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Feeding Fly Boxes

To tie flies and share them sometimes requires more than generosity.

[by Bill “bugs” Logan]

AFTER THE FIRST FEW DAYS OF A LONG FISHING TRIP, we’re all tired when we come back in from the river, but worn out feels good. Supper tastes fine then, and afterwards, maybe there is a lineup of camp chairs on a cabin porch or a motel court’s grass. I look forward to that, sitting with my buddies, surrounded by evening noises—and people noises, too—as night deepens and everything settles down.

We trade tales from our day, and from other trips. Someone is sure to get kidded and take mock offense. We laugh a lot. There’s probably a nip of scotch on hand, and maybe a cigar. We lean our heads back, and there’s nothing much to watch but winking stars. Perhaps one falls, or a gray pathway slowly emerges, spanning the heavens. Just as slowly, we realize it’s the Milky Way, another old friend we haven’t seen in a while.

That’s how evenings ought to be, but if you’re an expedition fly tier, it often doesn’t work out that way. For one thing, as sure as trout leap and we want to catch them, there are never enough flies. It doesn’t matter if you were a great planner and tied for months and months, or panic-tied like crazy just before the trip. Inevitably, the fly you need is the one you have the least of. Or, it could be that when we arrive at some far-off, yearned-for river, we discover there is a new killer pattern we’ve never heard of; the guy at the local fly shop says we are fools not to have fists full of them. And what do you think? If you buy just one, you’ll almost surely lose it, so you get two or three, but rarely more. You might make it through the day on that, but it doesn’t matter; one of your gang can fix that.

Things look a little different if you’re the fly tying guy. Tell me this: Are your friends fine fellows like mine, and do they like fishing with your flies? Has it reached the point where they even feel a bit proprietary toward them, and do you keep a few patterns secret among you? Have the many late nights spent hunched over your vise in motel rooms become blurred? Are you resigned to the fact that there will never be a table the right height, or a chair that’s comfortable, or good lighting? Have you unscrewed a lampshade yet, or gone so far as to fashion a new one out of tinfoil to focus the light better?

This isn’t looking good.

I’ve been there. I’m still there. And now it’s time for your buddy Bill to tell you a story of deceit and redemption.

Time for a Fishing Story (and Every Word of It Is True)

As with all worthwhile tales, the moment of crisis was reached slowly, as night after night, in too many motel rooms, I gobbled down late meals and tried to fill fly boxes. The gang had fine evenings; it’s hugely entertaining watching a good fly tier going at it, and even more fun to inspect his flies, debate fine-tuning, and offer suggestions. But as evenings wore on, familiar maneuvering began. One by one, my crew would edge off to bed, and all too often, I would be the last one up. I felt less than charitable then. Are you truly generous if you’re mostly motivated by obligation?

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Come to think of it, maybe this is why we tie flies and fish them. (photo by Roger Hanham)

Tired questions, asked late at night, find no foothold in the clear light of crisp mornings. Once you’ve reached the river, the feeling that everything is right and anything might happen makes sure of that.

I always look for changes when I arrive at my favorite water. Maybe it’s in the new shape of a gravel bar, a downed tree, or dried mud rings where there used to be swallows’ nests hanging under a bridge. A few flies may be dangling there, too, tangled up and snapped off by frustrated anglers; sometimes mayflies from the previous day waggle in spiderwebs beside them. I have one friend who often looks at water that’s hard to get to. “Is the river up a bit?” he’ll ask, hoping, I’m sure, that I might reply, “No, it’s down.”

We each become reacquainted with a river in our own fashion. We draw in deep breaths, pull on wading gear, and rig up. It’s never hard to be generous on days like that.

And so I passed out the flies.

I loved it when friends caught fish on them. So many times, though, by late in the afternoon, I found myself rummaging through my fly box. You’ve been there, too, I’m sure. Why is it we never seem to lose those old chewed-up relics we often end up turning to? Slowly, I began to resent having to use them at all. If I was giving up something of my day, I reminded myself, it was my own damned fault for not being better prepared. And it was a kind act to share flies. My buddies were very grateful for them. They made sure I knew it, but they also wanted more.

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