Saturday, February 27, 2010

A wee project

Perfect activity for recovering from the Chinese Hackle Flu.

Years ago, I used to do a fair bit of antique leatherwork. I made armor, thigh-high medieval and renaissance boots, shoes, drinking vessels, pouches, scabbards, etc. I also tooled designs into leather. The other day, I rooted around in the basement and found what remains of my formerly large collection of leather and leatherwork tools. It now consists of one lone box.

The idea was to make a case for protection of the reel when it was both on and off the rod. Reels get scratched in two major ways:
  1. Dropped at home while being played with and fussed over.
  2. Dropped, scraped, or fallen on while entering or exiting the river.
The reel case prevents #2.

The whole thing turned out decently, except for the side material being cut a bit short, and the main panel cut a bit crooked. Whatever. Not too bad for the first time in twenty years. I remembered how to sew by hand using glover's needles and a sail stitch, and how to tool leather. I even used handmade scissors/shears to cut the leather, and sewed it to music from Europe and England from the 14th through the 17th century. How organic. Hope it provides some good JuJu.

The original neoprene case for this 4" spey reel got dropped in the river. Hope that does not happen to this one!

All in all, I enjoyed this project immensely. I forgot how much fun it is to create from scratch; to start with a simple idea, and with very little planning, just see what happens. Total time, around eight hours. Less if not hand drawing the knotwork.

Awaiting finishing

Tooling the Celtic knotwork circle for the rear panel

Ready for coloring if desired

I thought a green knot might be nice.

Staining the medallion

Front with adjustable closure flap

Rear panel with Celtic medallion

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feathers, Asian bugs, and fevers

There are bugs, and then there are BUGS…

I received a package of hackle the other day, among other fur and tinsel type stuff, from a reputable mail-order materials company. I sat down to tie some salmon and steelhead classics, and lo and behold, I needed the very color of hackle that I had just received. I opened the package, ran my fingers through and noted the excellent quality of the feathers, and began to tie flies.

Flash forward to the next evening.
An itch in my throat quickly turned into a cough. The cough in turn turned into a full-blown old-fashioned fifteen-round full-monty Midwest late-winter cold; the kind of cold that I have not experienced since childhood; the kind of cold and fever that finds one sitting on the bed attempting to read a passage by James Joyce and drooling on the page.

Oh Good.

Well, since I needed my rest, what activity, other than sleep, is so relaxing and sublime as fly-tying? My addled and Nyquil saturated brain sat down at the vise for an hour or two and turned out the most incredible array of fouled-up rejects I have yet produced. I forgot whole steps. Wings were mounted to my nose, I sneezed on the teal feathers, scattering them all over. I dropped spools of tinsel and floss, rolled around on the floor trying to corral them, and ended up covered head to toe with fur and feather clippings.

Then, while reaching for that wonderful new Chinese rooster hackle dyed just the right color, I read (or hallucinated) a small label attached near the bottom of the plastic zip-lock bag. It read “New and improved! Now with 20% less Asian bird-flu germs.”

“Aha!” I thought, as I wrapped a piece of popcorn on the hook, and chewed on some soft-hackle.
Makes sense now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

It's all very complicated...

“You must really like to eat fish,” the friend of a friend says to me while sipping her latte.

“Um, well, actually I release most of the fish I catch,” I mumble, aware where this is inevitably going to end up.

“So, you like to fish, and you admit you like to eat fish, but instead you release them?”

“Well, see, it is all about nature, and beauty, environmental stewardship, appreciation of the fish and the river… See, fly-fishing is more than just fishing…”

Really, though, when it comes down to it, I reflect, it is just a simple game with rules that a four-year-old could grasp: Go down to lake or river with rod and reel. Catch fish. Repeat.

Being romantics, we always want to make more out of it. Take a simple essence and surround it with volumes of philosophy.
Make it into some sort of metaphysical and existential reflection and journey. Make it into a metaphor, and find life-lessons in it. Sit by the river pondering Camus. Assigning anthropomorphic qualities to things we see around us. Our flies are art, not craft we argue to ourselves, as if just accused anonymously by an upstart and impudent thrush. We’re not just fishing see… we are, well, experiencing some sort of primal harmony. “It’s all poetry,” we murmur out loud, even if the hypocrisy peeks its irritating head through a tiny doorway in our brain, reminding us that the last time we attempted to read Frost, we fell asleep.

It just has to be more than a simple game of cat and mouse. We refuse any assertion that at times it can be quite easy. “Takes years and skill,” we argue to the trees while raising fish after fish with a fly that the carefully tied hackle fell off of on the first cast.

