Confessions of a Half-Hearted Fly Tyer

half-hearted fly tyer

My name is Steve, and I’m a half-hearted fly tyer. There, I admitted it. Perhaps it’s even an exaggeration to call me a fly tyer. Some of the flies I’ve tied might make a more skilled fly tyer laugh. But I’ve caught dozens of trout on patterns I’ve tied. I think that’s enough to give me membership in the fly-tying fraternity.

There are, though, a few confessions that I want to make. And not merely for catharsis, though confession, so goes the cliché, is good for the soul. Rather my admission is to empower other fumble-fingered folks who feel like fly-tying misfits:

1. I am a half-hearted fly tyer.

I know, I already said that. But let me unpack my revelations a bit:

My passion for fly tying resembles the moon. It waxes and wanes. I’m always ready to grab my rod and head for the river. But I don’t feel the same about grabbing my vise and Metz Dry Fly Neck (Grizzly color) to tie a Parachute Adams. I can fly fish for hours and never get bored. But some days I tie flies for only minutes before I’m bored. Some days I’m disinterested before I even start. Yet, sometimes the urge hits, and I will crank out a dozen flies of a particular pattern.

The lesson: Even half-hearted fly tyers can produce useful flies and save themselves some money in the process.

2. I am artistically challenged.

I can’t draw stick figures for the life of me, and my attempts to build a gingerbread house for our annual family Christmas gingerbread competition are pathetic. My creation ends up looking like a dilapidated chicken coop. Surprisingly, though, I can tie a decent fly. Sure, my flies bulge in the wrong places, and the wraps look uneven. However, I’ve discovered that the fish don’t care. Perhaps the bulges and unevenness make my flies look more buggy.

The lesson: Even clunky-looking flies fool trout.

3. I limit myself to a few simple patterns.

I’ve never tied a bad-looking Muddler Minnow.

That’s because I don’t tie Muddler Minnows. I’ve fooled around with spinning deer hair. But it’s an art I never mastered well. So I leave these kinds of flies to the pros. I stick with San Juan Worms, Brassies, Woolly Buggers, and an occasional Elk Hair Caddis. The latter is not an easy fly for me to tie. But I shot a bull elk a few years ago during archery season, and I preserved the hide with a bit of 20 Mule Team Borax. Every so often I can’t resist tying a handful of size #14 caddis flies so I can brag about catching a trout with a fly I tied using hair from a bull elk I called in and took with an arrow. That helps me save face when the fly falls apart after catching one trout.

The Lesson: Even the simplest of patterns can be deadly when it comes to catching trout.

4. I haven’t improved much in two decades.

I’m like the guy who spent five of the best years of his life in second grade.

Honestly, I haven’t tied enough to get a lot better. But again, my interests are not in winning fly tying contests (do those even exist?). I simply want to catch trout. And I’m fascinated enough with fly tying to dabble in it whenever I feel the urge. It is a thrill to fool a trout with a fly I’ve tied. It is fun to create something that looks halfway like the flies I see in the bins at my local fly shop. It is fun to create.

The Lesson: Even if you never get better, you can still feel the satisfaction of sporadic fly tying.

Now that I’ve finished this piece, I feel the urge to get out my fly tying vise, bobbin, dubbing material and … oh wait, I have to fill out my bracket for March Madness!

Fly tying will have to wait until next week. Or next month.

Louis L’amour Helped Me Find New Waters

When I was a 19-year old college student in Montana, I got addicted to Louis L’amour western novels. They were potato chips for the soul. I became fond of the Sackett brothers, mesmerized by a Texas Ranger named Chick Bowdrie, and enthralled by Kilkenny and the way he protected Nita Riordan. But one of my all-time favorite Louis L’amour characters was the kid at the crossing, a rugged western character who called himself Flint. In this post, I apply a principle from the life of Flint to my life as a fly fisher.

Flint didn’t do any fly fishing. Regrettably, none of L’amour’s characters did. But the novels are set in the post-Civil War West. A few characters caught trout with their bare hands or with a worm on a hook. But there were no fly fishers in the bunch. Still, I learned something from Flint that has helped me find new waters to fly fish.

Early in the novel which bears his name, Flint recalls his early days in New York City as James T. Kettleman. What he did to become a wealthy financier and speculator is something I’ve learned to do to become a better fly fisher. I’ve learned to listen.

Flint’s first job in New York City was driving a hansom cab—a horse-drawn carriage, which was the forerunner of a modern taxi cab. He discovered that business leaders often discussed their affairs as though the driver was deaf. One day, Flint overheard a discussion between two businessmen about a building they planned to put up and the way they intended to acquire the property for it. The next morning, Flint moved quickly and bought an option on an adjacent lot. He sold this lot two weeks later for a substantial profit.

Then, Flint spent a year working as a messenger for a brokerage house. He kept his mouth shut and his ears and eyes open. Using the information he gained, he made good investments and watched his net worth grow. Later, Flint developed an information service of office boys, messengers, waiters, and cleaning women. They listened for him and then reported back to them. The information helped him make a fortune.

The Flint Technique

I’ve applied this technique to finding new water to fly fish. Over the years, I’ve overheard many conversations in fly shops or a local café when I’ve pretended not to be listening. Usually, I just listen. Occasionally, I’ll ask a question. Sometimes, people volunteer information because they think the person who asked for it will not follow through and try their secret run. But I do. And find new water.

I have dozens of scraps of notes in a drawer near my fly tying bench. I’ve written names of streams and maps of stretches of river which might be productive. I don’t fish all of them. But I fish some of them, even years after I’ve scribbled the information on a business card or the back of a copy of fish and game regulations.

In the mid-1980s, I heard a couple guys talking about fishing Tower Creek and the Yellowstone upriver from Tower Fall in Yellowstone National Park. I filed away that information. A year later, I used it and hiked up from Tower Fall. I discovered some magnificent water there that I’ve fly fished over the years. I’ve landed dozens and dozens of cutthroats over the years as a result of listening closely to a single conversation.

Listen and Find New Waters

So do yourself a favor.

Listen closely when your fellow fly fishers start bragging or telling stories about a great day on the water. They might just mention a stretch of water that will be worth trying. And if you need any guidance on the art of gaining information from careful listening, pick up a copy of Louis L’Amour’s novel, Flint. But remember. Reading these novels is like eating potato chips. You can rarely stop at one.