Recently, I wrote a piece for Fly Punk Magazine in which I discussed what it was that I love about fly fishing. A lot of the piece revolved around the idea that the individual acts of fishing, tying flies, and writing about both combine to create my strong connection with fly fishing as a whole. I received some positive feedback on the piece and it got me thinking about why we do these things. I figured I could write a piece about why I love the act of fly fishing, but I feel like I kind of cover that throughout the blog. However, I have not really covered, in any great detail, what I love about the experience of fly tying.
My early days in fly tying more or less coincided with my early days of fly fishing. At the very least, I was very interested in fly tying but maybe I didn’t get my first vise until several months after I started fishing. Like everything I do, my exploration of fly fishing was complete immersion. As soon as I learned that people often tied their own flies, I wanted to learn more about it. Long before I obtained my first vise, I was watching YouTube videos to see how it was done. I had no idea what I was looking at, obviously, but I was captivated by how someone could take materials as simple as feathers, fur, and tinsel and turn them into something that was not only beautiful to look at, but could actually trigger a fish into biting. I loved the idea of taking something seemingly mundane and manipulating it so that it resembled something else so much that it was capable fooling a fish that was conditioned from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to recognize it as food.
My first vise was a generous donation from my friend Donny Kline. I have only fished with him once to this day, but we talk regularly on Facebook. That’s another testament to the community feel of fly fishing, where a dude who had only met me once just sent me his old tying gear. With the vise came some loose materials and hooks and I was off and running. From the get go, I found myself wanting to tie flies that required materials I didn’t actually have on hand. Particularly, the finer hackle was something I was lacking and as someone who was just coming into fly tying, I was shocked at how much hackle cost. At that point, I didn’t even know if I’d enjoy tying, so I wasn’t willing to shell out the money just yet. For a while there, I just worked with what I had.
Those early days of tying were at times frustrating. But the more techniques and processes I became comfortable with, the more I found myself trying to learn three or four more. I dug deeper and deeper. What’s more, I was taking photographs of everything I was tying. I was terrible at casting at the time and without having a budget to tie flies in bulk, most of my flies were one off patterns that were doomed to the trees. What’s more, they were also Frankenstein’s flies as I was starting with an established pattern and switching out what materials the pattern called for with whatever I happened to have that vaguely resembled it. Each one looked like a mutant version of the original. In looking back at these photos to write this piece, I found myself chuckling at some of these early flies. Horrible proportions. Crowded hook eyes. Hackle that unwound from the first river rock it hit.
The first time I caught a fish on a fly I tied, my brother Mickey and I were fishing a bassy strip of water on the Rocky River in midsummer. Deep grooves in the bedrock created great shelter for the bass while still allowing them to dart upwards and grab food moving through the main seam. Neither of us had fished this section but we had heard of it and wanted to check it out. Mickey had on a shop made fly and laughed when he saw the ugly little red fly I had made and tied on. We stepped into the water and with about 30 feet between us, started casting and stripping our flies. On my second cast, I hooked up and reeled in the tiniest bass you’ve ever seen. On any other day or fly, I wouldn’t have even counted it as a catch he was so small. But it was caught on a fly I tied and I was beyond excited. It was kind of like a woolly bugger except that it didn’t have any hackle, and instead of chenille, I used red glo yarn. It looked like garbage, but hey, it caught a fish!
After that first small fish, I started spending tons of time on the vise and having had a little success, I was suddenly much more willing to spend a little money on materials, although I am still a cheapskate by most fly tying standards. By that fall, I had progressed a long way and was anxious to try some of the new flies I learned on the upcoming steelhead run. My big goal I had been thinking about all summer was to catch a steelhead on a fly I tied myself. At the time, I had started learning bucktail streamers, specifically black nose daces. This is still one of my all-time favorite flies and even most of the flies I “invent” are some mutations of the dace’s basic approach. As some of my friends have started to learn fly tying, the black nose dace is the top fly I recommend they learn once they’ve mastered the woolly bugger and the basics techniques of tying. By far the biggest reason for this is proportion. With a woolly bugger, you can be a little sloppy and it’ll still look buggy and probably draw a strike. But with a dace or some other kind of bucktail streamer, if you botch the proportions it’s just not going to swim right. By watching how my daces moved in the water and then tweaking the proportions the next time, I not only started becoming more aware of how much material I was using, but also how few thread wraps I actually needed and how an even tinsel body swam better than a lumpy one. My tying became more and more precise which in turn lent itself to more creative tying later on.
