Monday, February 10, 2014

Scrapbook Flies

This fly box needs immediate attention

I have a collection of flies I keep in a clear fly box. The box is stuffed with flies and is virtually overflowing. One of these days, I plan on getting another clear fly box and separating them into two collections. One collection will be all flies that have been given to me over the years, but never fished. I have saved some of these to use as models for my own tying. Others are more like little keepsakes. If I fished one, I might never get a replacement if I lost it. The other collection is made up of flies that trigger memories or tell stories. This portion of the box is sort of my fly fishing scrapbook. Below are some flies from that scrapbook.

The Woolly Worm - A very powerful gateway drug! 

Woolly Worm

This fly is the very first I ever tied. I was around 13 years old. I took fly tying lessons at the now defunct Fin & Feather Lodge, formerly in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. I was by far the youngest in the class by at least 20 years and, in most cases, a lot more than that. They used to call me "the kid." Because I was still at least three years away from driving, the old timers would let me in on their "secret spots." I remember one old guy looking back and forth before he told me about his honey hole, just to make sure no one else was close enough to hear! 

My first fly tying instructor, Bob Greco, told the class to refrain from fishing our first fly in case we lost it. He said we'd want to have it down the line. Bob was definitely right and I'm glad I still have my very first self-tied fly. I hooked my first trout on the second fly of the class, a marabou leech pattern. Unfortunately, the fish made off with my fly. I'm okay with that though. At least I still have my Woolly Worm. 

Sugerman Shrimp #10
M1 Killer #10 

Sugerman Shrimp & M1 Killer

These two are big milestone flies for me. In fact the Sugerman Shrimp changed my life. I hooked a dark, multi sea-winter, Miramichi River Atlantic salmon on my first evening salmon fishing. I got the fish close, but lost it as I walked backwards towards the shore. That fish took a #8 Sugerman Shrimp I had tied a month before the trip. I sweated out the next five days without so much as a tug. We fished the morning of our last day. The rain from front end of Hurricane Kyle brought in the fish from the estuary. I landed my first Atlantic salmon (a grilse) in pretty short order. He took a #10 Sugerman Shrimp, tied by my friend and guide, Darryl Tucker. I hooked two others that day, one on another Sugerman and one on a Black Bear Green Butt. 

I was happy I didn't get skunked on that first trip, but bummed I had lost that first msw salmon. The next year we fished in horrible conditions. The water was so low, not even heavy rain brought the river up. Miraculously, I didn't get skunked, landing the only fish hooked in camp all week. That handsome Miramichi River hookbill took a #10 M1 Killer, a fly recommended by my friend Dave Goulet. The Sugerman Shrimp started the addiction, but the M1 is responsible for my first fish I could call a salmon. 

Far from my best tied Catskill dry,
but it was good enough for the trout

March Brown

Prior to this particular afternoon of fishing on Connecticut's Farmington River, I had never experienced a March Brown hatch. I did have a few crudely tied March Browns with me, however. I don't remember when I tied this. It could have been a remnant from my teenage tying days. I still fish with those old flies from time to time.

I arrived at my favorite pool and was relieved to be alone. Not only was I alone but, from the minute I arrived, the entire pool was boiling with rising trout. There were bugs everywhere, mostly tan caddis and sulfur colored mayflies. There were some March Browns around too, but in much smaller quantities. I caught a couple trout on an X-Caddis before I switched to my March Brown. I'm not exaggerating when I say every trout I put that fly in front of nailed it. Not just for a little while, either...all day long. I only had three March Browns with me and I had to do all I could just to keep them afloat after catching so many eager brown trout. I lost one in a fish and had to switch to other flies while the other two dried out. In terms of sheer action, it was the most exciting day of trout fishing I've ever experienced. 

This old soldier didn't owe me anything

Mickey Finn

I've said it a million times here...year in and year out, I catch more Naugatuck salmon on a #6 Polar Bear Mickey Finn than anything else. This particular Mickey Finn went out in a blaze of glory. I don't know how many salmon I landed on this very fly, but it was a lot. The last fish caught with this fly was a salmon in the upper teens weight class. This fish was seemed like it preferred fighting from the air more than from the water. I landed the big male and the hook was right where it should have been, in the scissors of the jaw. The salmon had a big, toothy kype and I had to grab the fly with long pliers instead of hemostats. One twist of the pliers and the hook broke in half. Maybe the hook grew incrementally weaker over time? Maybe all that weight and constant jumping pushed the hook over the edge? I don't know, but I'm okay with how things turned out in the end. 

