Would a Woolly Bugger by any other name catch as many fish?
As the catalog of flies grows to an overwhelming number, anglers have come to trust certain patterns on the basis of their names. A Copper John will catch fish on the Stillwater River, while there is an expectation that a rainbow trout will hammer a Ray Charles on the Bighorn River. The flies that are repeat offenders on the fishing report often find their bins empty at local fly shops.
While some flies have become synonymous with the sport, the knowledge and history of these flies is often neglected by anglers. A fly’s name is often as important as the fly itself, it carries the legacy of its creator and represents his or her artistry as a fly tyer.
Below is a list of flies with Montana connections that have become fly box essentials or have pioneered techniques that changed fly tying and fishing forever.
Due to the nature of fly tying, there is often disagreement about the origins of a fly. The explanations below are the commonly accepted stories of the flies and their creators.
This is the quintessential streamer. There may not be a fish species that this fly has not caught. Its creation is commonly attributed to Pennsylvanian Russell Blessing, who first tied the fly in 1967 to appear like a Dobsonfly nymph.
The fly was inspired by the Wooly Worm, whose tying technique was first mentioned in Izaak Walton’s 1653 "The Compleat Angler" and later popularized by Don Martinez. Martinez operated a fly shop (now Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop) in West Yellowstone. Blessing tied a piece of marabou feather to the back and created arguably the greatest streamer of all time. The Woolly Bugger was given its name by Blessing’s daughter who thought the fly looked like a “wooly bugger.”
Better known as the Humpy, the Goofus Bug — as it was originally named — was first tied by Montana fishing guide Keith Kanyon in the 1940s specifically for the Firehole River.
Jack Horner tied a nearly identical pattern in California around the same time, called the Horner Deer Fly. Kanyon altered Horner’s pattern by adding wraps of grizzly hackle to boost the buoyancy and durability of the fly.
Later, Jack Dennis of Wyoming tied a very similar fly that the Orvis catalog picked up and branded as the Humpy. West Yellowstone fly shop owner Pat Barnes popularized the name “Goofus Bug” after a customer referred to the fly that had caught many fish the day before as “goofy.” The fly quickly became a staple of Montana dry fly fishing.
Dan Bailey's fly shop still offers the original Goofus Bug and Montana fishing legend Bud Lilly told David McCumber, of the Montana Standard, that “we used to sell those (Goofus Bugs) by the tens of thousands. Because they worked.”
Pat Barnes tied up this variation of a salmonfly in the 1940s. Pat was born in Lewistown in 1909 and grew up fishing the Madison River. He found work with fellow Montana fly-fishing icons Dan Bailey and Don Martinez before starting his own business.
Pat and his wife Sig were some of the preeminent fly-tying innovators and fly shop owners of their time. Legend has it that Pat was guiding a group of Texans who were incapable of catching fish without large flies. Pat tied up a large salmonfly that caused one of the Texans to remark “It’s as big as a sofa pillow!”
Pat altered the original pattern by adding Palmer hackle on the body and elk hair. The fly eventually evolved to include wiring around the body of the fly. This variant was dubbed the Improved Sofa Pillow and is still used to great success by many anglers.
While fly shops no longer sell the original Sofa Pillow, modern Stimulator patterns take direct inspiration from Pat Barnes’ original fly.
The Royal Wulff was named for famed fly fisherman Lee Wulff. Wulff took the Royal Coachman pattern and strengthened it with hair for a tail and wings in order to withstand the rough streams of Montana.
There is argument as to whether Wulff truly tied the original fly. Many believe that Q.L. Quackenbush first crafted the pattern that would become known as the Royal Wulff. Regardless of who initially tied it, Wulff’s name stood the test of time, likely in part due to Dan Bailey.
Wulff had initially called the fly the Bucktail Coachman but was convinced by Bailey to market it as the Royal Wulff along with a whole set of Wulff flies. The fly achieved great acclaim at Dan Bailey's fly shop as the Royal Wulff and remains an essential attractor pattern.
While the Black Creeper’s creator, Butte native George Grant, did not offer a concrete explanation for the name of his fly, he himself is worthy of mention.
Grant was a champion of conservation and had great influence on the passing of the Montana Streambed Preservation Act and the Montana Stream Access Law. He also played an instrumental role in preventing the construction of the proposed Reichle Dam on the Big Hole River.
In 1999 Grant was awarded the Trout Unlimited conservationist of the year award in honor of his efforts to preserve the Big Hole River.
Grant was a master at his craft and his weaving techniques have eluded even today’s top tyers.
The flies intricacy is largely the reason The Black Creeper is not a household name today in the fly fishing community. Grant said of the Black Creeper "It would have been as well known as the Wooly Worm if it could have been produced with as much ease and in similar quantity."
He first tied the Creeper in 1931 and later altered it with black ox hair, boar hair and finally Tynex nylon. The Creeper was likely named for its eerie black hue, striking red underbelly, and its knack for catching large fish. Dan Bailey once described the Black Creeper as one of “the most beautifully tied flies I had ever seen.”