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josko 03-16-2004 06:48 PM

Art vs fishcatching
I'm confused. I read up extensively on salmon and steelhead patterns only to find that GL flies seem to amount to Estaz wrapped around a hook, glo bugs, wooly buggers, and occasional stonefly nymphs. Is there a dichodemy between the flies used to catch steelhead and salmon and the carefully tied patterns shown in the mags and at shows.
In other words, has the salmon and spey fly tying gone to a point past tying flies to actually catch fish?? Are the 'fancy' pattens the flies of choice somewhere, just perhaps not in the great lakes? Or have these flies evolved to a cul-de-sac similar to the bright wet flies tied some 50 years back? It seems that was an artform (more like craftform) evolving for its' own sake???

If I'm trying to tie up a set of patterns that maximize my chances of actually catching steelhead; should I be looking at spey flies or wooly buggers??

Nooksack Mac 03-16-2004 07:39 PM

Yes, the tying of spey, dee, and other fancy flies exceeded the bounds of practical necessity - not just recently, but something like 150 years ago.
A simple fly like a Woolly Worm, Woolly Bugger, Egg-Sucking Leech, or Thor is as likely to catch steelhead as anything else. On the other hand, many fancy flies are also unexcelled as fish-getters. It's just that you don't have to take pains, with expensive, elaborate, difficult-to-tie flies, if you don't want to.
We're always making compromises between practicality and our aesthetic sense, which most people have. Just as we're free to go anywhere in public in our fishing clothes, but usually wouldn't. My steelhead flies range from very elaborate to very simple. When I'm losing flies too frequently, I reach for my "cannon fodder" box.

CDG 03-16-2004 09:18 PM

I fish spey and dee flies, tube flies, prawn flies, you name it. Does it really matter to the fish, not in my opinion. Does it matter to me?? You bet, i only fish flies i have confindence in, if i don't have confindence in a fly then i'm not going to fish it. The speys and dees, to me, are all about the beauty and tradition. I love to fish them and love to tie them even more. I get bored at the bench if i'm constantly tying stuff that isn't a challenge. Yeah they can get expensive, but it's worth it to me.

Oh well, to each his own.


flytyer 03-16-2004 11:52 PM

You can catch steelhead on yarn tied to a hook with leader material; however, I like to have nice looking flies and yarn on a hook just doesn't do it for me.

There is also the evolution of angling methods. People have been fly fishing for steelhead on the west coast since the early 1900's. Many of the early steelhead flies on the west coast were very crude and poorly proportioned, etc. They have come a long way since the late 50's when folks like Glasso started to tye very effective and beautiful flies for steelhead. Also, very few of the west coast steelhead rivers have fishable populations of resident rainbows, so fly fishers fished for steelhead and not trout in most of the rivers.

The midwestern steelhead fly fishing is very young in comparison to the west coast. And the midwestern fly fishers were used to fishing for trout in the same rivers that they then fished for steelhead. They did not know how to catch steelhead (I remember reading Swisher, Richards, and Whitlock talking about using weighted nymphs to "match the prevelent insect life to intice steelhead".) The fly fishers saw folks using spinning and casting gear adding lead weight to their lines and fishing with eggs, yarn, or other such things. Therefore, the midwestern fly fishers adopted the spinning and casting methods of adding weight to their leaders with glow bugs to imitate eggs or weighted nymphs and began the "chuck and duck" so prevelent in the midwest. Does it catch fish, yes. Is is a lot of fun to chuck and duck all day, nope. Can you catch midwestern steelhead with swung flies like the west coasters do, yep.

I even use classic married featherwings for winter steelhead. In fact, I donated PURPLE EMPERORS to the Skagit River today. No biggy, I always expect to lose at least one fly each time I fish sink tips. There are plenty of roots, branches, rocks, and assorted other objects imbedded in the river bottom to grab a fly and not let go. It is the price of fishing. I prefer to fish with well-proportioned and aesthetically pleasing flies so I fish speys, dees, G.P.'s Ally's Shrimps, and classic married featherwings.

Are my flies more effective than yarn, probably not; but they look a lot nicer. Besides, tying them gives you something to do on cold winter nights.

Gary W 03-17-2004 04:13 AM

If you want to tie flies to catch fish - think size, colour, weight, profile/movement.

If you want to tie flies that are challenging to tie and look nice - think exotic feathers, colour combinations, proportion.

Flies that catch fish can be both.

I have caught salmon on flies that, to my eyes, are the ugliest of creations(simple black & yellow tubes etc.). I have also caught salmon on flies that have taken a long time to tie and would not look out of place in a ladies brooch collection(traditional patterns, temple dogs, intricate shrimp patterns etc.).

Each to their own I say. If it matches the conditions and gives you confidence, fish it. I can now happily fish with the same fly on my leader all day. I used to change flies regularly just because I had not tempted a fish. If you have picked a fly that suits the conditions a change in presentation is more likely to induce a take than a change of fly.

