Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Twenty-nine

From A Fishing Trip - To Atlantic Salmon Flies


By Tom Juracek

The old book has a permanent break in the binding. Used to the point of being abused, it literally falls open to the pictures of flies. Dry flies, wet flies all neatly tied are shown along with the appropriate materials for dressing each pattern. Two pages show flies that stand distinct from the rest. These brightly colored creations are much larger than the trout flies pictured on other pages. These are the salmon flies. With roots back to Victorian England, they grab the attention of anyone looking at them. The strange materials from exotic lands are barely identifiable. The list of materials is ten times the length of any trout pattern. These flies seem to cast a spell on the reader, both alluring with their beauty, but taunting with their difficulty.

This intrigue is partially responsible for my experimenting with dressing salmon flies. Several influences came together at the same time that provided the final spark necessary for me to really pursue dressing salmon flies. I had been captivated for years by the difficulty and beauty of salmon flies. However, as with all beginners, I was immediately put off by the unknown materials. I couldn't identify half of the feathers in each pattern, and certainly had no idea where to obtain any of them.

One fall, about 12 years ago, I was out fishing on the Madison River. I was having little success swinging streamers through the river. A fellow angler fishing near me was catching fish with some regularity. I stopped by to chat and discovered that he was using some modified Spey patterns. I was intrigued by these flies and set out to dress a few for my own use in the future. Spey patterns are a specific subset of salmon flies, originating on the River Spey in Scotland.

Finally, at about this same time, I was introduced to a gentleman who actually dressed salmon flies. He was very accommodating, answering all my questions and providing a tremendous amount of guidance and input. This was the final push I needed. I started to make a serious effort at mastering the art of dressing salmon flies. I became involved in the 'materials chase'. Slowly, over the course of several years, I would gradually build an inventory of materials necessary. There is no quick fix in this area. Only time and diligent hunting will lead to finding correct materials.

Dressing salmon flies was a tremendous learning experience. I can still recall some of the aborted attempts I made in the beginning. I had been dressing trout flies for over 15 years at the time I seriously started dressing salmon flies. Still, it seemed like I was completely relearning how to tie a fly. Thread control became a serious issue. Quantity of material placed on a hook was suddenly much more important. Everything was three times the size of a trout fly. I would estimate that I dressed 60 flies before I was happy with one. At 4 or 5 hours per fly, that is a long apprenticeship simply to be able to dress a fly. It becomes easy to see why more people do not get involved. Yet the rewards are staggering.

If you really sit down and analyze the vast majority of literature devoted to fly tying, you find two recurring themes. Many books provide basic instruction on how to dress a fly. These books, along with others, also provide a list of materials for dressing specific patterns. You may find a helpful technical hint here or there, and probably a new pattern or two, but that is fairly representative of both books and current magazine articles that address the subject. There is one glaring omission in all this literature. No one specifically addresses materials. When you enter the world of the salmon fly, you suddenly realize that knowledge of materials is paramount to success. You have to be able to identify materials that will perform as you wish when bound to the hook. You begin to become acquainted with feather structure, locations of specific feathers on birds, and which feathers provide the appropriate length and look in the fly you are dressing. Suddenly you are becoming an amateur ornithologist. You learn about the native habitats of birds, where their native range is located, even some Latin species names.

Take for example a typical trout fly tailing description. Tail - Mallard. That's nice. There are only 2,000 different feathers on a Mallard duck. Some are wing feathers, some breast feathers. Some are green, brown, grey, speckled. Just what feather are you supposed to use? With most trout flies you can usually find a copy of the fly somewhere to view and determine fairly close what feather is called for. Most salmon flies do not have a photograph in any known source. This makes the decision much more difficult. Even in the trout fly example above, you have a decision to make. Suppose that the description calls for a grey and cream speckled feather from a Mallard duck. This helps to eliminate 90% of the feathers on the bird. But, the use of a long thin feather, or a short wide feather, will still produce different results. The knowledge of proper feather usage, feather structure, how to make a feather produce the result desired are all part of the intrigue of salmon flies.

When I first started to dress salmon flies, Partridge had recently introduced a new salmon hook. I used these eyed hooks for a number of years before deciding to give the blind eye hooks a trial. Unfortunately, I quickly found that finding blind eye hooks could be as difficult as finding some of the feathers. Although I was fortunate to be able to locate some, both pricing and availability became a problem. Thus I turned to making my own hooks. Another learning experience, as I became an amateur metalsmith. What the heck is annealing and tempering? How were hooks made by hand? How are the various point shapes made by filing? How can I find a finish that will produce the results I desire, especially when some of the original formulas are highly toxic and extremely dangerous? Trial and error led to the results I have today. Almost all of my flies are dressed on hooks that I make.

I have not yet addressed finding the rare and exotic feathers. We can leave that subject for another time, other than to say that constant vigilance will lead to results. However, when I was just beginning to dress salmon flies, I needed some sort of material to work with. I happen to live in Colorado, no where near an ocean, and thus no where near a fly shop that might stock either modern salmon or steelhead materials. Even finding colored feathers for wings and tails is difficult. So how to handle my dilemma? Well, I guess we need to become and amateur dyesmith.

Suddenly I find myself learning about how to dye feathers, what are natural dyes and modern chemical dyes. Another trial and error experience, with numerous feathers hitting the trash bucket when the results did not turn out as intended. Finally, I was able to produce feathers that were useable. I had my knowledge of the color wheel enhanced, along with yet another lesson in how materials react to being dyed and what that does to their performance once placed on the hook. This helped me produce acceptable substitutes for some of the rare feathers that are no longer available today. It also helped when I needed just a few feathers dyed in a specific manner for a particular pattern. If you decide to dress a Fairy King, can you really expect to find Jungle Cock dyed red at the local fly shop? Probably not. You soon realize that for some materials you have to become self sufficient.

So, where am I going with all this? When I was asked to write this article, the subject of what I found intriguing about dressing salmon flies came up. I decided to use this as the basic premise for the article. You can hopefully see from some of my comments above that dressing salmon flies ranges far beyond simply lashing materials to a hook. It has provided me an opportunity to meet some very interesting people, expand my knowledge of the world in general, and become adept at a few tasks related to fishing. Tying salmon flies is very technique intensive and very demanding upon the skills of the dresser. At the same time it encourages one to become familiar with many aspects of fly tying beyond the mere recreation of a particular pattern. What started out as a desire to simply dress a pretty fly became an entire hobby. ~Tom Juracek

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