The Art of the Fly Deal

September 4, 2023 By: Richard Donnelly

Tie and image by Peter Steen

Side by side, we fished the spring Baetis hatch on Minnesota’s Whitewater River, one of the great Midwest trout streams. Not liking something, Eddie paused to check his tippet. He clipped off a fly and shortened the line, then opened a fly box. He had caught six trout. I caught none. I looked over his shoulder the way a man reads another man’s newspaper. Carefully.

In his box were ten tiny Blue Wing Olives, tied with number 26 hooks. I had never seen anything that small. The flies were exquisite, without evidence of glue or knot, and wound tightly with impossibly thin green thread. A bit of gold enhanced the body. Tiny feathers, minutely trimmed, curved from the tails. In fly tying, like golf, there’s such a thing as the “yips”. I knew I couldn’t tie anything like that. My hands shook just looking at them.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. I knew Eddie ties a fly now and then, when the mood strikes. He didn’t tie these.

“Bob Hallberg’s boy,” he said, casting.

 I knew Bob. “They look pretty nice.”

“He lets him play around with the vise. I told the kid I had a hard time with small flies, and he tied me a few.”

“You know,” I said. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be. Maybe Bob’s kid….”

Eddie’s a lawyer. He knows a rat when he sees one. “Oh, no you don’t. The kid’s busy enough. I’m lucky to get these.”

“But what’s a few more flies?”

I was informed that the conversation had ended. And to please walk a little further to the right. I was crowding him.

The next day I called Bob Hallberg. We don’t talk very often. Bob’s an expert fly tyer and teaches casting. He hangs around with other experts, which pretty much excludes me.

“I don’t know,” Bob said. “Josh has a lot going on. He has a shot at varsity baseball. And he’s only a freshman.”

I told him I only wanted a Trico or two. “You know how hard the tiny ones can be to tie,” I said, chuckling like a salesman. “Whatever Eddie pays I’ll give Josh a buck more.”

“Eddie doesn’t pay anything.”

I set the hook. “Two bucks a fly. And I’ll buy all the feathers he wants.”       

We were in business.

Young Josh Hallberg made me a dozen of the tiniest, most delicate Tricos I’d ever seen. Then I asked for a dozen size 14 Adams, the kind with big barred wings. This is my go-to fly when there’s no hatch and I want to fish a dry. The flies he made were so pretty I wanted to frame them. I placed an order for a dozen Trico parachutes, and asked for a few, just a few grasshoppers.

A week later I picked up the flies. The parachutes sported long, delicate tails. The army green hoppers looked like they buzzed in from a hay field. I ran to the creek. All his flies took trout. They dropped like snowflakes and floated like corks.

I placed orders for ants, beetles, and sparkle midges. Then I got a call from Eddie. It was not a pleasant call.

“Are you getting flies from that Hallberg kid?”

“Possibly.” I can talk lawyer, too.

“Well, stop it. I just ordered more Hendricksons and he he said he’s too busy. Your name came up.” Eddie went on to cite precedence and due process. I didn’t understand any of it, except for the summation. “You are one sneaky S.O.B.”

This got my dander up. “Maybe if you paid him he’d tie you more flies.”

I had blundered, badly.

The next time I called Josh gave me a polite no. “I have too many orders,” he said. “And baseball’s coming up.” He paused. “I would like to buy a new glove.”

 This kid was good. “What’s Eddie paying you?”

“Three bucks a fly.”

“I’ll pay four.”

He took the order.

I replenished my box. The regular season had ended, but the winter season on the Whitewater started soon. Catch and release. I went to the creek and wetting my net waved at some midges. Several froze to the webbing. My next stop was Josh Hallberg.

“Can you match these?”

The kid looked at them. “It will be tricky. There’s a touch of blue on the heads. You don’t want to leave that out.”

The flies looked like specks of sand to me.

A few days later they were ready. Josh tied Tanago hooks, the kind lunatics use for catching minnows. There were no eyes, and if there were I would never be able to thread them. Josh snelled the hooks with gossamer-thin fluorocarbon, leaving a tiny, invisible loop.

The next weekend Eddie and I stood together fishing. Midges floated through the air. I opened my fly box. Heh-heh.

“Where did you get those?” he demanded.

I’m a fair man. “You want one?”

“You got them from Josh, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see what difference that would make.”

“It makes a difference to me.”

It was a tense day. Made more so by the nine brook trout I caught. With an hour left Eddie relented. He asked for one of the kid’s flies, promptly taking a half dozen fish. Pride doesn’t catch fish. Expertly tied flies do.

I dialed the Hallberg’s home a few weeks later, looking for a selection of June mayflies and mid-summer terrestrials. The old man answered the phone. “Josh won’t be making any more flies. He made varsity baseball, and he’s got other things to do.”

And that, as we say, was that. The kid had the most talent I ever saw. He could tie everything from mayflies to horseflies, and they all caught fish. I tried Josh one more time, but he told me he was moving on. He had a girlfriend now. College was just around the corner, and there’s more to life than flies and fly fishing.

I suppose so. Wishing him luck, I hung up. What’s wrong with kids today, anyway?