A Rose by Any Other Name

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Shakespeare is famously quoted: “It may be that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but I should be loath to see a rose on a maiden’s breast substituted by a flower, however beautiful and fragrant it might be, that is went by the name of the skunk lily.” It is a quote that is often used when in a quandary over names. The names we give our flies (if we name them at all) follows no doctrinal pattern, no rules, no conventions or even logic. But we indeed give our flies names to identify them and distinguish them from other flies. I read recently in an online forum where an apparent novice fly tyer believed he had invented a new fly pattern. He had looked in all the references he had access to, and he couldn’t find an example of the fly he had just invented. He wanted help from forum members in naming the fly. Of that, he got very little as the fly (he thought he invented) was nothing more than a soft hackle with a pink dubbed body and a pheasant fiber tail. The fact that he could not find a specific example of that combination of materials was not surprising. Given the vast amount of different materials we have for tying flies, the permutations of different combinations are likely more than the national debt. But some flies do indeed get named so I thought it might be interesting to examine how we name our flies.

Prior to the internet, we learned about flies and their names from books, magazines and journals. One would think that writing about a particular fly would require naming that fly, but such was not always the case. One of the first books specifically devoted to enumerating fly patterns was Trout Flies of Devon & Cornwall—And When and How To Use Them (1847) by G. W. Soltau. He lists 18 flies and merely identifies them as No. 1 – No. 18. I wonder what fly No. 1,000,395,000 would look like today.

In the 19th century and well into the 20th, we learned about fly names through books like Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories (1892) and J. Edson Leonard’s Flies-Their Origin, Natural History, Tying, Hooks, Patterns and Selection of Dry and Wet Flies, Nymphs, Streamers, Salmon Flies for Fresh and Salt Water in North America and The British Isles including a dictionary of 2200 patterns (1950) Both these works, by no means the only of their kind, were compiled from inquiries with fly anglers around the country. In both books, the thousands of flies enumerated all had names. A more contemporary enumeration is angling historian Andrew Herd’s Trout Fly Patterns 1496-1916 (2012). Again, the 1000s of patterns listed all had names. It is a given that a fly without a name will still catch fish, but a fly without a name tells us nothing about what the fish was eating. So, how do we name our flies?

The most obvious and recognizable fly names over time have included the originator’s name. Lee Wulff’s Wulff series, Lefty Kreh’s deceiver style, Bob Clouser’s clouser style, Charles Brooks-Brook Montana Stone, John Barr’s Copper Jon, Charlie Smith’s Crazy Charlie are just a few that have stood the test of time. For every named fly that maintains popularity today, there are probably 100s that no one has ever heard of, let alone fished with. There are probably three, four, maybe five conventions [loosely construed] fly tiers use to name their flies and of course combinations thereof. Sometimes, especially with nymphs, pupa and emergers, the type of fly is included in the name. For example: Pheasant tail nymph. Although it is rare to see “dry fly” formally part of a fly name.

  1. The simplest naming convention seems to be identifying the materials (source and color) used to tie the fly. Partridge and Orange (softhackle), Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph, Deer Hair bass bug, Black Bunny (fur) leech, Possum emerger are just a few examples.
  2. Another common naming convention is to identify the fly with the fish food it is supposed to imitate. The Elk Hair Caddis employs both the material and prey name. Egg-sucking leech, Blue Wing Olive, Pale Morning Dun, Trico Spinner, Salmon fly, Little Black Stone, Muddler Minnow, Chironomid Midge Larvae, Moffo Crab are just a few in this category.
  3. A third naming convention includes the creators name (or someone the creator wanted to honor) in the fly name. I mentioned several of these above that have become iconic, but there are many that are far less well known. Carey Special, Minch’s Stonefly, Hamills Smelt, Hammond’s Adopted, Reid’s Assassin, Ferguson’s Green and Silver. The biggest issue with names like these is that unless they are attached to a prey type—Clarence’s Caddis, Mary’s Minnow or Louie’s Leech—the angler has no clue what the fly is for unless they have it in hand.
  4. Another naming convention, most often seen in warmwater and saltwater patterns is to include the target species in the fly name. Tarpon Toad, Carp Candy, Bass Bug, Chum Baby, Red-eye Bone [fish] are just a few.
  5. Finally, there are flies that have names that without having any additional knowledge of the fly give the angler zero clues as to what the fly is for. Although there are famous flies in this category–Adams, Alexandra, Cowdung, Professor, Zug Bug, and Coachman—there are countless flies out there with names that few have heard of. Pussywillow, Tryityou lllikeit, Blue Ninja, Yellow Witch, Magoo, Fiona, The Animal, Black Dog and Blue Bird are just a few where the name provides no information about what the fly is all about.

I have no doubt that fly tiers, especially those innovative commercial tiers, guides and outfitters, will continue to develop new patterns, give their flies intriguing names and promote them via magazines, journals, websites, YouTube, etc. New materials and tying techniques are always being explored and sometimes produce remarkably effective new flies. Naming the fly may be important to the creator, and no doubt will follow one or more of the conventions above. But whatever the name, if the fly is effective, anglers will learn about it, tie it and use it. Although I have related this before in other posts, I think it is useful guidance to any fly tyer. A respected Florida guide once told me the recipe for the perfect fly. “The fly should be easy to tie. The fly should be durable. The fly should catch fish.” Nowhere in that advice was anything about the flies’ name.

The Zug Bug designed by Cliff Zug as a juvenile caddis imitation has proven itself as an effective all-around nymph pattern. But I suspect if Cliff had named the fly: Zawistowski’s Pavo [peacock genus] Nymph it would still be effective, but much harder to pronounce when asking for one in the fly shop.

It may be that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but I should be loath to see a rose on a maiden’s breast substituted by a flower, however beautiful and fragrant it might be, that is went by the name of the skunk lily.”

One thought on “A Rose by Any Other Name

  1. Michael Vorhis

    I name flies I toss together that differ from published patterns. I enjoy it. To me a name is a convenience–much easier than logging that I had two strikes on “a sparsely tied olive soft-hackle thing on a heavy-wire emerger hook with a resin hump on its back.” Similarly I can hand a few flies to “Vern” instead of to “that short guy I see on the river who once wore a yellow hat.”

    Naming one’s creation is fun. Tying is creative; might as well create.

    The new patterns (and thus new names) I’ve personally encountered often seem to come from new tying materials. The “Chernobyl Ant” is one such example. I’ve taken advantage myself, of hook styles that didn’t exist a few years ago, to personally design a few unique ties–definitely unique enough to deserve names. It’s not pretentious, nor is it a (doomed) grab at fame; just a fun convenience.

    I like old-time names too — a lot. I won’t know how to use a fly until I see it, but that doesn’t bother me. What’s a Dark Hendrickson? Oh, that…okay, yeah, looks good. Piece of history.

    As you say, a worthy fly only needs to tie easily, endure, and catch fish. But if it does, we do have to call it something, if only to ourselves. So I coin names as I see fit, and forum-frequenters be danged. : )

    – Mike

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