Monday, January 21, 2013

Me Make Pretty Someday

Since I was a child, I've had in me the desire to create pleasing things.  It has manifested itself, in many iterations of success and failure, throughout almost my entire life.  Writing, cooking, singing and playing music, innumerable photographs -- drifts of attempts to bring into existence something of grace and polish; they pile up in my life.  Found among them, infrequently and often by serendipity like Penicillin and Play-Doh, are a few rare examples of success.  I am decidedly no artist, but when the moon is in the second house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I can sometimes hack together a chunk of something that is marginally not abhorrent to the eye, ear, or spirit.

My journey began with one of those mind-boggling 70's-era parental decisions we now smile fondly upon in the fuzzy penumbra of the past.  I was given a crystal radio set and a soldering iron somewhere around the time I was still struggling to learn my multiplication tables.  It was somehow deemed perfectly safe to bestow the allure of molten lead upon a being who was routinely and abruptly cast off his bicycle for no apparent reason, came home with worms in his pockets, and bathed only under direct threat of mortal violence.

Regardless of how it came to be, I found myself in unsupervised possession of a makeshift branding iron, and with the help of my father's coveted woodworking chisels, attempted to make one of those routed and wood-burned family name signs out of a piece of split firewood.  The house didn't burn down, nor did I, but I was on my way to trying to make handsome things, ugly as that sign was.

Fly tying fits in a category of its own for me in this quest to make pretty things, being that the flies themselves, while sometimes pleasing to the eye, will always be a function of their end goal as a fish catching tool.  I don't tie well enough for my stuff to be displayed in a lucite box on the mantle, nor would I want it to be.  But that doesn't mean I don't wish my functional flies to be beautiful either.

It's bit of a balancing act.  There comes a moment in the tying of almost every fly when it would be good enough to catch fish, probably fool them quite handily, but it is also not yet finished because it's not pretty enough to snag the angler.  There's the thing -- the tyer could stop right there, when it's still a tad ragged, doesn't have the last bit of embellishment in a little glossy head or the perfect set of sparkling eyes, but I often can't.  It's not enough that it entice the fish, the fly must first enchant the fisherman or it will never leave the box.

I'm not a production tyer most of the time.  My flies are for me.  I tie for my edification and for my fishing, but I'm also a prodigious producer once things start to roll, so I often end up with a cache of flies to be sold on Craigslist or to like-minded friends and acquaintances who chase the same species I do.

All my personal fly boxes are full.  The current overstock pile.

I've never felt more like a drug dealer than the time last year when a vaguely sketchy Craigslist fellow (everyone you  meet through Craigslist feels vaguely sketchy, if not downright frightening) met me in a Pizza Hut parking lot, and began peeling twenties off a gangster roll to buy a big batch of my smallmouth flies.  That doesn't happen very often, but it was fun in that salacious, pretend-you're-a-villain just-for-a-second kind of way.

I started tying sometime in the mid 90's.  Those were the heady days of mangled wooly buggers and dry flies from the minds of horror movie directors.  I tied a March Brown Comparadun once that, had it become known to the government, would've been whisked away in the dark of night to be studied in some little-known bunker under the Mojave Desert, then killed with fire.  It was that grievously malignant and horrifying.  A puppy saw it and immediately began to cower.  Angels wept.  I decided that if I was going to continue tying, it would be in the realm of bigger streamers and topwater bugs for brown trout and smallmouth bass... for the good of mankind.

One of my earliest attempts, circa 1994.  Saved as a reminder that things get better.

Things idled along for a few years with fly tying but a dull murmur in the background of my life.  We fished with waxies under bobbers for the biggest bluegills I've ever seen, spring and fall, out of the fishing trailer in Onalaska.  (You know it's a renowned bluegill spot when greeted with a gargantuan, 12-foot long Lepomis statue at the city limit.)  Our limits of thick-shouldered 'gills were often almost too easy.  There were mornings when the fish basket could hardly be lifted out of the water in less than a couple hours.  While big fish were sometimes taken off their beds in spring using a fly rod, the flies employed were most often bubble-packed poppers bought at the gas station.  And the fish didn't care because bluegills almost never do.

We trolled Lake Michigan for many years, chasing salmon and trout.  I'd happily stumble from the bunk while a lot of people my age were just getting home from "last call," to be on the water before the sun came up.  My boat mates, Kirk and Steve, had been fishing there since childhood and had the program absolutely nailed.  Never before or since have I witnessed two men with a better shorthand and intuitive sense of what the other was doing on the boat.

When I first began fishing with them, in terms of the angling, I was little more than three more lines in the water and a sport to winch the fish in.  We became a team over time, and though I never approached their masterful knowledge of that fishery, we did very well in the tournaments and I tied a lot of Howie flies.  Lashing tinsel to tubes never really caught my fancy though.  It was strictly a matter of putting pounds in the cooler.

We catfished in the dark, all stink and mud, with atrocious smelling baits and cut up bait fish.  We chased muskies with heavy baitcasters on the big lakes up north before almost anyone had thought to get after them with a fly rod -- fly rod muskies being quite the rage these days, incidentally.

