Bowlkers Art of Angling (1854)

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Bawlker's Art of Angling (1854)
Bawlker’s Art of Angling (1854)

When I had the opportunity to talk with one of the masterminds* behind J. Stockard recently, the subject of what is and is not a fly came up. In simpler terms, when does a fly become something else—a lure, piece of hardware or bait? Is it material, construction technique, size, weight, what? Unfortunately, it is not a simple answer, especially if you hold some reverence for the sport of “fly fishing” and want to maintain some type of boundary between fly fishing and all those other dark side techniques like spinning, bait casting, jigging, trolling, etc. Although one might think this is just a tête-à-tête between natural and synthetic materials there’s more to it than that. We could simply say that if you are using a fly rod and fly line to propel (cast) your “fly” you are fly fishing and whatever is on the end of your tippet is a fly, not a lure. But that pronouncement has serious flaws as there are just too many exceptions and exclusions.

blurred lines pike flyIn the early part of the 20th century, worming for brown trout had reached a level of perfection that allowed serious anglers to carefully stalk browns in classic waters such as New York’s Ausable River with a fly rod, fly line, ten foot leaders to which was attached a double gang of hooks impaled with a large night crawler. The worm, delicately stretched between two hooks would be swung into tight cover and drifted through a holding area not unlike our nymph techniques of today. Fly Fishing? When one examines the early 17-19th century works on fly fishing, they are littered with delicate patterns crafted from fur and feathers to resemble the aquatic insects the trout were feeding on. Much of the legacy of fly fishing and fly tying stem from man’s desire to tangle with brown trout on the fly.

But early on in the history of fly fishing, some anglers were pushing the limits of tradition, innovating and using flies to target other species. In 1865, H. (Henry) Cholmondeley-Pennell, a prominent British angler and writer published The Book of the Pike. Although devoted mostly to traditional dark side fishing techniques, it did contain a small chapter on fly fishing for pike. The image of his Pike Fly and how pike reacted to it shows how anglers have always pushed the envelope on fly fishing. He describes the pike fly thus: “As a rule Pike-flies cannot well be too gaudy, though they may easily be too big. The bodies should be fat and rough, made of bright colored pigs’ wool, cocks’ hackles, etc., and bedizened [to dress or adorn in a showy, gaudy, or tasteless manner] with beads and tinsels; the wings of two peacocks’ moon feathers (tail feathers with eyes in them).” Clearly beads and tinsels were not natural materials, even in 1865. I wonder what kind of Pike Fly Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell would have described had he had access to the synthetics we possess today.

More telling however, is the rationale for the fly: “Ephemera [Edward Fitzgibbon, British author of The Book of the Salmon (1850)] thinks the Pike-fly is looked upon by the Pike as a gigantic dragon fly. But that it is mistaken for a yellow hammer, or perhaps a small swallow appears to me to be the more probable hypothesis. Indeed, a yellow hammer or other small bright bird dragged along the surface of the water is quite as good a bait as the Pike-fly, if not better. …Any combination of feathers and tinsel which is bright and big; would probably answer the purpose well…”

blurred lines yellow hammerI always wondered what those Mepps Giant Killers were all about—yellow hammers and swallows.

When I was growing up and learning how to fly fish, there were little foam bugs with rubber legs (synthetics?). Tinsel and fine wire have been a part of fly tying for over 150 years (synthetic or natural). My earliest catalogs for Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop (1961) and Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop (1972) list Girdle Bugs with rubber legs and streamers with “Mylar” bodies (synthetics?). Today we have all sorts of synthetic materials—epoxies, silicones, no end of Mylar and plastic based flash, body and wing materials and today we fly fish for fresh and saltwater species around the globe. Even our hackle is genetically modified. Mylar, which was introduced right after WWII in the early 1950s has evolved into countless innovative and useful applications for our flies. There is no doubt it is helping us catch more fish. Had it been around in 1865, there’s no doubt in my mind that Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell would have added it to his Pike Fly.

I believe the lines have always been blurred. With a desire to catch more and different fish, anglers, fly tiers and materials manufacturers have always pushed the envelope. In the Spring 2006 issue of Fly Tyer, Morgan Lyle wrote a provocative piece: “Crossing the Line—It’s been more than two decades since synthetic materials popped up in fly shops and still the question remains: Do plastic and epoxy have a place in fly tying?” His conclusion was simple: “Fly tying is about Innovation” and cites what might seem heretical to the purist. “There are two ways to honor the Catskill Masters, you can tie what they tied or tie the way they tied. They were some of the greatest innovators the sport has ever seen. They took a wet-fly sport and put it on the surface. That’s about as innovative as you can get.” Thumb through the countless number of fly tying and pattern books for both fresh and saltwater flies over the last century and you will find the same kind of innovation—always adapting new materials to new problems to create new flies. Great innovators are always blurring the lines—who cares if the fly looks like a plastic minnow as long as it catches fish.

*NOTE FROM J. STOCKARD: Mastermind? Thanks for the ego boost Mike!


  1. Interesting question Mike. I’ve always thought of this in rather simple terms: Leave the implied reference to a wing-borne insect behind (like my kid, who when she was two would slap her bare knee whenever she felt a bug crawling there, and say “bee”–it wasn’t a bee, but that hardly mattered).

    Once the fly-fishing term “fly” no longer means some kind of flying insect representation, then “fly fishing fly” is free to mean “whatever can be concocted that’s light enough to cast with fly fishing technique.” The word “fly” no longer has any natural critter significance, but instead only refers to a fishing style.

    Thus, egg patterns, sculpin patterns, mouse patterns, frog patterns, crawdad patterns, shrimp patterns…all become a “fly” in the sense that they are intended for the style of fishing known as “fly” fishing.

    Might be simplistic, but that’s how I’ve always reconciled it in my mind.

    And I’ve never tied it to whether nature created the materials, which to me would be not only irrelevant but also false for every “fly” made…since UV resin and Miss Sally and dacron thread and thread dye and varnish on hooks…and the refined steel of the hooks themselves…are all “unnatural.”

    If we called this fishing style “flog casting” then I’d have a bunch of boxes of flogs.

    From the (very interesting) evidence you’ve dug out of the past, it seems to me that most pattern innovators seem to have approached it the same way.

    – Mike

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