I tie a lot of flies, every year, follow multiple fly tying accounts, and have read many books regarding the subject (more so focused on the classical art). The vast array of various flies used to catch the plethora of fish we anglers target is part of the allure fly tying can present. From microscopic midges to foot long Bufords, the only real limit for fly tiers is their own imagination. Now, you can get any kind of material, synthetic or natural, in every shape, size, and color, the combinations are literally endless. Every so often, I witness a fly where I take a step back and think, is that really a fly? What is it that we are trying to accomplish as fly tiers? Is it to imitate or merely create something of our own accord to fool a fish? Whatever your reasoning is, it’s undoubtedly personal. For myself, I like to imitate realistic insects or bait fish patterns, rarely reaching outside of reality. For me, I find it more enjoyable to fool a fish by making it think that it’s actually eating a resident insect or fish. Does that make me a better angler or tier? No, not even a little bit, it’s just what I like to do and so I do it. To each is own is how I like to live. However, I believe some flies are teetering the line of what is and what isn’t a fly. The very definition for what is fly fishing and what is not is arbitrary and poorly defined at best and the definition of what constitutes a fly follows the same grey path.
I’ll start with a fly known as sculpzilla
A baitfish pattern, used to entice trout or bass typically, by mimicking a small fish known as the sculpin. Frequently tied in dark greens or browns, the sculpin is a snack for some of the heftiest trout you will encounter. Sculpzilla is usually heavily weighted to get down quick and stay down in the water column. Sculpin typically hug the bottom of streams and thus, to imitate, the fly must also hug bottom. So why would this ever not be considered a fly? Well, the amount of weight used to tie a sculpzilla can be outstanding, sometimes so heavy, that it almost feels like the weight of the fly is propelling the motion of the cast rather than the fly line (under current MDIFW regulation, the very definition of fly fishing is casting in a manner in which the weight of the fly line propels the fly). So, should this fly even be considered a fly? I feel as though I could cast it as far with 2lbs test on a spinning rod as I could a fly rod and for me, that gives it a weird feel, a sense of cheating the sport if you will. What the law fails to accurately describe is does the fly line that you are using have to propel the fly or is it any fly line? A 13 wt fly line would certainly propel a sculpzilla, but a 4wt line wouldn’t. So, is the sculpzilla a fly and not a fly at the same time? A conundrum of sorts. A deadly pattern, no doubt, but at what cost? This is not the only weighted fly that is so heavy, you almost feel like it’s propelling the cast. In real time, for certain weighted flies, it’s hard to definitively tell what is in fact propelling the cast and thus lies the problem. How can we tell what is propelling the cast and how do you enforce it? Is there an easy solution to the weighted fly problem? I haven’t come up with any brain busting ideas.
The squirmy wormy…. We’ve all used something like it, myself included, more than once.
Picture from Amazon, some of their finest products
I asked a close friend if he thinks the squirmy wormy is a fly and his response was what most of us think, “eh, I guess.” The squirmy wormy is not heavy like the sculpin, but what makes me think that it shouldn’t be considered a fly is its relation to the very laws that prohibit anglers from using live worms in FFO waters. Whenever I’ve used a squirmy wormy, I feel as though I’m cheating the system. Fly anglers are revered for their ability to study the water and match the hatch. Simply tying on a squirmy wormy and dropping it down low seems to devolve the sport in a way. I don’t look down on people who use them, as stated early, I’ve used them, and they catch fish at an alarming rate, but again, at what cost. We as fly anglers want more waters to be FFO, yet we have the squirmy wormy as an option, it seems contradictory. Removing “worm dunkers” but using a synthetic worm replacement…. This is also how I feel about egg patterns or the dreaded mop fly. It’s not that any of them are illegal, but should they be considered true flies or should they be reclassified into their own subgroup of artificial lures? Should we restrict the use of such flies on certain waters or should we define what is a fly and what isn’t with greater accuracy? I think the latter is more probable.
Finally, the last fly or category of flies that I think should be reconsidered are wiggle tail or spinner flies.
Usually tied on the backside of a larger baitfish imitation, wiggle and spinner tails add a bit of twirling flash, and are typically used for pike, muskie, or bass. The wiggle tail is one of many additives you can add to the end of a fly used as an attractor. I can’t help but see the similarities to spinner baits. Something large and shiny that moves water to entice a bite. Again, I’ve used them, and they are phenomenal, pike will travel a long distance to hit one of those flies. They move a lot of water, create great action, but they don’t really feel like a fly to me. For me, adding excess pieces to a fly makes it a lure more than a fly. If I took a spinner blade from a spinner bait, added that blade to the front of a baitfish fly, is it still a fly if the line propels it? So, I believe that the wiggle tail falls into this quasi grey area on what truly defines a fly. Up to this point, it’s really all opinionated, what is and what isn’t a fly. Does it propel the fly line? Is it artificial? Answer yes to those questions and the law says it’s a fly. That just doesn’t sit right with me. It just seems as there is a lot of interpretation on the anglers end.
Just to make sure everyone is aware, I do not care if anyone uses these flies. I have tied and used all of the flies mentioned, more than once. Under current law, they are flies and can be used in any FFO water. However, I’m just suggesting that maybe we should modernize our definitions of what is and what isn’t a fly. With the growing technologies around fly tying, it only makes sense to adapt our laws and definitions. UV resin wasn’t around in the 1800’s, why are we still using 1800 definitions? Each category (too much weight, eggs/worms, flies with added hardware) covered takes fly fishing into a new direction and should be treated as such. There are even special fly lines and leaders for these specific types of flies. Generalizing our understanding of flies is not the best way to go. I don’t get paid enough money to make a definition, but if I were to make one, it would sound something like this:
“Fly – Natural or synthetic fibers or material bound to a hook by thread, used to imitate food eaten by fish, that is light enough to be propelled by the fly line that is being used. Any fly that can be propelled over 30’ with the use of a spin casting rod is considered an artificial lure and not a fly.”
Now I realize this really only takes into account the weighted flies, but it’s a start, as I said, I don’t get paid enough. The squirmy wormy, mop fly, eggs, etc. will most likely always be around, I just find something about them makes them different from a dry fly or traditional nymph. Maybe they fall under flies, but into a sub category? I don’t have the best answer, but feel as though something should be done.
The evolution of fly fishing is real and constant, I believe our definitions surrounding the sport must adapt in hopes of preserving a traditional perception around fly fishing. If we hang on to an antiquated understanding of the sport, I fear as though what is considered fly fishing and what isn’t will be blurred forever, or worse, lost in translation.