Notes on Fly-Tying

Notes on Fly-Tying

You care more than the fish care

  • By: John Gierach
I enjoy the act of fly-tying as much as I do the self-sufficiency of making nearly all the flies I fish with. But refilling the picked over fly boxes from last year and tying the new flies I'll need is a daunting job, and there's always something else that has to be attended to, like earning a living, for instance. So I've settled on a trick that always works. Every year a guy from a fly shop in Fort Collins calls and asks if I'll do a tying demonstration. Every year I say yes. Then, as soon as I hang up the phone, I realize that I haven't tied a fly to speak of since last October, and although tying flies really is like riding a bicycle, you can still be a little wobbly if you haven't done it for a while.I'll need the flies soon enough, but more than that I want to practice up so I don't embarrass myself. I know the audience at the shop will be small and friendly, but it's still an audience, and confidence is the only known cure for stage fright. This year I started with midges because that's what I need first, for the good winter midging that starts on the tailwaters in January. I'm not bragging when I say midges are easy for me; it's just that I finally learned from my friend Ed Engle (in person and from his books) that the best small flies are the simplest patterns imaginable: "Fly-tying reduced to its barest essentials," as Ed says. In other words, why add tying time and bulk to a fly by wrapping a black biot body when you can just use the 8/0 black thread that's already on the hook? If you start with the idea that the shank of your hook is already fatter than the abdomens of most midges, you won't go far wrong. Ever since I left the old match-the-hatch complexity behind and adopted this new minimalism, I can now tie a dozen Stan's Blue Midges or Black Beauties before my coffee gets cold, and the hardest part is getting a size 24 hook into the vise without dropping it. I got the midge box refilled in a couple of diligent afternoons and then moved on to streamers because that's what comes next. Right after the late midging comes the early streamer fishing on the North Platte River in Wyoming where some friends and I do an annual two-day float in late March or early April. Sometimes it's more than one trip, either because the fishing was so poor we have to try again, or because it was so good we have to go back. The sentimental favorite streamer up there is the Platte River Special, originated by Bud Miller of Casper back around 1950. You get the sense that Bud was a no-nonsense kind of guy because this pattern is about as simple as flies get. It has a wing of two yellow saddle hackles veiled on each side by brown hackles and a mixed brown and yellow collar hackle. There's no body, just a bare hook shank, and no other frills to clutter it up. In the water it's a muted gold color and so trim it gives just the merest suggestion of a bait fish. Every time I sit down to make a fresh batch of these, I have to resist the natural fly tier's tendency to complicate the pattern. So far I've always managed to stop myself by asking, Who are you to tart up a fly that's been consistently catching trout just the way it is for over half a century? That was a common attitude when I first started tying. Back then many patterns were still considered sacrosanct and were handed down as if the recipes were written in blood. You could actually tell someone they'd tied their Adams dry fly "wrong" if it had a plain brown hackle fiber tail instead of the mixed brown and grizzly that was called for in the original Len Halladay pattern from the 1920's. But even then tradition was beginning to lose its grip and charges of heresy were becoming infrequent, probably because they bounced so harmlessly off the new generation of fly tiers who came of age in the 1960's. Only a few years later, the best thing you could say about a tier was that he was innovative. Every now and then there really is an original idea in fly-tying, but most of the good innovative patterns are thoughtful riffs on existing themes. A good example is the version of the Platte River Special tied by my friend Chris Schrantz. The basic dressing has a mixed yellow and brown marabou hackle tied on the forward third of a bare hook shank, a few thin strands of gold tinsel mixed in, and the same yellow wing veiled in brown, sometimes with a sparse collar hackle of wood duck or red Guinea. It looks like a feather duster when it's dry, but in the water it slims down just as sparse and understated as the original, only a little livelier and with a hint of flash. Except for the highlights, it's the original pattern with a hackle modification inspired by the same steelhead tying tradition that produced the Marabou Spider flies, which were themselves probably inspired by the old Victorian Spey patterns. Chris calls it the Platte River Spider by way of citing his sources. Another favorite of mine for the North Platte is the good old Muddler Minnow, originated by Dan Gapen on the Nipigon River in Ontario in 1937. For years I stuck religiously with the original 70-year-old dressing: A tail of matched oak turkey wing segments, a body of flat gold tinsel, an under-wing of squirrel or bucktail, a wing of oak turkey, and a collar and head spun from natural deer hair with the head clipped to a bullhead shape. But then at some point I started adding a sprig of yellow marabou under the turkey wing because I'd come to agree with Al McClane, who once said that he'd fish any streamer for trout as long as it had some yellow in it. Dan Bailey's Yellow Marabou Muddler was an effective pattern and it was quicker and easier to tie, but out of nostalgia I wanted to stay loyal to the old fly with its wild turkey wings instead of switching capriciously to the new one. I'd wanted to weight my Muddlers with lead eyes ever since I discovered Bob Clouser's Clouser Minnows, so as soon as they came out I started tying the pattern on Daiichi 1870 hooks. The bowed shank with a dip behind the eye of this hook lets you make a