Outside: Flies from Foreign Lands

I never considered fly tying to be a dangerous endeavor until I pushed a chair away from my tying table and sank a size-4 streamer hook into the bottom of a big toe.

I was living with three fly-fishing guides who assured me they could extract the barbed hook utilizing a section of heavy monofilament, hand pressure and a lever action. After their third attempt, they told me to go to the hospital and have it cut out. I felt violated and wanted that hook out of my body immediately so I said, “One more try and give it everything you’ve got.” I promised not to scream this time.

They agreed, had me lay on my stomach, secured a foot, and then gave a massive yank with the monofilament. We heard the hook ping off the ceiling but couldn’t locate it, which prompted the unanimous cry of, “Don’t go barefoot,” something that could and maybe should be said in every fly-fisher’s house.

Back then I was fishing so many days a year I couldn’t have imagined buying flies at a shop, partly due to financial concerns, but mostly because I thought any fish caught on someone else’s fly wasn’t much of a catch at all.

You can fall into that trap if you are a hunter and gatherer, as many tiers are. Some of my flies used combinations of whitetail deer, ruffed grouse, rabbit, squirrel and even mountain goat that I’d collected on my own. Whether latched in my vice, set on the table in neat piles or orderly arranged in a fly box, these creations became little pieces of art, with each material carrying a personal history. There was satisfaction found in tying a fly with perfectly angled hair wings or just the right tapered body and whip-finished head, a fly sure to fool even the most discerning fish, not unlike a most talented painter creating a convincing three-dimensional scene that admirers might mistake as a photograph. I discussed and showed these flies to friends, offered many as gifts and fished them as tactfully and carefully as possible because losing one in a pile of brush always burned worse than breaking off a fly I’d bought at a shop.

I wish I could have said the same for some of the clients I have guided. No matter what I told them, some dudes would cast where they shouldn’t and missed the places they should, a seemingly deliberate act to see how disgruntled they could make a guide who’d spent many winter hours perfecting patterns, and a few more the night prior tying a supply to match the day’s hatch. Each time I heard the tippet snap I knew I’d be tying one more fly that evening, all before the next day’s guide trip began. And the last thing I really wanted to do after a 14-hour day in the sun or the rain was to sit down and tie flies until midnight.

In reality, many of these people were fresh to fly fishing and they were just trying to catch a fish. And even if they did lose some flies on the first cast, I would rather have my flies fished and lost than framed and hung on a wall somewhere. There are lots of people, however — and some who don’t even fish — who tie flies for that exact purpose, knowing that their flies will never land on water. This is big in the Atlantic salmon circles where rare and brilliantly colored materials make these flies more visually stunning than many of the mottled trout flies we use in the West. No, I probably wouldn’t tie flies unless I thought they would be fished, but I can’t deny a fascination with these perfectly tied patterns and I always stop to view collections of flies, presented in shadow boxes, mostly at lodges and shops. I think these shadow box displays add to the general idea of fly fishers being super strange people. A non-fisher might ask, “You put fake bugs on the wall to look at?”

“Sure,” any of us who fish with flies would say. “They’re cool!”

I think one of fly tying’s greatest appeals is an opportunity to create a pattern that will fool fish better than anything that came before it. Andy Carlson’s Purple Haze was reported to be such a fly. He created it, I think, in the early 2000s and a friend of mine had great success with it on the Big Hole River. He called and said, “If this fly works as well on every other river, I’m giving up fishing because it won’t even be a challenge.” It turns out that the Purple Haze, which is a modified Parachute Adams, is a great fly but it didn’t catch fish everywhere all the time and my friend is still fishing.

When I started tying I wanted to create one of those miracle flies. Now I’m not as concerned with it. There are a couple reasons for this shift. First, fatherhood put a dent in my free time, and I don’t really see hours spent behind a vice as an efficient way to get my kitchen any cleaner, or my yard tidy, or the kids’ lunches made, or the bills paid, or any of the hundreds of life duties that stack up, something that any single parent could tell you all about. Second, at this point in my fishing career I don’t believe there are miracle flies. I know this: There’s no fly that works in every situation all of the time. An angler still has to use intuition and read the water and the weather and fish behavior to be successful on most occasions. Other times, there’s not a fly in the world that will make a fish bite, no matter what you do. So the goal now is to tie a few flies that I’m comfortable with and buy the rest. Which may be a pattern for all but the most dedicated of tiers.

I was recently fishing with a friend who tied on a neon pink San Juan worm behind a big sparkle minnow streamer, casting to the banks and catching at least two fish to every one I landed on a similar streamer and a red worm. I said, “They are drillin’ that San Juan of yours. What’s up?”

He said, “Fish associate pink with protein. Anything hot pink tells them they have to eat it.”

I finally broke down and said, “I’m not getting them on red. Got any more of those pink worms?”

He produced a round plastic container and I picked one out. “Tie these yourself?” I asked. He said, “Gawd no. I swore I’d never pay for a San Juan Worm because they take about two minutes to tie. But for a buck each I walked out of the store the other day with a summer’s supply of worms for 20 bucks.”

“Feel like a lesser person for fishing someone else’s flies?” I asked. He answered, “I don’t. Who has the time to tie flies anyway?”

I still tie San Juans — now in neon pink, too — and egg imitations, and I’ll tie Pheasant-Tail Nymphs and Hare’s-Ears, but you won’t see a Parachute Post or a Royal Wulff or a Spun Deer-Hair head in the jaws of my vice again.

This says I live a busy life, but it also indicates a tectonic shift in the availability of flies, which used to be produced by regional tiers for their local shops or for individual buyers. Today, most flies come from Thai and Chinese factories, whipped up by people who produce hundreds of flies — typically a specific pattern assigned to them — each day. These flies are sold at traditional fly shops and the big box stores, such as Sportsman’s Warehouse and Cabela’s. I used to avoid buying flies from the mega-stores, trying to prove my little point in the world, but I finally decided that paying as little as a buck a piece for a fly you might lose on the first cast, rather than spending 50 minutes and a whole lot of pain tying a Parachute Adams, makes a lot of sense.

I still get mad when I lose a fly on a first cast, or any cast for that matter. But somehow it doesn’t hurt as bad to lose a fly that was tied by someone I don’t know, with materials I didn’t collect. I know there’s someone in China or Thailand who thinks I should feel different, and I wish I could, but somewhere on a 6,000 mile journey across the Pacific that fly loses some of its art and soul.

Or maybe I’m missing the big picture. Maybe I should be more impressed by foreign flies than those tied at my own vice. Think about it: Would you have ever imagined that a mix of fur and feathers would be shipped from North America all the way to a far off land, where it would be tied to a hook likely forged in China, then sent back to North America so that an angler in Montana could catch a fish that they’re not even going to eat? With the world’s supply of natural resources causing havoc, I also wonder if that is even right. With that in mind, maybe I’ll find a few hours here and there to tie some great Parachute Adams.

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