A Midwinter Reflection On Flies
By Bob White Whitefish Studio
Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924)
The days are becoming longer, and the faint whispers of spring are there if you listen. Last week, while shoveling out from under a foot of new snow, I had the odd sensation that something was out of place. It was the robins' calling. Their trills seemed a bit optimistic to me, but it's hard to argue with a species that's been around longer than mine.
Perhaps in part, because of their confidence, I didn't even bother to shovel last night's snow. Let the sun do the work, I have flies to tie! The ice will go out on the river soon enough and the fishing season will follow... there's work to be done!
I'm proud to share with you that I'm now a regular contributor to Midwest Fly Fishing magazine. I met Tom Helgeson, the publisher and editor, back in 1982, shortly after he'd just opened a fly shop in south Minneapolis. I was working as a counselor with kids and their families in the Phillips neighborhood, and wanted a part-time position that'd help keep me sane. I walked into Tom's humble shop and asked for a job. "What? Are you crazy?" He asked. "Look around you? There's no one here... does it look like I need any help?"
Tom and I became fast friends, and now, twenty-five years later, I'm writing for his magazine. The title of my column is, Guidelines, and I hope that those of you who are subscribers will enjoy the work. For those of you that would like to check out the publication, go to...
... and enjoy. We encourage you to subscribe... it's a great publication, committed to the stewardship of our natural resources. The following essay is published in the current issue. The illustration is a favorite watercolor, titled, A Fly Tying Legacy.
It was my first fishing season in Alaska, and I was one of several new guides that gathered around the nightly bonfire to unwind, review the day, and listen to Rusty. The old guide was the consummate bush rat, and had forgotten more about the North Country than many of us would ever learn. His flaming red hair stuck out from under his hat at odd angles, and he had a wild beard to match. Like a good parent, he encouraged us when we did well, admonished us when we needed it, and passed along the lessons he'd learned. "Fish are the world's greatest barometer of karma." He cackled, as he pushed another spruce round into the dying fire. Sparks towered into the soft Alaskan dusk.
We all leaned in, tipping our logs on edge and waited for him to continue. He took a sip of whiskey from an old tin cup, smacked his lips, sat back, and then closed his eyes. Seconds later he opened them and watched the sparks trail off down-wind toward the coast. I couldn't stand it any longer. "What d'ya mean?" I asked.
"Well," he said, setting the tin cup down on the log next to him, "I had two guys in my boat today that couldn't have been more different. One of them was new to fly fishing, and a real nice guy. If he wasn't sure about something, he'd ask... and then listen. If something needed doing, he offered to help."
"The other guy was a real pain-in-the-ass. He knew something about everything. He knew where every fish in the river ought to be... and wasn't bashful about saying so. He knew what side of the river we should drift... and then instructed me on how to hold the boat so's he could cast. Hell, he even knew what flies to use."
"Well, the new guy had tied a bunch of special flies for the trip. They weren't much to look at, but I could tell that he was real proud of 'em. He had faith in them, you know? Sort of like a kid believes in Santa Claus."
"Mister-know-it-all laughed at him and told him there wasn't no Santa Claus. He even refused to take a few of them flies for later, just in case they worked."
"Jeeze... that's low." Someone said from across the blaze. "What happened?"
"Waugh..." Rusty laughed. "I reckon the price of those flies has gone way up. The expert couldn't buy a fish all day... and his friend just caught the hell out 'em! "
Rusty took another sip of whiskey and waited for the laughter to die down before leaning in conspiratorially, as if he had a secret to tell us. We all leaned in even closer to listen. "If fish judge our karma." He said in a whisper, his face all aglow from the dancing flames. "Then, the flies we throw at them are the windows to our souls."
The younger guides looked at each other in confusion, but Rusty met my gaze and held it. He had somehow come to understand my obsession with flies. He smiled and winked.
My love of flies began long before I ever learned to cast one. When I asked my father about the old, yellowed box of flies that I'd found in the recesses of our garage, and he told me that he had tied them, I looked upon the whole thing as a trick of alchemy... and him, as a wizard.
He gave me a fly tying kit for my tenth birthday, and I added to the cheap, but colorful materials with what money I could earn mowing the neighborhood lawns. I had thousands of trout flies tied long before I ever wet my feet in a stream.
I collect flies and tying materials like some people collect stamps, and clearly recall many of the early flies I made. One, in particular, was tied when I was thirteen-years-old. It was a standard Adams, but constructed with a long tail of moose mane. At the time, I wasn't very good at tying dry flies, but the proportions of this particular fly were perfect ... it was a complete and utter accident, or perhaps even divine intervention. I've tried to copy it, and replicate the mistake, but all in vain. I've never tied another dry fly that looked so perfect.
For years, I kept it safely sequestered in a special compartment of my dry fly box... never daring to risk it's loss to a snag, or even have it damaged in the mouth of a fish. It became clear to me at an early age that the flies I tied and collected were often times more important to me than the fish I sought to catch with them.
I was twenty years old, and fishing with a mentor when I eventually found a fish that merited the risk of damage or loss to this particular fly. The 18-inch brown rose to the second drift, took the fly, and I landed it as my friend walked up behind me to watch. The fish was admired and released... and the fly went back into the box, where it is today, a slightly worn treasure.
Over the years, Lisa and I met a lot of fine people around that old fire ring in Alaska, and we remain good friends with many of them to this day. A week or so before Christmas, I was trying to decide what to send the three sons of our closest friends when it occurred to me that I rarely have the opportunity to tie flies anymore, and that there are boxes upon boxes of materials and tools that will probably never be used if they remain in my care. In a moment of clarity, I thought to send the three boys everything they'd need to start tying flies of their own. As soon as the decision had been made, I knew that it was the right thing to do. I spent an entire day going through all of my materials, selecting boxes of hooks, assembling the necessary tools, and writing notes.
Sorting through those boxes was a nostalgic and powerful experience. I found myself surrounded by half-used game cock necks, patches of deer hide, buck tails, moose mane, and countless spools of floss, tinsel and silk; all a part of my fly fishing past... a fly tying legacy.
Eventually the materials were sorted and repacked for shipping, but the box I took to the post office the next morning was full of much more than just bags of feathers, bits of fur, and hooks. What was delivered to a cabin in Alaska by Christmas morning was all of the necessary ingredients for creating tiny and precious bits of hope. I believe that every fly is a little seed of hope... the dream of a fish yet to be hooked and played on a distant and unknown river. I also believe that hope runs deeper when it's created late in the night, at a fly tying bench while remembering time spent on the water, in anticipation of another day.
Two days after sending the box of fly tying materials to my three young friends in Alaska, I received conformation of karmic balance. A package arrived from Canada. It had been sent to me at the bequest of an old friend. Inside the box, carefully and lovingly wrapped, was a fly reservoir from the turn of the century. The large box is japanned with black lacquer on the outside, and is simply marked, Salmon Flies on its lid. The interior of the box is lacquered in cream, and inside the lid is the marking, A. Carter & Co., 11 South Moulton St., London. There are nine tidy trays that nest within, each one overflowing with fully-dressed salmon flies, streamer, wet flies and dries... a life's collection of hopes and dreams... all windows to one man's soul.
Thanks for visiting,