This is odd, because in recent seasons, I’ve been using simpler and simpler flies — sometimes nothing more than some yarn wrapped on a hook — and catching lots of trout on them. I’ve been pretty convinced that impressionistic flies work better than replicas of insects.
Now, here I am, using a doohickey clamped in my vise to build an extended body of closed-cell foam, cutting out and tying on veiny wings printed on cellophane, and using pre-fab sets of anatomically correct rubber insect legs for nymphs.
Fly-tying has a very old set of informal, but very clear, standards about what is authentic. Every time someone violates them with an “unnatural” material or procedure, he or she is accused of cheating. Ask Joe Blados down in Long Island, who initially took some grief at the fly-tying shows for his mostly-foam Crease Fly.
The thinking seems to be that you might as well buy a bag of plastic insects from a toy store and lash one to a hook. “Real” flies are made of feathers, fur and thread, like our primitive ancestors made them.
That’s a mindset the people behind the J:son of Sweden fly-tying system have to overcome. The company sells an extensive line of foam for fly bodies, rubber legs in different sizes for mayfly, caddis fly and stonefly nymphs, cellophane prints of insect wings and nymphs’ shells, and the tools used to assemble them.
I know a fly shop owner who asked his guides to tie up some flies with this stuff, and they objected — too much like model-making instead of tying. But the person who suggested I give J:son a try is Bob Mead, one of the best makers of ultra-realistic flies in the world — who insists on only using traditional materials and methods in his own unbelievably lifelike mosquitoes, ladybugs and praying mantises.
“Don’t you think if the Dettes and Darbees had things like this, they would have used them?” Mead said, referring to the famed commercial fly-makers of the Catskills in the early-to-mid 20th century.
After all, man-made materials have been part of fly-tying from the start. Tinsel for ribs, gold beads, artificial materials like Krystal Flash — all are now perfectly acceptable. The Crease Fly was long ago welcomed into the family of must-have patterns. Maybe the J:son materials and techniques will be accepted the same way.
Making the J:son flies takes some practice; I suspect it’s challenging enough to amuse the average fly-tier. You also have considerable leeway in customizing your flies. The parts that aren’t pre-fabbed come out the way you make them, and many employ old-fashioned dubbing and hackle. There’s a fair amount of coloring with waterproof markers (again, nothing new to fly-tying.)
Once you get the hang of the materials, as I’m starting to, the flies look pretty darn cool.
Will their realistic looks make them more effective than the gazillion kinds of flies we already have? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters. There has always been some doubt about whether ultra-realistic flies were good fish-catchers. And big wild trout are caught all the time on Green Giant Niblets, so there is a risk of taking these things too seriously. Almost any fly will work at one time or another.
Then again, the time may come when a pool full of fussy Delaware River browns won’t take anything except mayflies with long, slender abdomens and tall, veiny wings, and the J:son flies might prove to be just the ticket.
In that case, I would recommend tying one on and catching some fish. You can have a philosophical discussion about whether you were cheating later, over a beer.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.