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May 02, 2013

Beginning Fly Tying

Why and how to get started tying flies.

Contrary to my wife's opinion, I wasn't born with a fly rod in my hand. It was a spinning rod. And I must admit that it wasn't aesthetics that lured me to fly fishing; it was frustration.

If you've read the revised edition of John Cole's book Striper, you may recall the great school of bass that Cole saw while fishing with me off Maine's Popham Beach one day in the early '80s. Unfortunately, seeing those bass was about as close as we got to them. After the briefest of dawn flurries, we couldn't buy a strike. The bass would actually swim away from a live-lined menhaden or mackerel. A big surface popper would generate a lot of interest, but no real takers. Yet these fish were feeding. Every now and then one of the 4-foot stripers would roll onto its side, creating a big reflection in the shallow water, and stir up a bit of the bottom to produce a mini sand rile. The baitfish were small -- so small, in fact, that it was impossible to get a really good look at them. We surmised that they must be sand eels, and that the bass were rooting them from the bottom.

I asked the salesman at a local fly shop for a fly rod and reel capable of landing a 40-pound striper, and then carefully perused the flies on display. I saw little that I thought would work, so instead I purchased some saddle hackles and some long-shanked 1/0 hooks. By crudely strapping the feathers to the hooks with rod-wrapping thread, I tied up some long, skinny sand eel patterns. No, I didn't run out and catch a 40-pound bass. I could hardly cast 30 feet, though that was enough to reach one of the fish. On about my third cast, an enormous fish swam up to the fly with its mouth open, but at the last second saw the boat and turned away. It was thrill enough, though, and since then fly fishing for me has become an intense but pleasant and rewarding passion. I've spent the leisure time of my last 15 years -- and some time that probably shouldn't have been spent leisurely -- learning to cast, learning to tie and learning to look at fishing as a fly fisher.

I don't know where you are along this path. Maybe you're just beginning, or maybe you're like my friend who recently retired as the editor of a large outdoor magazine. He fly-fished all over the world, but he was always too busy to learn fly tying. Well, he's moved to Maine, and now he's going to learn. For him it will bring a lifetime's involvement full circle because for so many reasons, both practical and emotional, tying your own flies adds immeasurably to the sport.