Is your new fly really new? What makes a fly original?

by | Jun 5, 2018 | 10 comments

When is a fly original enough to deserve its own name? And do a few material changes result in a new fly or simply the bastardization of an existing pattern?

“That’s just a Woolly Bugger with flashy chenille, bigger hackle, rubber legs, and dumbbell eyes. Oh, and it’s two of them hooked together.” That’s the first comment I heard about Russ Madden’s Circus Peanut. And to that I say, sure it is. But aren’t there enough material and form changes there to be a unique fly? When we think Woolly Bugger does it really look anything like a Circus Peanut? No, not really. So I’d say the Circus Peanut deserved a name, and it got one.

I have a similar fly stored in my own meat locker. I call it a Water Muppet, but it’s mostly a Circus Peanut. I tie it smaller, dub the body instead of wrapping chenille, and I use a tungsten bead instead of dumbbell eyes. And while I have my own name for the pattern that amuses me, it’s pretty much a Peanut.

Allow me to first get this disclaimer out of the way: I’m not here to install myself as the authority or arbiter of what fly might genuinely be new. Honestly, I just think this topic makes for an interesting commentary piece, and I’ve had the conversation with a lot of fishing friends. I’d like to hear your thoughts too.

Likewise, we all know that none of this really matters. The trout don’t care what we call the fly — they just eat it because it kinda looks authentic (or it’s crazy enough to draw unusual interest).

But I think there’s a genuine desire on the part of many fly tyers to get this right. We want to give credit for inspiration, because we know that all good ideas stem from somewhere. At the same time, we’re proud of the material or form changes we’ve made that catch more fish in our own rivers. And sometimes those innovations define a genuinely new fly pattern that deserves a unique name.

Let’s address this trouble by taking a look at three of my favorite flies, a few patterns that really get the job done for me.

BHPT

One of my favorite nymphs is a simple Bead Head Pheasant Tail. I tie the streamlined fly on a scud hook, with a copper bead and no appendages for legs. I guess I’ve been tying my Pheasant Tails this way circa 2001, when I learned it from Steve Sywensky (owner of Fly Fisher’s Paradise in State College, PA). A few years later, as euro-nymphing flies gained popularity, I added a red collar of 8/0 Uni-Thread and never looked back. From sizes #14-18, it’s arguably my best producing fly.

But when people see it these days, they often call it a Frenchie. And I’ll admit, that bugs me a little, because Lance Egan’s original Frenchie has a Coq-de-Leon tail and collar of flashy dubbing. (I don’t think Lance would like my BHPT being called a Frenchie either — and I’ll get to that in a bit.)

To my eyes, my simple Bead Head Pheasant Tail looks a lot different than a Frenchie, with the only transferable elements being the pheasant tail body and the bead. And there’s nothing new about it, so it gets no new name: bead, pheasant tail, copper rib, red thread. Done.

Bead Head Pheasant Tails with a red collar.

Moto’s Minnow

A few years ago I stood streamside with a friend, and he handed me a Moto’s Minnow. I held it in my palm, and as soon as my eyes met the fly I knew what I wanted to change. Let me explain . . .

When I was a boy, my uncle showed me a streamer pattern that his uncle tied for him. He called it a Spook. And while the Spook stirred up enough trout to keep it a constant presence in my box, I tried for years to transfer the effective elements into a slightly larger fly with more bulk. With the Moto’s Minnow in my hand, I knew it was the perfect vehicle for those elements.

My fly is a dull brown, slightly yellow streamer. The tail is tan marabou, and I keep the Moto’s peacock herl for subtle, natural flash. Instead of wrapped partridge feathers for the body, I substitute the key material from the Spook — mallard flank feathers that are dyed a wood duck color. And I often stack bunches of the feather around the hook shank instead of wrapping them. I also omit the hen hackle collar, and I use a copper bead instead of gold.

That sounds like a lot of changes, right? But when I hand clients this streamer on a guide trip, they often ask its name. I tell them it’s a Moto’s Minnow.

I’ve come to wonder this, though: Maybe Moto Nakamura (creator of the Moto’s Minnow, sometime in the 1990’s) wouldn’t like the changes. Maybe he would not be happy with my simple nod to his own creation. Maybe he’d look at my fly in his own palm and shake his head, saying, “That, Sir, is not a Moto’s Minnow.”

See the dilemma?

 

Moto’s Minnow?

