June 16th, 2003

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Papa's Big Ugly Fly
By Barry Shrader

Sitting at my fly-tying bench and staring at the montage of fly-tying remnants my mind drifts back to the days I fished with my grandfather. These days I tie precise and detailed flies; some an eighth of inch long. However I haven't always tied so artfully. Thinking back I realize that the roots of my fly-tying life began many years ago when I tied Papa's big ugly fly.

For most of his life Papa was a bait and lure fisher. It seems like it was always worms and minnows, Lucky Thirteen's and Wiggle Creek Chubs. But one day when Papa arrived home he was carrying a fly-rod and reel, and it was a dandy. The rod was close to nine feet in length and the reel was one of those heavy automatic retrieve jobbers. The outfit was already rigged up with fly line and leader but the one thing missing was flies.

The closest fly shop to where we lived was probably a good one hundred miles or so but Papa wouldn't be outdone by this dilemma of not having fishing flies. He went to his work shed and a couple of hours later produced a home made tying vise. He set the vise up on a table right next to Granny's sewing machine. Looking back now I realize positioning the vise next to Granny's Singer was a part of his grand plan. Papa's eyes had started to fail and his hands had become arthritic so he enlisted the keen eyesight and nimble fingers of a ten year old - yours truly, to do the tying.

Granny was a seamstress and oh how she loved to sew. She spent countless hours at that Singer turning out creation after creation. I spent countless hours watching her handiwork while becoming mesmerized by the whir of the sewing machine motor.

The fashion rage for ladies at that time was the moo-moo, so Granny sewed moo-moos for everyone in the neighborhood and even some people across town. I figured they called them moo-moos because they were big enough to fit a cow but later learned they originated from Hawaii. Anyhow the point to Papa was that Granny had sewing stuff which to him equated to fly tying stuff.

Indeed Granny had sewing stuff! There was spool after spool of colorful sewing thread, and shoe boxes full of embroidery thread, and miles upon miles of knitting yarn; all of which Papa had his eye on. To him the sewing thread was tying thread, the embroidery thread was ribbing, and the yarn would make perfect body material for flies.

As Papa explained it to me we would simply be borrowing Granny's stuff and that sounded okay with me. I never did figure out why he insisted that we keep it a secret from Granny. Gosh, they had been married forever, and I figured if a problem came up they would certainly work it out.

Papa would send me to do the borrowing whenever Granny was busy in the kitchen making preserves or canning beans. My quick hands would rummage through the thread, embroidery material and yarn; picking and choosing at absolutely no rhyme or reason.

We kept all our borrowed items in a King Edwards cigar box underneath the table where Papa had set-up his home-made vise. Again, looking back now I realize that cigar box was like a treasure chest to Papa but he wasn't the pirate - I was. We had almost everything we needed to tie flies except for clear finger nail polish to be used as glue and feathers to dress the flies.

My mother was a very attractive woman. Lots of people called her our hometown's Marilyn Monroe. I do remember that she never went anywhere without her fingernails being polished so clear finger nail polish wasn't going to be a problem. We'd just simply do some more borrowing.

As for the feathers it just happened that Granny had birds. She raised yellow canaries and two parakeets; one was blue, the other green. Those birds shed feathers on a regular basis and as our fly-tying life matured we learned to collect those feathers before Granny cleaned the cages. Whenever we were in short supply of feathers the parakeets would lose an extra feather or two courtesy of the quick hands of a ten year old.

Granny would always come running whenever she heard those birds squawk but she was never quick enough to catch me.

Now, Papa and I had everything we needed to start our fly-tying life and our adventure would begin with that one big ugly fly.

Papa told me he wanted a hopper fly; something that would look like a cricket or grasshopper. So I took a seat at the tying table with Papa standing behind me. He would be the orator and my eyes and hands would become his podium.

