Tying Them Like Your Grandfather Did
By Larry Ray
My last few reviews of fly-tying manuals have dealt with the most up-to-date manuals held in the library. This is because we have recently had some fine donations and we have been able to make purchases of books and manuals that the membership has requested. And, of course, most books requested are going to be new. So, the tying manual reviews have been of the most recent issuances, with the kind of photography that leaves very little to the imagination. In some cases, each tying step is illustrated with its own photo. The quality of the photography itself is wonderful. Thus, when tying while using such manuals as a guide, the end result will appear much as the example illustrated in the photo. And, little imaginative imagery has been brought into play – it has all been done for the reader.
When I was new to tying, the supply of fly-fishing literature was very limited when compared to today’s. Many of the manuals of the 1950s and 60s contained no photography at all! Some of the recipes might have a pen and ink drawing of the fly, in black and white, which was really nothing more than a silhouette. One might ask how tying from such instruction was possible, if adherence to patterns is so important? Well, here is a little secret for you who are new to the tying art, from one who has been tying (and fishing with the end products of my own tying) since the early 1960’s: Microscopic, rigid adherence to a recipe and pattern is rarely, if ever, so important. Some of our noted tying and fishing brethren (and, of late, even sisters!) might like to make you think it is, usually when tying a pattern they have originated or significantly modified. But, trust me, it just isn’t so in the vast number of situations. If it was so, why have I and others continued to catch fish on a fly that has, over the course of an entire afternoon or evening, become a shredded mass of feather and yarn? And why are soft-hackled flies, which rely solely on material movement and appearance instead of exact imitation, so successful? I once spent an entire evening catching sea-run cutthroat in the Stillaguamish, eventually landing sixteen fish. You who have caught them know that cutts can be rather toothy. Afterward, when I got to the truck and began to break down my gear, I realized I had spent the entire evening fishing the same Conway Special with which I began! It had become a bare shadow of what it was when I started – just a spare body, with virtually no hackle or hairwing left, and the tinsel had even started to unravel. Anyway, if strict pattern adherence is so important, how did this fly go on catching fish long after it had become “altered”?
For a fun tying adventure and learning experience, one which will test your imagination and creativity, borrow an old manual and try tying some flies from the recipes and drawings it contains. Dispense with the need to constantly check your progress, and then your final product, against a perfect photograph and just follow the written recipe in an old manual. Employing your own imagination, with your knowledge and understanding of terminology and materials, tie some flies. Yours will likely not be so perfect in the eyes of a student of specific patterns but, instead, they will be uniquely yours. Perhaps hackles will be a bit longer or fuller (or, preferably, a bit sparser!). The tail may be a bit shorter or longer than the artist’s illustration. Maybe your ribbing will have six turns down the body instead of four. You might even substitute marabou for the yarn called for in the tail! But that is alright! It will be uniquely yours and, unless it is an absolute disaster of a feather duster imitation, it will likely catch fish. If your ego needs to be salved and confidence reinforced by catching fish with your flies somewhere, take your creations to a cutthroat lake…
Our Library collection contains a few of the older, less illustrated, more creatively-stimulating manuals. Two, in particular, really stand out, both by Roy Patrick. I reviewed Patrick’s work, including these two manuals, for the Barbless Flyer some years ago. Recently, while perusing his Pacific Northwest Fly Patterns again, just for some nostalgic fun, I found a pattern that had been devised over sixty years ago especially for my favorite lake! I whipped some out, took them with me on my last visit, and was pleasantly surprised at my success (though they turned out to be a bit gaudy for my taste). But I caught fish with them and enjoyed a bit of nostalgic linkage with my grandfather’s fly-fishing generation. Tie Your Own Flies, also by Roy Patrick, is a smaller, yet similar version of such a manual. It, though, contains many wonderful pen and ink drawings of tying methods and procedures, as well as materials. Most of these illustrations are quaint, or even primitive, by today’s standards and expectations but I find reading and following them stimulating, even joyful.
A quaint little volume entitled Fly Tying Problems and Their Answers, by John Veniard, is very similar to Patrick’s work, although it does contain a few simple photographs. The pen-and-ink drawings are many and very artful. Indeed, some of the drawings illustrating the correct handling of materials might be museum-worthy! All are extremely accurate and easy to follow.
Finally, A Simplified Course in Fly Tying, by George Harvey, nothing more than a delicate little booklet of a few pages, is packed with the same type of drawings which, in quality and informative nature, are every bit as good as those in the books already mentioned.
The four works noted are all held in the Spokane Fly Fishers Library and are available for lending. There may be more such manuals in the collection. For a trip down memory lane and a tying experience like that of our grandfathers, or just for a stimulating change in your tying experience, borrow one of these and test your mettle the old-fashioned way. I’m certain you will not be disappointed.