Fit to Be Tied

Neither winter nor spring, March demands special tools for survival. Mine happen to include rooster feathers, moose mane, and rabbit skin.

By Paul Doiron

[A] few years ago, to keep myself from going mad during the winter, I took up fly tying. I am not otherwise a crafty person, but I am practical, if nothing else, and this is one of the things I’ve learned in life: if you hope to survive the month of March without your mugshot appearing in the local paper, it helps to have a hobby. My wife does puzzles. I twist strips of rabbit skin around fish hooks.

Like many native Mainers, I came to fly fishing late. Why go to heroic lengths to bag a trout, I used to think, when dunking an earthworm gets the job done? Then a friend put a bamboo rod in my hand, and I was like Luke Skywalker lifting a lightsaber for the first time. The Force was suddenly with me. In that instant I became a Padawan apprentice to the Jedi Knights of riffles and runs.

There was only one problem with my newfound religion. While it is possible to fly fish in Maine year-round, I haven’t yet begun to enjoy the experience of stepping in my waders into an ice-cold, raging river. Let’s just say that there are certain parts of my body that I would prefer not to numb.

To indulge my pastime during the cold months, my wife suggested I take an adult-ed course in tying flies. Hundreds of hours later — and hundreds of dollars later — my wallet is thin and my desk is a mess.

I started out buying an inexpensive bag of rooster feathers, some spools of chenille, and a simple vise to hold hooks. Before I knew it, I had purchased my first pine squirrel skin (to make Zonkers). Then came the patch of moose mane that I absolutely needed to make Improved Sofa Pillows. And the tungsten beads to tie Pheasant Tails. As well as the Krystal Flash that gives sparkle to Lefty’s Deceivers. Of course, I had to upgrade my vise to one of those fancy rotary models. And that pricey adjustable light with the magnifying lens? It was an investment, I tell you.

Now the materials in my fly-tying cabinets are steadily colonizing the rest of my house. I have stepped on size-20 hooks in the kitchen, found jungle cock “eyes” under the bathroom sink. More than once I have dreamed of hackle feathers. Today, I have more Woolly Buggers than I can use in three lifetimes. Also flies for species of fish I will never see in the wild. Why did I tie all those El Chupacabras for Brazilian peacock bass? I must have been in a trance.

I am not the first person in Maine to succumb to this strange compulsion. The art of fly tying reached its highest expression in the Pine Tree State, even if it wasn’t invented here. Just listen to the roster of flies Maine artisans have given to the world: the Parmachene Belle, the Ballou Special, the Colonel Bates, the Edson Dark Tiger, the Montreal Courtesan, the West Branch Caddis, the Orange Sure Bet. Any tier who has yet to make a pilgrimage to the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc and has never knelt before the shrine of Carrie Stevens — patron saint of feather-wing streamers and blessed inventor of the Grey Ghost — is a pretender in my book. Forget the Catskills, Rangeley is the most holy place in American angling.

I see myself as the inheritor of an age-old tradition (or curse). Even though I have yet to create an immortal pattern of my own — I do have a deer-fly imitation that appears promising — I hope to see my name in the Fly Tying Hall of Fame. Like me, Carrie Stevens probably started out looking for a simple way to tough out a bad winter. Her desk in the museum may now be clean and well-kept, but I have no doubt that it was once as dirty as mine. I bet she too dreamed of feathers.

Photo credit: Matana_and_Jes | Flickr. This image is available under a Creative Commons license.