We have been caught by family members while lying in the filled bathtub with scuba gear, congratulating ourselves on the latest revelation or innovation in fly design. We have been admonished and punished by angry spouses when our latest attempts at dying hackle stained the sink a very interesting shade of green.

‘Normal or mundane’ folks refer to them as bugs, but we know better. They are Ephemerella subvaria. It makes a difference we reflect… Appreciation and knowledge and such.

There was once a time when we contemplated homicide as a careless Aunt referred to our cane fly rod as a “Fishing pole.”

We don’t just take a drink from the river, we sip of the essence of life, forgetting while we do so, that the last time we did this we ended up with the runs for a week.

What other kind of sport could so inspire, that we could be found late upon a cold winter morning, seated in front of the fireplace in the study, dressed only in a robe and our underwear, surrounded by tackle and fly-boxes, dreaming dreams of spring.

I once read somewhere that a newlywed bride told her friend, “My husband does not drink, smoke, or chase women, instead, he fly-fishes.”
Several years later, she admitted to the same friend that if it were up to her, she wished he did a few of those other things, and a bit less fishing.

“It’s complicated,” I try to explain to the friend of a friend; “It’s sublime.” Hearing those words from my mouth with the clarity of an out of body experience, I smile about how I am going to explain why it is ‘sublime’ to match wits with a creature with a brain the size of a match-head, attempt to fool it with a bit of old string and some smelly fur, and end up coming up short most of the time.

“Perhaps it is a journey in humility,” I reason out loud, remembering when arrogance kept us from talking to that guy with the spinning rod that was out-fishing us ten to one. Pride before the fall? Arrogance before humility, or humbleness only because of prior arrogance… More philosophy.

What other sport would have us attempt, via some hidden and unknown rosetta stone, to decipher and make sense of the many ill-written books on fly-fishing? Some being tomes of astounding tediousness and practically unreadable. What other sport would have us chuckle with the fine author Nick Lyons, as everything possible goes wrong and he falls in the river? Perhaps it is because we have been there ourselves. We may reflect back to the time when, on the subject of beauty and fly-casting, we attempted, in a local park, to show our spouse the inherent ballet in a properly made loop, only to have a seagull eat the piece of yarn we were using as a fly, and after taking out all the line, tangle it forever in a large oak tree.

“It’s complicated…” I mumble through current muffin crumbs, watching the departing back of the friend of a friend, and looking down at the spilled coffee, and the single word traced with it on the table: “Crazy.”

After much reflection, I have come to completely agree.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An historical and inspirational poem

Old Time Salmon Fishing

Written in 1925 by John Cossboom, renowned American angler and originator of the famous ‘Cossboom’ series of flies.

Did you ever cast for salmon in the spring,
For the big bright shining fish fresh from the sea,
With the leaping strength and vigor that they bring
To the swollen flood-fed river running free?

Did you ever feel the fever in your blood
When a dirty cold Nor’easter threatened rain,
And you smelled the river clearing after flood,
And you sensed the salmon in the pools again?

Did you never wield a rod of eighteen feet –
A Leonard, old, with handles wound with cane –
The “Church of England” rods we used to meet,
Swung by anglers of the old school without strain?

Did you ever use a cast of Hebra size?
Did you ever cast a sixty-thousandths line?
Did you ever tie on Durham Ranger flies –
Big 5/0 flies, and cast them in the wind?

Did you ever see a wave behind your fly
And know it for a fish of monstrous size,
And when that wave exploded two feet high,
Feel your great rod bend near double to the rise?

Did you ever have a guide yell in your face,
When your salmon surged across the heavy pool
And dragged your rod down level with your waist,
“Keep your tip up, or you’ll lose him, you dumb fool!”?

Did you ever race along the slippery shore
With your rod held high and bended to the fray,
While down across the rushing pool he tore
And jumped two hundred feet and more away?

Did you ever feel your rod and line go slack,
And cry, “He’s gone!”, in disappointed pain,
And when you found he’d only started back,
Did you madly reel the strain on him again?

Did you ever think you had him tired out,
When his tail began to show above the stream?
Did you ever think him yours without a doubt
Till he rushed and made your old reel fairly scream?

Did you ever back up slowly on the beach
And draw him gently toward the waiting guide,
Then have him stop and stay just out of reach,
And chug those scary chugs from side to side?

