Sunday, December 14, 2014

Classic flies, art and obsession


I have been spending quite a bit of time at the vise this early winter playing around with new and old renditions of classic fly patterns, especially salmon and steelhead flies. I had intended to spend this time filling up missing slots in fly-boxes for trout and bass, but instead kept coming back to the creative and artful flies instead. Then the other day a friend asked a question regarding how long it took me to tie these patterns, and a discussion ensued regarding the ‘why?’ aspect to tying and using these little works of art vs. utilitarian flies, and I began to ponder this a bit.

To me there is a certain elegance to full-dress Salmon Flies, Scottish Spey flies, Dee Flies, classic steelhead and salmon hair wings and feather wings as well as Catskill Dry Flies. They just speak to me. There is an inspiration in tying and fishing these flies that adds so much to the sport for me that they have become an essential part of my approach to fly-fishing and even become ingrained in my identity. Offering the fish a piece of art that took time and patience to create, and that contains a little piece of my soul underlies at least to me the sporting concept. The fly helps to elevate the act of simply fishing to a more profound experience.

This started years ago before I became an accomplished tyer. I remember tying salmon flies out of inappropriate materials and bad hooks right off the bat when I first began fly-tying. I looked at magazines, and seeing photos of Thunder and Lightnings and Silver Doctors, Rusty Rats and Blue Charms, wanted to able to create these myself. It was like running before learning to walk, but I learned a lot in the process. In the passing years, I found that tying on a beautiful fly gave me more confidence even if that was all in my mind. I threw out most of those first flies after a time, because they looked like a cat spat them up.

I produced several segments of the history and tying techniques of these flies on television and began to amass a vast collection of books on the subject. In all, I became rather obsessed. Mixing that obsession and creativity and passion gave me an outlet that along with writing, I never knew was in me before. I guess I fell in love with tying beautiful and complicated flies.

So I wanted to take some time here to share this passion, and examine the world of tying and fishing these flies through my eyes.

In essence, the fishing fly is a creation of fur and feathers designed as a lure to catch fish. They represent things that fly and swim in nature. That clinical definition is just the dust jacket on a proverbial book so big it could consume a person for a lifetime, or in my case… did.
I view the fly as an essential ingredient in the Art of fly-fishing. Imagine standing in a beautiful piece of water and attaching to your leader a fly you invented, one made up of dozens of materials and hours of effort. Think of the anticipation of catching a fine fish on that fly for the first time… Then imagine the fly is instead, a San Juan worm for example and the romance is gone like someone dumped cold water on it.

Sometimes the very pinnacle of the art is not the glory shot of the fish, but the whole journey there including fly-tying and presenting proudly a beautiful thing.

Flies and fly-tying are part of the complete game or art of fly-fishing, as important to our imagery and actual pursuit as casting, beautiful rivers, fine reels and rods, antique equipment, and ephemera. I like to sometimes sit on the bank and take a wee rest while contemplating my rod and reel and fly. I often
then get inspired to place the kit somewhere in the foreground and take a stunning photo of the river. I have been known to place flies on a stump, artfully arranged and try to capture their presence with a camera in hand.

Little touches make all the difference. A finely tied spey-style Green-Butt Skunk, with properly tented wings and proportions; the red tail sitting at a jaunty angle and nearly meeting the humped wing of white goose shoulder, the long hackles stirred by a whisper of breeze. The tinsel tag and ribbing done flawlessly. Fishing with an upright winged Catskill classic during an March Brown hatch and being entranced at the way the little fly bounces and floats just right on the surface.

Someone asked me recently if I had to choose three flies to fish with for a given river, which ones would I choose? I thought about it for awhile, and said “I would choose not to go fishing if that were the case.” Perhaps that may seem a bit much, but the fly itself and how it speaks to me, what it represents, and its aesthetic qualities mean so much to me that to exclude this aspect from my
fishing would be like listening to a piano concerto of Rachmaninov done on a kazoo. Let’s just say that the fly has become for me an essential part of the approach to fly-fishing, and at this point in my life and fly-fishing career, the approach seems more important than almost anything else.

Classic flies are not always the ‘best’ flies, but what is ‘best’ is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, the purpose is to catch a fish, but then that can be accomplished with worms, spinners, crank-baits, or just a hook with some Christmas tinsel and troll-doll hair on it. I think that utility in the modern
materials and synthetics had added a ton to the tyer’s art, and the possibilities at the vise and in the water. In some cases the modern fly can and will outfish a classic. But what classic? Take an egg-sucking leech, a ubiquitous fly if there ever was one, and essentially a woolly bugger with an egg as a head, and effective as hell. Yet, if look hard enough in books we find a classic called the Beauly Snow-Fly, a more complicated and elegant dressing designed to do the same thing. Often these old flies are over-looked in importance and usefulness.

