I have a friend who will not use any non-traditional artificials while fly fishing. "You might as well fish with worms as those damned bait flies!" he remonstrates.
Since the time of the famous confrontation of G.E.M. Skues by Frederick Halford at the Flyfisher's Club in London (about 1910), and probably long before, fly fishing traditionalists have been casting a wary eye on innovators.
Halford was the reigning high priest of the cult of the dry fly. Skues had been fishing the Itchen River with wet flies, nymphs really, cast upstream to rising trout. Halford and his followers considered such tactics unsporting, unethical, even heretical and chastised Skues, eventually getting him barred from several hallowed chalk streams.
Of course, many artificial flies can be considered "bait flies," especially nymphs. But two flies especially seem to arouse concern among critics.
Salmon egg flies first appeared among salmon and steelhead fly fishers on the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska several years ago. It didn't take trout anglers long to discover these so-called glo-bugs were also deadly trout catchers. After all, cured natural salmon eggs have long been one of the top baits for trout, and trout feed heavily on their own spawn.
I still feel pretty much like I'm bait fishing when I use glo-bugs. A couple of years ago while angling below the spillway at Otter Creek Reservoir I hooked and landed some good-sized rainbows. A lady angler asked me what I was fishing with, so I held up the pale yellow glo-bug for her to see. "Oh, an imitation cheese ball," she said. Well, sort of.
Glo-bugs attract a lot of attention from trout during spawning season. I no longer fish for trout on their redds, but a bug drifted below through the riffles will frequently attract the opportunistic non-spawning egg eaters holding there. For some reason I seem to lose a lot of these flies. Fortunately, they are easy to tie and during the winter I tie up an ample supply. Bugs are effective in a wide variety of colors. I have best success with orange and yellow in sizes 8 and 10.
An even easier fly to tie is the San Juan Worm. The worm evolved on the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. Originally, the worm was tied by tightly wrapping colored thread along the shank of English bait hooks, a really wicked but quite effective artificial.
Tied in this style the San Juan Worm is thought by some knowledgeable regulars to imitate the winged larva rather than the true aquatic worm. More recently the fly has been tied of short lengths of Ultra or Verneille chenille lashed horizontally along the top of standard nymph hooks, a tie that looks and acts in the water like the real thing.
In many tailwater fisheries, such as the San Juan, the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, the Colorado at Lee's Ferry and the Bighorn River in Montana, the San Juan Wonn is very effective. The aquatic worm, oligochaetes, is a relative of the common earthworm. It likes sandy, silty, mossy aquatic environments. My seining and rock-turning-over excursions have yielded mostly tan and amber colored specimens, yet the red artificial is by far the most successful. I don't know why.
I no longer use bait in trout fishing because I'm basically lazy and I've discovered there are effective artificial flies that are easier to use. I'll throw in with the late fly fisher/author Charlie Brooks who wrote that it should be acceptable to imitate any natural food trout eat. He took some heat from certain friends for his fondness for using a deer hair mouse fly.
It seems to me that bait flies might be the most logical flies for novice fly fishers to try, inasmuch as they probably have used real bait while fishing before. The flies are fished exactly the same way as natural baits, dead drifted along the bottom of streams and rivers. It takes a little more creativity to successfully fish them in lakes.