The Evolution of A Fly Tier

My own Beaverkill Hendrickson is tied for the high, rough water of early spring on its namesake river. The tailing and hackling are a bit more substantial than a classic Catskill style tie. I choose a dun cree hackle with a barring of natural dun and rusty ginger over a pale dun tone that reflects light to give an impression of movement. The dubbing blend is my own creation, color matched to the large, ruddy duns I have plucked from the surface on cold, windy April days.
My version of the Cross Special, tied more toward the classic Catskill school as Rube Cross defined, and Roy Steenrod, the Dettes and Darbees continued to wide acclaim. The tail is longer and more sparse, as is the natural dun hackle, the wing still tall, commanding, as the wings of the hallowed mayflies they represent.

I began as many tiers do, with a basic book and a Thompson vise. I assembled a small selection of materials and crudely tied some basic nymphs. I caught trout on them, despite their looks. That was the catalyst, that initial success, and led to a class at a local fly shop: Joe Bruce’s The Fishermans Edge. Joe was a well know angler and fly tier in the Baltimore area, and his shop embraced the customers with his friendly, open personality. Joe wouldn’t force his advice on anyone, but would answer any questions with a smile. He was the first gentleman I met who truly loved to share the joy of fishing.

With some proper instruction I acquired some hackle and ventured into the mystique of the dry fly. The initial efforts were crude as well, not terrible, but proportions can be a challenge until one’s fingers learn to repeat the measurement and handling of materials. I tied a lot of them and they too caught trout for me.

As I tied I read, and was exposed to some of the many variable theories of imitation. It became clear that observation was vital. Color made a very strong, early impression the day I encountered my first sulfur hatch on Gunpowder Falls. It was a sunny mid afternoon surprise in a close little pool of bright gravel, half shaded by overhanging trees and the steep river bank itself. The little yellow mayflies were beautiful, and the wild browns and brookies rose greedily to them. I fished my size 16 Light Cahill to no avail, a pattern recommended for such a hatch in several of the books I had read.

I tried a different fly and nothing changed, so I plucked a little dun from the surface, turned it upside down and held it next to my dampened Cahill. They were similar, but the sulfur was a brighter, true yellow as opposed to the Cahill’s rich cream color. Obviously the trout took notice as they avoided my Cahill routinely.

A search of my meager fly collection returned a single yellow bodied fly, a simple deer hair caddis sans hackle. The doctrine of imitation had been written so clearly: first match the size, the shape and lastly the color; but the Cahill didn’t work. The caddis did. Heresy! The shape was all wrong for a mayfly, but those wild trout on that day wanted the yellow color more than the mayfly profile. From that day forward I put my trust in observation on the stream and a strong sense of color.

I began to pick up bugs on a regular basis, to study their construction and coloration closely, and I began to blend my dubbing to match the colors I saw on the stream. I have continued that routine and the blending for thirty years.

I began to take advantage of every opportunity to learn from accomplished tiers. My early interest in the Catskill dry flies was enlightened by a session with the late Larry Duckwall at On The Fly, the little fly shop on the Gunpowder Falls. I was fortunate to attend one of the first Fly Tier’s Symposiums in western Pennsylvania and take classes with A.K. Best and the late Gary LaFontiane. I met the late Ed Shenk and Joe Humphreys at Allenberry on the Yellow Breeches Creek and began to absorb their knowledge. Ed’s lifetime of experience with the difficult trout of the LeTort hooked me securely, and I trod that path with his guidance.

Though I learned and tied patterns designed by all of these men, from early on I experimented, falling back on my own observations and my own designs. That choice expanded my fascination with fly fishing tenfold.

At On The Fly I found CDC feathers when they were new to American fly tying, and designed my first truly original fly. Big Gunpowder Falls was my primary classroom, and in those years there were heavy hatches of midges and microcaddis throughout the late autumn and winter. The trout were wild, very selective and difficult to deceive. That first fly was conceived as an imitation for both the midges and the microcaddis, using the lessons of movement learned from Shenk, and light reflections learned from LaFontaine.

I twisted single strands of black and silver Krystal Flash in a dubbing loop for an abdomen, wrapped a turn of black ostritch herl for a thorax, and winged my size 20 and 22 creations with white CDC. The fly was an immediate and lasting success for me, fueling the passion that defines my life and my angling today, three decades removed from those days on Gunpowder Falls.

During my time owning and operating a fly shop, I enjoyed teaching fly tying and sharing the lessons I so fortunately learned from those great fly tiers. I aspired to continue that when the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild needed help for their Catskill Kids On The Fly program. I was pleased to join a very talented tyer, Nicole March, for last February’s Fly Fest, Kids On The Fly event before the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted the program. I look forward to the day that we are all safe from this plague and may continue sharing the wonder of fly tying. Please check out Nicole’s wonderful tying on her website:, and consider joining the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s