Do you recall that long last surging plunge
That took him up and out across the tide,
And how you swung him back down to the lunge
That sank the gaff into his silver side?

Do you recall your fervent thankful prayer,
As his forty pounds lay shining at your feet,
To the Red Gods who had smiled on you so fair,
To the Red Gods who had made your joy complete?

That’s the fishing that they called a “Sport of kings” –
When thet fished in swollen rivers’ springtime flow
For the big bright shining fish of other Springs,
With that heavy rugged gear of long ago!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What it means to me

I tried to capture with available photos some of the romance I find in this fine sport of angling for bejeweled fish in glorious rivers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A couple of spring patterns

Although these flies can and are tied more sparse for lower water situations, here I tied them more full for spring spate flows in March and April.

Will Taylor Special varient and the Blue Bear. Both Canadian Atlantic Salmon patterns.

The Blue Bear is pictured as tied with krystal-flash, but I substituted peacock sword.

The Will Taylor Special comes from the Miramici River, and according to the best information available to me, was originated by Boyd Dunnett.

Both flies have bodies spun of dyed wool. I kind of like the green I got by mixing a bit of chartreuse with kelly green.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Lost World of Mr. Hardy DVD Review

The Lost World of Mr. Hardy DVD

By Trufflepig Films.
Buy Here

Review by Erik F. Helm

“This is history!” Says the last Mr. Hardy emphatically, as he watches a film from 1939 showing the fly-casting of a rod he himself designed.

The Lost World of Mr. Hardy is at once both an historical documentary and a requiem. An elegy to a lost time when the craftsman took as much pride in their fine hand-crafted rods, reels, and lines, as the discerning anglers around the world did in their use; an elegy to the craftsmen and women themselves who, apprenticed at 13 or 14 years old, spent their entire lives dedicated to producing the world’s finest fishing tackle. That was Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, producers of the Perfect fly reel, the Palakona rod, the Smuggler, jewel-action bait reels for Zane Grey and tackle for kings and maharajas. A family of tackle makers who spanned the 19th and 20th century.

Subtle and reflective piano music accompany the slowly unfolding scenes. Period black and white films of sportsmen decked in country dress fishing for salmon are mixed nicely with scenes of nature; the sounds of a riffle trickling or the drops of falling water. Loops unfurl over the water as herons crouch and songbirds sing.

If one loves the traditions and history of fly-fishing as well as being familiar with, or even owning a piece or two of Hardy tackle, you may very much enjoy this film. If these conditions don’t apply, then you may enjoy the nostalgia for the first half-hour, and then simply pass out. This is a film about passion… the passion of fine tackle and its history at Hardy. If one has any sensitivity, it may bring a tear or two.

Several scenes of the historical footage are priceless. In one scene, one of the Hardy Brothers fishes a salmon river at full spate with a spey rod. After hooking several salmon, one gains new respect for the ghillie. It seems that in order not to over exert himself or get his lovely shoes muddy, Mr. Hardy would hand the rod to the young Ghillie, who would run off chasing the salmon down the river and out onto rock bars while the sport lit a cigar. The joy seemed to be in the hooking of the fish. The rest was a job for the plebs. The fact that these fish, which were up to 50 pounds were hooked and played on 8/0 Black Doctors might give us some food for thought.

Another scene showed and described the bombing of the famous London Pall Mall Hardy Bros. shop during the Blitz in WWII.

In several repeating scenes, we see auctions and large tackle sales where Hardy products of the past are featured, and prospective collectors finger tackle carefully, examining old reels and rods with jeweler’s glasses. Then we see the same tackle sold for unbelievable prices.

The film also displays the meticulous art of tying full-dress married wing salmon flies by hand and without a vise, and shows Ken Middlemist at work, the last of the Hardy fly tiers.

The stark reality of the late 19th century and early 20th century apprentice system becomes quite apparent in the film. Apprentice fly tiers would tie fly after fly on the same hook, have it critiqued, and then snip off all the fur and feathers and start again. For the first number of years, they were not allowed to complete a fly for sale. This sort of purgatory of learning also included several of the Hardy family who would constantly berate the workers, check their work, and if they found it wanting in any way, smash it to pieces in front of them. The worker would then not be paid for his work. No bangers and mash for you this week!

The funny thing about this system, which was no different than other industries at the time, was that the workers were very dedicated to Hardy’s, and all those years spent meticulously learning their trade paid off in the quality of goods they produced.

