June 16th, 2003
The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
Papa's Big Ugly Fly
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .
By Barry Shrader
Sitting at my fly-tying bench and staring at
the montage of fly-tying remnants my mind drifts
back to the days I fished with my grandfather.
These days I tie precise and detailed flies; some
an eighth of inch long. However I haven't always
tied so artfully. Thinking back I realize that the
roots of my fly-tying life began many years ago
when I tied Papa's big ugly fly.
For most of his life Papa was a bait and lure fisher.
It seems like it was always worms and minnows, Lucky
Thirteen's and Wiggle Creek Chubs. But one day when
Papa arrived home he was carrying a fly-rod and reel,
and it was a dandy. The rod was close to nine feet
in length and the reel was one of those heavy automatic
retrieve jobbers. The outfit was already rigged up with
fly line and leader but the one thing missing was flies.
The closest fly shop to where we lived was probably a
good one hundred miles or so but Papa wouldn't be
outdone by this dilemma of not having fishing flies.
He went to his work shed and a couple of hours later
produced a home made tying vise. He set the vise up
on a table right next to Granny's sewing machine.
Looking back now I realize positioning the vise next
to Granny's Singer was a part of his grand plan. Papa's
eyes had started to fail and his hands had become
arthritic so he enlisted the keen eyesight and nimble
fingers of a ten year old - yours truly, to do the tying.
Granny was a seamstress and oh how she loved to sew.
She spent countless hours at that Singer turning out
creation after creation. I spent countless hours
watching her handiwork while becoming mesmerized by
the whir of the sewing machine motor.
The fashion rage for ladies at that time was the moo-moo,
so Granny sewed moo-moos for everyone in the neighborhood
and even some people across town. I figured they called
them moo-moos because they were big enough to fit a cow
but later learned they originated from Hawaii. Anyhow
the point to Papa was that Granny had sewing stuff which
to him equated to fly tying stuff.
Indeed Granny had sewing stuff! There was spool after
spool of colorful sewing thread, and shoe boxes full
of embroidery thread, and miles upon miles of knitting
yarn; all of which Papa had his eye on. To him the
sewing thread was tying thread, the embroidery thread
was ribbing, and the yarn would make perfect body
material for flies.
As Papa explained it to me we would simply be borrowing
Granny's stuff and that sounded okay with me. I never
did figure out why he insisted that we keep it a secret
from Granny. Gosh, they had been married forever, and
I figured if a problem came up they would certainly
work it out.
Papa would send me to do the borrowing whenever Granny
was busy in the kitchen making preserves or canning
beans. My quick hands would rummage through the thread,
embroidery material and yarn; picking and choosing at
absolutely no rhyme or reason.
We kept all our borrowed items in a King Edwards cigar
box underneath the table where Papa had set-up his
home-made vise. Again, looking back now I realize
that cigar box was like a treasure chest to Papa
but he wasn't the pirate - I was. We had almost
everything we needed to tie flies except for clear
finger nail polish to be used as glue and feathers
to dress the flies.
My mother was a very attractive woman. Lots of people
called her our hometown's Marilyn Monroe. I do remember
that she never went anywhere without her fingernails
being polished so clear finger nail polish wasn't going
to be a problem. We'd just simply do some more borrowing.
As for the feathers it just happened that Granny had birds.
She raised yellow canaries and two parakeets; one was blue,
the other green. Those birds shed feathers on a regular
basis and as our fly-tying life matured we learned to
collect those feathers before Granny cleaned the cages.
Whenever we were in short supply of feathers the parakeets
would lose an extra feather or two courtesy of the quick
hands of a ten year old.
Granny would always come running whenever she heard those
birds squawk but she was never quick enough to catch me.
Now, Papa and I had everything we needed to start our
fly-tying life and our adventure would begin with that
one big ugly fly.
Papa told me he wanted a hopper fly; something that
would look like a cricket or grasshopper. So I took
a seat at the tying table with Papa standing behind
me. He would be the orator and my eyes and hands
would become his podium.
First we laid a base of tying thread along the shank
of a large hook; I think it was a size 2/0. Then at
the curve of the hook we tied in a small tuft of yellow
canary feather to simulate the back end of the grasshopper.
Next, we tied in green embroidery thread, which would
become the ribbing that would give segmentation to the
fly. Then we would tie in a parakeet feather to be
spiraled up over the yarn. Now for the body we tied
in yellow yarn, which would become the bulk of the
body. The yarn was spiraled up near the eye of the
hook and tied off and of course then come that
previously mentioned parakeet feather. Then the
embroidery thread was spiraled in equal lengths to
create the segmentation and it was also tied off. Now
we needed wings so a parakeet feather was tied in on
each side of the hook near the hook of the eye with
the tip of the feathers pointing to the rear of the
hook. A nice thread-head was made then a couple of
half hitches added and some clear fingernail polish
to seal the thread.
Papa's big ugly fly was born and to me it was the
ugliest thing I had ever seen in my life. But, to
Papa it was sheer splendor. His eyes twinkled as
he told me time and time again how this fly was
going to catch fish. He told me so much I didn't
know if he was trying to convince me or himself.
The only thing I thought that fly would catch was
the wind and a bunch of ridicule if anyone else
ever saw it; but Papa knew a lot more about fishing
than I did.
Papa then announced that we would test the fly
the following morning and the testing waters
would be one of farmer Brown's ponds.
Clarence Brown lived on a hundred acre farm north of
town. He had three ponds that he kept well stocked
for his two boys Charlie and Don. For years Papa
had permission to fish the Brown's ponds and we
never needed to call ahead; simply show up and
So bright and early the next morning we loaded up
the fishing wagon. Papa's fishing wagon was his
little Ford Ranchero and that vehicle was a
"dan-dan-dandy." It had one of those weird
sized engines in it like a 312 or something.
It purred like a kitten.
Upon arriving at the Brown farm Papa chose the
largest of the three ponds for his testing grounds.
Over the years he had caught some nice three and
four pound black bass from this pond and he was
convinced it had much larger fish.
I stood on the edge of the bank as Papa with his
new found fly rod waded into the pond. He carried
that rod like it was the largest ink pen of his life
and that he was about to write the greatest chapter
of his fishing life. It turns out this would come true.
He waded out to he was a little above his waist in
water which was as deep as he dare go. Papa wore a
hearing aid with the battery pack in his shirt pocket
and he couldn't afford to get that wet. To tell the
truth Papa knew about as much about fly-fishing as
I did; which was nothing. For the first twenty minutes
he struggled in his casting with the fly line repeatedly
falling down on him. However, he finally got a rhythm
and was able to make a cast of twenty feet toward the
bank opposite of himself. That's when it happened.
I remember watching as that big ugly fly gently floated
down on the film of the surface. Then almost as suddenly
as it touched down a bulge started to form underneath
big ugly and almost just as suddenly that bulge exploded
into a spray of water and excitement. Fish was on and
the fight was on!
Papa jerked back almost losing his footing but quickly
recovered. He kept engaging that automatic retrieve
trigger thinking that would somehow reel the fish in
but that simply wouldn't work. Papa decided to simply
hold on and strip the fish in. Launching through the
water the fish exposed himself and it was a lunker of
a black bass. Papa fought that fish for a good ten
minutes but finally the fish tired and with his thumb
and index finger Papa latched onto the bottom jaw of
that bass hoisting him in the air in victory. It was
a trophy fish! Papa always carried a fish scale and
this fish weighed six and one half pounds! I didn't
realize it at the time but Papa had reached the
pinnacle of his fishing life.
That fish never went on our wall at home; we simply
didn't have money for things like that. But, it did
go in Papa's frying pan. He liked fish better than
anyone I have known in my life.
My grandfather would go on to have another twelve years
of life but his fishing life wouldn't last nearly so
long. His eyesight continued to fail and then he lost
his privilege to drive.
I don't know which was sadder for my grandfather - the
day the fishing died or the day he had to sell his
fishing wagon, that Ford Ranchero.
What I do know is that one of his happiest moments
was the day he caught that lunker bass on that big
ugly fly. ~ Barry Shrader
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