Book Excerpt: The Feather Mechanic – A Fly-Tying Philosophy

March 26, 2024 By: Gordon van der Spuy

The Dog, the Boy and the Trout

The first fly I ever tied consisted of a carp hook, my mom’s sewing thread, hair from our dog, Goldie, and a liberal dollop of Bostik (hobby glue). I tied it without a vice and didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I’d modelled the fly on something I’d seen in a magazine. Mine looked terrible by comparison but surprisingly Goldie’s Nymph caught fish. Not just one or two either, many.

The first time it happened I almost peed in my pants. I’d cast the fly out and hurried off to relieve myself behind a nearby tree. I was in mid pee when I heard the reel screaming. How I didn’t wet my pants and lose the rod, which at that stage was being dragged off into the dam, is a miracle. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the fish. I was chuffed, I’d caught a fish on something I’d tied myself.

After that, I went rogue. Everything in the house became possible fly tying material. I cut up feather dusters and pantyhose. I climbed into the pets. No one was safe, not the budgies, not the hamsters, not the dogs, not the rabbits, not the chickens and not the fantails. I raided my mom’s knitting basket, crochet drawer and her sewing kit. My mom had awesome stuff! My sister’s Barbie also suffered under my newfound hobby.

The big problem came in when I discovered my Mom’s jewellery box. The pearls looked like they would be brilliant as eyes. I didn’t realise they were real at the time. She only discovered her cut-up necklace months later when she had to go to a fancy do with my dad. It wasn’t good. By that time I’d caught plenty of fish on mom’s Pearl Booby. I got shat out properly and all I’d done was show initiative by taking something which hardly ever got used, turning it into a serious fish-catching tool. My parents didn’t share my sentiments on the matter though and gave me an ultimatum instead. They would buy me a fly-tying kit if I promised to steer clear of everything in and around the house. Two days later I had a spanking new fly-tying kit.

From there on in I tied like a man possessed. It’s all I wanted to do. While most kids my age were playing computer games and trying to impress girls I was wrapping feathers. At some stage I even started getting good at it. The flies I was tying started looking like the ones I was seeing in magazines. Funny thing is though, the ‘better’ the flies became, the less fish they seemed to actually catch. Those earlier reject flies of mine seemed to have done a better job. I’d caught lots of fish on flies like Goldie’s Nymph and Mom’s Pearly Booby.

I was perplexed. The answer came from one of the most unlikely sources. One day I was sitting in a History of art class when Dawie Smuts, our crazy art teacher was waffling on about some guy named Louis Sullivan. Louis was the guy who had invented the skyscraper. Why we had to learn about the History of Architecture in an art class was beyond me. Daydreaming about rising trout seemed a far better proposition. And then he said it.

Form Follows Function

I think 20 light bulbs went on in my brain simultaneously.

Sullivan had coined the term, ‘form follows function‘. The idea being that the form of an object would be determined by the function that it was intended for. The best example of this idea is probably the wheel. A wheel is round and as such facilitates smooth continual motion due to its shape. The design allows it to do what it needs to do. If the wheel was rectangular or triangular in shape the motion wouldn’t be quite so smooth. These words tickled me because I could immediately see how this philosophy could be applied to fly tying.

Up until then I’d been doing the traditional thing, adhering to proportion charts with the discipline of a Buddhist monk. I followed fly-tying recipes and step-by-step instructions to the letter, aiming for perfection in the process. Perfection it now seemed, was overrated. I’d never really questioned anything. If the book said ‘tie in 3 pheasant tail fibres for the tail,’ I did that.

Sullivan’s philosophy forced me to drop the sheep mentality and to think!

Pheasant tail barbs, for example, are horrible for tails. They’re too thick and tied as a tailing, leg or wing case material, are not durable at all. Surely there was a better alternative. I started playing around with different materials and eventually settled on tying the tails of my PTNs with softer hairs or hackle barbs. This immediately solved the durability issue and also allowed me to tie sparser, finer, more natural-looking tails, especially on the smaller flies.

The traditional approach to tying has always been academically orientated, with a very strong textbook-styled influence. We’re taught to follow instructions, as opposed to being taught to think for ourselves. We’re shown what to do, but rarely told why we’re doing it. What Sullivan’s approach got me to do was to figure out what I wanted the fly to do and then tie it to do that.

Fly tying like swimming is a practical pursuit. Learning to swim without getting wet is impossible. Fly tying is not that much different. The very best flies in the world were designed in water, as much as they were in the vice.

Terry Lawton in his book, Nymph Fishing: A History of the Art and Practise, tells the story of Frank Sawyer fishing a red Pheasant Tail Spinner to the point where the hackle disintegrated. What is interesting to note is that fish still took the fly as it sank. That, it is believed, was the origin of what is now arguably the most famous nymph in the world, the Pheasant tail nymph or PTN as everyone lovingly calls it.

Sawyer took the knowledge he had acquired from this experience and developed the idea further. He was logical about it. He noticed that fish fed subsurface for most of the day so took the next logical step and created a fly that fished at the depth of his quarry.

Fishing sunk flies on chalk streams was simply not the done thing back then and there were a lot of people who considered Sawyer to be a piscatorial heathen. Luckily Sawyer was a practical man and didn’t care what other people thought or said. Sawyer’s experiences on the water influenced what he did at the vice. You can’t divorce the two. That’s what this book is about. Tying flies intelligently and effectively by allowing form to follow function.

Gordon van der Spuy is a South African actor, fly tier, author, podcast host, and founder of The South African Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Expo. Excerpt published with his permission.