On the surface, you’d think a hobby that consists of wrapping a few strands of fur, feathers and thread around a hook would be among the simplest of pastimes. What could be less stressful than sitting at a desk creating beautiful works of art with exotic names like “Royal Coachman” and “Pale Sulfur Dun”?
Actually, fly tying is an addictive form of mental illness from which few people recover.
It all starts innocently enough. Some kindly father figure shows you how to tie your first fly. Naturally, your first attempts are rather crude and considerably rough around the edges.
I recall tying my first wooly worms around our camp in the Sierra Nevada. My early flies were fat and ugly and looked as though they had been tied by a bear cub with burned and bandaged paws. Interestingly enough, the unsophisticated trout of those wild mountain streams didn’t know any better and were stupid enough to hook themselves on my crude creations. What a major thrill it was to catch trout on flies I had tied myself.
Without realizing it, however, I was the one who had become hooked. Although I was catching plenty of trout and enjoying myself immensely, I began to read hat the “experts” didn’t use crude flies, like wooly worms in size 6 and size 8, but rather fine, delicate flies tied on size 16 or 18 hooks. In addition, I soon learned that sophisticated fly tiers didn’t use just any old inexpensive chicken feathers. Oh, no — real fly tiers used outrageously expensive feathers from specially bred roosters that cost a month’s pay to obtain. Then, of course, there were the specialty flies that used more exotic materials — peacock herl, elk hair, feathers from the endangered jungle cock.
One fly, the Tupps Indispensable, can only be properly tied using the urine-stained fleece of a mature ram. I have never successfully tied one, because I can’t figure out how to get that darned ram to stand still long enough to get my raw materials.
Fly tiers are the strange guys you see stopped along the road removing bits of fur from a road-killed critter. Some go to crazy lengths to get the needed materials. Let’s face it: The scarlet ibis isn’t real common around California. Not to worry — I have cultivated a friendship with an anonymous zookeeper who keeps me supplied with red feathers he gathers whenever the birds molt.
Because jungle cocks are now endangered by habitat destruction, their feathers are harder to get than Cuban cigars. The only way you can legally get one is to prove you got it before 1965. Fortunately, my dad brought back a jungle cock hide from his duty in the Pacific in World War II. When Dad died, I inherited his trunk full of exotic fly-tying materials.
As I have gotten older, I no longer worry about fancy, delicate flies tied from weird materials. Instead, I tie some black wool yarn on a size 8 hook, wrap a cheap hen feather around it and tie it off with black cotton sewing thread. Voila: a crude, ugly wooly worm that still catches fish, just as it did 50 summers ago.
I guess it took me five decades to learn that simple always was best.
Until next time, tight lines.
• Don Moyer began writing Tight Lines more than three decades ago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.