That fall, Mickey and I took a trip to Elk Creek in PA. I had been busy tying all summer and couldn’t wait to see what those daces could do. This was actually the first time I had been to this creek and I found it differed greatly from my home waters. Elk had many more plunge pools at regular intervals, whereas the Rocky had a few bigger waterfalls but also long stretches of low gradient resulting in shallower riffles. For this reason, I had a much harder time adjusting weight and where to place my casts in order to get down deep to the fish quickly. Right after I started getting the hang of it, we started hiking and spotted a couple fish hanging out in a small plunge pool that we had seen people walking past regularly for the better part of an hour. After a few drifts failed to get down deep fast enough, I finally got my dace where I needed it to and felt a bite right away. Finally, I had caught my first steelhead on a fly I tied. We still refer to that plunge pool as Venditti Hole just to mark the occasion. The rest of that trip ended up being very successful, with Mickey even asking to borrow some of my daces and finding success as well.
For almost as long as I’ve been tying, I’ve been a very big proponent of not getting caught up in the more anal-retentive approaches to fly tying some people have. By this I mean, people who follow a fly pattern recipe that was invented a hundred years ago and following it so precisely that any deviation is tantamount to high treason. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a penchant for conflicting with authority, but rigid and confining tying completely destroys what I found so appealing about fly tying in the first place. What I loved was the idea of making a metal hook look like something a fish wanted to eat by creatively lashing materials to it. It was the creation that sparked my interest, not the almost dogmatic obedience to a pattern. Now don’t get me wrong. There is tremendous value in learning some of these established patterns. As I said above, learning the black nose dace progressed my tying skill a ton. Without the techniques I learned tying flies like the dace, woolly bugger, and Clouser minnow, I wouldn’t be able to tie most of the flies I fish on a regular basis. At this point, I’d say roughly 90% of the flies in my pack are of my own design and the remaining 10% are those three patterns.
When I say “of my own design,” I’m not implying that I’m rocking the fly tying world with what’s in my pack. Now, if I tied an old Nokia to a hook and it actually caught fish, that would be something worth taking credit for. But even the most innovative patterns borrow at least some aspect of their design from older patterns. Each new pattern is just a small part of a long chain of evolution. What’s more, fly design is dramatically affected by region, species, and time period. Take the bucktail streamers for example. Nearly every one of these flies follows the same general approach; a slim shiny body, a small tuft of tail, and a sparse wing of bucktail. While each bucktail pattern follows this general approach, each of the “classic” bucktail patterns is some variation of the one or ones before it. Those variations can be color, material type, material quantity, type of feather, with or without a throat, etc. etc. And each one of these variations was born out of either direct observation of what the fish in that system tend to prefer, or just the one experimental whimsy of a fly tyer that happened to work out really well. And as we all know, fish are very fickle in what they decide to eat at any given moment, reacting strongly to temperature, light, time of day, time of year, and of course constant ebb and flow of their natural food sources. Many variations of a basic pattern theme are the result of trying to respond to those variables, thus allowing the angler to adapt to more of the different situations they may find themselves in.
And that really brings me by to why I enjoy fly tying so much. I thoroughly enjoy the steady process from idea to fishing to redesign to fishing to redesign and so on. Some of my favorite “inventions” are the flies that took me 3 or 4 different progressions until I got to a point where the pattern worked on a consistent basis. I enjoy the process of getting there. It’s the work I put into it that brings me satisfaction. And maybe it’s just me. Maybe the anal-retentive fly tyer derives their satisfaction from matching everything just so to the original. I really can’t say but I know that I’m just not wired that way. So the answer to “Why do you tie flies?”, as we’d expect, is entirely subjective. Each tyer probably gets a little something different out of it. And also, I suspect, the region and thus the species of fish being sought will determine the type of flies being tied.
For example, I suspect I’ll have a ton of fun tying pike and musky flies, but I really don’t often have many opportunities to fish for them so I haven’t done it much to this point. I bring it up because I am going on vacation this summer to a spot that has some good pike fishing, and I’m already researching pike flies to get ideas for tying. It’s funny though, I’ve only tied 3 pike flies thus far, and each one is very different than the other two. What’s more, none of them represent exactly any of the flies I’ve researched. Instead, I took the basic concepts of those flies and put my own spin on them. So why don’t I tie these exact patterns that are recommended for pike? I guess it’s just more fun to do something a little different. Something that borrows from the past while also remaining a reflection of personal aesthetic. It is kind of exciting though because most of what I have tied in the past has been for targeting steelhead in my local waters. I have also had a little exposure to bass flies, especially lately as I’m working on stocking poppers for the summer. So tying for pike opens up a lot of new techniques, materials, and most notably… big flies!
Oftentimes, I think about the history of fly tying like I think about the progression of music, especially music in the last hundred years or so. Blues, Ragtime and Jazz influenced Folk, Rock and Roll, Soul and so on and so on, branching and morphing and sometimes circling back. Rock and Roll today would be nothing without the blues and jazz of the past, just like the most innovative fly tyers of today would be nothing without those classic fly tyers of the past. I think all of us tie flies for a combined purpose of fun and function (as in to catch fish). Some of us may lean a little more towards function by tying the established patterns. Personally, I probably lean a little more towards the fun, but with an eye on function to be sure. Otherwise, if it was just for fun, I might actually try that Nokia idea.