Then I discovered a website dedicated to fishing smallmouth bass in rivers, and the bug bit.  Hard.  I began as a spin fisherman, but quickly blew the dust off the vice, and began to chase the bronzebacks with bits of fur and feather clumsily fastened to the hook.  Like many in the beginning stages of any new-found obsession, I adapted the tools and techniques I'd learned from other arenas to fit my new needs -- essentially fishing bass with slightly outsized trout flies when you get down to it.  And it worked quite well.  Still does, if you want to do it that way.

I tied and fished in that happy milieu until Kelly Galloup kicked off an awakening in my tying when I saw him speak and tie at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo in Minneapolis a few years ago. (I also met and spoke with musky guru Brad Bohen for the first time at a writer's symposium there, which coincidentally, led to the existence of this blog, in a roundabout sort of way.)

Rodg and I had driven from his house in the Twin Cities suburbs to a hotel convention center in the gloom and slush of a late winter metropolitan snowfall.  We had a sub-par brunch in the hotel restaurant, wandered around the vendor floor for a while, then the speakers began.  Of all the presentations and guest tyers I took in that weekend, the infectious Mr. Galloup was the most concise and clear, and also the most engaging and fun, at least for me.  I don't think he was tying articualted flies yet, at least not during the show, but watching him tie a Zoo Cougar right in front of me was a revelation.

A quantum leap had taken place.  I came home and set to, armed with an entirely new outlook and thought process concerning fly tying for smallmouth bass.  While Mr. Galloup ties and fishes for brown trout the majority of the time, his entire treatise on fly tying works for smallies, as do some of the flies themselves.  If I may be so bold as to paraphrase, his thinking goes something like this compared to the more traditional way of thinking -- go big.  Go huge.  Tie monstrous, gnarly flies and pound them aggressively.  They will elicit predatory strikes from the biggest fish in the river.

Hulking, beefy flies as long as your vice arm

That works for me.  Not only do the flies perform on the river, but the tying of them is an adventure in itself.  Flies that take a few innings on the radio to tie and require a multitude of bits and bobs be fastened on. Flies that would give the 2-weight driftless guys flop sweats, that require every technique and material in my arsenal to come together.  There's an ugly beauty in them, and when I get to rolling at the bench, when I'm kicking it to a fat stack of horns in the earbuds and my hands are functioning almost strictly through muscle memory and habit, I find them unerringly prurient.

Fads, by definition, come and go.  I believe the push toward ginormous streamers has outgrown the fad stage.  I wasn't around for the bead head revolution in fly tying, so I don't know what that felt like, but I think this shift in the tying landscape has taken a similar permanent foothold.  And I'm glad to be a part of it, sitting in hermit mode at my vice, tying gloriously nasty articulated pig stickers and grinning like an idiot.

With plenty of practice since 1994, things have gotten better...

I am by no means an expert.  While some of the flies above are of my own design, most are my take on flies from the minds of  Kelly Galloup, Mike Schmidt, and Rich Strolis.  Should you find yourself interested in the tying and fishing of pork chop-sized streamers, fire up your Google machine and point it at them.  Their flies, patterns, and videos are all over the interwebs.  And if you're already a proficient tyer, check out the mesmerizing, absolutely outstanding tying videos by guide Brian Wise of Fly Fishing the Ozarks on YouTube.


  1. I think I was at that same Great Waters Expo, though I went to the Tim Holschlag smallmouth presentation, where I was hit with the assertion that you must read moving water differently for bass than for trout, and my brain shifted a bit, permanently.

    We each strive for those "moments of perfection" and are happy to settle for moments of beauty -- and lately you are settling less and less. Great work, both the writing and the tying. And the photos.

  2. High praise, thank you so much.

    I caught Holschlag's presentation the following Sunday, if I remember right, and was also struck by his methodology for reading bass water. Changed my fishing for sure, along with his great books. One of which is just out of frame in that shot of the overstock pile. I pick it up often during tying breaks.

  3. Awesome flies. You wouldn't be able to elaborate a bit more on the details of the last two flies pictured there would you?

  4. Thank you.

    In the flies pictured in the last combo shot, I was experimenting with using deer body hair in a dubbing loop for a super brushy look. It's actually pictured in the eighth shot down (if I counted correctly), the one with the long deer hair brush in my attempt at a Firetiger color scheme before I wrapped it.

    It's just an experiment. Probably cast like a gym shoe, but I won't know till spring. I hope that helps you.

  5. It sure does. That's what I thought it looked like, but had to ask. If you get a chance, some pictures or a video of the process would be extremely cool (I'm really intrigued by an all deer hair body like that). Does the hair hold well in a dubbing loop?

  6. There is a trick. Mix the colors in the a hair stacker if you want to, lay them in the dubbing loop in a wad and pull tight with the spinner. Now you can pretty much spread them out as needed.

    The trick is to pinch the loop just below the hair, and spin as much as you can once you have the hair situated how you want in the loop. Then let go of the pinch and pull taught in one motion, leting it all spin up at once. If you try to spin it up more slowly like dubbing, most of it will fall out. Took me a few tries to figure that out.

    I don't have any more pictures or video, and I'm not going to tie any more of them until I test them in moving water -- they take a while, but if they perform, I can definitely do a tutorial.

    Keep your eyes peeled, and thank you very much for checking out my blog.

  7. WOW so pretty. and technical, man!
    T x

  8. Thanks, Miss T. When I do get around to tying earrings, you'll be the first to know.


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