I once read an article where the author poised the question in his title, “Is the Catskill Dry-Fly dead?” The obvious answer is No. Indeed, the newer thorax ties perform better in certain waters, and give us a new and better profile of the bug to a fish’s eye. They are simply another choice for us as anglers. That does not mean that the history of everything from Thaddeus Norris, to Theodore Gordon through Marinaro and Flick can be tossed out the window. No sir!

Look at a photo of flies tyed by Syd Glasso, Dave McNeece, Warren Duncan, etc. Ponder what went through their mind as they created each one for a specific purpose. Those flies shine through history and are as bright and worthy today as the day they were conceived. Stare at an original Quill Gordon in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont, and wonder at the segmentation effect the
quill has, and wonder how Gordon managed to get the hackle to stand up perfectly given the poor feathers he had to work with compared to today. Look at an original mounting plate of American wet flies by Mary Orvis Marbury and behold the colors. I find this stuff fascinating. These flies speak to you. These are icons to our sport.

Fly-tying is an art. Yes, the repetition of tying can be defined as a craft, but the technique and inspiration are an art. After all, we don’t frame these pieces of fur and feather for nothing. Since the beginnings in the foggy mists of the history of this sport all flies have been handcrafted: tied by human hands with only a few essential tools. Man has not devised a machine sensitive and precise
enough to tie a fly. It takes soul. Machines have no souls. It takes the dedication of years of learning, experience, study, and experimentation with technique and materials to become a good fly-tier. Medieval journeyman and attic tiers with a bottle of sherry and an idea. Experimenters and dreamers. Setting wing proportions on a Hendrickson, the body and wing construction on full-dress salmon flies, dying and spinning your own wool dubbing, working with materials, mounting jungle-cock so that it does not twist, etc. all learned over countless hours and applied to perfection to produce a fly worthy of the fish we pursue. The time taken in finding just the right Plymouth Rock feathers to allow the perfect Rusty Rat to be formed. It weaves a thread of labor and love throughout the casts, rivers, and fish.

Buying utilitarian flies at a shop can be like eating fast food. Chances are the tier probably has no real clue as the intended use of the fly other than “Fishing.” Tying a finely crafted fly is like cooking a fine meal. First, the procurement of ingredients, then the assembly under carefully measured conditions, and finally the delight of tasting and enjoying the home-cooked meal. An epicurean delight vs. a fast food burger. Time spent laboring and learning, and the food tastes better for the labor involved, as the fly has more value to us for the sweat and time we took to learn to tie it properly. Not to denigrate store-bought flies, but they will never compare in inherent involvement and immersement in the little game of chase and catch with the fish than using a fly we tied ourselves.

This sacrifice of time and energy at the vise is part of the game too. So is offering the fish a beautiful fly. Not only have we paid our dues in time preparing for the fishing, but also we respect the fish we catch by presenting the best fly we can tie. This takes time. We all go through a process of learning in tying that has to consist of pure time at the vise: like practicing the piano. Repetition and perfection combine with inspiration and passion when we finally get that fly right after so many failed attempts.

I recently realized that I had sacrificed my entire dining room to tying space, and the mess I have created in the past years may never be equaled or undone. My clothing is often festooned with stray bits of feather and fur. Just add some tinsel and I could masquerade as a Christmas Tree. I was talking to a wife of a customer of mine who has taken up fly tying, and she was commenting on the mess he makes when tying. I reflected out loud, “Every man needs to have a private place where he can be creative and make a mess. Besides, it could give him an excuse to buy you a new vacuum cleaner…”

It has been said that more words and books have been written on the sport of fly-fishing than any other sport (This author apologizes to be included in the guilty verbosity), and perhaps more books regarding flies and their tying and use have been written than any other subject within the sport of fly-fishing. After all, only so much can be written about casting, even if I believe it is an
art with endless possibilities, it is inherently three dimensional, and notoriously difficult to describe without resorting to props and analogies. Flies, on the other hand offer an immediate visual and aesthetic reward. The grace and sweeping curves of a speyfly, or the perfect set of wings and proportion on a married wing Salmon Fly can be appreciated by anyone. It is this universal appeal that leads the classic fly to become the visual symbol of our sport.