streamer with dumbbell eyes that still swims right-side up. (Bill Chase at Daiichi told me they didn't do that on purpose, but they quickly discovered the phenomenon while fooling around with the prototypes.) I get the deer hair around the eyes by spinning it on a dubbing loop and wrapping a figure 8 through the dumbbells--a variation of the hair hackle method. Still later, after I started tying steelhead flies, I began to add three or four strands of fine gold tinsel almost as a reflex. So I've made three small changes to the original dressing in 30-some years, or one change per decade on average, which seems like an appropriately cautious pace. I can't actually say I've improved the pattern to where it catches more fish, but at least I haven't hurt it any and it's still entirely recognizable. If someone likes the fly, they don't ask me what I call it, they say, "You tie a nice Muddler." As they should, since the pattern exhibits the work of three talented fly tiers and some hook designers, none of whom is me. I think most of what passes for innovation in fly-tying is just that kind of cross-pollination from one pattern to another. As you tie up fresh batches of a familiar fly each season, you gradually combine elements that are just begging to be combined and that might make some difference. The tier who does this is more an instrument of Karma than the pattern's creator, so although he may eventually put his personal mark on a fly by the way he ties it, he should probably be a little shy about claiming authorship. For one thing, attribution is important in fly-tying. For another, all the good fly names have long since been taken anyway. One of the trips I have planned for next season will be to northern Wisconsin where, with a little help from friends, I'll try to hit the nighttime Hexagenia hatch. I don't have a favorite pattern for this giant mayfly, so I'm piecing together some flies using the same slightly extended deerhair abdomens that you'll see on most traditional Hex patterns, a standard parachute hackle, and the divided-wing parachute post that I first saw used by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards back in about 1970. I'm adjusting the size and color to match the naturals and I suppose I could say I "came up with" the pattern, but really, the flies are close enough to being 1970's-vintage extended body Paraduns that the differences aren't worth mentioning. Few tiers still think in terms of hard and fast patterns, but there's bound to be a convoluted backstory to any pattern because nothing in fly-tying has happened in a vacuum for the last 500 years. I'm beginning to think that, as intellectual property, fly patterns are more like folk songs than anything else: They just float around out there in the public domain for generations and anyone is free to add or change a verse, insert a minor chord, or speed up the tempo. As long as you're just picking a banjo on your own back porch, you can do what you like, but if you record it, then in the space reserved for the composer's name it should still say, "Traditional." Of course that could never work in the real world of commercial fly-tying, where branding is necessary for economic reasons and where before a fly can catch fish, it first has to catch fishermen. But among us amateurs who just tie and fish our own flies it could be a useful way to think about patterns. I also suspect there's a difference between true inventiveness in fly-tying and just worrying an existing pattern as if it were an annoying itch. E.B. White once said of writers that most of them don't really have anything to say, but they still want to say something, and the same often seems true of we fly tiers. In other cases, the sheer lusciousness of all the materials and techniques that are now available have an effect similar to catnip and we end up doing inexplicable things for no other reason than that we can. But then sometimes the smallest changes in a pattern can make a noticeable difference, and there's a kind of eccentric playfulness to some flies that fish really seem to appreciate. The first time a young guide handed me one of those party-colored Chernobyl Ant sort of contraptions, the fly struck me as nothing but cantankerous, and there was a moment when I found myself wondering, what is wrong with kids these days? But then it worked on an afternoon when nothing else was drawing more than the odd, half-hearted strike, and I had to hand it to whomever had the audacity even to think of such a thing, let alone show it to a fish. Still, what works today may not work tomorrow and some of the best advice I got as a beginning fly fisher was, "It ain't the fly so much as how you fish it." Another trip I have planned for next season is to coastal Labrador for sea-run arctic char, and when I asked my friend Robin Reeve what streamer patterns I'd need, all he said was that they should be pink and white and heavy so they'll get down to where the fish are holding. He added, "These fish will move six feet side to side for a fly, but not six inches up or down." That's really useful information, since we fishermen worry about how a fly looks, while fish are more concerned with where it is and how it acts. You get that kind of open-ended advice from experienced fishermen often enough to make you wonder whether a fly pattern is important at all beyond basic considerations of size, color and whether it sinks or floats. Robin mentioned color and where the fly should be in the water, which means I'll tie some with lead eyes and bring a sinking-tip line. (Depending on the depth of the pools, I could need both.) Ed Engle is an acknowledged expert on small flies, but on the South Platte River recently he told me that on the average winter day, a size 24 or 26 midge pupa would out-fish a size 20 regardless of pattern. But the best one I've heard so far comes from a steelheader I know who tells of arriving on a new river with a box of freshly tied flies and asking his guide which one he should use. The guide shrugged and said, "Use what you want, but run it right down that current seam."