Homecoming Hex Spinner

Hexagenia Spinner

Though I grew up fly fishing western Rhode Island's Wood River, I never experienced its most renowned hatch until much later in life. I knew I wanted to fish this nighttime hatch and practiced by fishing large Wulffs and Stimulators, after dark, on a river near my current Connecticut home. It didn't take long to become comfortable fishing "by ear," so I decided to make my first trip back to the Wood in almost 20 years. To say my home river welcomed me back with open arms would be a gross understatement. 

To make a long story short, much like the March Brown above, my self-designed Hex spinner was all I needed to beat up on trout for the duration of a fairly long Hex hatch. If there was ever a case of "beginner's luck," this was it. I was in the exact right place at the exact right time. It was my turn to be that guy. To be honest, the whole thing was met with a little resentment by the regulars. They assured me, "Don't get used to's not usually like that." Nope, it's not usually like that. In fact, I've fished that hatch many times since and have never come close to catching as many or as good sized trout as I caught that first night. 

Hex night was only about a month after my March Brown bonanza on the Farmington. That was a really good summer for trout fishing. 

The original "heartbreak fly" went missing in action
(tied by Marc Leblanc)

Blue Butterfly 

I have told this story before, so I won't rehash the whole thing here. I'll sum it up by saying this fly, a gift from my friend Marc LeBlanc, was left behind in the salmon I most wanted to land. I have since hooked larger salmon, some landed and some lost, but none I wanted as badly as I wanted that Nova Scotia firecracker. After I lost the original #6 Blue Butterfly, and after I finally regained my composure, I raided Marc's fly chest for two more. One for immediate use and one for my collection. The funny thing is, I'm not sure I would even fish this oddball pattern again. I love Butterflies, and have even replicated this fly, but the story is probably better if I never hook another salmon on a Blue Butterfly.

I love Gurglers

Black Gurgler

This fly is a tangible memory of what might have been the most exciting day of fishing I've ever had. If it's not the most exciting, it's definitely in the top three. I was on a Caribbean cruise with my wife and her family. We had a day in-port in St. Maarten, but no activities planned. Before the trip, I went online and tried to find some possible unguided fishing opportunities. I saw reports of baby tarpon caught on spinning gear a few miles from port. I procured a map, figured out where to go, hailed a taxi and was on my way. 

This was real urban fishing. I felt like I was fishing in the North end of Hartford, Connecticut. There were drivers honking their horns all day long, countless numbers of pedestrians walking by and the constant sound of police cars and ambulance sirens the entire time. There was a white plastic lawn chair floating in the cove in which I was fishing. The weather was lousy, too. It was a little chilly and it drizzled or rained pretty much all day long. 

None of that mattered. The place was teeming with baby tarpon. They traveled in schools and they were grabby. Just wait for the school to pass by, watch for their backs and cast away. They turned around in the cove, so they could be caught either coming or going. 

I hooked my first (and smallest) fish of the day in my first ten minutes. That little five pounder grabbed a small Black Death. I lost him. A few minutes later, I was tight to a fish that went about twenty-five pounds. I almost landed him, but no dice. I was fishing from a mangrove-lined shore and landing these powerful fish was virtually impossible. I was using my favorite single handed salmon rod, a 9' Vision GT Four 8wt., but it just wasn't enough rod to stop them from diving into the Mangroves parallel to where I stood. 

It didn't matter. I was having as much fun as I've ever had fishing. It was like fishing a farm pond for bass, only the bass averaged 15-20 lbs. each, were extremely numerous and fought as hard as anything I've ever hooked. That and I was in the middle of the inner-city. 

I finally did land a tarpon. I saw the school coming and I had my black Gurgler ready. There's no fly with which I'd rather catch a fish than Jack Gartside's Gurgler. Fishing that fly is an adrenaline rush. I led the school and saw a tarpon slow roll the Gurgler. I strip set as many times as I could before the fish went airborne. This was the only tarpon that I had hooked solidly enough to withstand all the acrobatics and pull out from the mangroves. After an exciting fight, I beached the fifteen pound fish and grabbed the hook to remove it. The tarpon flopped around, snapped the point off the hook and rolled back into the water.

When I looked up, I noticed a crowd of passersby had gathered to watch the whole thing. As soon as the fish was gone, they all left. After that, I noticed that people stopped every time I hooked or jumped a fish, which was constantly for a while. I guess they don't do much baby tarpon fishing in urban St. Maarten. 

Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of the tarpon, but it doesn't matter. I will never forget that day. Every time I look at that horrifically mangled Gurgler, I crave another trip to St. Maarten. I don't even like cruising, but I would do it again for this alone. I can't imagine what this place might be like on a good day!


