I sat and watched old Punxsutawney Phil make his prediction at dawn this morning, flanked by hordes of shivering onlookers: six more weeks of winter. I wasn’t surprised, since my countdown stretches out over a significantly longer span. Sixty-seven days is a bit more than nine and a half weeks and, though I love springtime, the dry fly season just doesn’t begin until the new season has settled in.
I found an email from a friend over on the Esopus, one with an imbedded video clip of a famous fly guy tying Ed Shenk’s “Letort Hopper”. This video guy was about as far away from tying the actual legendary pattern as he could get, but what I saw, brought back a flood of memories.
It has been more than thirty years since I first sat alongside the man they called The Master of the Letort and learned how to tie his legendary fly patterns. I recall my feelings of excitement and a bit of intimidation; the same feelings I felt a day earlier as we stalked the meadows of Pennsylvania’s most challenging and historic limestone stream. Ed taught me how to hunt trophy trout, how vital it is to consider each move before ever drawing near to the water. I think of him frequently as I stalk the bright waters of our Catskill rivers.
Remembering that morning in Shenk’s den, I recalled the specifics of the Letort Hopper as I messaged my friend about the liberties that fishlebrity took in tying the fly. When Ed tied Hoppers, or any other fly for that matter, he tied them with the efficiency of an expert professional fly tyer. The hooks chosen would be 2XL dry fly hooks and his favorites were always the size 14 and 16 flies. At the time he passed his knowledge to me, he had settled on Fly-Rite poly dubbing, #14 Golden Amber for the bodies, and preferred the mottled tan and brown wing quills from a wild turkey. The deer hair he chose was whitetail, tannish colored early season body hair with well-marked tips, and coarse enough near those tips that it would flare properly. Observing the natural world since he was a tot taught him the importance of Nature’s mixtures of coloration, and he selected his tying materials accordingly.
Hopper bodies were dubbed a bit thicker than mayfly bodies, the turkey feathers cut into strips twice the width required and folded in half lengthwise, then their tips were cut in a broad vee shape before sealing them with tying cement. Fly bodies and underwings were crafted, the feather cemented, thread half hitched and cut off, and then the bodies were set aside to dry thoroughly. Once several dozen of these had become thoroughly dry and hardened, Ed would begin the deer hair wings, measuring them even with the tip of the underwing, stacking the hair with the aid of a .45 ACP cartridge casing, and cutting the excess butt ends. These were tied in on top of the thread wraps securing the underwing, the hair flared prominently, and the thread brought forward to the hook eye and whip finished. Trimming the head of the fly was the final step, done after hair wings had been fixed to all of the finished bodies: flat at the front and rounded along the top and sides to achieve a “can” shape.
The extreme closeups certainly show the flaws in the fly, my imperfect trimming looks better at actual size, but they clearly feature the silhouette that is key to Shenk’s design and the correct proportions of hook, body, underwing, head and wing that make this fly a classic that has caught trout worldwide.
The Letort was a challenging classroom in those days, and I returned over many years to practice the lessons The Master had taught me. Observation, approach, casting and fly selection were paramount, as was my growing familiarity with the stream. I always marveled at how a few huge browns would hunt late, lingering precious moments after dawn. I would creep into the Barnyard Meadow at first light and begin watching the stream from a distance. There would be no motion save the current itself, and I would advance slowly toward the bank, ever watchful for signs of life. More than once I crouched in the tall grass on summer mornings when a broad wake would develop forty yards upstream and streak down and past my position. With the sun over the trees at the edge of the meadow, I would see the wide bronze flanks of a tremendous Letort brown as it sped past overtop of the weed beds. I began to believe that the gentle sunrise itself spooked those trout.
I took my first large Letort brown trout in that same Barnyard Meadow, casting a size 16 Letort Cricket above a log jam two thirds as wide as the channel at dawn. The eighteen incher sipped the fly as it twirled in the tiny eddy if front of the upstream logs and gave me a real problem trying to play him out from beneath the fallen forest on light tackle. He was dark and beautiful when I finally lifted him in my net, completing my spiritual bond with the bright waters of the limestone springs whose legends still haunt me.
We lost Ed Shenk nearly three years ago. His passing was unexpected, for though many years had passed since our first meeting, he never seemed to me to age. Though our friendship was comfortable and cordial, I could not help but hold the man in reverence, for he was a towering figure in the lore and legend of American fly fishing.