A Montana fly tying experience

There’s a familiar sense of urgency creeping into my tying
kitchen table fly tying vise
Photo: Todd Tanner

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me. My boy was just like me ...

My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, especially up close. So when the new magnifiers showed up here at the house, I just had to try them out.

The vise was already sitting on the kitchen table, and my stuff was spread out in what appeared, at first glance, to be utter chaos. Only someone who’d been tying for decades could have discerned a pattern in what otherwise seemed like an explosion of random chaos.

There were hooks — Tiemco size 18 100BLs — clinging to a rectangular white magnet. Several pairs of scissors, plus a handful of small metal tools that, to the untrained eye, defied description. Spools of olive and brown thread. A couple packages of Harrop “Fine Natural Dubbing.” A sandwich bag partially filled with natural CDC, courtesy of fly fishing guru & duck hunter Brant Oswald. The remnants of a medium dun cape — a Whiting Silver Grade — that one of my golden retrievers had, in a particularly devilish moment, reduced to hundreds and hundreds of individual feathers. There was more, of course, but that should give you a feel for the situation.

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminders

Marc, our carpenter, built our kitchen table for us almost 25 years ago. He made it from a single larch tree which had grown up, and then old, near our Montana home. The tree was cut, and the log milled, and the table crafted in a remote valley with a population of less than 150 people. I finished it myself a few miles away from where it once stood, sanding and staining until it was as close to perfect as I could make it. It sits in a different Montana kitchen now — we’ve moved once in the interim — and there are stains and blemishes from spilled wine and little boy crayons and the claws of a hungry pup trying to liberate a venison roast. It’s not a fly tying bench by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the best place to tie when the spirit moves me, as well as the most convenient.

Old man lying by the side of the road with the lorries rolling by. Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load and the buildings scrape the sky

The vise, as you might imagine, is old; a classic HMH that my dad gave me as a Christmas present a year or two before he passed. The light, on the other hand, is relatively new. LEDs are definitely the way to go, and there’s something awfully nice — perhaps the best descriptor I can offer is “balanced" — about tying on a vise I’ve had since the ‘80s at the same time I benefit from my new light and my new magnifiers.

I’ve tied a lot of flies on that particular vise. A lot of flies. And with a trip to the Paradise Valley spring creeks coming up in less than a month, there’s a familiar sense of urgency creeping into my tying; a desire to drive to Livingston with every pattern that might conceivably make the difference between a good day and a great day.

They’re all good days, of course. But some do turn out to be great.

Hey Jude, don't make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.

It’s hard for me to tie without music. I have a couple of Pandora stations that I’ve fine-tuned over the last few years and I’ve set up my phone to do the bluetooth dance with the single speaker in our living room. It’s not hi-fidelity, but it’s good enough to set the mood and make me smile. My ears invariably perk up when a song I haven’t heard in a while pops up, and I might even sing along to the right tune.

How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Ooh, some say it’s just a part of it, we’ve got to fulfill the book.

My hands are more or less in lock-step with my eyes. They’re not toast — not yet — but they tend towards the sore and arthritic. While my fingers know exactly what to do, they protest more than I’d prefer. Fly tying is easier than on-the-stream knots, but I still wouldn’t mind if some of my former dexterity happened to return from time to time. Not that that’s likely to happen, of course, but a guy can always dream.

I lit out from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds
Didn't get to sleep that night 'til the morning came around …

Spring creek bugs are small, and April bugs are even smaller. Mostly blue winged olives and midges. Which means I’m tying 18s and 20s. I’d share the patterns with you, of course, if you were interested, but you’ve likely never heard of them and Hatch Magazine no longer allows its writers to post detailed descriptions of their flies.

Of course, I just made that last bit up. But while Hatch has not yet codified a hard & fast pattern prohibition, it really should. The last thing you’d ever want is to peer into someone else’s fly boxes and liberate their most closely-held secrets. Where’s the fun in that? You’re a fly fisher. The ultimate joy is in figuring things out for yourself. (At least until you get too damn frustrated, at which point solving riddles no longer holds quite the same allure …)

Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Trying to find a woman who's never, never, never been born.

Something just occurred to me. Maybe it’s obvious — and I suspect it should be — but I hadn’t thought of it until right now.

As I sit here typing, my fly tying stuff is still spread out on my kitchen table. Plus, my wife is gone for a few hours — which means I can actually crank my music for once — and there’s just no way I can type and tie at the same time. In other words, it’s time to turn off the computer and get back to tying, and dreaming — and maybe even singing along with a favorite tune or two.

Old man look at my life,
I'm a lot like you were.
Old man look at my life,
I'm a lot like you were.


Thanks for the story (I can relate!) and the references to some great songs.
Cheers from BC