I'm not sure that this fly should really go into the group
of old flies here, as it's used a great deal today by many
fine fishermen, but it has been around awhile. I've been
looking for an excuse to do some flies from Fran Betters,
who hails from my neck of the woods in upstate New York,
and the opportunity presented itself this past week. Out
of the blue I was sent a "care package" from my good friend
Fred Bridge in Pennsylvania. Fred is a neat freak of the first
order, and found he had some materials that he no longer needed
cluttering up his tying area. He thought of me, knowing full
well that clutter is a way of life with me, and I would have
no problem adding his materials to the pile. Among the items
Fred sent were a pair of snowshoe rabbits feet, and I jumped
at the chance to finally do some Usuals.
I've been a fan of Fran Betters for years. When I was a young
tier I happened on a box of his flies in the sporting goods
section of a local drug store in Plattsburgh, N.Y., not far
from Fran's home base in Wilmington. These were flies unlike
any I had seen at the time. They were also quite unlike the
flies for which Fran is now known, the Ausable Wulff, Haystack,
and Usual. The flies that he invented are very impressionistic,
rough-looking flies designed to handle the rigors of the fast
moving Ausable. The flies in the box at the drug store were
the typical flies of the day, the Cahills, Hendricksons, Quill
Gordons, and Royal Coachmen. They were impeccably done, with
perfect wings, incredibly neat sparse dubbing, very short,
stiff hackle, hackle unlike any I'd ever seen, and gorgeous
tails. The word I've always used to describe these flies is
"compact." They were an absolute joy to fish, floated forever,
and were some of the best Catskill style flies I've ever seen
or used. Fran's own flies are somewhat the antithesis of these,
though they still have the compact look, but he has adopted a
much rougher, buggier approach now, and the Usual might just
be the best example of his personal philosophy.
The Usual is an outgrowth of the Haystack series really. The
Haystacks were flies designed in the late 40s and early 50s by
Fran, when he was still in high school. They were patterned
after some simple flies used by Fran's dad and friends, tied
by trapper Eddie Lawrence, which consisted of nothing more
than a gob of deer hair lashed to a big hook. Fran refined
this idea, and started tying the incredibly successful
Haystack series. The flies consisted of a deer hair tail,
deer hair post splayed 180 degrees, and dubbing behind and
in front of the wing (post), to keep it upright and create
a thorax. You're by now thinking "Comparadun," and the
Comparadun described by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi was based
on the Haystack, and they credit Fran for this in their book
"Hatches." There is a difference in the flies however, and
that's in the tail, Caucci and Nastasi borrowing a page from
Vince Marinaro and replacing the deer hair tail on the Haystack
with split tails of hackle, making the fly a bit more adaptable
to slower water.
The Usual is simply a Haystack tied with snowshoe rabbit's foot
fur. It just might be the easiest of all flies to tie. The fur
has a wonderful translucence, and is very waterproof, making
this fly a great floater. I have not fished this fly, as I've
never had the fur to tie it with until now, but those who do
swear by it. I think you would be hard pressed to find a buggier
looking fly. Fran lists the thread used in the pattern as grey,
but on the cover of his book Fly Fishing-Fly Tying and
Pattern Guide he has a Usual done with his trademark
fluorescent orange thread, with the thread just showing through
the sparse dubbing. I like this version, and those that I've
seen fished by others were of this persuasion, so I've done
that type here. I can't wait to fish some of these. Here's the
recipe from Fran's book:
Credits: Fran Betters' Fly Fishing-Fly Tying and Pattern Guide
by Fran Betters. ~ EA
Hook: 94840 or 94842 Mustad (sizes 14, 16, 18, 20 or 22)
Thread: Size 6/0 grey prewaxed.
Tail: Small bunch of hair from rabbit's pad.
Wing: Larger bunch of hair from rabbit's pad.
Body: Underfur from rabbit's foot dubbed on thread.
Use a blend of the grey next to skin and light tan which
has very fine guard hairs mixed in to make it float better.
I started fly fishing as a teen in and around my hometown
of Plattsburgh, New York, primarily on the Saranac River.
I started tying flies almost immediately and spent hours
with library books written by Ray Bergman, Art Lee, and
A. J. McClane. Almost from the beginning I liked tying
just as much as I liked fishing and spent considerable
time at the vise creating hideous monstrosities that
somehow caught fish anyway. Then one day I came upon a
group of flies that had been put out at a local drug store
that had been tied by Francis Betters of Wilmington, N.Y.
My life changed that day and so did my flies, dramatically.
Even though I never met Fran back then, I've always
considered him to be one of my biggest influences.
I had a career in music for twenty years or so and didn't
fish much, though I did fish at times. The band I was with
had its fifteen seconds of fame when we were asked to be in
John Mellencamp's movie "Falling From Grace." I am the
keyboard player on the right in the country club scene in
the middle of the movie. Don't blink. It's on HBO all the
time. We got to meet big Hollywood stars and record in John's
studio. It was a blast.
So how did I wind up contributing to the Just Old Flies
column on FAOL? I'm not sure, it was something that I simply
wanted very badly to do, and they let me. Many of the old flies
take me back to the Adirondacs and my youth, and I guess I get
to relive some of it through the column. I've spent many happy
hours fishing and tying over the years, and tying these flies
brings back memories of great days on the water, and intense
hours spent looking at the flies in the fly plates in the old
books and trying to get my flies to look like them. And now,
here I am, still doing that to this day. ~ EA