An Experiment in Realistic Fly Tying

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, April 12, 2012

By Morgan Lyle
Photo of I’ve been experimenting with rather complex, realistic flies, and I’m enjoying making them more than I expected to.

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

5 responses to “An Experiment in Realistic Fly Tying

  1. I personally believe that it does not matter what others think constitutes authentic or proper fly tying. What matters is how the individual angler feels. I personally prefer natural materials but have no qualms about using synthetic stuff. I like simpler flies but I also like the challenge of tying a more complex fly. Sure, I could go out and just buy my flies but where’s the fun in that? Who wants to buy a model airplane already made? The fun is in building the model, no matter whether you do it with one of the hobby store kits or make it out of toothpicks and ice pop sticks. This is similar to tenkara fishing vs western fly fishing. If you enjoy it without breaking rules who is anybody to say what’s right or wrong. It’s all fun and nobody should look down their nose at you for it.

  2. A new idea or innovation should push what is the norm. Without trying new things, we wouldn’t have many of the things around us today. Of course then you could argue is it for better or worse, but usually time answers that question.

  3. Nice article! You are a brave soul to venture into this land of religious wars. If you want to take a journalistic journey further into the land of controversy you might consider writing an article about whether the use of pegged beads is really fly fishing.

    I wonder when the notion of what is, or is not, properly fly fishing became a theological issue within the field of fly fishing? Was Walton attacked for his use of worms when the Compleat Angler was first published? Certainly, by the time of Halford the notion of “legitimate” forms of fly fishing had entered the public mind (as did the debate over what constituted a legitimate method).

  4. Doug, you may recall a guy started a business a few years ago based on the same premise as pegged beads, the Moffitt (sp) System. He made a convincing case that it was effective and less likely to inujure fish, and John Merwin and John Randolph gave it the thumbs-up. But it never did catch on.
    The realistic ties are fun. However, I’ve now had a chance to float a few among some feeding trout, and haven’t yet gotten a bite. It’s too soon to say they don’t work, but so far, I can’t say they do, either.

  5. John Pitarresi

    Effectiveness, ease of tying, durability – whatever the style or material – are what I am looking for, in that order. I have not been a big fan of ultra-realistic flies because of what seems to be a low cost-benefit ratio and my own lack of tying talent, but, again, if a fly fits the three criteria, it’s fine with me.

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