When I began fly-fishing, it was inevitable that I try my hand at fly tying. It was not just the creative aspect that drove my decision, but the fact that I am notoriously cheap. Store-bought flies were expensive, and it seemed that I could save money by creating my own patterns. It also might have been some sort of karmic fate or curse. I am still kind of divided on this. At least being a fly-tier has given me an excuse to be enigmatic, as in “Don’t talk to Erik over there, he is kind of weird. You know…he ties his own fishing lures…”
Every journey begins with a single step. In my case, I tripped and fell into the river.
To begin with, I did not have a vise. I also had no proper materials. I used old yarn and cotton sewing thread and attached them to inappropriate odd hooks using my hands. I wanted them to look like the few flies pictured in my book The Big Book of Fishing, which must have been tied by the three-year-old daughter of the publisher. Mine were not even that good. For some reason, I failed to grasp the simple concept that the thread belonged under the materials. My first flies looked like something the cat choked up.
I fished with them anyway, but was puzzled when, after a dozen casts, all the materials fell off. It didn’t matter though, any fish retarded enough to give my tying abominations a second glance, would be just as likely to eat a bare hook. I added glue in an attempt to secure the materials better. I lacked head-cement, so I used five-minute epoxy. This solved the problem, however the flies now lacked any motion at all, being entirely stiff with glue.
Then one Christmas, I received a vise and toolset. Santa must have a sense of humor. Either that or he’s a sadist.
I began the process of acquiring some actual fly hooks and inexpensive materials. What I should have done at this point was visit a fly shop and buy a book. Instead, I went to a craft store and a shop that sells lure-making supplies. I bought colorful craft yarn, plastic pony beads, ostrich herl, a package of various feathers intended to decorate masks, some hackle, three thousand yards of black chenille on sale, peacock herl, brass wire, and a single spool of tying thread. To this I added several packages of Mustad hooks. I returned home with excitement, brewed up a pot of coffee, put on some Bach, and arranged all my various acquisitions and the vise on the dining room table.
The first step in this gloriously creative day was to place the hook in the vise. This was far more difficult then it looked. The vise was one of those Indian import jobs, based very loosely on a Thompson classic (or perhaps on a Medieval thumbscrew). It sported an adjustment handle in the rear and a screw knob that one turned in order to, in theory, hold a hook securely. All I really required of the vise was to hold the hook. It did even that poorly. After a few minutes of fiddling, adjusting, pricking myself with the hook, more fiddling, and a good amount of freeform cursing, the hook sat in the jaws of the vise. It stayed put as long as I didn’t touch it. As soon as I attempted to wrap it with thread, the hook popped out with a loud “SPRONG!” and flew across the room to be located later by the vacuum cleaner.
Then the cotter pin that held the adjusting lever broke.
Undaunted, I fixed it with a bit of old wire, realizing all the way that one gets what one pays for.
I finally got the thread on the hook. Champagne all around! Then the thread broke for the first of ten thousand times, and I sliced open my fingers on the hook. I noted on the grocery list on the refrigerator that I needed to restock band-aids. The yarn I was using for the body was by now kind of claret colored by blood. I added some peacock herl, wound in a saddle hackle and some tinsel, and ran out of room at the front of the fly. Lesson #1: Don’t crowd the head.
I began to attempt to use the tools that came with the vise. These consisted of a pokey thing, a strange curved springy thing, something with two prongs on it, and some sort of pliers. These tools were obviously designed and made by Pakistani orphans, who had as little idea as I did as to their intended use.
Everything that could go wrong did. Materials that seemed secured mysteriously unwound themselves after the fly was completed. My heads unraveled. I tied in feathers upside down and backwards. I forgot steps. I had a blast.
I persevered and continued tying. Out on the water, I showed off my small collection of flies to others, who politely nodded and smiled. The common consensus was that “Those flies will catch a fish,” which is the stock courteous reply when unable to think of anything positive to say.
One of the first materials I collected were several packages of marabou. These I tied in as a tail. I liked the effect, so I added more colors. The first Wooly Bugger I tied consisted of thirty Marabou blood quills, a whole lot of thread, and a plastic pony bead. It floated.
The only solution to this, as I reasoned it, was to add more materials. More marabou would make the fly heavier, and thus it would sink faster. Right. The resulting monstrosity was nearly impossible to cast. After two or three hours of fishing, the fly became saturated with enough water to allow it to sink. Once it was waterlogged, it weighed around a pound or so, and became impossible to use. Back to the drawing board.
At a local fly shop, I found a giant grab bag of deer, caribou, antelope, and elk hair clippings dyed in wild colors. This collection of floor-sweepings, end-pieces, and mangy fur set me back only eight bucks. Man was I pumped. I had begun to collect some fly-fishing magazines, and was fascinated with what one could do with spun deer hair. Talk about running before learning to walk…
I created, in order, a succession of mutations that could only be appreciated by a person on an acid trip, and a huge mess in my apartment. Wherever I went, deer hair of various colors fell off my clothing. Lacking the proper razor blades, I employed an old pair of dull scissors in trimming my creations to shape. The results looked like a near miss by a hedge-trimmer with the shakes. Several neighborhood bass actually ate the things, proving that bass are just not that bright. Adding to the difficulty of working with the hair was the fact that most of the pieces were in effect unusable, which was something that never occurred to me.
After a few months of tying some Polar Shrimp that looked like rejects from a pre-school craft fair, some Dahlberg Divers that sank backwards, and a set of Double Egg and Sperm flies made from non-colorfast materials that bled into a sort odd pinkish-white mess, I found a picture of a Thunder and Lightning in an English magazine. Aha!
By now the reader may realize that I lacked completely in the needed skills or the proper materials to even think of tying a full-dress salmon fly. Nevertheless, I forged blindly ahead. My motto seemed to be “Enthusiasm will make up for skill.”
All sorts of colorful feathers and furs were used to create this first salmon fly. It actually looked pretty cool, especially compared to the other crimes against nature that emerged from my vise. I proudly gave several of the flies away as Christmas gifts. My father placed his in an Irish hat, which was a bit too much of an honor. (To the fly, not the hat)
Then one day I ran into a strange character in a local flyshop. He had suitcases of flies he tied, all mounted expertly in small plastic boxes. He seemed to be an unlikely candidate for a fly tier. He spoke with a deep hillbilly accent, made wild claims and exaggerations, carried a bowie knife, and smelled like mothballs. I figured that if he could tie nice flies, I could too. Besides, I had one major advantage; my father and mother were not cousins.
Few flies remain from that early era. My wet flies floated, and my dry flies sank. Most were discarded or mercifully lost in trees.
Slowly, my flies began to improve. I broke the thread less often, bought a vise that actually held a hook, purchased quality materials, and began to practice technique.
So, where was I?
Oh right; the original goals of creating pretty flies and saving money. I guess I am mostly successful at the former, but failed miserably at the latter. I expect I am not alone in this. There should be a warning label on fly tying materials and tools.
A couple of other rather unexpected things happened too. The dining room table, and in fact, the entire dining area somehow slowly morphed into a tying area. I never intended this to happen, but one day I walked past the piled-up mess, took a sip of tea, and muttered, “Well, there it is then…”
The second and even more unexpected thing was that I found myself enjoying the creative process and beautiful finished results of tying flies almost as much as I did fishing.
It was a heck of a fun journey.
So, as I type this with an old Lady Caroline embedded in my sock, a piece of tinsel stubbornly caught in my hair, and surrounded by dozens of fly boxes, I can honestly say that it was worth it.
I just need to get a better vacuum cleaner.