Can Fish Count?
20 Aug, 2010 - A.J. Culp
“Fly-tying” sounds like “tie-flying,” but it’s rather different. Tie-flying is the myth that a large bow tie, properly unfurled and matched with cummerbund, can be flown like a kite in strong winds. This is simply impossible, no matter how fetching the cummerbund. Fly-tying, on the other hand, is the very real craft of making flies. It began long ago when a fisherman, hidden in the shrubbery, watched trout taking flies too tiny to put on a hook. If he wanted to catch these fish, he realized, he had to dress the hook itself like a fly. And so fly-tying came in to being.
I myself first encountered fly-tying when I was young. My friend had taken it up as a hobby. When he showed me, though, it conjured images of old ladies knitting doilies. So I promptly informed him that, should this continue, I’d no longer be seen with him in public. He got the picture, gave up fly-tying, and never spoke of it thereafter. It didn’t come up again ’til years later, when my wife and I were living in Denver. I’d begun fly fishing there and was struggling to keep flies enough to fish. For some reason, they were lodging themselves in the surroundings. Retrieving flies from trees wasn’t so bad, but tourists were less accommodating. I decided that somehow, I needed to generate more flies. The solution came to me in a sign; literally, it read, “Learn to Tie Your Own Flies — Only $20 for Five Lessons.” I did a little math in my head and realized that this could be the ticket, so I signed up.
Nobody else showed; it was just the teacher and me. He was a little Latino fellow whose name I’ve forgotten. We’ll call him Fernando. Fernando sized me up and sat me down at a table in the fly shop’s lunchroom. On the table were various tools and materials. “If you’re going to tie flies for Colorado,” he said, “they’ve got to be small.” Lying there were some flies no larger than paper clips. “I see that,” I said. Fernando looked up, frowning, and said, “No, not them. Those are the big ones you start with.” He dug in his breast pocket and produced a fly box. Fernando took out something with his tweezers. It was a fly, tiny as a typed letter “J.” He set it in my palm. It lay there delicate and twinkling. He slid over a clear glass of water, in which he set the fly afloat. We put our faces down by the table and looked up through the water at the fly. It hung in the surface film of the water, its body beneath and its wings above. The water amplified its little body, black in wrapped thread with a forked filament tail, and the shifting image of the feather above that supported it. “That,” Fernando said, “is a Colorado fly.”
I continued to come week after week. Each time Fernando taught me sets of basic techniques and a couple new patterns, with the idea that each represented a family of flies. There were the big three: Mayflies, Caddis, and Stoneflies. Sitting on the water, Mayflies’ wings stand upright like sails, Caddis’ fold over their backs like pup tents, and Stoneflies’ lie flat like stacked cards. My attempts, incidentally, all looked rather round and lumpish, and sunk. And there were also the pre-adult forms of the big three, which live under the water. Some are thick and powerful, for they crawl along the bottom in the current; some are thin and discrete, for they swim and drift in the current. “You’ve got to keep the thick ones thick and the thin ones thin,” Fernando said, “and make the right parts and proportions thick and thin, or the fish will know something’s up.” I could appreciate this logic and the need for detail. At one point I was trying to tie on three tails to a Mayfly. Fernando asked, “Why three?” “Because this kind of Mayfly has three,” I said. “Can fish count?” he asked. “Um . . . ” I answered. “Remember this,” Fernando said, “some details are important and others aren’t. Be precise with the important ones; forget about the others.” I took this to mean that fish could not in fact count.
Fernando’s teaching was direct and terse, and he was stingy with praise. He would watch over my shoulder as I tied, giving instruction. “The tail is too long; it needs to be a hair shorter,” he would say. “Measure it against its own body length; that’s the only way to get consistency. This one needs to be half its body, like this.” Then he would do it, and undo it, and make me do it myself. Sometimes he would test me. He might ask about a fly’s abdomen that needs to be ribbed with wire. “What kind of wire you going to use with this one?” he’d ask. “Gold, I think, about this big.” He’d look over his little glasses, “Why’s that?” “Well,” I’d say, “because it’s gold, which’ll show against the body and . . . ” “I don’t see much contrast,” he’d interrupt. “Yeah, but when it’s wet there will be,” I’d answer. “And like I was saying, the wire size is this big, because it’s one size smaller than the hook gauge.” Fernando would give a little wry smile. This was praise. I often thought how his children, if he had any, probably had self-esteem issues.
We began the last class with some brief tying. At one point, Fernando indicated that one of my flies — should some poor fish stumble and impale itself — might actually work. At praise like this I just about fell off my stool. Later, Fernando told me how to gather fly information from here on. “There are books and the internet, of course, but even there what you’re looking for is certain people, people who really get fly-tying and fishing. Lots don’t.” He went on, “Colorado’s funny because fly-fishing’s trendy here, and popular with the elite. So you get lots of educated people talking about flies. Problem is, educated people are good at saying something without saying anything. You’ll get the knack for recognizing this, but there’s one sure sign: Latin. Insects are biologically identified by Latin names. But there’s no reason to do that with fishing flies.” Fernando picked up a fly, “This is a little yellow Mayfly, commonly called a PMD (Pale Morning Dun). If somebody tries to tell you it’s an Ephemerella Inermis — which it is — they’re probably going to waste your time. Remember this about flies and their makers: less is more and simple is best.”
Since then, a lot of flies have passed through my hands. Some were my own work and some were of others. Doctors to truckers, athletes to klutzes, eagle-eyeds to cross-eyeds: it turns out to be true that fly-tying is no respecter of persons. And this, it seems, is one of its greatest virtues. So we can all come together and add our part, the trucker with his beautiful flies and the doctor waxing anatomically on why his are, in fact, meant to be lumpy and lopsided. For me, it means I know precisely the kind and quality of fly I’ve left lodged in a tourist.