I like to take my winter walks down along the East Branch of the Delaware, down at Crooked Eddy. The sunshine the other morning got me out and about early. There is something about that sunshine, even on a fifteen degree morning!
The river was bordered by ice along either bank, with slush flowing down the main run of current, courtesy of the current cold spell: it was seven degrees at six o’clock that morning. I walked briskly and warmed right up in my down jacket, enjoying the simple beauty of a calm, bright winter morning.
Most of my daytime hours have been spent here at the tying bench, or kicked back with my winter reading. The books have fueled my interest with classic Catskill flies and tiers anew, so I have been tying a few of those. Yesterday it was the Cross Special that caught my fancy.
I was fortunate to have secured copies of the late, great Rueben Cross’ classic little tomes “Tying American Trout Lures” and “Fur, Feathers and Steel”, purchased from the collection of the late Terry Finger. Mike Valla talked about Mr. Finger in “Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies” (Headwater Books 2009). As Valla learned to tie flies from the legendary Dettes, so too the young Terry Finger learned to tie flies from legendary Catskill fly tier Ray Smith. In both men, these early influences shaped their lives and passions for fly fishing in the Catskill tradition.
I appreciate how much those experiences mattered to both young men.
I started my own fly tying with a class taught be Joe Bruce, a well known Chesapeake Bay area fly tier. Once I started, my quest for knowledge kicked into overdrive, and I availed myself of every opportunity to learn from a master tier. Larry Duckwall, a student of Elsie Darbee, taught me to tie the Classic Catskill style, Ed Shenk walked me through his historic spring creek patterns, Gary LaFontaine revealed the techniques for his Emergent Sparkle Pupa as well as the theory behind his innovative fly designs, and A.K. Best instructed me in crafting delicate quill bodies and parachute dries.
Many of these encounters occurred through local fly shops and the first Fly Tier’s Symposium held in western Pennsylvania nearly three decades ago. That was an exciting time! That symposium exposed me to countless ideas and techniques. Rather than the overtly commercial atmosphere common to many trade shows, the energy of that weekend was centered upon sharing our passions for fishing.
Shenk and LaFontaine became the greatest influences on my own developing ideas for fly design. I recognized that movement within the fly itself was the key to imitating life. Ed taught me to tie with soft materials using techniques that allow them to move with each subtle stirring of current, while Gary championed unique materials that would subtly reflect light to mimic actual movements.
I took my newfound knowledge and enthusiasm to the stream as I fished, collecting a sample of each hatching insect I could catch, choosing materials and blending dubbing to match the color and translucence of the naturals that excited the trout. Through it all the passion grew.
Years on the water have reinforced the idea that simple flies can work wonders! Too many times the solution to maddeningly difficult trout feeding upon tiny flies has been nothing more than a few wraps of thread and a wisp of cul-de-canard.
Last summer I re-discovered the beautiful silk dubbing made by the Kreinik Company. Tying a simple sulfur with a tail of hackle wisps, a silk body and a CDC puff created a wonderfully translucent, lifelike fly! The hard fished wild browns were convinced, choosing them when they shunned other more involved patterns.
It seems that many of the current hot fly tiers are building very involved patterns. I certainly respect their ideas and execution, but the trend runs contrary to my own way of thinking. I once watched a very famous English tier build a “model insect” at a demonstration. The fly was a work of art worthy of display in any fine collection of sporting art. If I recall, he told me it takes him about an hour to tie one of those flies, and he intends them for fishing. The gentleman no doubt has a tiny fly box. The detail in that stonefly was extrordinary, but it was hard and unyielding, making me wonder if it would actually catch many trout.
I never tried model insect building, and now, with carpal tunnel assaulting my hands I most certainly am not going to start. A few summers ago I landed a deep bodied wild brown trout that stretched the tape past 25 inches, my Catskill best. I worked on that fish for some time. Selectivity and an impossible lie made for quyite a challenge. What did he finally take? A size 20 CDC ant tied with two bumps of black muscrat dubbing, two turns of hackle and a tiny puff of cdc. Simple.