Thoughts around super realistic fly tying

Around 2003 – 2004 something happened for me and for a lot of other fly tyers around the world. We discovered there were fly tyers in the USA that tied flies that was not meant to fish with, instead they were stunningly detailed imitations of insects, often the same insects that normal fishing flies tries to imitate abstractly. For me it was a new world, I had really enjoyed fly tying up until then but now it became an obsession and I spent 4-5 hours per day, often more, tying super realistic insect imitations. For more than two years I didn’t tie a single fishing fly.

Graham Owens fantastic Sea horse made from Jungle Cock feathers

Even though we were just starting this it didn’t mean that it was something new. Pioneers like Ted Niemeyer, Bob Mead and Bill Blackstone had been doing “display flies” (like we say in Sweden “A beloved children have many different names”) since the late 70’s. They had been working hard to get acceptance of this style of fly tying and get people to regard it as something more than just a novelty. People like David Martin, Bill Logan and Paul Whillock had taken the art form further and back at 2003  things had gotten out on the internet and a new generation fly tyers had discovered Realistic fly tying. All of a sudden there were tyers emerging from Sweden, Spain, Finland, UK, France, Serbia etc. putting out amazing super realistic flies. Rumors spread that Paul Whillock got thousands of dollar for each of his flies and everybody thought that they could sell flies for high prices.

What I often saw back then (and still do) was that people seemed to mix up super realistic fly tying with fishing flies, so I like to use the term Display flies for flies not meant to be fished with and Realistic (or sometimes semi-realistic) flies for the fishing flies with a realistic touch (like my own). In my book I regard Display flies as fishing related art, something that a fly fishing nerd would love to put up on his wall, but there are of course exceptions to that too. Like my good friend Graham Owen who started with traditional display flies which he over time developed to his own film prop business selling insect imitations to Hollywood to be used in block buster movies, that my friends is a success story I will talk more of in another post.

But back to the idea of “fly fishing related art”. Why I put it like that is the fact that pretty soon you started to see arguments and plain fights on the internet between the more old school tiers and new ones on which material you were supposed to use and to with extent you should use varnish or glue in your flies. While I was doing these Display flies regularly I never ever used anything but my tying thread to attach anything to my hook, I did however use varnish on top of for example Raffia bodies to create dull or shiny looking bodies. I also (of course) used super glue or varnish to secure the thread knot and whip finishes. But there were others who would mold parts of their flies, beside or directly on the hook, and tie in other things. The old school tiers had been building up super realistic fly tying as its own special niche of fly tying for many, many years and had managed to get the admiration and acceptance for their work and now the new generation came along and used synthetic materials and sometime more sculpting than fly tying, of course there were gonna be conflicts.

Since these type of flies are not meant to be fished with they are regarded by many as no more than sculptures that are made from (or with the help of) a certain specific medium; thread and hook. Today I see people who are combining regular sculpting with fly tying for unique looking “flies” but they are very open with how their work is being made which is the most important thing if you ask me. To me though a display fly that are made the same way as a fishing fly i.e. with the help of thread and tied on a hook (no molding or glueing) is more impressive because I can appreciate the advanced technicality in it but that doesn’t mean that a something that combines more traditional sculpting and fly tying can’t be breathtakingly realistic and fantastic to look at. And with that said I also want to be very clear that I have never really cared how other people do their things, if someone like to use glue, or foam, or shrink tube or epoxy or whatever than fine with them, as long as they have fun with what they do. I mean isn’t that why we do this?

Lady bug made by Bob Mead

The biggest hype around Super realistic display flies (hey, another name for it!) seems to have died out, at least here in Europe. And I very seldom tie any these days. Occasionally I get that feeling back an want to sit down and experiment and I have a few projects that have been lying around for years that I might finish some day but the truth is that I just don’t find it as fun as it used to be. It was a pioneer spirit in the fly tying community back then that was magical and that is no more. I did however learn a lot from it, especially certain things that I have since implemented in my fishing flies.

I have put up a little gallery under the “Photo album” page above with some of my old Display flies and I leave you with a photo of my most (probably) well know Super realistic fly, the Humble bumble.

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About Ulf Hagström

Fly fishing, fly tying, family and going your own way; the way of the fly. View all posts by Ulf Hagström

4 responses to “Thoughts around super realistic fly tying

  • Daniel

    Very interesting. I tie flies to fish with not to get groupies 🙂

    Realistic tying is fascinating, but the fish doesn’t care.

  • Ulf Hagström

    Haha! Well, I have yet to see any fly tying groupies out there 🙂 A few years back we came to the conclusion that only guys coarse fishing for carp (“karpmetare”) had groupies. Don’t remember how we came to that conclusion though, it was way too much whiskey involved but it might have to do with their “big rods” 🙂

  • Daniel

    They also have bells (klockspel) on their “big rods” to alarm the when “it’s time”. Pervs. 😉

    A Klinkhamer or a Deep Sparkle Pupa is realistic to the fish. That is all I care about, but I admire tyers that tie realistic and even semi realistic flies.

  • Thom Sullivan

    Ulf…Well stated. I haven’t tied a realistic in a long time. I tend to think in terms of “fishability.” Fishable realistics are of of interest to me. Lloyd Gonzales is someone that motivates me greatly…And of course, your fishable realistics. There aren’t any better in the fly tying/fishing world.

    Of course my fly box is always stocked with Fox’s Poopah!! LOL

    Later…

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