Tom was a fitter in Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Belfast. He was also
a trout fisherman of sorts, a drunk by habit and a fly tier of pure genius.
I was brought up to appreciate and eventually sell flies by Hardy. In their heyday,
Walker - Bampton, Alex Martin, and Ogden Smith, the last three now sadly gone,
even Hardy's a shadow of their former selves. The flies produced by these
companies, when compared with today's often third world offerings, were
miniature works of art. Every wing, wet or dry, was identical to it's fellows,
set at the perfect angle. Every hackle was beautifully flared at the throat, each
body tapered as were all the others in the box. Order a dozen flies of this quality
and they could not be told apart. Dry flies were perky and buoyant looking even
before use and were above all, lifelike in the extreme.
Even against this standard of quality, Tom's flies stood out like diamonds among
dross. Things of beauty and life, the interpretation of patterns inspired by who
knows what quirk of personality lurking in the shell of a common man.
To illustrate with but one example, Tom's Iron Blue Dun was unlike its
commercial fellows in their drab slate-grey mufti, with the obligatory
scarlet tip to the woollen body. Tom had decided that his Iron was to
be tempered. The body was pheasant tail, a seldom used material in
those pre-Sawyer days, dyed a blue-black, the colour of document ink.
The wing was the dark blue mallard feather used on Butchers, matching
hackle and whisks. To suggest the red body tip, there were two turns of
red among the pheasant tail. This gave the merest, but noticeable, suggestion
of the red body end of the natural insect to such effect that one picked up
the artificial with care, as if it would crush.
Everything this amazing man tied was like this. A Michelangelo of the tying
vice. Tom's weekly wages, paid on Friday night, might last till Sunday. On
the other hand they probably would not. Belfast has more pubs per head of
population than any other city in Britain, and Tom lived within easy reach of
too many of them. Come the early part of the week and the ends would have
great difficulty meeting. Tom would appear in the shop offering a few dozen
of his exquisite flies for sale. We would always buy anything he offered because,
as you can imagine, they found ready customers.
On many occasions we suggested that a more constant and predictable supply
would be welcome, and might supply a little extra income. We also frequently
asked Tom to tie a dozen 'specials' for a customer who appreciated such beauty.
To no avail! The flies never appeared. When he tied the few flies we did manage
to purchase from time to time, (no one could work the timing out), but appear
on occasions they did, and illuminated their surrounds like lights in the darkness.
I still have a few in my pigskin fly wallet, itself my grandad's. Heckham - Peckham,
Defiant, Woodcock Red Spinner, Le Fanu, Fenian, all the old patterns which have
been superceded by the flashy modern monstrosities. It cannot be that trout have
tired of the old flies, it must be the angler who has become disenchanted by the
Pink Wickhams and Black Spinners in favour of Dog Nobblers and Cat's Whiskers.
I know I exaggerate, but that is the way I feel today, comparing the delicacy and
fidelity of yesterday's flies with the modern offerings for jaded palates. We no
longer seem inclined to coax the trout to feed on our suggestions, more to
bludgeon them into taking the gaudy examples of an ad-man's imagination.
The producers of angling magazines these days seem to feel an obligation to
invent (or encourage their readers to do it for them) new flies by the dozen
for every month's issue.
The thinking, artistic tiers of days gone by must be spinning uncomfortable in
their places of rest.
Trout still exist on the same food they have eaten since time began. I sometimes
dream of leading a crusade to reinstate beauty into flies and fishing, and to teach
the modern angler that there is so much more to trout fishing than catching fish. ~ Jim Clarke
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember,
and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers
and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm
it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history
and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood
them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only,
fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and
sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later,
feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring
uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England.
He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six
years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up
shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate
and construct THINGS in the garden.†He has, nevertheless managed to
fish in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England, with trips to Sweden
and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our
Readers Casts section.