Once upon a time, in a world not as very far away as we like to think, we had to tie our own flies. Just like we had to grow our own food and build our own homes. And we did these things, and they were hardy and served us well. There was no online ordering, no fly shop bin of options, no grocery store or butcher. You did it yourself because you had to. And sometimes life still requires of us that we take up the slack and drive like we know where we’re going—there will be time for looking at the map when you’re lost. As I often feel, discouraged, sitting at my tying desk.
The other day, frustrated with the size-24 midges of winter, writing, being landlocked and housebound, I did what any other person would: I “surfed” the Internet’s fabulous time-sucking waves. It strikes me that surfing is an awful lot like the archaic equivalent of what some of us hold-outs still do: browsing the stacks in a library, bookstore, your own home, through shelves which are never really arranged. When something is easily findable, you don’t run into the unexpected. You don’t experience serendipity, which is finding things you weren’t looking for, “because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult,” as lexicographer Erin McKean says.
And it must have been because I never did what I was looking for that I ending up at a video of a tying demonstration by Charlie Craven. Where I watched, listened, and heard him plainly state, “Fish eat worms and salmon eggs and marshmallows. I mean if it’s just about catching fish, you wouldn’t be sitting here Saturday—it’s about tying nice flies.” Yes.
I sighed, frustrated at the work it takes to master anything and the disconnect with those who don’t bother, yet content with the assurance that I was on the right path, that the steps were worth it.
Because we don’t have to tie flies anymore, we don’t have to know the path that got us here. And yet, I think it’s important we know the directions. A lot of us are children of privilege, lacking responsibility, and those of us who tie do so simply because we want to. Heck, we fish because we want to, not because we have to put dinner on the table. We’ll get that on the drive home from the river, shoved out a window and put on the center console.
In many ways, fly tying has worked itself out historically much like vegetable gardens. A few hundred years ago we had to grow our own food. Now we don’t, yet still we garden for pride and for the taste of eating a tomato grown in the backyard, still smelling of vine. Just as dirt-covered hands root us to earth, so scraps of marabou, partridge, and dubbing covering my flannel shirt somehow ties me to tradition with 6/0, a thread of pride and a sense of importance that this is something worth doing, and doing well.
“Never half-ass it,” speaks an aphorism of a family, now passed down to me. And I’ve made my mind up not to. It’s why I don’t have many hobbies, don’t dabble with interests picked up and forgotten like pennies off a sidewalk.
I fly fish, and I want to be good and whole-hearted about it. For me that encompasses tying flies, nice flies. In a way, I feel held accountable by my vise, of all things: the metal matriarch silently standing, holding her tongue when things don’t go quite right, and trusting that what I tie won’t make her look the fool. Never half-ass it, I hear every time I sit down before my vise, and every time I step into a river. This sport I love has been built upon mastery of craft, of doing things the right way, even if it’s harder—in rod making, fly tying, in storytelling, all with the end goal of making standing in a river waving a stick look and sound beautiful.
And so we tie not because we have to, but rather because of what we want. Herein lies a great freedom—an exhalation from the bindings that once held our world together—and art comes out of that release. There always have been (and will continue to be) animated discussions on whether fly tying is a craft or an art. I see it as being sequentially both: without the former we wouldn’t have the latter. And the same can be said of fly fishing as a whole, really. Necessary practicality and pragmatism formed the craft, and out of that base comes the art. Flies acknowledge what has been and what can yet still be.
One of the reasons I tie is for the simple reason that doing so makes me fish with more confidence. In the end, I hope, that translates to fishing better. Humans are like raccoons and shiny objects—we are drawn desiring. And I admit I choose flies from my box that I think are beautiful. The result, of course, is boxes full of flies that never get fished or perhaps, having been taken out only once, they sit still again, like girls on wood benches, wallflowers at a dance. I feel bad for these odd ones out. I know what it feels like to watch all the pretty girls dance.
Yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder (for proof, look no further than that Mexican Hairless Dogs are still being bred and bought and the fact that yes, I actually have been asked to dance, albeit stocking-footed on a hardwood kitchen floor, but still…). Some of my very favorite flies are odd by others’ standards, unique as my mother would say, but they have qualities that make them “buggy.” They always catch fish. And they are designed by my own mind and tied by my own hands, and I take pride in that. It gives me confidence.
A beautiful pattern poorly tied does not make for a beautiful fly. But an ugly pattern brilliantly tied might, because it embodies hope. I take these oddly beautiful flies of mine out again and again, asking Shall we dance? And I am confident they will say Yes.
One of the things that sticks with me is not the catching, not the fish. Rather, it’s watching a new fly tied the night before swim lucidly through a backcountry lake, never ceasing to make me feel like a kid again, surprised by the fact that it works. Casting out I do it again, but only for myself, not for the trout. Because it’s not about not half-assing it. It’s about tying nice flies.