I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. That combined with my tendency to immerse myself in an activity made me a perfect fit for traditional bowhunting. Crafting arrows, making quivers, twisting strings, and whittling self bows appealed to me early on and were key ingredients to a more intimate experience afield.
Few of those skills stuck with me due to time or the realization that others were better suited for the tasks, but each helped me understand my passion for the stick and string on a much deeper level. Knowing the components helped me to better understand the whole.
A wise old friend of mine often says, “you get out what you put in” and I’ve found the phrase to be true when applied to anything. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it applied to flyfishing as well.
Flies and fly tying appealed to me early though I didn’t anticipate jumping into it so soon. But I found the creative possibilities and the promise of a more personal experience irresistible. Snagging expensive flies wasn’t an enjoyable experience either and I wanted something to do in the Winter when fishing was more difficult and opportunities scarce.
Having heard me mention wanting to tie, a friend was gracious enough to let me borrow the tools and materials he’d accumulated over the years and told me to enjoy myself — no questions asked. His only advice, “Don’t overdo the material. Most newbies use far too much and end up with fat bugs. Bugs are small.”
Don’t overdo the materials. Most newbies use far too much and end up with fat bugs. Insects are small.
He handed everything over by campfire light at the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational and I couldn’t wait to get started. I would’ve tried that night had there been a proper place to do it. Waiting was the wise decision. I had no idea as to what I was doing, couldn’t figure out if I was left or right handed, and had very little understanding of entomology. I didn’t know where to begin.
I turned to the Web for help and found an abundance of videos on the topic. One of my fishing buddies suggested I choose one, classic pattern and tie it until I perfected it. I choose the Hare’s Ear nymph, which was my favorite pattern at the time. It mimicked most underwater insects in Michigan and I caught my first brown trout on one. It was the perfect candidate. It felt wrong to tie a nymph and not a dry, so I choose a basic deer-hair caddis pattern without knowing how complex dries are and how important it is to get them right.
My early attempts were embarrassing — fat, furry, grubs with little space between body and hook. If a pattern required a wrap or two, I quadrupled it for good measure, disregarding the “thin is in” mantra altogether. My wings were abnormally large. I possessed the uncanny ability of turning a size 14 fly into a 10. My clumsiness with the bobbin was partially to blame. Being cross-dominant, I could not figure out which hand did what. I settled on my left hand for the bobbin work, which is surprising, as my right was the more dominant of the two. (I am still not sure if this is correct but it is too late to turn back now.)
Mechanics aside, my horrific attempts had more to do with my lack of understanding insects. Bugs were something to smash before I started fishing with them. Mayflies in particular. I’d seen my fair share of mayflies growing up in Northern Michigan and working at the county marina. I was a night security guard and one of my duties was to sweep the mayflies from the walls of the office building post-hatch so they wouldn’t gross out the residents. I accomplished this with an old gore-covered broom and grew to hate the mayfly with an indescribable intensity. I swept hundreds of them off that building and into piles. Then the ducks would eat them and I would have to clean up the aftermath.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, a mayfly would pass through said ducks and come out hobbled but alive on the other side. While awkward and disgusting to talk about, a mayflies journey through a duck sums up my attempts tying the deer-hair caddis. My goal was to create an imitation of the unscathed insect but ended up looking like the post-duck insect instead.
Still, I thought I was doing well at the time and began fishing my creations. I even caught a few on them, including a nice brown that refused to turn down a mangled meal. That was my greatest angling achievement and the reason for my fly-tying hunger today. It was also my very first experience fishing a wet fly, though I didn’t know it at the time. My early attempts didn’t float for long, if at all, and I didn’t know the difference between a surface strike or a trout sipping a sinking fly off the surface. It would not have changed my experience, regardless. I was overjoyed then and am proud of the accomplishment now.
My tying has improved with practice and experience since. Books, such as The History of Fly-fishing in Fifty Flies have been instrumental in my education. I still have a lot to learn but my flies are producing and I am happy with the results. I am having my best season on the water and have fished nothing but the flies I have tied. It has unlocked something in me that is hard to describe. A joy I haven’t felt for some time. I am seeing the river with new eyes and leaving it with a satisfaction I didn’t believe possible.
If you do not tie, I encourage you to try. It is an investment on many levels but it is worth every minute and every penny. You truly do get out what you put in.
Thank you for reading. Please subscribe and share it with your friends. I appreciate the support. My 2nd book, “Clumsy Predators” is coming along nicely and I’ve decided to include some fishing stories in it as well. I love writing about all things outdoors and think you will enjoy it. I will keep you updated on its progress. Until then, shoot straight, and tight lines.