A dying tradition:

If the film is an elegy to a lost time, one may ask where did it all go? The answer is here in the film as well. Modern production methods, new materials, and a search for cheaper production costs slowly led the industry-leading company to outsource their production. Hand-made split cane gave way to fiberglass, and the young girls that sat in rows tying trout flies now sat in those same rows in Asia and Africa. Slowly, but inexorably, each of the crafts was eroded, until Hardy Brothers became a design and marketing company instead of a production company. This was not a smooth process, which the film hints at. Indeed, at several points in their later history, Hardy’s direction and product offering became rather lost. It was as if they were looking for their way in a dark room with no light. Hardy had their feet rooted in tradition and history, and were reaching out to the new high-tech market: disc-drag reels, lighter rods, etc. To give an example of the opportunities misused, Hardy may in fact be the first company to build a graphite rod, but missed out in bringing it to market like the could have.

As the film wanders to its conclusion, several elderly workers and fly fishermen reminisce about what the loss means. The term ‘bespoke’ is a British one, meaning hand made to the customer’s specifications. The bespoke industry may have gone from Hardy’s, but as the film shows, it just turned around and emerged as a cottage industry, where the craftsmen work from their tool shops in garages and produce hand made reels and cane rods to this day.

Hardy’s may have changed, and the world of the true craftsman and the gentlemen that used their tackle lost, but the tackle itself was so well made that it exists today as collector’s items or is cherished on the river.

They say that if an author’s work is read, than he or she lives on through the words. If this is true than the lost world of Mr. Hardy is not altogether lost. It can be found in that wonderful ratchet sound of their reels still heard today, crafted by men and women in a lost time. The time may be history, but the appreciation of their craft is not.

If you are a fly-fisherman and a fan of fine tackle, this film, especially its historical footage, may make a welcome addition to your collection, and serve as an inspiration much as the old Hardy tackle catalogue did to several generations of dreamers. E.H.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Few Flies, or it is a long winter…

First up is the Bloody Mouse.

Tail is sable, wing is skunk, and the body is made from segments of grizzly soft hackle and fiery red SLF.

Next up is the famous Atlantic salmon bomber style fly The Green Machine.

I tied this one more like a traditional bomber.

Next, a cross between a Rusty Rat body and Cossboom with a green wing I call the Highland Rat.

Next, A sort of experiment in orange, yellow and green.

And Last, my attempt at a married wing Irish style Thunder and Lightning. Dressing per Alcott.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ethics, and the Gentleman

“Ethics involve an individual’s values. They’re about an angler’s understanding and endorsement of the concept of Fair Chase, and the desire to capture and release – or kill – salmon as humanely as possible.

This is the real-world difference between fishing and merely gathering food. It’s also the difference between the ritual taking of salmon in a clean and simple way and turning salmon into props for egotistical stunts.

Fair Chase is the philosophy of accepting restrictions that help level the playing field, giving salmon – or deer, or partridge – a chance to elude capture by craft, agility or strength. The ethical angler doesn’t merely want to get a salmon; he wants to catch one in a way that demands skill and the fish a chance to win. The laws of Fair Chase change, and there’s no universal agreement on them, but they can be described as sportsmanship. Just where an individual draws the line – does Fair Chase demand the use of barbless hooks, or is that just an additional flourish for anglers seeking a greater challenge? – defines the nature and quality of his ethics.

The concept of sportsmanship evolved from the Anglo-Saxon notion of the gentleman – the secular equivalent of a priest, who adhered to a code of conduct, or ethics…”

Peter Bodo, The Atlantic Salmon Handbook.

I consider the (modern) concept of the Gentleman to be a very important one. One of the highest praises that can be placed upon a man is that he be called a gentleman. It refers to a bearing and manner, an approach to life itself in all its intricate paths and myriad pursuits. A gentle-man is gentle. This does not refer to pacifism, but to respect and restraint, kindness and quiet. A gentleman walks through life with compassion, understanding, and the ability to listen. He treats others as he would himself be treated. He adheres to an ethical code. A gentleman is not born; he is made by his actions and reputation. Above all, he is wise. He bears himself with dignity and his touch is light upon all that cross his path.

The title or more correctly, the mantle of ‘Gentleman’ cannot be assumed, one’s peers must confer it. A sort of non-armorial peerage of manner.

The concept of the gentleman as emerged from Victorian times is a confusing one, with public education (read Eaton and Oxford), class, social status, organizational membership, armorial peerage, and ethics all jumbled together. It also may be good to note that their was quite a bit of hypocrisy in how a gentleman acted. People who referred to themselves as ‘Gentlemen’ slaughtered the ‘heathen’, cheated in business, oppressed others, took unfair amounts of game, opposed woman’s suffrage, etc.