Anglers have collected books on flies and tying for ages. Copies are treasured and read and re-read from Art Flick to Kelson. Famous and classic flies have taken on a kind of ‘lore’ all by themselves. Authors such as Chris Mann have spent hundreds of hours researching and drawing salmon flies. Artists such as Jeff Kennedy spend hours just drawing and painting flies. These works adorn wine labels now. Collectors have saved and treasured old turn of the century catalogues from Hardy Brothers showing all the flies tied in their factory in England. A framed plate of flies by a Salmon Fly tyer can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Students of the sport study the history of flies, the  history and biography of those that tied and or documented them. They fill their time off of the rivers and streams with the non-physical pursuit of fur and feathers. Some people I know spend all their time in tying flies, and no longer really fish at all. It can be that absorbing. We aficionados of the classic fly could almost be classified as suffering from a kind of mild asperger’s syndrome akin to train watching. I recently acquired a few treasured fly history books from a used book store. The proprietors thought I was nuts as I giggled and danced, holding the books to my chest and smiling benignly but foolishly.

( I have to take a break from that last run-on paragraph to peruse my own meager collections of books on flies and discover that I have far more than I thought, especially focused on Spey, Dee, and Salmon flies as well as ornithology, history, and a lot of dust, bookmarks with cryptic notes, and pieces of tying materials creeping out of their spines. I find them on the couch, the coffee tables, the book-shelves, lost among the bins of materials, and on top of the refrigerator for some reason. I note that nowhere is there a book on the wooly bugger. I guess one could write a book on the poor lowly wooly bugger, which would be interesting for the first few pages, and then begin to read like…well,
like a book on a wooly bugger. Kind of like a three-volume set on the history of the ping-pong ball. Charming, but if you checked it out of your local library you might want to check behind you for men in white coats carrying a straight-jacket and being followed slowly by a short yellow school bus.)

Back to that comment about the classic fly and symbolism, it strikes me that it is a testament to how important the fly is as a symbol of our sport. The image conjures a certain elevation of fishing from pure recreation to the lofty world of aesthetics. It is as if the very image adds some verisimilitude or weight of substance to an otherwise bland offering, as when an article on loch fishing in Ireland begins with a fine photo of a Jock Scott Salmon Fly followed by the author describing mooching techniques with bait. The beautiful fly is a badge of refinement, and something to catch the eye. It also can be a symbol without substance behind it. I can’t even to begin to think of all the outfitters,  shops, guide services, etc. that use a classic fly on their logo but never on the end of their line. (Knowledgeable angler to guide… “Wow, is that a Gray Fox Variant in your hat?” Fly-Fishing Guide…” Huh -- Whatsa?” Now why is that?

Perhaps it lies in the inherent difficulty in tying these flies, as well as the need for innovation to not just add to, but eclipse. Perhaps it is ignorance. Who knows? But when that guide wanted to place a fly in his hat to cement his identity as to what he believed a guide on said river should look like, he reached into the past and pulled out a gem that would be as much at home on the end of his line as in his hat.

There is a certain inherent pride in ownership and craft when a fish is brought to hand on a fly one tied oneself. It is kind of similar to the icing on the cake. I vaguely remember in the mists of my past that first feeling, and remember when flies that I was so proud of at the time (which to my eye today show a sort of embarrassingly sophomoric innocence like a copy of a Vermeer portrait done in crayon) were mounted with a photo of the fish and treasured on a wall somewhere.

The fly-fishing outfit I work at held a photo contest recently called “Slammin Salmon”. A tongue in cheek light-hearted contest based around the best angler picture of spawning Great Lakes King Salmon that often resemble rotting corpses. The only rule was that it had to caught on a fly. We had already juried the contestants when at the 11th hour, someone dropped off a last photo. Here was a
teenage boy holding up a bright salmon, and sporting a smile so proud with accomplishment that it would make any parent’s heart melt. He was awarded the 1st prize. When posing for a picture with his winnings, a fly-box stuffed with salmon and steelhead flies, he said, “What was the best of all was that I caught the salmon on a fly I tied myself!” There it is. He had handcrafted a dream from
various bits of marabou, chenille, bucktail and hope in his basement seated at a little table in the washroom. He won the prize, but the most exciting aspect of the whole experience to him was that he caught the fish on a fly that he himself tied.

There is one drawback to using finely crafted beautiful flies: losing them in bushes and trees. This happened to me this past October when I miss-judged a cast, and placed a nice Blue-Bear salmon fly into a tree on the Brule’ river while swinging classic flies for ghosts. I finished the run with a different fly, and wading up to meet my friend Joe, mentioned with chagrin the lost fly while pointing it out to him. “What a great place to lose a fly! he said” I looked at the bejeweled speck of blue and gold and black hanging off a low branch in the Nipponese hole on the Brule’ and smiled agreeing. He was right of course. Like an ornament meets a burnt offering I had left a colorful sacrifice to the beauty of fly-fishing in one of the finest pieces of water I have ever swung a fly in Wisconsin. It might hang there still, but nevertheless, I will always see it there in my memories like a monument to the river.

Thus, I raise my glass in a toast to art. “May your flies be as beautiful as the places you fish!” Ars Longa, Vitae Brevis!

Copyright 2014 Erik Helm