Have you ever heard the term “variant”? It’s used a lot in fly tying and has multiple meanings. Originally, a variant used to be a fly style, similar to traditional dry flies, but the fly was supported by longer hackles and tails. Another definition is a significant variation of another fly pattern. I think in today’s world, fly tyers have taken greater liberties when it comes to using the term “variant”. Fly fishers have been creating variations of effective flies for decades.
William Baigent (1864-1935), an Englishman, developed a variant style of fly in the late 19th century. His flies were similar to traditional dry flies, but as mentioned above, the fly was supported by longer hackles and tails. Tying the fly in this manner, allows the fly to sit higher without the hook touching the water.
Fly fishing authors from the past like Preston Jennings (A Book of Trout Flies – 1935) and Art Flick (Streamside Guide to Naturals and their Imitations – originally published 1947; republished 1972) continued Baigent’s fly design. Three flies you might recognize include the Dun Variant, Cream Variant, and Grey Fox Variant.
More recently, variants substitute one or two materials from an original fly pattern. I’m a proponent for many of the old fly patterns. A lot of newer flies substitute man-made materials available today and rename them with the hopes of catching more fly fishers than fish! Walk into any fly shop and you’ll see dozens of examples.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t use all the great materials available to fly tyers these days. In fact, I use them just like many others.
Fly tyers used to be a secretive lot. The flies they created, and techniques used were tradecraft secrets. Here’s an example.
Rube Cross was a well-known fly tyer in the 1920’s and 30’s in the Catskill region of New York. Walt Dette tried to get Cross to teach him to tie flies and his response was “go to hell”. Walt purchased some of Cross’ flies and took them apart to learn how the flies were tied. That was the beginning of their commercial tying business.
Fly tying has changed a lot since those days. Now we have YouTube where some originators demonstrate how to tie their flies. Or attend a fly fishing show and you’ll see many fly tyers willing to demonstrate their craft.
And people like me present fly pattern sheets on websites for all to see. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked why I give away so much knowledge. Why not charge for it? I could set the website up as a subscription based service.
But that’s not how I operate.
Fly tyers have been changing or tweaking fly patterns since fly tying was invented.
But I think we’ve taken more liberties with the word “variant”. Today’s fly tyer has many more materials available to tie their flies. Think about where we would be today without all the man-made materials used in our flies! The possibilities are endless now for us to substitute materials to tie our flies.
A simple example is the Comparadun. Craig Mathews replaced the tail with Zelon and the Sparkle Dun was born. Bob Quigley’s Hackle Stacker used his hackle stacker wing technique and created his own version.
They all work. Tweaking a fly pattern might really make a difference. It’s why I use a Sparkle Dun so much. The tail imitates a fly escaping its nymphal shuck and is an easy meal for a trout. At least that’s what I believe!
Here’s another example.
Fly Tyer Magazine shows the original Purple Haze tied with a body of purple Flexi Floss up to the wing post and gray or olive Flexi Floss from the post forward. I featured the fly on the left in 2019 and tied it with floss, but used purple for the whole body. Today, many versions of this highly effective fly are tied with dubbing.
Again, changing materials might mean “variant”. Other times, I’ve seen similar “new flies” with new names. I believe it’s the result of a cut-throat fly business where popular flies are closely copied and renamed.
I’ve done that with my Beetle Bailey. At least I was upfront about it.
I’d purchased a few beetle fly imitations on one of our early fly fishing trips to Idaho and Montana. It turns out, I bought Grillos’ Hippie Stomper. Since it was highly effective catching fish, I tried to replicate the fly, using a simpler (for me) method of tying it. It remained nameless for a while and my wife and I continued to use the fly with great success. Rather than calling it “the fly we bought somewhere that imitates a beetle” it received the Beetle Bailey name. After learning about the Hippie Stomper, I added a comment in my fly pattern sheet to give credit to Andrew Grillos.
The last example is a Dolly Llama streamer I recently tied for a customer. I’ve been tying a simple version of the fly, but was interested in its history. (Be sure to check back as I’ll be featuring the Dolly Llama in an upcoming Throw Back Thursday Fly post.) I learned the original utilized a rabbit collar to finish the fly.
Here is an image of three Dolly Llama streamers I tied last week.
Look at the collars. There are subtle differences if you look closely.
On the far left, no collar is used. The middle fly is tied as the original pattern was developed, with a collar of rabbit. On the last fly, I decided to use a dubbing loop to add a collar of Spirit River UV Seal-X Dark Olive dubbing. I was trying to find ways to cover the multiple thread wraps to firmly secure the rabbit strips.
Will the fish care which version I tie? I don’t think so.
Here are two Bull Trout who ate the original Dolly Llama I tied, without a collar.
Do you think I’d catch more Bull Trout with the other two “variants”?
Perhaps I should head to the river and give them a try!