To quote John Henry Cardinal Newman of the 19th century;

“It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder.”

This of course, is a rather saintly and glaringly catholic description, and one that may place too much emphasis on meekness.

Geoffrey Chauser clarifies the concept when he writes:
"Certes he sholde not be called a gentil man, that... ne dooth his diligence and bisynesse, to kepen his good name"


“Loke who that is most vertuous alway
Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he can
And take him for the gretest gentilman”

I have had the fine privelege of meeting a number of true gentleman in my life, and in every circumstance, have taken a bit of their wisdom and approach to life, and tried to make it my own.

They lead by example. Whether on the stream, or on the street. Virtue, ethics, and bearing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

My personal funniest moment of 2009

The setting: somewhere in a river valley.

The plot: Erik’s car breaks down, and he has to ride with his friend for a day of fishing and then off to a mountain town to see about a tow and find if anyone can work on a VW.

The incident:

Well, I had to transfer all of my necessary items from my dead car to my friend’s truck. I needed food, fishing gear, and essentials. Somehow I forgot something.

We get to the mountain town after a morning of fishing and begin to search for a foreign car repair place or somewhere with someone with most of their teeth left. We locate one, and as I am going to go inside, I realize that I have left my shoes in my car, which is dead beside the river. What to do?

My friend, ever the helpful sport, offers to loan me his unused but brand new extra pair of wading boots. I agree. As I tie the laces, I realize that I am dressed in all black capilene, and now am wearing size 13 lime green clown shoes. Walking in the things was like a girls first attempt at pumps. Here I am in some mountain town, dressed in black spandex and giant lime green clown shoes and about to ask for a tow.

They must still be talking about the strange way people from Wisconsin dress…

Moral of the tale: We all look like complete idiots sooner or later.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Marmalade Skies

I recently obtained some dyed coyote hair from a friend. (Thanks Dave!)

The guard hairs were just crying out with wild colors, so I sat down at the vise and answered the call of inspiration. The idea was for a winter fly I could fish on a light sinking poly-leader. I wanted this fly to have calling power.

I actually liked the first result, which is often rare. I have a whole box of reject ideas; things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but when they came to fruition, looked like cat pee. That would make an entire article there; things that didn’t quite make it.

When posting this fly on a tying forum, I wondered aloud what other names people would come up with. Marmalade Skies was a clear winner. Lucy in the sky with diamonds…

Hook: 2/0 Bartleet

Tip: Fine oval gold long

Tag: Burnt yellow floss

Tail: Four peacock sword barbs tilted upward to meet wing

Butt: Black ostrich

Ribbing: Med. Oval gold followed by small ovel gold

Body: Rear in front of butt, six to seven turns of orange floss, Orange Angorra Goat mixed with hot orange SLF remainder

Body Hackle: Claret neck

Wing: Four peacock herls under yellow dyed coyote. Orange coyote over.

Collar: Doctor blue followed by kingfisher blue

Head: Black

I have a suspicion that the early spring fish in dark cold water may like this.

* Note: No hallucinogenics were consumed in the conceptualization nor the realization of this fly. Is that a flying purple monkey?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Trailer for the Lost World of Mr. Hardy

Very interesting historical production. Two trailers.

Available for purchase here.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Neat Vintage Video of the Hardy Factory

Found on Youtube. A neat little piece of a bygone era. Enjoy!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The no-hitch Stealth Bomber

A while back, I posted a picture of this fly, and some of you wondered if I had fished it. New designs and prototypes are fine as art, but until actually tested in river conditions, they are an unknown quantity.

So, this fall I did fish the N.H.S.B. Here are my conclusions.

The fly works as designed. The bare hook at the rear anchors it, and the radically tapered head pushes water. I did not need to place a hitch on it, although I have no doubt it would work with a hitch just fine. I did not catch anything on it, but that is my fault. I only used it a couple of times, once in a run that was most likely fishless, and the second time as a comeback fly for a fish that chased and boiled.

The action of the fly was solid, but after around an hour or so of being in the water, it had a tendency to sink into the surface film. All I had to do was squeeze out the water and it worked for a further half-hour or so before becoming waterlogged.

As graded by the harsh professor:

Aesthetics: A

Design: B+

Performance: C+

Definitely a fly for faster water. Works well in riffles. Works fine in glass water too, unless waterlogged.

And there we have it. From concept to vise to river.