For a couple seasons now, one of my fly shop co-workers, Bucky McCormick, has gone retrograde with his flies. He’s been tying and fishing classic patterns. By classic I mean older flies with some degree of historical significance, like the Quill Gordon, Brown Bivisible and Black-Nose Dace. Patterns that practically nobody fishes these days—if they’ve even heard of them at all—especially out here in Montana. (Last time I used one myself was in the early 1980s, gulper fishing on Hebgen Lake. My fly of choice then was a #16 Adams—a classic and a good imitation of a Callibaetis mayfly.) Bucky’s decision to shun modern flies in favor of the classics is far from a judgment regarding their effectiveness. Rather, it’s a statement about their beauty. Or lack thereof. With an emphasis on unconventional form and a reliance on synthetic materials, Bucky finds modern flies lacking in both grace and elegance. To him, they’re simply…ugly. And having fished for decades, he’s arrived at a point in his angling career where ugly no longer works for him. He sees beauty in the classics, a beauty which matters.
I find this concept quite interesting. It prompted me to ask him if he thought the beauty in a classic fly was intrinsic to the fly itself, or whether it lay strictly in the eye of the beholder. He replied that it was inherent in the flies themselves: beauty as a product of both design and the employment of all-natural materials. I told him I wasn’t as certain about that, and decided to argue the other side.
A Quill Gordon, I proffered, acquired its shape because it was nothing more than a knock-off of 19th-century English mayfly design. Beauty never entered the equation as a design concern—on either side of the Atlantic. Function and form drove design. As for the use of natural materials, well, the tiers of old had little choice: organic was pretty much their only option. So I argued that the conception of beauty in a Catskill dry fly—or, for that matter, any other classic fly—simply depended on when a person arrived to the sport.
Anglers old enough to have been exposed to classic flies at a young age, or when they were still widely fished, tend to consider them in aesthetic terms. They use words like “pretty” and “beautiful” when describing a fly. Younger anglers think differently. They aren’t nearly as apt to describe or draw a distinction between flies based on aesthetic concerns.
Bucky wasn’t buying it. Truth be told, I’m not sure I was, either. Because deep down inside, I see and feel the same things in the classic patterns that he does. The stylish lines of a Catskill dry fly, the flair in a well-tied Henryville Special, the elegance of a sleek, antediluvian bucktail streamer—they’re all beautiful to me, too. But unlike Bucky, I’m not sure I can trust my judgment. I’ve been fishing for a long time too, and I’m suspicious my views are unduly colored by a romanticism rooted in those many years of experience. I question whether I’m truly capable of escaping that experience to make an unbiased judgment. And so while Bucky harbors no doubts, I’m left to wonder, still, where does the beauty in a fly lie?