Tied to a Moment

FlyTying2

Watching an obsession form can be enjoyable and often humorous — especially when looking into the mirror.

I quickly realized the benefits of maintaining my own arrows early in my bowhunting journey. It made good fiscal sense. I was shooting a lot; I was missing a lot; and the costs were mounting. I could either bring my arrows to a shop and have them re-wrapped and fletched, or I could do it myself for a fraction of the time and cost. I saved up, bought a plastic jig, some generic wraps, and a few packs of feathers. I fletched my very first set of aluminums with that setup and killed a deer soon after.

Learning to fletch was a no-brainer but I discovered more than I signed up for. I knew I’d save money by learning to fletch but didn’t expect the activity to be so enjoyable. I fed the addiction by spending money, on shafting and fletching materials, yet my appetite grew. I wanted more out of the archery experience and was ready to move to the next level — wood arrows.

I started buying discounted cedar shafts whenever I could find them and scoured classifieds and online auction sites for bulk nocks, points, and fletching. Going to the hardware store in search of wipe-on urethanes and cements became routine, as did weathering the unnatural lacquer stench that wafted through our home and soaked into our clothes. I realized my reasons for the effort were no longer monetary when I graduated to feather choppers and burners. I wasn’t saving money and I didn’t care. I had further immersed myself into the archery experience and didn’t intend on going back. I was ready to kick it up another notch, in fact and vowed to kill a deer with a wooden arrow.

It happened that very season. On a crisp, October, evening a doe passed in front of my brush blind and back to nature courtesy of one of my crudely-decorated cedars. I felt invincible. The high was indescribable. I learned that an experience, no matter how good, can be amplified through added difficulty.

Fast-forward to 2018 and my next addiction. I loved fly fishing the moment I picked up a rod and knew it was only a matter of time before catching fish with purchased flies wouldn’t be enough. I would have to tie a fly and catch a fish with it. Period. It was an inevitability.

My fishing friend’s were interested in helping me get started whenever I’d mention it, but stitched in the following disclaimer:

“You won’t save money.”

I considered it a challenge and began tying much faster than anticipated with the help of a my dear friend Thom (Jorgensen) and the lifetime’s worth of accumulated tools and material he handed over. I was a babe in the woods — we both knew it — yet he gave me very little instruction, save for a “have at it” grin and this nugget:

“Your flies are going to be sloppy and look terrible at first. Know that going in.”

My plan was to bury the treasure chest within the bowels of my workshop until winter. There was plenty of hunting and fishing to do and I didn’t need another activity. However, curiosity got the better of me. Within a week, my impulses sent me rummaging through box and Web in search of simple fly patterns. The variety of hooks, thread, furs, and feathers were overwhelming at first. I relied on my limited time on the water to help me sort out my needs and pick a pattern that would catch fish no matter how badly I botched them. Caddis fly imitations seemed like the best bet. I’d been fishing with various forms of caddis for months, understood their lifecycle, and felt them rudimentary enough to cut my teeth on.

I began with their larva form in a size #14, which was a bit bigger than what I was currently finding beneath the rocks of the Rogue, but I wasn’t ready to tie anything smaller. The results were to be expected. I struggled with every element of fly tying from threading a bobbin to mashing a barb. I stabbed myself often. I had little idea as to which hand to tie with. And I broke thread every fourth pass around the shank. The latter resulted in a grub sized olive abomination.

The setback made me try harder. I tied well into the early morning hours and had half-a-dozen olive disasters on the kitchen table before calling it quits. They ranged from too fat to too thin but I was proud of the progression. It meant I was improving. I kept tying the following morning, throughout the day, and into the evening, getting more confident with the materials and tools. When I grew tired of nymphs, I moved to dries, testing myself with an olive, deer-hair, caddis.

Tying a dry, even a basic one, was more difficult than expected. I made the wings too long, didn’t use enough fibers, used too many fibers, and kept covering the hook eye to the point I couldn’t thread it. I also found out I was trimming the wrong end of the fibers, allowing water to penetrate and sink the fly. My tying improved with those realizations and I was able make a handful of serviceable flies to test the following Friday.

I hit the river at 5 p.m., wet-waded in, tied on a small Hare’s Ear, and followed the current to my favorite bend. It was a warm, overcast day with random showers. The fishing was slow but I didn’t mind. It felt good to shoot line again. I fished for several hours, changing flies often with little luck save for a few 4-6″ brown trout.

As it began to get dark, I moved further downstream in search of greener pastures. There was a wide, shallow stretch of water there that was perfect for swinging a wet fly. I tied on an unweighted purplish prince with a yellow collar, found a seam, and tossed it into the drift where it was immediately hit by a decent 10-11″ chub. It wasn’t a trout, but it was something, and I was grateful for the action.

A nice 11" chub I caught on a wet fly.

Everything changed from that point on. The sun went down, the bugs came out, and the fish began to rise. And when they rose they did it ravenously, leaving the water like breeching humpback whales for anything resembling a bug. Everything winged was on the menu, from mosquitoes to white/tan colored moths and dragonflies. If it landed on the water, it disappeared.

I knew these were small fish and probably planted but didn’t care. I hadn’t experienced anything like this for months and wanted to catch fish. I cut off the prince, thumbed through the sparse but coveted “my flies” portion of the box, and retrieved “the best” of my olive caddis. I tied it with shaking hands and eyes distracted by the chaos around me. Then, as I wetted the knot, the water rolled on the downstream side of a large rock in front of me. I reacted with a quick roll-cast before my brain had a chance to foul it all up. The line splashed just upstream of my target. The caddis fluttered down after and I gave it a quick skate as it crossed the threshold of the rock.

