The art of fly tying

fly_mainIt's the ‘fly' in fly fishing that separates it from other forms of angling, says Marcus Janssen.

It really is about time someone paid homage to the worm. Countless poems have been dedicated to the horse for it's servility in fields and heroics in the battlefield. Many more have been written about dogs and their loyalty, faithfulness and companionship. Both Yeats and Keats wrote poems about cats and Robert Burns even saw fit to write a pretty decent bit of prose about a measly little mouse. However, as far and as wide as I have searched, I am yet to come across anything half decent written about the worm.

I personally would be more than willing to put this right and give the humble worm the recognition and kudos that it so rightly deserves. After all, a whole lot of these wriggly little creatures have paid the ultimate price so that many a fisher folk have been able to put dinner on the table. The trouble is, you see, as much as I acknowledge that the worm is indeed one mighty fine bait with which to catch a fish, I tend to keep my hands clear of their digestive juices. But flies, on the other hand, well they're a bit easier to get poetic, misty-eyed and romantic about. After all, it is the ‘fly' in fly fishing that separates our sport from all other forms of angling.

Is there not something inherently beautiful about a box brimming with neat rows of delicately tied flies of all descriptions? I know for a fact that you don't even need to be interested in fishing to appreciate the elegance of a well tied dry or the glamour of a feather-winged single tied for Atlantic salmon. I know this because Mrs J takes great pride in showing off my fly boxes to her stiletto heeled friends and work colleagues and I have become accustomed to hearing about how a #8 white Woolly Bugger hanging off each ear would go beautifully with a pearl choker necklace or how a Durham Ranger would look lovely on the lapel of a particular jacket. And this, coming from a group of particularly well groomed and fashion conscious ladies, is therefore irrefutable proof that flies must indeed be things of beauty.

Granted, not all flies have the finesse and appeal of a traditionally tied Jock Scott or Green Highlander. Some of the early creations produced at my brother's fly tying desk, for example, tied from faeces-encrusted finch feathers, thread purloined from mother's sewing kit, and secondhand saltwater hooks designed for strapping dead sardines onto, were anything but beautiful. Nonetheless, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and doubtless Yuri was very proud of his first pygmy peacocks and bonsai parrots.

It must be said, my obsession with all things fly has not always been the case. I was introduced to fly fishing when I was all of four and three quarter years of age and, if I am completely honest, fly fishing back then, had about as much appeal to me as Linda Lee and the rest of the girls in the blue group of Morning Star Pre-primary School. I couldn't for the life of me get my head around why one would adopt an impossibly difficult means of propelling one's bait into the water. The absurdity of this fly fishing malarkey was compounded by the fact that I had very recently discovered that I could cast a three-ounce lead sinker almost to the middle of the pasture on the opposite bank of the Umzimkulu, our home river, with the greatest of ease.

The older brother, on the other hand, took to fly fishing with gusto. Even when Yuri's efforts began to pay dividend and it became apparent from the maniacal grin on his face that his canoe was laden with decent-sized trout, I was not swayed. Instead I continued to focus my efforts on honing my skills with a slingshot, while Yuri became proportionately adept at keeping his fish-laden skiff out of range.

The fulfilment, however, that one first derives from catching a fish on one's own fly is difficult to describe. Akin, perhaps, to harvesting and eating your own home-grown vegetables, the sense of self sufficiency puts a bounce in your step and fills you with a warm smugness that inevitably irks your fishing companions, adding to the whole experience. 

fly_selectionTo catch a fish on a fly that you have tied with materials derived from a pheasant, duck or deer that you yourself have dispatched, can have dire consequences for your relations with your fishing companions. Catch a fish on a pattern of your own invention, tied, of course, from the feathers or fur of some hapless bird or beast slain by one's own Artemis-like skill, and you will begin to wonder why your fellow fly fishing brethren aren't offering to clean your catch, polish your shoes and pour your G & T while you offer invaluable tips and hints on the art of piscatorial perfection. Be warned though, pride cometh before a fall and, inevitably, the following day you will snag your back cast on either your ego or your deerstalker and in full view of those who were once your friends.

There tend to be several distinct stages in the career of a recreational fly tier. After the initial phase of learning how to construct a few basic patterns, one reaches the wildly experimental stage where one's imagination and use of fly tying materials run riot. The results, which would probably make pretty handy decoys for Amazonian bird watchers, have a tendency, you find, to frighten the bejesus out of the hapless little trout that you hurl them at. If the invariable lack of success in the backcountry doesn't put you off fly fishing for life, you can either take up marlin fishing or, with a bit of luck, you'll graduate up to the next level in the trout fishing school of hard knocks: the imitative stage. This is where a keen interest in, and fascination with, all forms of fish nourishment develops, and consequently fly patterns are tailored accordingly.

This imitative stage, for someone with mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies, tends to become just that, obsessive. The preoccupation with the capture and study of fish food supersedes your interest in the fish themselves. Before long, your fly vest is bulging with petri dishes, forceps, stomach pumps and aquarium nets as you splash about in the riffles and shallows like J. R. R Tolkien's Gollum. Dog walkers and other passers-by quickly bundle their kids into the car and disappear with a cloud of dust.

Patterns are tied as accurately and precisely as possible, and no detail is overlooked. If you are successful in your efforts to create anatomically correct, life-like imitations, your fly box will soon be adorned with flies sporting a full range of appendages from legs, wing cases and feelers, to ears, eyeballs and ankles. Once you have accumulated at least half a dozen fly boxes, all full to the brim with imitations of every conceivable trout food from #20 chironomid larvae to #6 baitfish imitations, all of course tied in at least three different colour and weight variations, you find that nipping down to the river for an hour or two after work becomes more hassle than it's worth.

Over time, as you begin to tire of the backache that results from wearing a 20kg fly vest and indeed the headaches that result from the perpetual clinking, clunking and rattling that reverberates from each of your 12 pockets, your catch return records invariably reveal somewhat of a revelation. Only half a dozen of the trillion odd patterns in your fly boxes, actually feature as having been successful!

A period of denial is inevitable, but eventually you learn to accept that the backache and reputation as a weirdo have all been in vain. This often leads to the next stage in the life of a recreational fly tyer; that of simplification and, some like to think, refinement. The thing with carrying fewer flies is that you learn to really appreciate a particular pattern, realise its full potential and relish the simplicity that makes fly fishing so appealing.

Fly fishing has in many respects become inextricably scientific which, in today's world, is to be expected. However, fly fishing's allure, for me, has always had a lot to do with its inherently romantic, mysterious and dare I say simplistic aura. Who can honestly say that the idea of catching a wild brown on a handcrafted split cane or bamboo rod, preferably on a traditional dry like a Greenwell's Glory or Royal Wulff, doesn't fill you with a warm, Aunty Mildred's roast chicken kind of nostalgia?

Either way, it doesn't matter if you're a sticky toffee pudding traditionalist or a new-age, technocentric gadget freak, you have to admit, it is all about the fly. 

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