The Perfect Fly

“While the snow whorled, the old men would work at the desk with the glow of bemused gods, forsaking reason and good sense in their search for the great concoction, the random mating of fur and feather and colored thread that would break new ground in piscatorial seduction, speak in the language of pure appeal, fascination, enticement, allure, the perfect corruption, hooked bribe, deadly enchantment, a come-on no fish could deny, something beyond mere interest, something exotic and irresistible. No combination was too distasteful or out of bounds, no creation too shocking.”

– Harry Middleton, Rivers of Memory

Tying flies just seems to be a natural progression for any avid fly angler, though it becomes more of an obsession for some than others. Some possess a romantic ideal of catching a fish on a fly that they’ve crafted with their own hands while others simply fish so much and burn through so many flies that they see fly tying as a means of stopping the bleeding, a practical means of saving money. Many more enter the world of fly tying with delusions of grandeur, possessing an unbridled optimism and certainty that they will be able to catch more or better fish by filling a void with a creation not yet imagined by the world’s tying minds and not yet available through their local shop’s selection. That 29” brown trout under the bridge is just a bead-head-bright-green-bodied-pink-tailed-red-rubber-legged nymph away from being caught! I began with similar delusions and like most tyers, still have them. Somewhere deep in the creative recesses of my mind, I surely hold the key to the ultimate creation: The dry fly that won’t sink, the nymph that won’t hang the bottom, the streamer with just the right “waggle”…. All tied in such a unique, unprecedented way that trout will come from neighboring pools just to get a taste…. The perfect fly.

However, the budding fly tyer is quickly faced with the reality that there is an art to this fly tying thing and that an unspeakable number of very imperfect flies will be born at the vise before the perfect fly can ever emerge from the dubbing dust, especially when you begin the task as I did, with a shortage of funds and a surplus of stubbornness. Determined to teach myself rather than spend time and money taking a class, my first of many mistakes, my response to the overwhelming myriad of materials and tools confronting me was to purchase a starter kit. Fly tying kits aren’t a bad way to get started at all; especially when you have one personally assembled for you by someone at a fly shop who can get a feel for what flies you’re interested in tying. But I opted for the pre-selected, company kit that was assembled probably more as a means of ditching materials that wouldn’t sell than as something to ease my transition into the art of fly tying.

The kit regretfully came from one of the large catalog companies, cost $150, and was advertised as having everything I’d needed to start tying flies: vise, tools, hooks, materials, and a book to show me how to do it. To no real surprise, the materials were extremely low grade, with the provided colors apparently selected for patterns no longer in production. Or someone thought red and yellow were the two universal colors for everything from hackle and marabou to chenille and dubbing. The pocket sized book turned out to be equally disappointing with about twenty pages that included such detailed instructions as: Put hook in vise. Attach thread to hook. Tie feather to hook. Dub body. There were no technique pictures, no definitions, and really only about five illustrated patterns. So I tied a few mutant Wooly Buggers with massive, 10” yellow tails that included even the thick stem, red bodies that were plump at the hook bend and skinny near the head, red palmered hackles that ended about halfway up the body, and a thread head the size of a marble.

I also tried my luck with dry flies but due to limited materials, the fact that I really didn’t know what the materials were, and that I had no discernible skills, they didn’t quite turn out like the ones in the fly shop. They did look exactly like mayflies – assuming we’re talking about mayflies that have been smashed on your car windshield and spread a few times with the wiper blade. They consisted of 2” tails that pointed down because I tied them too far back on the hook. The body was a thick, lumpy mass of mangled fur because I didn’t know how to spread and twist dubbing on a thread. The hackle was big and soft since I was using broad saddle hackle from the kit. You mean there are different types of hackle? And to finish it off, the hook eye would be inaccessible, covered over in thread wraps since I never left enough room to wind a head. That actually may have been a cosmic favor – the universe suggesting that I might want to reconsider attaching this monstrosity to the end of my tippet.

