Neil Travis - February 7, 2011

Recently I have been reviewing the writings in some of the classic angling literature, and if you have been following those articles you will notice a common thread emerging. While there are obvious differences between the types of equipment that they used – rods were longer, slower and heavier, lines were made of silk and leaders from silk worm gut, and reels were made from brass or hard rubber – the equipment that they used is still serviceable today. Certainly most of us, yours truly included, would not wish to return to using the silk lines and gut leaders, brass reels, and long, heavy bamboo fly rods of former times. Today’s equipment is lighter and certainly requires less hands-on attention on the part of the user; however the improvements have not necessarily made the older equipment obsolete.

While tackle; rods, reels, and lines, too some extent change every year the basic configuration has remained unchanged since Halfords time, and in some cases even before. It is still possible to secure a fly rod from the turn of the 20th century and turn it into a serviceable fishing tool. Old fly reels are still serviceable, and in some cases are equal to or even better than some modern models.

One thing that I have always found to be interesting is the number of flies that have come and gone over the years. Back in the early 70’s I worked for Dan Bailey’s in Livingston, Montana for a couple years. At that time Dan employed a number of fly tiers, mostly ladies that cranked out a steady supply of flies for fly fishers around the world. At that time I was doing some guiding for Bailey’s and I would meet my clients at the shop before we headed out for the day. That was the time to check to make certain that they had Montana fishing licenses and to see if they had the necessary gear. If we were fishing the Yellowstone River I would fill my guide box with Royal Wulff’s, some Goofus bugs, and a few Trudes. If it was later summer I would add a few Joe’s Hoppers. It was a rare day that these flies would not produce.

Fast forward 40 years and if you did a quick check of the guide box of most guides on the Yellowstone River it’s unlikely that you would find any of the flies that we considered essential back ‘in the day.’ Today we have Chernobyl ants, Stimulators, Tarantulas, Foam beetles, bead head nymphs, and a variety of other patterns unlike anything we used just a few years ago.

What happened? Do fish still eat Wulff patterns? Have they stopped eating Goofus bugs or Humpies? Will a trout still rise to a Trude floated along the bank next to the riprap? The answer is yes but few anglers still use them on a regular basis.

Now I admit that I rarely use any of those patterns today, however it has nothing to do with their effectiveness. I fish very few attractor patterns preferring to fish flies that are more representative of the types of food that trout normally eat, but under the right circumstance attractor patterns are very effective. Today anglers will reach for a Chernobyl ant before they tie on a Royal Wulff or a Goofus Bug. Is a Chernobyl ant representative of anything that you have seen floating down your local trout stream? They are certainly no more a close representative of any known trout food that a Royal Wulff or a Goofus bug, but the Chernobyl ant is a current favorite and the other flies have fallen out of favor with modern anglers.
There are literally thousands of fly patterns. Some have risen to prominence only to disappear into obscurity. We all have fly patterns in our fly boxes that we created. Some are adaptions on existing patterns and others are pure innovation that has sprung from our own fertile imagination. There are numerous books on fly patterns including one 11 pound volume called Forgotten Flies. [ see ] Will these patterns still catch fish or are they obsolete? They are only obsolete because no one uses them anymore. Like bamboo rods and silk lines they may no longer be in vogue but they are far from obsolete.

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