Fly-tying booms across Maine each winter, a wonderfully pleasant pastime that requires no license to participate — just good eyes, nimble fingers and sedulous nature.
Reasons to tie flies vary with individuals, and for me an important motivation involves priceless memories generated by flies constructed decades ago. In short, my flies form a record of my life that includes old friends, acquaintances, angling waters, bent rods, fish-less days and more.
How I recall tying many flies in my boxes begins with possessing a solid memory for useless trivia and ends with a planned memory jogger, tying each pattern in big batches. In short, I seldom make one fly here and another fly there, which would confuse my brain.
Following is an example of a recollection that involves a batch of three dozen Red Quills tied in January 1973, exactly 40 years ago. That winter, I constructed these classic dry flies in the Catskill style, using an Andalusian game-cock neck that was too dark of a dun color for these feathers to match the legs and tails on Maine’s ubiquitous Ephemerella subvaria hatch. (“Dun” is fly-tying lingo for a woodsmoke-gray color.)
In those years before superb poultry growers like Buck Metz hit fly-tying markets with superb rooster necks, the ones for sale were of poor quality. Worse yet, natural, dun necks proved next to impossible to find in 1973. Metz changed that by developing excellent strains of dun roosters.
In my youth, average tiers used dyed medium-dun necks almost exclusively for constructing Red Quills, Hendricksons and Quill Gordons. Even when a tier could find natural dun, it was wicked expensive, poor quality and difficult to find.
That year, I looked for a natural dun neck the color of campfire smoke from dry hardwood on a cloudy day, perfect for a Red Quill to match E. subvaria. Natural dun of any shade proved hard enough to find, but a neck the perfect color to match this bug’s legs and tails proved impossible with my limited contacts then.
However, I did come across that Andalusian neck that was too dark for the pattern. It was the best I could do then, though, so I tied 36 Red Quills flies during winter evenings. And, of course, the wrong color was a memory jogger in itself.
And talk about memories from a specific year. In 1973, I lived on the north end of Damariscotta Lake in a cottage with knotty pine walls and fieldstone fireplace, and I can see each room clearly all these years later.
After tying each evening that January, I read a chapter or two in Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa” until finishing it near the end of the month and starting “Death in the Afternoon” — all in front of a fire. Looking at those flies in my box brings those times back.
How could I still own flies from 40 year ago?
It’s a logical question with a pig-simple answer. Caucci and Nastasi’s landmark book “Hatches” hit bookstores in 1975 and sold me on a new pattern style — the Compara-dun. In my humble opinion, Compara-duns worked better for imitating the subimago form of a mayfly, so I switched to tying the new design and pretty much forgot about my classic Red Quill batch, tied with the wrong color neck.
Another quick point: Flies last decades and decades if the tier occasionally reapplies a thin coat of cement on the head and on quill bodies.
The only time I use classic dries now falls into two categories: First, I do it just for old-time sake. Second, Compara-duns have fatter abdomens because they require dubbed bodies — a rule with exceptions. Classic mayflies have extremely slender bodies well-imitated by a quill construction on a classic dry fly, great for hatches of slender-bodied mayflies.
These days, my fly fishing leans toward micro-flies in size 20 to 24. In the micro-range for dries, I like Compara-duns, thorax patterns and Variants, but for emergers, a simple CDC Emerger in a mayfly or caddis style can keep a bend in the rod.
My Atlantic salmon flies also generate memories, and a bunch of Black Bear-Green Butts in sizes 2 through 12 offer a great example. In the late 1980s, the Medway River in Nova Scotia offered me superb June fishing, but the first year, guides swore that green never worked there and discouraged me from using my favorite salmon pattern.
Nevertheless, during my second June on the river, I slayed Atlantics with sizes 4, 6, 8 and 10 Black Bear-Green Butts, enough successes so that the Medway guides were hounding me for the pattern for years.
That fly works on the two dozen Atlantic salmon rivers I have fished in my life, which has prompted me to say many times that my four favorite salmon flies are a Black Bear-Green Butt in sizes 4, 6, 8 and 10.
Glancing at my fly boxes in the dead of winter generates memories of good times past — a reward for those of us who tie flies while dreaming of warmer times around the corner.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: