Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

The Usual

By Eric Austin, Ohio

I'm not sure that this fly should really go into the group of old flies here, as it's used a great deal today by many fine fishermen, but it has been around awhile. I've been looking for an excuse to do some flies from Fran Betters, who hails from my neck of the woods in upstate New York, and the opportunity presented itself this past week. Out of the blue I was sent a "care package" from my good friend Fred Bridge in Pennsylvania. Fred is a neat freak of the first order, and found he had some materials that he no longer needed cluttering up his tying area. He thought of me, knowing full well that clutter is a way of life with me, and I would have no problem adding his materials to the pile. Among the items Fred sent were a pair of snowshoe rabbits feet, and I jumped at the chance to finally do some Usuals.

I've been a fan of Fran Betters for years. When I was a young tier I happened on a box of his flies in the sporting goods section of a local drug store in Plattsburgh, N.Y., not far from Fran's home base in Wilmington. These were flies unlike any I had seen at the time. They were also quite unlike the flies for which Fran is now known, the Ausable Wulff, Haystack, and Usual. The flies that he invented are very impressionistic, rough-looking flies designed to handle the rigors of the fast moving Ausable. The flies in the box at the drug store were the typical flies of the day, the Cahills, Hendricksons, Quill Gordons, and Royal Coachmen. They were impeccably done, with perfect wings, incredibly neat sparse dubbing, very short, stiff hackle, hackle unlike any I'd ever seen, and gorgeous tails. The word I've always used to describe these flies is "compact." They were an absolute joy to fish, floated forever, and were some of the best Catskill style flies I've ever seen or used. Fran's own flies are somewhat the antithesis of these, though they still have the compact look, but he has adopted a much rougher, buggier approach now, and the Usual might just be the best example of his personal philosophy.

The Usual is an outgrowth of the Haystack series really. The Haystacks were flies designed in the late 40s and early 50s by Fran, when he was still in high school. They were patterned after some simple flies used by Fran's dad and friends, tied by trapper Eddie Lawrence, which consisted of nothing more than a gob of deer hair lashed to a big hook. Fran refined this idea, and started tying the incredibly successful Haystack series. The flies consisted of a deer hair tail, deer hair post splayed 180 degrees, and dubbing behind and in front of the wing (post), to keep it upright and create a thorax. You're by now thinking "Comparadun," and the Comparadun described by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi was based on the Haystack, and they credit Fran for this in their book "Hatches." There is a difference in the flies however, and that's in the tail, Caucci and Nastasi borrowing a page from Vince Marinaro and replacing the deer hair tail on the Haystack with split tails of hackle, making the fly a bit more adaptable to slower water.

The Usual is simply a Haystack tied with snowshoe rabbit's foot fur. It just might be the easiest of all flies to tie. The fur has a wonderful translucence, and is very waterproof, making this fly a great floater. I have not fished this fly, as I've never had the fur to tie it with until now, but those who do swear by it. I think you would be hard pressed to find a buggier looking fly. Fran lists the thread used in the pattern as grey, but on the cover of his book Fly Fishing-Fly Tying and Pattern Guide he has a Usual done with his trademark fluorescent orange thread, with the thread just showing through the sparse dubbing. I like this version, and those that I've seen fished by others were of this persuasion, so I've done that type here. I can't wait to fish some of these. Here's the recipe from Fran's book:

The Usual

    Hook: 94840 or 94842 Mustad (sizes 14, 16, 18, 20 or 22)

    Thread: Size 6/0 grey prewaxed.

    Tail: Small bunch of hair from rabbit's pad.

    Wing: Larger bunch of hair from rabbit's pad.

    Body: Underfur from rabbit's foot dubbed on thread. Use a blend of the grey next to skin and light tan which has very fine guard hairs mixed in to make it float better.

Credits: Fran Betters' Fly Fishing-Fly Tying and Pattern Guide by Fran Betters. ~ EA

About Eric:

Eric I started fly fishing as a teen in and around my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, primarily on the Saranac River. I started tying flies almost immediately and spent hours with library books written by Ray Bergman, Art Lee, and A. J. McClane. Almost from the beginning I liked tying just as much as I liked fishing and spent considerable time at the vise creating hideous monstrosities that somehow caught fish anyway. Then one day I came upon a group of flies that had been put out at a local drug store that had been tied by Francis Betters of Wilmington, N.Y. My life changed that day and so did my flies, dramatically. Even though I never met Fran back then, I've always considered him to be one of my biggest influences.

I had a career in music for twenty years or so and didn't fish much, though I did fish at times. The band I was with had its fifteen seconds of fame when we were asked to be in John Mellencamp's movie "Falling From Grace." I am the keyboard player on the right in the country club scene in the middle of the movie. Don't blink. It's on HBO all the time. We got to meet big Hollywood stars and record in John's studio. It was a blast.

So how did I wind up contributing to the Just Old Flies column on FAOL? I'm not sure, it was something that I simply wanted very badly to do, and they let me. Many of the old flies take me back to the Adirondacs and my youth, and I guess I get to relive some of it through the column. I've spent many happy hours fishing and tying over the years, and tying these flies brings back memories of great days on the water, and intense hours spent looking at the flies in the fly plates in the old books and trying to get my flies to look like them. And now, here I am, still doing that to this day. ~ EA

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