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 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.