What’s in a Name? the Etymology of Fly-Fishing Flies

By Charpentier, Henry | The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT), August 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

What’s in a Name? the Etymology of Fly-Fishing Flies


Charpentier, Henry, The Billings Gazette (Billings, MT)


This Black Creeper fly ad from July 14, 1934, was published in the Montana Standard newspaper in Butte.

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.

A Woolly Bugger fly.(CASEY PAGE, Billings Gazette )

Woolly Bugger

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.”

A Goofus Bug fly, also known as a Humpy.(CASEY PAGE, Billings Gazette )

Goofus Bug

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. …

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