Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

December 29th, 2003

A Thing With Feathers
By Dave Micus

Hope is the thing with feathers, wrote Emily Dickinson, which means she was a fly tier. What else could she have been referring to? Fly tying could be defined as the union of hope and feathers. It's an impressionistic art; while there are, as tier Dave Whitlock says, flies "with elbows, eyeballs, and arseholes," tied to look exactly like what they imitate, these flies hook fishermen, not fish. Fish prefer Monet to Wyeth. Bluefish prefer Edvard Munch.

Emily would be surprised at the price of fly tying feathers today. A premium grade dry fly saddle hackle from a genetically engineered chicken can cost $70, and you don't even get to eat the bird. The feathers of more exotic species, like jungle cock, can sell for well over $100. At least the hope is free.

These prices send we more frugal tiers who wish to stay married on an Argonaut-like quest for better and cheaper materials. Some alternative material sites are obvious, like craft stores where you can pick up tinsel and foam, or drug stores where you can get nail polish and cuticle scissors. You'll have to grin and bear the look of the women shoppers, the look that demands "What are you doing in the cosmetics section, and why are you hoarding nail polish?" But you can also go to the hardware store and stock up on shrink tube, epoxy, copper wire, even bottle corks for poppers without a second glance from the male clientele--assuming you left the nail polish in the car.

Good tiers need a vivid imagination; good material hunters do, too. Native American Pow Wows are a good source for feathers and fur, and even head shops have a decent selection of beads for tying bead heads. Hunting friends can provide moose or deer hair, as well as pheasant and grouse feathers. I personally draw the line at picking up road kill but would lose that compunction if I were fortunate enough to hit something unusual like a peacock (state laws vary on this), I read that innovative fly tier Jack Gartside buys old fox and mink stoles from the Salvation Army Thrift Store and uses the fur to tie his famous streamer patterns.

"We are constantly on the lookout, and view every thing with added interest. Possibly we may turn it into a bug of some kind," wrote the father of American fly fishing, Theodore Gordon, 96 years ago. Gordon would appreciate "Soul Braids," six-foot long synthetic ponytails recently on sale at Building 19, a local salvage store. It's hard to find suitable tying material in such lengths, and the braids, unimaginable as a hairpiece, proved to be perfect for tying long streamer and eel patterns. The best part was the price--only $3 per wig. You won't find that at Orvis.

The extreme to which fly tiers will go was brought home to me on a fishing trip to the Connecticut River in Pittsburg, New Hampshire. There I met a man who tied flies using the hair from his dogs behind. Seriously. And while not exactly the Golden Fleece, he swore that with this material he tied flies that caught trout (which isn't unlikely; there is an old dry fly pattern, the name escapes me, that calls for the use of 'urine stained fox fur'). I trust for the dogs sake that he doesn't tie many flies in the winter.

Hope is the thing with hair from a dog's behind. Only a fly tier could find the poetry in that. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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