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The Lost Art of Fly Tying

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I can’t remember how to tie a fly. When I lived in the Black Hills and fly-fished regularly, I could (almost) tie a woolly bugger blindfolded. Now, I need an instruction manual with large type and easy-to-understand diagrams to guide me step-by-step.

Of course, it has been nearly 20 years since I lived in a zip code with a trout stream. Forgetting how to tie flies was probably inevitable. Still, it pains me to think I lost something that was once so important to me.

If you don’t understand how tying flies can be “important,” allow me to provide a quick overview:

Fly tying usually involves assembling bits of animal fur, snips of bird feather and strands of copper wire around a hook no larger than a four-letter word in this sentence. All the materials are trussed together with several loops of thread. The purpose of this exercise is to create a fake bug that will fool even the most skeptical trout.

Constructing life-like bugs requires a basic understanding of entomology—enough to know there are four types of insects: mayflies, caddisflies, midges and stoneflies. They live under rocks, float to the surface, fly above the water for few moments, mate with other flies and then die from exhaustion. At every stage of this short lifecycle, hungry trout are waiting to feed.

Each insect has a particular size, shape and color. And each body of water produces different types of insects. Mayflies on Rapid Creek are slightly different than mayflies found in Montana or Wyoming. With so many possible variations, fly-fishermen tend to get caught up in an exasperating game of “matching the hatch.”

For the record, I have caught trout with a cigarette butt and a hook. A good friend of mine often used a neon blue fly that was bigger than his thumb and resembled nothing found in the natural world. Trout are smart, but let’s not give them too much credit.

Cigarette butts and neon flies notwithstanding, if I wanted to catch more trout I had to learn what trout liked to eat. Fly-tying forced me to look under the rocks, scan the surface of the water and pay attention to what was buzzing above the stream. I would try to duplicate the bugs I found using various recipes of fur, feathers, wire and thread. After a while, I was able to rely less on random luck and more on my ability to cast the right bug in the right place at the right time.

Fly-tying made fly-fishing infinitely more purposeful.

The connection between tying flies and catching trout culminated several years ago on a trip to the North Platte River in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. One of my favorite flies is called a pheasant tail nymph, which mimics an immature insect before it becomes an adult. As the name suggests, it is made with a few fibers of pheasant tail.

In one remarkable circle-of-life moment, I was able to coax a 22-inch brown trout to take a fly I tied using feathers from a bird I shot just a few months before. That is about as connected as a fly-fisherman can ever hope to get.

But that connection didn’t last long.

When I left the Black Hills and moved to Sioux Falls, I packed all my fly-tying materials into an over-sized tackle box and brought it across the state. Elk hair, deer hair, rabbit hair, rooster capes, squirrel tails, pheasant tails, peacock feathers, turkey quills and even a small patch of moose hair. If I could tie it to a hook, it came with me.

I thought if I continued to tie flies, I could somehow stay in tune with my favorite trout streams—if not physically at least in spirit. I spent my first summer in Sioux Falls filling boxes with hand-tied royal wulffs, yellow humpies and several other flies with peculiar sounding names.

By autumn I had an impressive collection of flies. A few months later, when spring arrived, I realized that I had not cast a single one. I wasn’t fly-fishing once or twice a week anymore. I was fishing once or twice a year.

With enough inventory to last me several years, I stopped tying flies.

I keep a collection of those hand-tied flies in my vest and use them whenever I can get on a trout stream. This summer, I know that I will open my fly box to see several pheasant tail nymphs neatly arranged by size. I will carefully choose one and tie it to the end of my tippet. Then, I will cast it to an unsuspecting trout hiding in the riffles and entice him to strike—just as I have done every summer since I left the Black Hills.

I will be connected again.


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