ARE THERE REALLY ANY NEW FLIES?
When I read about the scud fly on today's home page, and the mention that there nearly aren't any truly 'new' fly patterns out there these days, it set me to thinking.
My mind took me back to 1969, and I was about to spend that spring, summer, and fall fishing Oregon's fabulous North Umpqua river.
Though I was still a pup, only 13 years old, I had a lifetime of fishing behind me when I first saw that amazing river. I cut my teeth dunkin' worms for catfish. It was on the Pit River in far Northeastern California, where it's brown, slow and muddy. We pursued those beautiful little fish with a cork bobber, a cane pole, ten feet of line, and a hand dug worm, but that's another story, and perhaps I'll share it with y'all at a later date.
In those long ago days so fresh in my mind things were different, but so much the same. I arrived with my family in the town of Roseburg, where my Dad was hunting work. Dad was trying to make a new start with his family, and get close to me and my little brother, the last two remaining kids at home. He figured taking us fishing would be the place to start. In the previous years, he'd been gone more than he was home. He wasn't the one who introduced us to fishing, and I think he regretted that. Well, he was about to make up for it in spades on the North Umpqua river in southern Oregon.
I never fished with flies before then. Actually, I had only ever seen a few flies, and they were in my great uncle Scotty's willow creel. I never fished with him, because by the time I was big enough he was too crippled up and old to get out on the creek. (By the way, that's "crick". Where I come from 'creek' is a sound a chair or loose floorboard makes) Uncle Scotty was a timber faller away up in the Northern California timber, and one day he caught a widow maker falling out of a big old sugar pine. He lived to tell, but that ended his timber falling, and left him with a patch where one eye had been, and changed his life for good.
Uncle Scotty's creel was a wonderful thing. It was smooth and brown, and very well made with willow switches woven tight, rawhide on the bottom & wear spots, and supple oiled leather hinges on the top. A leather thong to tie 'er shut, and a hole in the top to stuff yer fish through. It had a leather strap to sling it over one shoulder. A thing of beauty and to me it seemed so big. Inside however, were the true wonders, the beauty, and the magic of fishing.
First off, there was the smell. A smell I can only describe as the smell of fishin', and I can close my eyes even now, nearly fifty years later, and remember that smell. If y'all been at this very long you too know the smell.
Then, there was a knife, an old folding jackknife with a single blade, well-honed and thin, but sharp, and long used for cleaning the fish we caught. We cleaned & kept them all in those days, and proudly brought them home in that creel, carefully laid on a handful of fresh green grass from the streamside. Aunt Kittie would roll them in cornmeal and fry them up for a feast.
There was a leather wallet with leaders in it, mostly catgut, but a few of them were monofilament, which was still new enough then to be rare in the creels of the real old timers like Uncle Scotty. There were hooks, carefully snelled with catgut. There were split shot sinkers, and a little pair of fishing pliers to mash them down with. There was a worm can to slip onto your belt, and a little glass jar of salmon eggs. Gooey, red eggs, tiny and soft, and little gold egg hooks to use with them. Tiny little hooks, size 18 or 20 that you could hide entirely inside one a them little red eggs.
And there was a little box of flies; nearly all dries. A black gnat, a 'skeeter, a mayfly, and of course, a Royal Coachman; they were bright and magical looking, and I hadn't a clue how to fish with them. I fished with worms and grasshoppers I caught myself, and brought home little brookies, and big old German Browns.
I remember in particular one big fly, a lure really, tied with a big treble hook using turkey & hen feathers to look like a baby bird. I didn't dare fish with it for fear of losing it. I don't know if I could have savored those days more, but somehow, I wish I had.
In those days the North Umpqua was still a new fly fishery. One of the first flies only streams, and certainly the first I had ever seen. At first look it's singular beauty takes your breath away, figuratively. At first dip in its icy waters, it takes your breath away for real. The North Umpqua is still the coldest river with the slickest bottom that I've ever fished. Even now, with over four decades of fishing dozens of other streams, those two things remain true. If you fish the North Umpqua you will wade. If you wade the North Umpqua you will take a dip. That's just how it is.
The North Umpqua was nothing like those lazy, meandering' streams I fished when I was little. She's a mighty and fast moving river, full of rocks and riffles, and white water to make even a seasoned drift boater take notice, and, I wanted to learn to fish her. That first summer, we were all pretty green, and had never even heard of steelhead, let alone tied into one. We were trout fishermen, and loving that just fine. Then one day I watched a fella get a hook in a steelhead, and I saw a whole new thing.
Right off, I could see he had his hands full; he was fishing with what looked to me to be the softest rod ever held by a fisherman. It was a bamboo job; one we thought only was for hanging on the wall.
Well, that steelie got some air, and did a real flying show. That old boy knew his stuff though, and played his fish with his hands full of line and fly rod. After a mighty fight the fish gave up, and the man gently brought her to hand. Carefully and lovingly he lifted the little fly from her lip, and with a light and practiced touch he held her while she caught her second wind, and with a swish of her tail she was off again to the depths.
I had never seen anyone release a fish before, and I was amazed in many ways. He explained he didn't eat them much anymore, and he wanted to see that they survived for as long as possible. That's when I learned that steelhead come back to the river to spawn more than once. They spend a large part of their lives out at sea with the big boys.
These days, I catch & release most the time, and have a grown son I've taught to do the same. He's a real fisherman, caught his first trout at age six, and the best fishing partner I ever had. I tie nearly all my own flies, and swaps provide the rest. I give away as many as I fish & lose, and I've passed this generous spirit on to my son, daughters, nieces & nephews, and son in law. And to bring this thing full circle, my boxes have black gnats, skeeters, mayflies and royal coachmen in them always, though I usually fish nymphs & midges anymore. Bugs are bugs, and most of them have been around for much longer than any of us can know. It stands to reason that there ain't many new patterns – really, just new fisherman, and old ones with new ideas.
My old dad once told me that trout are the hardest fish in the world to catch. Whether or not that is true I think depends upon the time and place. I've seen times and places that any fish was hard to catch, and I've seen it when it seemed there was no way to miss catching a fish.
Whatever the time, place, or water you're fishing, I figure it like this; on the one hand ya got fishin and on the other ya got not fishin, and I'll take fishin' anytime. Be it with old flies or new, worms or hoppers, or my best imitation of either or both. Fishing takes God's wonderful world and makes if more wonderful.