Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps . .


Part Twenty-eight

Fly Tying at the End of the Millennium
(Part 4 - Conclusion)

By Chauncy Lively


John Betts of Denver has been a pioneer in adapting synthetic materials to fly tying. One of his outstanding contributions is his discovery of White Sable artist brush fibers. This material is a synthetic made in Japan and widely used in artists' brushes. Tapered at one end, it is flexible, tough and possibly the finest dry fly tail material ever. Betts markets this material under the name of Microfibetts. He has also found many uses for polyethylene film, the sheet plastic from which Ziploc bags are made.

For years I used sections of turkey quills for nymph wing case but was always disappointed in their lack of durability. When I learned of John Betts' use of poly film in flies it prompted me to try the stuff for wing cases. I would cut them to shape, tie them in and add color with a marking pen. The material handled easily and dressed like a charm. But it wouldn't accept color, which promptly rubbed off the slippery material. When I told John Betts of the problem he had already found a solution. The secret lies in lightly sanding both sides of the material with a fine sandpaper, using a circular motion, until it is uniformly whitish. Then it will accept color extremely well.

In its heavier gauges (2 mil or more) polyethylene film is very durable. It can be purchased by the roll at stores such as K-Mart for less than five bucks. The heavier Ziploc bags also serve the purpose.

For many years finding good hackle was a constant problem confronting fly tyers because there were few dependable sources. Farmers bred chickens for meat and eggs and any roosters showing a potential for fly material were generally killed before their meat became tough. Unfortunately, early killing also prevented maturation of the hackle. Occassionally, we might find a decent gamecock neck but the variety of colors was limited. During the 1950s Paul Young's shop in Detroit always had a large stock on hand but his tyers rarely tied smaller than #16 because there was no demand. Consequently, Paul had many neck tops available and he sold them for 10 cents a piece. These leftovers had hackles sized at #18, #20 and #22 - just the sizes I needed for spring creek fishing in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, I stocked up.

When Martha Young retired from the business and moved to her cabin on the South Branch she began to import hackle necks from the Phillippines to supply fly tying classes. The necks were essentially smallish but the quality was fairly decent. The colors were generally limited to brown, cream, chinchilla and cree but the prices were right. I purchased many of these necks for $1.75 to $2.50 each.

Shortly after we moved to Michigan, Dick Talleur dropped by to visit us at our home on the North Branch. I recall we spent most of an afternoon commiserating about the scarcity of prime hackle. But soon afterwards a dramatic change came about when genetic hackle began to appear on dealers' shelves. The likes of Hoffman, Metz and Herbert were beginning to breed chickens specifically for hackle quality and the results were spectacular.

Suddently we had long, swordlike hackles with relatively short barbules and little waste. Even the saddles had barbs short enough for hackling medium for large dries. The necks contained a full range of sizes down to #24 and smaller. Where we previously had to use two or three hackles in a dry fly, now we could often tie two or more flies with a single hackle. A hundred years ago Halford would have killed for this hackle.

Many of us old-timers tend to talk among ourselves about the "good old days" and it's true there were many memorable moments in the past. But in the craft of fly tying the best of days are now. Fly tyers are enjoying the best tools and materials ever and their skill levels are constantly rising. I have viewed framings of Halford's flies at the Anglers' Club of New York and most of today's tyers would - without being disrespectful - consider them grossly overdressed. I have viewed some of Theodore Gordon's dries, whose hackle crowded the eye to the extent it would be very difficult to attach them to a leader. And in my own collection I have a couple of George La Branche's flies which wouldn't pass muster by today's standards.

I make note of the above - not as a chest-beating braggadocio - but as a recognition of the high level fly dressing has reached today.

If the craft continues at this rate for the next millennium, anglers should be thankful for the philosophy of catch-and-release. Otherwise, trout would be among our most endangered species. ~ Chauncy Lively

Chauncy's article appears in the Spring Issue of the RIVERWATCH, the quarterly publication of the Anglers of the AuSable, Grayling Michigan. FAOL is proud to be a member of this fine organization, dedicated to the protection of the AuSable River, its watershed and environs. Dues are $25 per year. For membership contact:
The Anglers of the AuSable
403 Black Bear Drive
Grayling, Michigan 49738
and visit their website!

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