Cactus fly

Posted: Friday, January 15, 2010

Look closely, these are no ordinary flies.

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Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire

One might notice the hand-tied details, the tiny imperfections in the hackle or the individual wrappings of thread. One might even recognize the common imitation stonefly pattern, but it's unlikely the hook will get a second glance.

It's not metal, or wood. Not cast or carved. It's cactus. And these flies have caught fish.

It's an innovation from the tying table of Dr. Bob Bosworth, a retired physician and fly fisherman living in Denver, CO.

And the flies have the local fly fishing club, the Raincountry Flyfishers, talking. Bosworth's son, Rob, recently presented these flies at a meeting in December. Jaws dropped and the questions came in.

"I've been tying flies for over 50 years and I've never seen or heard (about) anything like this," President Tony Soltys said. "I was amazed that someone would do that, and I wanted to know why."

Soltys wasn't the only one interested. In fact, at the club's upcoming meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 20, a "tie-off" will determine which club member get to take home one of these "cactus flies."

Fittingly, their journey began thirty years ago in the southern deserts of Arizona. Bosworth remembers clipping some hook-shaped spines from an aptly named Fish Hook Barrel Cactus growing in the backyard of a friend living in Tucson, Arizona.

"That's where I got all my hooks then," Bosworth said.

To the spine he affixed a thread-wrapped body, hen hackle and a stiff hair wing. The finished pattern was nothing short of traditional and proven effective for trout and steelhead all over the Pacific Northwest. But the hook was not.

Shaped like the Alec Jackson Spey Hook of today, the cactus spines feature an elegant curve that ends in a point that is not only sharp, but also strong. The material is also incredibly buoyant and naturally barbless.

George Montgomery, curator of botany at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, said spines from Ferocactus wislizenii, the plant's scientific name, are similar to wood.

"They're rigid and solid," he said. "And they're very hard. They're like modified leaves. Just like most wood, it has a lighter specific gravity than water. Adaptations of desert plants have structures in the cells that keep water from evaporating out. It could be that the spines have an epidermis that is impenetrable to water."

Montgomery said he's seen cacti spines used for various things, such as phonograph needles, but never for fish hooks, despite the plant's name.

"I have not ever heard of spines being used for hooks," he said. "The common name probably comes from the shape of the central spine of the cactus, which can be up to an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half long and is shaped like a fish hook."

Flash back thirty years, and Bosworth is on a guided fly fishing trip down the Black Canyon on the Gunnison River in Colorado. This famed river is best known for its rainbow and brown trout fishery, and sees a stonefly hatch annually.

"The first time I used (the cactus fly) was on the Gunnison River," Bosworth said. "The guide I was with at the time said, 'You can't fish with that.' But I fished it like I would any fly and bounced it off the canyon wall. First cast, I caught a great big fish."

Bosworth said he continued to use the flies and tried tying a number of different dry fly patterns on the hooks.

"I tried a floating streamer. I did catch a fish on it, but didn't have a chance to use them after that," he said.

Now, years later, Bosworth has dusted off the flies, and passed them down to his son, Rob.

The elk hair wing is brittle and hen hackle fading. The tippet, now crinkled and curled, is still attached via a snell hook to the "eye" of the fly.

Rob said he was surprised at local interest in the flies and plans to keep what he doesn't give away.

Because despite the commonality of their origin, these flies and the hooks they're tied on are wholeheartedly unique.

"I've got flies coming out of my ears after all these years of fishing," Bosworth said. "I don't know where you'd get them now, except to go down to Arizona and find yourself a fish hook cactus."

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at or 523-2271.

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