July 10th, 2006

Road Kill
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

Over 40 years ago when I started 'serious' fly tying obtaining the appropriate materials was not as painless as it is today. The sources of fly tying material were few and far between, and local sources were nearly non-existent. Companies that specialized in fly tying materials were few, and since it was impossible to personally select the necessary material you paid your money and took your chance.

The other option available to the aspiring fly tyer was to secure material by using the hunter/gatherer method. This added a whole new dimension to the art and science of fly-fishing.

Both Castwell and myself were avid hunters so gathering materials by gun or bow was a logical extension in our quest to secure fly tying materials. Michigan, with its numerous lakes, rivers, and swamps, is the heart of some of the best waterfowl hunting east of the Mississippi. Small game was abundant, upland game birds were plentiful, and whitetail deer could be found in almost any woodlot. Soon our fly tying larder was amply stocked with skins and hides from our prowess in the field.

As every fly tyer knows you can never have enough fly tying stuff, so in the off-season we resorted to the gathering method to continue to enlarge our collection. This method also allowed us to secure certain species that were not normally game animals.

The burgeoning human population of southern Lower Michigan in the 60's brought the demise of not just a few unfortunate critters that attempted to cross one of the many highways which spread across the countryside like a spider web. Why did the chicken cross the road? The simple answer to that question in Michigan was because it was tired of living. If you had patience and spent a lot of time driving you could ultimately find all of Michigan's fauna flattened on the asphalt by a set of Goodyear's.

For those of us that were fly tyers, and possessed of a certain peculiar bent the demise of critters on the road was manna from heaven. Flying along at breakneck speed suddenly a choice specimen would appear on the road ahead. A quick check in the rearview mirror to assess the traffic approaching from behind, a swift glance to check to see if there was sufficient room to pull over, and a speedy application of the brakes was necessary to secure the choice specimen. It also took a trained eye to determine the state of the departed critter. Flat was rarely good, bloated and threatening to explode was generally unacceptable, and mutilated was definitely out. All of these conditions needed to be determine very quickly. This was not a game for the slow or the timid!

If the choice specimen had met its demise on a highway I traveled on a daily basis I would instantly know if it were fresh, and fresh was definitely good. This eliminated the bloated and threatening to explode issue. If it appeared to be intact then it likely was an acceptable specimen.

For years I had plastic bags stuffed under the front seat of my car so that I could take advantage of any choice specimen that I might encounter. A quick stop, scoop up the specimen, stuff it in a plastic bag, and I was on the road again. Over the years I scooped up opossums, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, muskrats, quail, pheasants, and a plethora of other small critters that had committed the ultimate sin of attempting to cross the road without looking both ways.

Larger game, like deer, were generally untouchable, since they were too large to stuff in a plastic bag, and the public game officials might not understand that I was only attempting to secure some hair for fly tying. However, in those days they were glad to get someone to pickup the smaller animals that littered the highways.

Collecting road kill was not without its downside. Arriving at the work place with a dead coon in a plastic bag presented a certain dilemma, especially during the warmer months of the year. Stuffing it in the refrigerator where everyone else kept their lunches was seldom a viable solution, but I was known to have resorted to that technique on more than one occasion. Most of the folks I worked with in those days knew better than to ask. What you don't know hopefully will not hurt you. Perhaps we invented the don't ask, don't tell concept.

Once I chanced upon a beautiful cock pheasant lying right on the shoulder of the road. He was so perfect that he did not look like he had even been hit, and when I arrived on the scene he was still nice and warm. Since I was not headed for work I just tossed him in the back and resumed my journey. Imagine my surprise when I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw a black beady eye staring back at me. Apparently the bird had only been stunned and now was alive and well in the back of my station wagon. The fun got started in ernest as he began to fly around the vehicle trying to escape. It wasn't pretty, but I prevailed.

In today's world it is no longer acceptable to pick up most road killed animals. Unless you live in a state where certain animals are classified as varmints, possession of any animal or bird is likely illegal. It is generally illegal to pick up any animal unless you have killed it with the proper license and during the proper season. Federal law protects all migratory birds, and the possession of any of their parts, including feathers, can result in a hefty fine and perhaps sometime breaking rocks at the crossbar hotel.

In those halcyon days before life became what it is today we filled our fly tying larder with all manner of quality fly tying material, compliments of the automobile and Goodyear Rubber. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana

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