Each to their own, whatever makes you happy.

juro 03-17-2004 05:05 AM


Sure there is a little bit of fanfare going on, but more importantly there's a difference in presentation and technique between drifting, nymphing and the more traditional spey approach that shapes the proper fly for the technique. Let me explain my point of view FWIW:

In the original act of salmon angling in Europe it was a swinging game. Salmon flies were aptly designed to swim, not drift along with the assistance of weight or floats. The gut eye, properly proportioned wing and body, even the collar and palmering were as important in function as they were 'expressive' in form because they made the fly ride throughout the swing in a manner that solicited the fish from their lies to take the fly, to move the fish to the fly rather than move the fly to the fish. Did they get carried away with the choice of materials? Hoo yeah. But it created a legacy that is an important part of angling lore.

Upon arrival in the new world, the hard to find feathers may have largely been replaced with hairwings, but not much else had changed. The fundamental design of the salmon fly and dee/spey fly had no reason at all to change due to the presentation style from Newfoundland to Maine. The availability of mallard and the generally humble dress of spey flies compared to classic mixed wings made them easy to tie on anyone's budget. Yet simpler hairwing versions of classic salmon flies were the dominant direction and remains so today.

Despite rare feathers adorned on the full dress salmon flies, they swam right and caught fish. Some color schemes would in fact work better than others at certain times or in certain rivers, but to your point most of the materials could have been replaced, omitted or otherwise ignored but not the design has been proven to be effective for centuries. Nonetheless a swinging fly design is lost on drift presentations, just as drift flies do not work well on the swing.

Look at the popular flatwings with jungle cock eyes for stripers, fished on floating lines. For the mentality of the fish being sought this is way more extravagant of an offering than a spey fly for an atlantic salmon or steelhead who is not feeding! Yet people think nothing of getting all fancy for stripers, the thick shouldered blitzing linebackers of the suds. I found out years ago that a blob of epoxy on a hook will take even the most finicky stripers. Yet I too get frilly with striper flies now and then.

Anyway, a century or so ago the wave of salmon angling lore hit the pacific northwest's steelhead rivers and the result is by and large the game is to swing if you are a fly guy. Chuck and duck, indicator and nymph, etc - are the exception rather than the rule for fly rodders out west vs. GL where it is the rule. I attribute this difference to the fish, the fishermen, and the conditions. The fish out west are probably more willing (wild), the fly-fishermen more patient and less focused on quantity over quality, and the temperatures are warmer which supports the two previous observations. There are serious flyguys, and serious gear guys using non-fly rods and tackle, not gear guys using fly tackle.

I could be totally up my kazoo but I have fished both and have formed an opinion based on watching the masses fish over redds with guides in the midwest and comparing this against the steelhead culture of which I partook for many years.

(Back to fly design) neither an egg fly or nymph will swing well, although the ol' wooly bugger gives any fly a run for the money. :) It does not belong on the same list as the egg fly and nymph fly because it is a wet fly that swims and is effective on the swing. It's design is very similar to the European tube flies, but there is no tube. I've caught many steelhead on the swing with buggers. Some funny fish stories behind that. Anyway nymphs and egg flies swing sideways and upsidedown, they are designed for drift fishing or under a bobber, for instance - or behind some split shot etc. Spey flies are designed to swim enticingly in an upright fashion, and yes they do solicit strikes as they did centuries ago.

In summary these are just the observations of a dedicated steelhead angler who has seen both sides. For me it boils down to this - one day spent in shirt sleeves on an early fall day grease lining a spey fly in caddis colors just under the surface film on a floating line is all it takes to savor the swing... then a chrome bright summer steelhead torpedoes the fly and the serenity is shattered into chaos for a while as the fish who was bold enough to rise to the take flexes it's acrobatic muscle and your ears ring with screaming drag. It's a native... be gentle and pluck the barbless hook from it's jaw so it can swim free. With practice, the swing techniques become effective for the angler and the reward becomes the achievement, not the fish - IMHO. Hence the traditional fly design's popularity in steelheading.


Igor 03-17-2004 07:45 AM

Hey Ya'll

I'd wager that this very same discourse was probably conducted well over 150 years ago.

Imagine for a moment, two passionate anglers - one, a proponent of swinging the ornate Victorian flies of the era, the other, content to lob the simple flies fashioned from plumage gathered from his barnyard or latest hunting trip.

While both are firmly entrenched in their individual schools of thought, both are 'correct', of course.

I think this age old and still gentle 'argument' is one of the many things that make our sport (and art) so darned fascinating.


natrix 03-18-2004 05:53 PM

There is a special place in my heart for an ornate fly swinging through a tail out at dawn, especially if I just tied the thing and Im taking it out for its first swim.


