Fly Tying & the Bubonic Plague

Just the other day my wife told me to take a break from watching Sasquatch videos on YouTube and do something productive; therefore, I’ve decided to write a blog about fly tying. I’ve been tying flies for a long time – about 45 years. Granted, I haven’t been tying flies well during all that time, but I’ve come a long way. Fly tying is a marvelous hobby and if you are a fly fisherman and not a fly tier, I think that you are missing out. Learning the craft of fly fishing with its myriad opportunities to experience nature’s beauty and spend lots of money on gear is both exciting and rewarding.  Sometimes it’s just exciting and not rewarding, like when your spouse sees the credit card bill. But fly tying will open up new vistas of learning and spending opportunities; plus, you can stay indoors when the weather is bad.

When I was a teenager, I purchased a fly tying kit from Herters, one of the super stores of the era. The kit contained the essentials—vise, bobbin, hooks, thread, hackle pliers, head cement, hair and chenille, plus an assortment of feathers. A booklet in the kit instructed you on the basics of fly tying, but I didn’t spend too much time with that because even at a tender age I had been taught that real men avoid printed instructions in favor of figuring things out themselves. Since this was long before the internet, fly tying proved to be a significant challenge. The kit vise was of low quality and would not hold small hooks worth a darn. The scissors were dull. The thread seemed to break all the time. And what I created looked nothing like what I saw at the sporting goods store. My early creations were quite crude, and the larger ones frightened household pets, but thankfully there were many unsophisticated fish during that time to affirm my potential.

I soon realized that I needed to upgrade my equipment, and after brief encounters with employment I purchased a Thompson A vice, a decent vise of that era, plus more and varied tying materials. I befriended a guy who was an accomplished tier and under his tutelage I progressed rapidly and soon felt compelled to purchase additional materials. This necessitated finding further and even semi-permanent employment, and because of this my relatives felt that fly tying was having a positive effect on my life.

As a fly tier you soon realize it’s important to have a basic understanding of aquatic insects and bait fish in order to tie fly patterns that imitate them. Mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies constitute the main categories of insects you’ll encounter on a trout stream and you need to have a basic understanding of their life cycles. This demanded the appropriation and reading of books, a practice my friends and I had earlier avoided. This practice was viewed positively by mature members of my family and my grandmother hoped I might pursue a career in the biological sciences. She grossly misinterpreted what was going on.

Back then, the primary fly tying materials used were natural in origin; in other words, animal hair or bird feathers of various kinds. These could be purchased at fly shops of course, but they wanted a lot of money for these prepackaged, sanitized items, and many of them were widely available on local roads and highways. I always carried a knife and plastic bag in my vehicle in order to “process” these materials. If I was late for an important appointment, say for example, high school, I’d throw the animal in the plastic bag and put it in the back seat of my Fiat Sedan, where I could finish the skinning and fleshing later. This practice saved me a lot of money, plus it had the added benefit of testing the character of girlfriends who obviously weren’t in the relationship for the long haul. Fruitless courtships waste valuable fishing time.

Fly tying materials have improved dramatically over time. Years ago, the hooks we used were dull and brittle compared to todays’ chemically sharpened and chemically tempered Japanese hooks. Thread has greatly increased in strength. Then there was the hackle. We used a fair amount of dry fly hackle back then because we tied the classic dry fly patterns like Light Cahills, Adams, or Royal Coachmans. I remember starting out with Indian hackle capes which were abysmal in quality unless you were tying size 10 or 12 dry flies. So I tied size 10 and 12 dry flies. I soon discovered Metz and Hoffman Super Grizzly capes and while these were very expensive you had to buy them if you were serious about tying quality dry flies in small sizes. I was thankful when the Compara Dun patterns came along, as the deer hair wings required no hackle, and they worked well on selective fish.

Synthetic fly materials were quite limited during that innocent time. I remember when Flashabou first came out. It looked great in the tails of Wooley Buggers. Today a new synthetic material comes out every week and there’s some really cool stuff, especially if you like to tie streamers. Speaking of streamers, we’ve come a long way from the days of Mickey Finns and Spruce Flies. Nothing wrong with the old patterns and I’ve yet to find anything that consistently out fishes a Wooley Bugger for trout, but now we have flies that perfectly imitate species of baitfish and small rodents, maybe even large rodents if you look at some of the patterns tied for Pike or Taiman. I do enjoy watching the latest YouTube fly tying videos where an impressively complicated, articulated streamer is crafted, usually taking two hours to construct and involving 37 kinds of material. I’m sure these flies work great, but I’ve also seen anglers weep openly when, on their second cast with the Articulated Double Bunny Super Twizzler, they snag the fly on a sunken log and have to break it off.

