Fly Tying Confessions
August 15, 2012
How fortunate I was to be born to a family that enjoyed hunting, fishing, fine British shotguns, and classic fly rods by such prestigious craftsmen as Leonard, Payne, and F. E. Thomas. We always had catalogs scattered around our home from Abercrombie & Fitch, William Mills, Hardy, Farlow of London, Cummins of Darlington, and many others. During my youth, a day never passed when I did not sit glued to the pages of gorgeous fly plates in those catalogs. I am certain this is what launched me on a career of fly tying from which one never graduates.
Some sixty years have faded since I first clamped an Eagle Claw hook in a mechanic's vise and then improvised a fly with a piece of wool from a sock and tinsel from a Christmas tree.
Next came the big mystery: How does one make the hackle stand up? Fortunately, I visited the old Boston Sportsman's Show with my dad at Mechanics Hall, where I met famed fly tier Herbie Welch, and he solved my problem.
Today we have classes for those eager to learn an art that provides a lifetime of pleasure but in those days many fly dressers selfishly guarded their secrets. I have had a great feeling of accomplishment in being a fly-tying instructor in adult education for over a quarter century. We can instruct the art, but I caution students that they must teach themselves through trial and error to become proficient.
I had never read a book on fly tying until I developed a friendship with Colonel Joe Bates, back when the United Fly Tiers was founded. We were both primarily trout and salmon fishermen, and when I was introduced to Carrie Stevens's streamers, they immediately became my top priority. Streamers such as the Green Beauty, Shang's Special, Grey Ghost, Greyhound, Blue Devil, Colonel Bates, and many others were originated by famed Maine anglers such as Percy, Edson, Sanborn, and Stickney.
Flies tied on single hooks as well as tandems became my challenge, and each had to include the material of the originals, as well as the correct colors. I considered matching colors the most difficult problem. In my enthusiasm for these classics, I tied so many flies that shops eagerly awaited my surplus.
Tandem streamers and bucktails are not difficult to tie, and they are the choice of veteran fishermen soon after ice-out in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. No casting is required because they are trolled behind a boat or canoe with the help of an outboard motor. All you need is an 8½- or 9-foot fly rod lined with a 6- or 7-weight, fast-sinking line, a 6-foot tapered leader, and a 36-inch tippet of 4-pound Maxima Chameleon. For the best action, do not use any snaps or swivels. And make certain your knots are secure.
Back in the days when Leon Leonwood Bean of L.L. Bean attended the Sportsman's Show, you could find him behind the counter of his booth chatting with his many customers. As a young lad, I considered him to be an expert hunter and fisherman, and it was a thrill for me to talk to him about flies. He described a pattern that he used frequently and considered his favorite. I recalled the dressing of this simple bucktail and tied up a couple. It had a black thread head, silver tinsel body, and a throat of gray bucktail the length of the wing, which had five strands of peacock herl, over which he tied a small bunch of dark green bucktail.
To be honest, I never did give this pattern an opportunity to prove itself until years later. Our group, known as "The Pilgrims," all seasoned senior fly fishers, was on its annual pilgrimage for landlocked salmon fishing on the Moose River inlet at Moosehead Lake, Maine.
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My fly box contained more than 500 classic streamers and bucktails which proved effective over many years. Our group had been eagerly anticipating our fishing trip as we always did, but on this excursion, days had passed and we were fishless.
My companion in the boat, who excelled as a fly tier, fisherman, and champion skeet shooter, had roots in Maine and had fished the Moose River for more than 50 years.
His lack of success on this outing convinced me that there were no salmon in the river. Our old standby flies drew not a nibble.
It was a gloomy, rainy morning when I said to my partner, "Dark day, dark fly. Try this one."
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's an L.L. Bean tied tandem," I replied. He tied it to his tippet, then stripped exactly seventeen pulls of line from his Princess fly reel. At once a salmon was on the line and took him to his backing. He landed many but I got skunked.
That evening I emptied out my fly box and, luckily, found another L.L. Bean. We ended a week's fishing on the river with the pair of L.L. Bean flies accounting for the only salmon for The Pilgrims. Was it luck or the bucktail? Honestly, I have to admit it was that simple bucktail tandem.
On another occasion, while fishing the "international waters" of East Grand Lake, Maine, for landlocked salmon, my companion and I were experiencing poor results. A latecomer to our party arrived and positioned himself in our boat in front of the motor.
He fished his fly in the motor wash with what is known as the "slipstream fly technique." Within a few minutes, it seemed he was releasing one fish after another while we watched with envy.
The streamer, unknown to me, he called the AA, for All American. The hook shanks had red silk ribbon with silver tinsel, winged with about two dozen mixed red, white, and blue bucktail hairs topped with two slender grizzly hackles.
On examining the streamer, I was dumbfounded. All I could say to describe it was "sleek."
My companion on that trip brought along his large folding chest, which contained his fly-dressing materials, so he'd have the makings for any fly he might need. That evening, after returning from a fishless day, I sat down and dressed two All Americans.
The following morning the fun began. We landed four 1- to 2-pound salmon that eagerly struck the All Americans. In no way did the fly resemble the smelt that the salmon were accustomed to eating. Did the salmon strike the fly out of curiosity or anger? For whatever reason, the fly provided an experience I'll never forget.
As a tier of salmon flies, I have cherished and revered the classic flies. But after a lifetime of fishing and tying experience, I have come to the conclusion that "keep 'em simple" is the more effective way to go when dressing flies to take landlocked salmon.
Oh yes, I will continue as long as possible to tie the classics, but most of them will now be placed in frames.
Ray Salminen, a lifelong fly tier and innovator specializing in landlocked salmon flies, lives in Acton, Massachusetts.