big Star of fly tying, spawning a whole host of patterns and techniques which went on to influence other patterns from dries to nymphs to streamers. His Mohawk, a clipped-hair monstrosity from the mind of his teenage daughter. It hadn’t been designed to answer any question or imitate any specific life history stage and catches fish nonetheless.
A fair number of Victorian salmon and wet fly dressers did so as much to memorialize and curry favor with clients, ghillies, riverkeepers, lords, ladies, and mistresses.Tying flies to imitate particular insects at particular life stages didn’t really take off until the 20th century. Luckily for anglers fish don’t understand the provenance of a fly, whether it was intentionally designed or tied as a lark- and if the point of the exercise is tying flies to please fish, what value is using a metric fish don’t understand to determine a pattern’s “legitimacy?” Tying flies on a whim is as much a part of the sport is as much a part of the sport as careful imitation of aquatic food forms. It could even be argued the interest in imitating every species at every life stage during the last half of the 20th century is an aberration- the exception, not the rule.
Even if all that weren’t true, the idea modern patterns are a failure because they’re not intentionally designed is simply false. In creating the Sparkle Dun, Juracek and Craig Mathews turned to deer hair as a cheap,buoyant and durable materials to create a high floating and visible pattern. It’s the same reason modern tyers turn to foam. Older patterns incorporated feather fibers in hackle collars or drawn legs to provide movement, today’s use synthetics. A copper john doesn’t need biot tails AND a wire body AND a peacock thorax AND a plastic wingcase AND a pearlescent stripe AND an epoxy shellback AND legs AND a bead- but I’m not gonna argue whether it catches the snot out of fish. That isn’t a failure of modern fly design. These flies are designed to solve angling problems, just in a different way than more traditional patterns.
Are modern flies derivations of older patterns? Sure. And it is dumb that a Prince Nymph tied with synthetics is somehow something totally new. But repackaging minor revisions of a pattern has been standard practice for generations, and you can’t fault today’s fly tyers for learning the habit from their predecessors. Dan Bailey took a couple patterns Lee Wulff developed in the 1930s, themselves borrowing heavily from Catskill style dry flies of the east, and developed an entire line of flies by changing colors. He did the same thing with Don Gapen’s muddler minnow, combining elements of that old fly with Ted Gordon’s Bumblepuppy to create the Missoulian Spook. Juracek’s own work developing the Sparkle Dun borrowed heavily from other designers- the single hair wing of Wulff’s original flies and the chassis of another Catskill pattern, the Haystack, which had been developed some three decades before the Sparkle Dun. Even the fact trout key on emerging insects was understood by Jim Leisenring by the early 1940’s, and folks like W.C. Stewart were fishing soft-hackle flies in the surface film, effectively imitating emerging mayflies, since the 1850’s. Thirty years ago, fly designers could’ve just tied on a Tup’s Indispensable and solved their angling problem using a traditional pattern the same way anglers had been for a century and been done with it. Instead, they chose to combine elements from a number of existing patterns, distilling them into something which worked better than what they already had. It’s exactly the same thing which motivates today’s tyers.
Does the world need sixteen different ant patterns? It’s entirely likely we could do with fewer than three dozen flavors of Pale Morning Duns. The Orvis online catalog lists 72 different ways of imitating an adult mayfly. Walter Dette’s 1935 fly catalog lists 107- what are the chances every single one was a groundbreaking, proven new design?
The distinction between flies for fish and flies for fishermen is completely artificial. A commercial tyer decides the pattern, a dealer decides what to purchase, a shop owner decides what to offer the angler, the angler decides what to offer the fish. Every fly ever tied, no matter how thoroughly researched, has been from the perspective of the tyer projecting what we think a fish may see, what we think may trigger a response. Just because we don’t see major differences between one foam hopper pattern and another doesn’t mean the fish sees the same thing the same way.
A commercial fly pattern is, by its very definition, meant to be purchased. They’ve always been tied to promote designers, shops, and to move product- whether it’s Charlie Orvis or Charlie Craven. A commercial pattern’s longevity is tied to how many anglers choose to purchase it, and plenty of perfectly good patterns fall off the map simply because they’re not purchased or tastes change. It isn’t a failure of fly design, and no one says Leadbelly’s a shitty musician because he’s more obscure than Robert Johnson. There have always been unnecessarily complicated flies, whether it’s John Traherne or John Barr. There have always been overbuilt flies, whether the first gigantic bucktail tarpon flies or today’s muskie and monster trout fare. We can debate whether it’s more prevalent today, but it isn’t a modern phenomena, it isn’t a trend, and it’s not impoverishing the sport any more than it was thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago. At best A Failure of Modern Fly Design articulates an issue which either always existed or never existed, a statement of personal taste as opposed to objective criticism. Even that’s a well worn path in the style of dries v. nymphs, attractors v. imitators, western rods v. Tenkara, and the rightful place of the glo-ball.
I say let your freak flag fly. Infinite diversity, in infinite combinations.
In honor of celebrating National Park Service’s 100th year, all U.S. National Parks will be open to the public for free for this year’s National Park Week (April 16-April 24). Whether a park was created for historical purposes or whether a park was created for ecological purposes (i.e. saving an endangered species) these landmarks are pretty cool/informative […]