Speaking of complicated flies, there is a small cadre of fly tiers who gravitate toward classic Atlantic Salmon fly patterns. Since the original patterns were invented 150 years ago, the materials required are often exotic and sometimes illegal. You’d better be serious about your craft if you want to acquire Cotinga Cayana, Western Tragopan, or Blue Macaw today. The flies are beautiful and challenging to tie, and hard-core salmon fly tiers are as much a cult as a fraternity. Consider the saga of Edwin Rist: the complete story can be found in the book, The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Rist was already an accomplished and celebrated salmon fly tier at the ripe old age of 20. He was also a gifted flutist (or is it flautist?) studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. One fateful night, motivated by financial concerns and unadulterated feather lust, Rist broke into the Museum of Natural History in the English city of Tring. Housed at this museum was the rare bird skin collection of Alfred Russel Wallace, a famous naturalist who collected the birds way back in the 19th century. When I say collected, I mean Wallace risked life, limb, and tropical disease to acquire the bird skins. Rist made off with hundreds of these rare, exotic bird skins and later began selling them through fly tying forums and on Ebay. It might have been the perfect crime if not for a dropped glass cutter and a persistent detective who followed the internet money trail. All of a sudden, previously unobtainable, rare bird feathers were available for purchase. Rist was ultimately apprehended, but to the consternation of many was given only a one-year suspended sentence because his lawyer effectively argued that Rist suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome and found it difficult to distinguish right from wrong. This sad story raises many questions, one of which is, are some of Rist’s stolen feathers still available if I contact the right people? I’m only kidding. The important question is, would it be worth it to slip my psychiatrist a wad of cash under the table in order for an Asperger’s diagnosis to be slipped into my file?

Despite the greed of some, this is truly the golden age of fly tying. An incredible array of tying material is available, plus tools and gadgets we only dreamed of years ago. Some of them actually help you tie better flies and catch more fish. Fly tying is no longer mired in tradition and some might say, good taste. Consider the evolution in fly pattern names. Virtually forgotten are boring names like Hendrickson, Adams, or Gray Ghost. We now have Cheech’s Flugenzombie and the Sex Dungeon. One of my current favorites is the Sturgeon General. I can’t really tell you if it works, but I remember my friend Neil Strickland tied one and it looked really cool. I will also mention that there is a SKA band from Salt Lake City named Sturgeon General and not long ago they played at Liquid Joes on the same night that the Voodoo Glow Skulls and the Sexwax Surfers played. They’ve also played with the Aquabats, and if that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.

Most of the time I find fly tying relaxing unless I have to tie a commercial order of several hundred dozen, in which case it becomes just another job. I recommend listening to audio books while tying and here is some advice in that regard. Epic survival stories have proven to be solid entertainment for me because they make me thankful I’m indoors. If you favor hopelessness and wanton cruelty in a desert setting, Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King is excellent. These poor shipwrecked, starving, enslaved men became so dehydrated they not only drank their own urine, they even stole their friend’s urine as well. Now that’s thirsty. Keep a glass of iced tea near the tying bench when you listen to this book. In the winter, I prefer books about expeditions to the arctic. A personal favorite is Dan Simmons’ The Terror, but I’m warning you that the plot is a bit weird. Obviously, Dan Simmons is weird, but he’s still a great writer. If you want straightforward, non-fiction with a high degree of suffering, pointless death, and senseless tragedy, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand & Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette proves a rip-roaring adventure. This grand and terrible voyage took place back in 1880 and I appreciate how rugged men were back then, especially the polar explorers. You weren’t considered legitimate unless you had spent a winter or two trapped in pack ice, lived on seal meat, and cohabited with the local Inuit. Some of the toughest men ate the Inuit and cohabited with seals. I find that after listening to such stories I am less apt to complain about tying a few hundred flies.

If you’re a beginner, you should take a fly tying class at the local fly shop. They’ll have you tying presentable flies in no time. Plus, you should buy your fly materials at the fly shop rather than foraging the roadside as I did when I was a teenager. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns us to “avoid contact with all sick and dead rodents and rabbits” as a few of them carry the plague, a disease caused by a bacterium that is transmitted by infected fleas. I read that in Colorado there have only been seven cases of the plague in humans since 1957 (one a fatality), but of those seven “two were related to people skinning prairie dogs.” I don’t know that the two people skinning the prairie dogs were fly tiers, but I have my suspicions. Consider explaining to your mother-in-law how you spent time in the hospital after fleshing out a road-killed prairie dog.

I encourage people to take up fly tying. As you sit down at the tying bench you leave the challenges of day-to-day life behind you and stress melts away. You become creative. By creative I mean, attempting to tie the perfect Calibaetis spinner you end up using the wrong hook and the wrong dubbing and the next thing you know, you’ve created a new fly pattern.