Friends bearing (dead) gifts

The corrupting influences of fly tying gone too far
Photo: Matthew Reilly

I have this problem.

As a monetarily-challenged student who sees no option but to lead a lifestyle tempted by fly rods, flies, fish, and travel; whose desk has seen more flies come to life than words written; and whose mind chronically comes to rest on a trout stream, I have, like so many before me, come to travel the resourceful road. For fuel for tying the flies that keep me in business, I have excitedly scavenged in turkey dust bowls and chicken coops and perused the trash cans of bird-cleaning sheds. I have spent way too much time examining the subtleties of nail polish, claimed parts of long-expired furred and feathered animals for my own, and gazed at grizzly hackles woven into my female classmates’ hair with jealousy and contempt.

There are no official testaments to my sanity. Such outlying actions might easily be interpreted as rabies-induced confusion. Anyone who cruises the drug store cosmetic aisle in mud and fish-slime-stiffened garb seeking inspiration on a late-summer night, who derives addictive, blissful, supremely-fulfilling wonder through the process of engineering combinations of animal parts, fixating them on a hook and feeding them to fish, is perhaps someone generally regarded as too far gone.

The consequences of my own affliction I’ve long come to terms with. However, it hurts me to see the character of those who care for me compromised by my addiction.

Fellow anglers that share my obsession with fish but not with tying, often rest their eyes on my thread collection, prompting them to inquire, “You sew?” If, after attempting to scare them by quipping that I “sew dreams of fish,” they remain interested in my obsessive art, I lay before them the reality of it. Sparing them the empty promise of saving money, I explain fly tying to be the other half of fly fishing, both more fun and versatile than fishing store-bought flies, and an inventive haunting of my favored streambeds in my absence. If they remain unfazed, I welcome and help induct them them into a new world, and they come to terms by doing.

There are also those friends and family members who do not fish or tie flies but, after seeing my preoccupation with this activity, wish to come to terms by giving. Faced with a massively diversified lexicon of materials lists, they arrive at the (not altogether untrue) conclusion that anything can be used to tie flies. This has led not only to their generous and well-meaning deliverance of clumps of human hair, synthetic stuffing from various household items, mounds of cat and dog fur, vacuum cleaner lint, plastic wrapping, packing foams, drink mix containers, and dead birds—but also to my subsequent reflection upon what this says about me as an individual.

One particular afternoon, I received a call from a friend from home, as I was away at school. She had just found a dead (for quite a while) woodpecker—a northern flicker—with beautiful feathers. Did I want it for fly tying?

I knew from similar past offerings from others that the fine breast feathers from a male flicker make wonderful wet fly hackles. I reflected on the apparent gullibility of the species, as I had been offered more flickers than any other federally-protected bird. Nevertheless, conforming to societal norms, I respectfully declined.

A few days later, I returned the call. Screw societal norms, free hackle in bulk is hard to come by and I bet a day’s worth of meal swipes at the café that a “Flicker and Yellow” would make for a damn fine fly on the South Holston. I’ll take it. I apologized for dragging her into this pursuit, and said goodbye, assuming I’d collect the goods upon returning home.

To avoid unnecessary incrimination, I’ll avoid mentioning the means of transference. But, much to my surprise, the end of the week found me suspiciously weighing a Christmas-wrapped shirt box which was markedly light as a feather.

A wake of World Wildlife Fund wrapping paper and festively colored tissue paper is all there is to account for the creation of a handful of “Flicker and Yellows” waiting to be swung through Browntown, all thanks to friends bearing (dead) gifts.


You're another friend of the road side feather. Being a Registered Maine Guide I have many Warden friends who arrive with treasures. None of which most women would allow in the freezer next to the spare loaf of bread; both necessary for my life. I too lament on passing a road desire side teasers, which are left behind due to the travel companion I may have at the time. My "go to" reasoning is that use of area creatures are traditional, and very economical!