I have an old flat foamed SA fly box that is adorned with stickers, writing, and a strip of duct tape to help hold the latch closed. It's an endearing part of my tying ensemble and I cringe each time it gets placed into an envelope with the US Postal Service. The value of this box is small in monetary comparison, yet the worth is immeasurable to me personally. The little grey box has travelled the world on countless excursions holding flies from my bench while returning filled with that much and more, yet I have never accompanied it along its travels. The fly box I speak of is my Swap Box.
Within the online fly tying community there is a practice called a ""fly swap". One person will post the swap on a forum and function as the Swap Master, declaring what the guiding theme for the patterns tied will be. The theme is often guided by the time of year and the hatch that may coincide, or a particular style of tying such as Streamers, Nymphs, or Dry Flies. Many will be simply to tie your favorite fly, or your most productive pattern. One of my favorite themes is to have everybody tie their version of a classic pattern. I always enjoy seeing the returned flies reflecting how an individual tyer views or chooses to tie a given pattern. The regional and material choices are often very telling, and many times will cause me to take a hard look at my own version as well. Swaps are usually all inclusive, bringing in all-comers from experienced professional tyers to novice tyers seeking to learn from the return patterns or compare where they are in their skill progression. I have found that regardless of the level of tyers involved, I am always able to glean either a technique or style that will affect my tying in some way as well.
Here's how it works. The Swap Master will announce a new Swap on a forum, and declare a theme. Let's say "Favorite Streamers" for example. He will also declare how many intended swappers he wants to handle and the tying deadline, or the latest date he will need to receive your flies. A dozen is about average, since too many can be burden for all to meet. If the swap is for 12 people, all swappers that sign on are agreeing to tie at least 11 flies in their given pattern and send them in a package that includes their box, along with a SASE for the swap master to return once all flies are received. They need not include a pattern counting themselves. A toe tag of a piece of paper is generally attached to each hook identifying the tyer and the name of the pattern. Once the swap master receives all of the patterns, he/she will sort one pattern from all tyers into each return box, minus one of their own. They are then mailed back in the included packaging. Often tyers will tie additional patterns or add trinkets as a gift to the swap master for their efforts as well. But nothing is expected from either side aside from the flies intended.
I have received a number of things through swaps that were unexpected and have since become items of attachment for my tying bench over the years. One of which is a custom bodkin inscribed by the maker that has been on my bench now for about 12 years. I still swap with that gentleman every year as well. I have lapel and hat pins tied as flies, Ornaments and decorative ties, as well as a few display salmon fly patterns that are framed. You never know what you will find when that package arrives. Swapping flies for me is akin to attending a tying conclave without actually seeing the other members face-to-face. Quite often you will get a fly tied with considerable talent, only to find out that it was tied by a youngster after completing his middle-school homework. It can leave you shaking your head in awe. There are a few patterns tied by well-known folks that are kept along with their toe-tags, and a few that have become standards in my own boxes as well.
I recently completed a swap that included folks from all over North America and the Far East. Many of whom I have swapped with before. Times like this are genuinely enjoyable because though I've not met any of them face-to-face, they are considered friends that I have known for many years. It is unavoidable that some tyers who I have come to know through swaps have passed over to the other side of the stream. Some of their flies are kept in a small tin that I keep in remembrance. Others are simply a good thought that crosses my mind each time I send a package downstream. It has become an integrated part of my fly tying life over the years that has built friendships and furthered my tying knowledge and skills. And so it is that I tape the little grey box shut once more for transport. Looking down at the front I notice the Classic Salmon fly swap sticker that was the cause of its first journey. Today, it is filled with small bluegill hair poppers that I spent much too long worrying over to send away. But I must. They are accompanied by 3 streamers for the swap master for his efforts. I wonder if those on the other end are the same as I, waiting for that package filled with new patterns to arrive? Is it their first swap? Or will my patterns be a welcome and familiar name to them? Hopefully in its journey my little grey box will be treated well.