I eventually put all the pieces together and twenty years later, I can say that my flies do catch fish, they look kind of pretty, and I’m finally to the point where I’m saving a little money. In fact, as a commercial tyer, I now even get to say I’m making money, but if I’m being honest, most of my profits go right back into materials to tie more flies – the circle of life. There are people that solely make a living tying flies but I’m not one of them. Other than offset some other expenses, all commercial fly tying has really done for me is significantly change my perspective on the value of a fly. It didn’t take long before I went from, “They want $2.00 for one fly?!” to “They only get $2.00 for a fly?!”

Making the jump from recreational fly tying to commercial fly tying also has a way of stifling any creative ambitions you once may have possessed as you become confined to a one person assembly line of feathers and fur, repetitively producing dozens of the exact same fly. I get hit from two sides as I try to keep many of the bins full at the local fly shop while still keeping my own boxes full for guide trips, constantly replenishing staple patterns routinely sacrificed to high tree limbs by eager fly fishing virgins. Still, that creative yearning never goes away and routinely creeps up and distracts me while I’m four dozen deep in a fly tying shift of redundancy. An hour later, I’ve aborted the task at hand and have tied six Parachute Adams with pink rubber legs, chartreuse hackle, and a spinner blade for a tail.

Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I have, for whatever reason, had some really bad ideas for fly patterns. They were all born of what, at the time, seemed to be sound theory but in retrospect are pretty difficult to justify. Despite these failures in fly tying evolution, over the years I have created some flies that turned out to be very productive, but I don’t know how original any of them really are. The patterns I create most often tend to be variations of already established patterns, posing the question of what actually constitutes an original fly pattern.

Fly tying is much like cooking in that regard. Very rarely is a brand new recipe created anymore. Rather, traditional recipes are often tweaked to create a slightly different flavor or texture. If I cook ground beef and put it on a bun, it’s a hamburger. If I add cheese it’s a cheeseburger. If I add sautéed onions, it’s a cheeseburger with sautéed onions. But if I make the same thing on different bread it becomes a Patty Melt. If I use chartreuse grizzly hackle on a Parachute Adams and add pink rubber legs, is it simply a Chartreuse, Rubber-Legged Parachute Adams, or is that enough variation to be considered an original pattern warranting a clever new name?

What is it that even motivates so many fly tyers to attempt so many new patterns when the old standards seem to work just fine? Is it an attempt at something better or merely an attempt at something different? Is it for the fish’s benefit or our own? Maybe it’s because with a new fly pattern comes new hope. Success with a particular fly, whether it is an old standard or a new concoction of your own design, really just seems to boil down to personal confidence. When you have confidence in the fly with which you’re fishing, you naturally fish it harder and fish it better. It’s funny how that works. I know that the Muddler Minnow is a fantastic fly and that it works. It’s probably one of the top five freshwater streamers ever created but while I’ve been in the company of numerous fishermen who catch several fish and big fish on it, I couldn’t catch a fish on that fly if I cast it in a trout tank at the local boat show. It has just never worked for me and I suppose that’s because, for whatever reason, I just don’t fish it with confidence.

What I’ll really never understand are the flies that go in and out of “style” – not necessarily with fishermen, but with fish. Some flies have been staples for me since the day I started trout fishing while others seem to fall in and out of vogue. I used to tie and fish a fly called a Mallard Minnow that, back in the day, would catch any kind of fish in any kind of water. I thought about it once and realized that on that fly, I’d caught rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, striped bass, bluegill, gar, carp, catfish, walleye, and salmon. It probably would have also accounted for saltwater fish if given the chance but at some point, it just quit working. It was a fly in which I once had total confidence and unmatched success and I haven’t had a fish so much as look at it since the late nineties.

Why is that? Are flies to fish what clothes are to us? Do they have fly shows every spring to feature the latest trends? Maybe that large brown trout behind the stump is rolling his eyes at my Mallard Minnow, telling his rainbow trout friend, “That is so 1995.” Are there also trout with retro tastes that are looking for fly patterns from the fifties and sixties? If so, I suppose that’s why a good old standard Wooly Bugger would top my list as the perfect fly. Like a basic pair of blue jeans, it seems to always be in style. But if it just had a propeller at the head….

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