There are plenty more stories in the scrapbook fly box. Of course, there are plenty of stories about the gifted flies in the other part of the box, too. Like the Blue Butterfly, there are stories about flies which gave gone missing in action. And there are stories about flies still in service, waiting to either be ripped from my leader or become the next Polar Bear Mickey Finn of my collection. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Dynamic Duo

Early period Pryce-Tannatt Irish flies (c. 1914)
Note the heavier dressing compared to the flies below

I would be hard pressed to pick my all time favorite fly tyer. So many have influenced me. For all around mastery, it's hard to beat my buddy Ted Patlen or Davie McPhail. For hair wing salmon flies, Warren Duncan or Jerome Molloy.  My pick for pure creativity is Jack Gartside, who is definitely in the running for all time favorite. Classic American trout flies…Harry and Elise Darbee. Modern American trout flies…probably John Barr. Flies tied friend Paul Rossman gets the nod. There are many more categories and tyers…too many to mention.

In the classic salmon fly category, two tyers vie for top honors. The first is Dr. Thomas Edwin Pryce-Tannatt (1881-1965), considered the last of the Victorian era tyers. While Dr. Pryce-Tannatt is best known for his classic book "How to Dress Salmon Flies: A Handbook for Amateurs" (1914), my favorite work of his are his late period flies.

Later period Pryce-Tannatt flies (c. 1952)
Dressed for fishing the sunk line, greased line and in between

First, it's obvious that Dr. Pryce-Tannatt's tying skills improved greatly in the years between when his book was written and when he tied the examples from his piece published in The Field Annual (1952). Most of Dr. Pryce-Tannatt's later flies were dressed much simpler than the exaggerated Victorian era flies in his book. Classics were pared down to essential elements. Take the Jock Scott pictured above, for example. The body is dressed in typical Jock Scott fashion, but the wing is only made from white tipped turkey and bronze mallard. He omitted the bustard, multi-colored dyed swan, golden pheasant tail, etc., prescribed in his book. As fun as those grandiose old flies can be to tie, all the bells and whistles are unnecessary. His later flies were tied further up the shank (a sort of low water style) than what was traditionally done at the time. Wings rode low and were rarely longer than the hook itself. In terms of overall proportions, these flies really speak to me. They're perfectly tied but, at the same time, look really fishy to me.

It's worth reading the piece which accompanies the selection of flies pictured above. Dr. Pryce-Tannatt goes into much greater depth on the evolution of salmon flies than I can here. The article can be found on the fantastic Feathers, Flies and Phantoms site. Not surprisingly, and as evidenced in the style of the flies above, Dr. Pryce-Tannatt mentions the influence both Ernest Crosfield and A.H.E. Wood had on the fly style of this transitional period.

This unique Silver Doctor is both beautiful and built like a tank.
Notice how the underwing and main wing are barely visible.

Born in Spain and after the publication of Dr. Pryce-Tannatt's classic book, Belarmino Martinez (1919-2000) can hardly be considered a Victorian Era tyer. I suppose the term "neoclassical" might apply in his case. Whatever his classification, Martinez tied one heck of a salmon fly.

I have to admit, Martinez wasn't always one of my favorites. His flies have a very distinct and sort of angular look to them. His arrow-shaped heads were lacquered, sometimes in unusual colors (brown or very bright red). He cut his toppings, giving them an abrupt taper. Martinez seemed to have a fondness for very wide strips of waterfowl flank feathers. Often times, the combination of bronze mallard, wood duck and teal would almost completely obscure the main wing underneath. He threw out the notion that a classic salmon fly should have five turns of tinsel for a rib and often used almost twice that number (presumably for durability).

My only Martinez fly, this Silver Martinez sits on my desk

My fondness of Martinez's work grew when I acquired one of his signature flies, the "Silver Martinez." Being able to hold that fly in my hand made all the difference. I couldn't believe how well built that fly was. It looks like it could catch a dozen salmon before it would begin to break down. The taper of the body looks just right. These flies were tied to fish, but they were little works of modern art. They tip their hat to the old school Victorian tyers while having a look all their own.

There are many other classic salmon tyers whom I admire but, at least at the moment, Dr. T.E. Pryce-Tannatt and Belarmino Martinez are the big two. While on wintertime home confinement, I am going to try to synthesize the style of the pair. It will be a work-in-progress and it might take me a while to get it right. These flies will be tied for fishing. Where? I have no idea yet but, given the opportunity and the right conditions, I am very eager to use them.