First we laid a base of tying thread along the shank of a large hook; I think it was a size 2/0. Then at the curve of the hook we tied in a small tuft of yellow canary feather to simulate the back end of the grasshopper. Next, we tied in green embroidery thread, which would become the ribbing that would give segmentation to the fly. Then we would tie in a parakeet feather to be spiraled up over the yarn. Now for the body we tied in yellow yarn, which would become the bulk of the body. The yarn was spiraled up near the eye of the hook and tied off and of course then come that previously mentioned parakeet feather. Then the embroidery thread was spiraled in equal lengths to create the segmentation and it was also tied off. Now we needed wings so a parakeet feather was tied in on each side of the hook near the hook of the eye with the tip of the feathers pointing to the rear of the hook. A nice thread-head was made then a couple of half hitches added and some clear fingernail polish to seal the thread.

Papa's big ugly fly was born and to me it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen in my life. But, to Papa it was sheer splendor. His eyes twinkled as he told me time and time again how this fly was going to catch fish. He told me so much I didn't know if he was trying to convince me or himself. The only thing I thought that fly would catch was the wind and a bunch of ridicule if anyone else ever saw it; but Papa knew a lot more about fishing than I did.

Papa then announced that we would test the fly the following morning and the testing waters would be one of farmer Brown's ponds.

Clarence Brown lived on a hundred acre farm north of town. He had three ponds that he kept well stocked for his two boys Charlie and Don. For years Papa had permission to fish the Brown's ponds and we never needed to call ahead; simply show up and go a-fishing.

So bright and early the next morning we loaded up the fishing wagon. Papa's fishing wagon was his little Ford Ranchero and that vehicle was a "dan-dan-dandy." It had one of those weird sized engines in it like a 312 or something. It purred like a kitten.

Upon arriving at the Brown farm Papa chose the largest of the three ponds for his testing grounds. Over the years he had caught some nice three and four pound black bass from this pond and he was convinced it had much larger fish.

I stood on the edge of the bank as Papa with his new found fly rod waded into the pond. He carried that rod like it was the largest ink pen of his life and that he was about to write the greatest chapter of his fishing life. It turns out this would come true.

He waded out to he was a little above his waist in water which was as deep as he dare go. Papa wore a hearing aid with the battery pack in his shirt pocket and he couldn't afford to get that wet. To tell the truth Papa knew about as much about fly-fishing as I did; which was nothing. For the first twenty minutes he struggled in his casting with the fly line repeatedly falling down on him. However, he finally got a rhythm and was able to make a cast of twenty feet toward the bank opposite of himself. That's when it happened.

I remember watching as that big ugly fly gently floated down on the film of the surface. Then almost as suddenly as it touched down a bulge started to form underneath big ugly and almost just as suddenly that bulge exploded into a spray of water and excitement. Fish was on and the fight was on!

Papa jerked back almost losing his footing but quickly recovered. He kept engaging that automatic retrieve trigger thinking that would somehow reel the fish in but that simply wouldn't work. Papa decided to simply hold on and strip the fish in. Launching through the water the fish exposed himself and it was a lunker of a black bass. Papa fought that fish for a good ten minutes but finally the fish tired and with his thumb and index finger Papa latched onto the bottom jaw of that bass hoisting him in the air in victory. It was a trophy fish! Papa always carried a fish scale and this fish weighed six and one half pounds! I didn't realize it at the time but Papa had reached the pinnacle of his fishing life.

That fish never went on our wall at home; we simply didn't have money for things like that. But, it did go in Papa's frying pan. He liked fish better than anyone I have known in my life.

My grandfather would go on to have another twelve years of life but his fishing life wouldn't last nearly so long. His eyesight continued to fail and then he lost his privilege to drive.

I don't know which was sadder for my grandfather - the day the fishing died or the day he had to sell his fishing wagon, that Ford Ranchero.

What I do know is that one of his happiest moments was the day he caught that lunker bass on that big ugly fly. ~ Barry Shrader

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