The reaction was violent and immediate. My line went tight and the caddis disappeared, as if swallowed by the river itself. The moments that followed were not nearly long enough. I kept the rod up, let the fish pull the slack from my fingers, jumped to the reel, and fought a beautiful 11-12″ brown to the water at my knees. What happened next was heartbreaking. I tossed my rod into the shallows, wrapped a wet, shaking hand around the trout, removed the hook, and reached for my only means of evidence collection. But the camera was not easily retrieved and trout aren’t fond of being captured. Right there, beneath the light of the moon, I fumbled my achievement into the murky water and traded a dramatic conclusion for a tragic comedy.

But that is fly fishing. That is what keeps you coming back to the water. I may not have a photo, but I’ll always have that moment where it matters most.

Author’s note: I don’t have the fly either. I lost it in a tree on the next cast and was unable to retrieve it. That, in itself, is a longer story I plan on including in my next book, which will be a collection of bowhunting and fly fishing short stories. Until then, there are still copies of my current book “Life and Longbows” for sale on this site. You can get a personalized copy right here or you can order an unsigned copy on Amazon. A Kindle version will be available next Friday.

 

 

The Real McCoy: Fletching with Wild Turkey Feathers

When it comes to wooden arrows, nothing says traditional archery like barred feathers, and when it comes to barred feathers, nothing oozes mojo more than those recovered from a wild bird. Don’t get me wrong, factory barred fletching looks great. They’re consistently marked, come in a variety of colors, and do not require the work turkey feathers do before they are ready to fletch. On the other hand, they are easy to spot and can look a bit tacky.

I’ve been on a primitive archery vision quest for the past few months, and see myself hunting with primitive tackle within five years time. This means wood selfbows and bamboo arrows with self-nocks and knapped obsidian – all of my own design and construction. This will be difficult, considering I’ve only taken a handful of animals with my semi-modern glass-powered tackle, but worthwhile nonetheless.

A friend of mine processed these feathers for me and they were absolutely flawless upon arrival. Ready to chop! I can only hope to be this efficient.

My path to the primitive will be wrought with a series of baby steps – some going forward, some going back – and all of them necessary. If I add one primitive element to my tackle a year, I’ll fulfill my goal as planned. I began by hunting with my own wood arrows this season. I started with aluminum, switched to wood, then went back to aluminum, and returned to wood to finish out the year. The ironic part of the fluctuation was that I had two blown opportunities and both of them occurred while hunting with aluminum. I spent all that time worrying that my cedars wouldn’t do the job, and it was the perfectly tuned modern shafting that missed both deer.

I swore off aluminum and carbon from that point on. If I’m going to miss it might as well be with an arrow of my own creation, which is the only arrow I’ll be carrying into the woods with me in the future. I’m going to take it one step further by imploring genuine wild turkey or goose feathers.

Sure…it isn’t a huge step, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve compiled a few pointers for those of you interested in doing the same.

Gathering and Storing
As the majority of you are already aware, there are left wing (LW) and right wing (RW) feathers on the market. Why? Because a turkey has a left wing and a right wing. I didn’t know the two correlated at first (believe it or not) but there is most definitely a difference. Collect and store them in separate freezer bags marked RW and LW to avoid confusion. Be sure to store them in the freezer to avoid drying them out. I collected feathers for a year and ruined them all by leaving them in my basement next to a furnace.

Preparing
There are a variety of ways to prepare natural feathers for fletching, but Mickey Lotz of Primitive Archer magazine has the simplest and most concise step-by-step I’ve seen. Click here to read that article. Or check out “Cutting Canada goose feathers for fletching” by buzzzz1964 on YouTube for a more in depth look. I used a spare fletching jig clamp, a piece of sandpaper, an exacto knife, and a Lil Chopper feather chopper on my first attempt and it worked fairly well. A word to the wise, splitting the actual feather is the hardest part. Use the sharpest knife possible and be extremely careful! Work slowly and be patient. In fact, you’ll be better off doing a few at a time rather than a whole bunch at once. It can be stinky, frustrating work. You will also need to make absolutely sure that the bases of your feathers are sanded evenly or fletching will be a nightmare.

It is best to crest your arrows before fletching. I crested these with white acrylic craft paint, a bit of orange dye, and highlighted with a sharpie. Note that polyurethane doesn’t work well as a final coat once you’ve crested as it tends to eat away the sharpie. I prefer Polycrylic and brush it on very lightly.

Fletching
Proceed as per usual if you are using a fletching jig and Duco cement. Exercise caution when clamping the fletching into your jig. Natural feathers are a bit softer. Goose feathers are particularly flimsy once cut. I highly recommend using Fletch Tite Platinum to dab both ends of the feathers once they are attached to the arrow. Duco cement has a way of flattening out when drying. Fletch Tite does not, and this makes for a smoother transition when gliding over your bow’s rest.

Check “Fletching primitive arrows (a better way)” by primitivepathways on YouTube if you would like to fletch the primitive way.

I decided to leave these unchopped for a more primitive look. They are actually goose feathers, which I actually prefer and hope to get more.

Feel free to comment below!