Bread-n-Butter

There is a certain magic in the combination of some materials. And I’ve come to believe it about the Bread-n-Butter nymph.

My friend, Austin, calls my Bread-n-Butter nymph the Troutbitten Hare’s Ear. And as I wrote in the article about the fly, its origins were indeed a Hare’s Ear with a bead. That blended into a Fox Squirrel Nymph, took a turn through the Hare and Copper and came out looking the way it does a few years later because it works best that way (and because it fills a niche in my box).

The form of the B&B is a good one to imitate. I did that myself: tail, dubbing, rib, collar, bead. It’s a standard form, used for a lot of successful nymphs.

But when a fly has only 4-5 materials, I think that substituting half the elements with something else results in a different fly. And for the Bread-n-Butter, if you sub pheasant tail for the coq-de-leon, beaver dubbing for the Hare’s Ear body, Ice Dub for the collar, and you change the gold bead to silver, then I dare say you’ve not tied a Bread-n-Butter nymph. And I might stand there like Moto Nakamura, staring at your pattern in my palm and shaking my head.

See what I mean?

Bread-n-Butter nymphs

Who knows?

I’m not really sure what constitutes a new fly. And I don’t know that anyone else does either. Fly fishing has been around long enough that it’s easy to believe everything’s already been done. It’s true, in large part. And maybe all that’s left are variations on a theme. Or maybe the advent of new materials allow for some fresh takes on old ideas.

Regardless of their origins, new patterns crop up every season and they take hold among the community of anglers only if they’re effective.

And if a fly hangs around for more than a decade, you know it’s a good one, because fly fishers are a skeptical, moody, bitchy bunch of anglers. And that won’t change either.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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10 Comments

  1. Like it. In the discussion I have within my own little brain, I think there are two questions here: The obvious ^ “What makes a fly original?”
    And the less obvious “Why name a fly in the first place”
    It shoukd be possible to make at least a half decent attemp at the former using some kind of objective formula – where a beyond a certain, arbitrary, number of material types placements and tying-in techniques it becomes a new fly. Also proportion and fishing properties. If fly B uses the same materials as fly A but looks completely different and is designed/used for a different purpose then to me they are not the same fly.
    It’s the second question I often find myself asking. The easy answer should be to aid in communicating to others efficiently what fly we’re talking about. Really then the name would at least convey something of the nature of the fly and here there seems to be trends depending on what side of the Pond you fish, with history maybe showing itself more in European names too.(streamers seem to have a naming culture allnto themselves).
    If the name of the fly describes little about the fly, why name it?

    Reply
    • “Why name a fly in the first place?”

      — Because all good things deserve a name.

      Reply
  2. Adding to all this, is the fact that many flies with varying characteristics share the same name. For example, the Russ Madden Circus Peanut that you cited (a wet) and Will Dornan’s Circus Peanut (a dry). I’ve had great success with the latter on western streams on rainbows, Westslope cutts, and browns, and have taught the fly in my club’s fly tying class.

    Reply
  3. Dom, My CET style mayflies (all species) are truly unique, after all who else ties a dry fly/emerger with thread only for the abdomen and cemented tails…. and polypro for an upright divided wing. The Crippled Emerger Transformer is so called because I transform it from a crippled dun into a spinner just by pulling the wings down. I have been fishing them for 15 seasons mostly on the “j”, but in many other streams east and west and I have taught hundreds of people to tie them…..when they tie them right, they get excellent results. http://www.troutboomer.com for a photo and a tying video.

    Reply
  4. I’ve thought about this many times. I think more people want a fly to be their own out of ego than reality. Most flies are just small variations of patterns before them. They aren’t that original.

    Reply
    • I don’t know about the ego part. I really think we just want to create something. I think there’s a simple reward in that.

      Reply
  5. “New” fly design should be categorized; name it what you want but try to leave the ego out.

    > Original style: brand new form/no apparent descendant (Klinkhammer)
    > Cross/Blend: combination of two or more existing styles or descendants (CET)
    > Makeover: different materials for one existing style (Sparkle Dun)
    > Variation: spin-off of an existing style with one obvious descendant (Comparadun)

    Did this quick, not sure I got the examples just right but you get the idea.

    Reply
  6. Like the flies very much how I like mine simple and effective. What’s the dubbing on the green one at the bottom.
    I personally don’t think there is such a thing as original anymore. Even those flies from the early flies usually had something copied from another similar fly.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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