If you are a regular reader of this column you will know that I am not a fan of the foot long flies – with potentially lethal bait hooks trailing from their rear ends – that are ubiquitous among steelheaders these days. All artificial flies are intended to lure fish, hence all of them are essentially lures, but in the arcane world of angling, fur, feathers, hair, and tinsel lashed to a hook with the intention of imitating a creature fish eat, is a fly, while a metal contraption that whirls or wobbles or spins when passing through the water is classified as a lure.
The aforementioned giant flies, commonly known as Intruders, are most often weighted with bulging lead or tungsten eyeballs, wear gowns of glittering plastic tinsel, and are festooned with lengthy plumes of rhea, ostrich, and Amherst pheasant. To my eye, they appear to have one leg in the lure camp and the other in the realm of flies. Still, in fairness, they are flies, though they live on the margin of fly fishing respectability.
I first heard of Intruder patterns – though I didn’t know what they were called at the that time – when Dave Elkins was running the Fish Tales Tackle Shop. Dave told me that a group of cocky US steelheaders had bragged to him of a secret fly that, they boasted, would catch more and bigger steelhead than any other. Dave reacted to the trio of braggadocios like most people would and asked to see the magic fly.
Nothing doing, said the Yankee fishers, fearful, apparently, that their killer fly might become widely known and copied, inevitably resulting in the catch and release of many more steelhead, which could only mean fewer fish for them. Dave was a little annoyed at this selfish and superior attitude of the alien anglers. If you know Dave, you know he doesn’t like to be trifled with.
As luck would have it, US steelheading all-star, Scott Howell, often stayed with Dave and his wife Leslie on his way home after guiding in Alaska. Dave related the story to Scott, who not only knew the fly, but had a hand in its creation. Scott, affable fellow that he is, gave an Intruder to Dave who took it to the store and waited patiently and hopefully for the return of the US steelheaders.
And, return they did, whereupon Dave showed them the pattern and inquired if it bore any resemblance to their secret fly. Now, you’d expect some good natured laughter on their part in reaction to this gotcha, after all we’re only talking about a fly here, folks, but no. Instead, the Americans were outraged, wanting to know where Dave got the facsimile and threatening him with a lawsuit to boot.
Since it was intended to imitate a squid, Scott’s Intruder meets that part of the definition of a fly that demands it should be fake fish food. But, it was quite different from the intruders I see at the end of anglers’ fly lines and in tackle shops now. It was a long fly, and a clever tie, with its hook enclosed in the body of the fly, then pushed into an insert in much the same way as that of the tube fly, that old British standby presently experiencing a Renaissance on this continent. Attached to a short length of monofilament nylon, the short hook was designed to come free after contact with the quarry. It was never supposed to be trailing behind the fly, as those built by fly tiers who don’t know the provenance of the pattern and understand its smart design are.
The proliferation of two fisted fly rods for steelhead fly fishing enabled the Intruder, a type of fly too large to cast comfortably with even the larger steelhead rods that were the tool of choice for steelhead fly fishers. A similar process must have occurred in the history of British Atlantic Salmon angling. The fully dressed Atlantic Salmon flies, dressed with bits of exotic birds from all over the British Empire, were creations every bit as gaudy as the today’s Intruders, and many were built on huge irons, hooks four inches in length. Like Intruders, many traditional Atlantic Salmon patterns were patterned after seafeed like prawns and there is some speculation that the most flamboyant were constructed with butterflies in mind.
Fishing with large flies such as these or Intruders is more of an athletic event and a great deal more repetitive than fishing with a single handed rod. There is a muscular grace to it, but it can’t come close to the grace and versatility the manipulation of a small rod and small fly affords.
The Spey rod culture in steelheading, with all its clever innovations in fly design, rod building, and fly lines has developed from a competitive ethos where size and numbers are paramount. The challenge is to beat others rather than better oneself. It reflects the times.