CDG 03-18-2004 07:47 PM

ahh the swing
there is absolutely nothing like swinging flies for 5 straight days without a pull and then have a steelhead almost jerk the rod out of your hand on the take, especially if this steelhead's home is around Spences Bridge.:smokin:

Sharp Steelie 04-11-2004 06:35 PM

In my opinion; for more hookups use simple natural
patterns. For more of a challenge; use more artistic
flashy patterns - either way, it's all good:cool:

juro 04-11-2004 06:56 PM

Whether a fly is fancy or plain, complicated or simple, legendary or unknown - has little to do with it's effectiveness for catching fish. A simpler fly is not necessarily more effective, nor is it necessarily less effective. A mixed wing tied with 16 illegal feathers is not more or less effective either. A fly is effective if it is effective, period. There are much more important factors in catching steelhead than the fly itself.

Stating my case:

At any given moment, a wide variety of flies could catch a fish. But how many presentation styles would do it? Only a fraction compared to the flies that would work.

Then how many spots hold fish? If there is no fish then no presentation nor fly in the world can succeed. Does the angler know where to find fish?

If the rest of the angler's house is in order, then he or she can choose which of the flies from within the range of options to use as they please.

For some, myself included, the appropriateness of the fly design befits the species. For a wild steelhead in the cascade mountains, I would not be as pleased to catch a 20# native buck on a globug as I would on a big spring steelie wet fly with good swimming characteristics, even if they were both equally effective. Yes the mallard wings, the blue-eared pheasant spey hackles, the seal dubbing, a thing of beauty for both the angler and the fish to behold. A fly to be proud of in the photograph of the big fish's maw just before a gentle release.

That might not be the case for everyone, nor do I think it should - to each his/her own. But certainly for me I've reached a happy balance in a series of flies that are both aesthetically exciting as well as very effective for fishing, and have no reason to compromise. Life's too short for crappy flies ;)

Sharp Steelie 04-11-2004 08:04 PM

Life really is to short to not catch Steelhead on a fly. Atlantic
Salmon flies and Large wet Steelhead flies are a thing of
beauty and are very enjoyable to create if one has the
time. Due to time constraints, sometimes one has to come
up with simple patterns that are well tied that produce
fish. Not talking "Glo-bugs". When it comes to actually landing
a Steelhead on a fly - in my opinion, the only crappy fly is the
fly that does not catch fish. Have created several that are
in the recycling bin for good. From the artistic side, in my
opinion there is no such thing as "a crappy fly". It's all about
perception and what actually works.

Happy Easter


Robert 04-16-2004 04:44 PM

"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

Norman Maclean "A River Runs Through It" (1976)

flytyer 04-16-2004 08:49 PM


Exactly! An effective fly is an effective fly, period. I just like to tie and fish with nice, well-tied flies.

An example of differing effectiveness was what happened yesterday in the late afternoon/early evening on the Skagit. Ed Ward, big John form Chicago, and I fished through the same run together. Each of us used very different flies that had a different swim profile in the water and which swam at different water depth relative to the sink tips we were using. All of us were presenting our chosen flies with a classic across stream wet fly swing. However, only one of us had any action, and he missed two fish and landed a very bright hen that still had sea lice on it.

The only real difference between the three of us was the type of fly being used. And on that particular day, with that particular river flow and water temp, only one of the fly types was effective. And all three of us were using what many call fancy flies. Ed was using one of his Intruders, Big John was using a Marabou Spider, and I was using an Ally's Shrimp. On a different day, one of the other fly types may have been the most effective.

Is this always the case? Of course not! There are days when several different fly types will garner takes, and others where a specific fly type or color will illicit takes.

Steelheader69 04-16-2004 09:15 PM

It's funny
How things have changed. I happen to have a fly catalog from a UK store (don't have it handy, so not sure on which shop). It dates back to the war. I'd say WWII, but from the looks of the pictures and such, I almost want to say WWI. They have their trout flies, and then of course their salmon flies. It's the black and white photos they color in, so can tell it's older. Well, there is not ONE simple salmon fly in there. Not one. All of them are full dressed salmon flies. No hairwings, or simple feather wings. Just amazing. I also have an old flyfishing book I do believe is from the 1940's or 50's from the US. It's actually full of different flies and articles by now famous people (like Dan Bailey, Meagan Boyd, and a few others). I do believe at that point in the book they were talking about using flies for "steelhead trout". They were talking about a trend for using simple hair winged flies. LOL. Was pretty funny, when you think that for as long as I can remember (mid 70's when I started fishing) when I thought of steelhead flies they were hairwings. Never thought of featherwings as steelhead flies.

I actually like the resurgence of hairwings. Are they needed? No, not really. But they are fun to tie, and fun to fish. I confess, I enjoy having pictures taken with an ackroyd in the fishes mouth then a bunny leech. Though, I've caught alot of steelhead on that simple bunny leech. There are times where if you throw something different at the fish, they'll react. I've written this quite awhile ago on this board (I think it was here) about a similar situation to flytyer. Had 3 of us fishing the Hoh. All of us were using drastically different flies. All three of us scored fish. Including a near triple header. It's just working the fly properly and finding the fish sometimes.

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