Fly Tying Personalities
Phil Foster, His Life & Flies
By Ronn Lucas, Sr.

I'm not sure when it was that I met Phil Foster but it was through the internet. The earliest correspondence I have is an invoice dated 9/2/99 which accompanied a batch of streamers I purchased from him. Since then I have also corresponded with Phil on a regular basis save a few months when he went "off line."

The flies were wonderful and were to "kick start" my interest in the so called "Rangeley style" of streamers. I had seen some in books and a few in magazines but really hadn't seen any tied by someone from the middle of the area that spawned these beautiful flies.


What follows are some of Phil's own words as written in a book called Grouse Dogs and Salmon Rods which he wrote about his life as a bird hunting and salmon fishing guide as well as from our correspondence.

Phil was born on Feb. 14, 1927 to Herbert and Leota Foster of Waterville, Maine. "...Some Valentine huh? Mother said she'd didn't have her heart in it!"

His dad was an avid outdoorsman who introduced young Phil to fishing at about the age of eight. "He'd (dad) take me up to Barker Brook to dunk worms just north of Farmington where we lived. ...When I was ten, he introduced me to the fly rod and from then on, I was to fish no other way except in later years when I did do a bit of ice fishing...My brother, Bob, who was five years older than I, was well into fly fishing and had also started tying flies. Flies back in the late 1930's were selling for about 15 cents for small snelled wet flies and casting streamers were going for about 25 to 30 cents each. To put things in perspective, a loaf of bread was selling for 12 cents and gasoline was five gallons for a dollar! So flies were expensive."

"Before my brother, and I, got into fly tying, my dad used to get his flies from an old gent by the name of Melvin Huff. Mel was the zoo keeper at the old Stanwood Park Zoo in Farmington. Of course the zoo had an array of exotic birds and animals so Mel always had a good supply of feathers on hand. He was also an excellent fly tyer and a man of infinite patience. In retrospect I can recall many times when he should have sent me packing as I must have been a real pain in the butt."

"By the time I was 11, I was selling flies in the lobby of the old Exchange Hotel in Farmington. I'd made a display board of thin plywood with a small mirror in the center. I don't know what purpose the mirror served."

"Later on, I came to tie for such prestigious houses as Abercrombie and Fitch, William Mills and Sons, Orvis, L.L. Bean and other lesser known tackle houses. I supplied 2300 dozen flies for L.L. Bean one summer. I had a string of 21 tyers tying on contract for me till Uncle's IRS boys put me out of business. I was 100% right, and legal but didn't have the funds to fight the bastards...A friend here in Maine is doing exactly what I did back in the early 60's and he's legal as hell...Oh well. Time heals all wounds they say...and wounds all heels too..."

I did time with the Navy in 1944-1946 and a short stint in the Air Force in 1953. While in the Navy I served as a Torpedoman's mate 3rd class aboard a destroyer tender in Japan and China. I was also the ship's bugler. While overseas I organized and played trumpet in a 14 piece dance band aboard our ship. We did several "gigs" in Shanghai at the Red Cross etc. Have been involved in music of some sort most of my life. Sang with a barbershop chorus for 25 years and also held down the baritone part in an award winning quartet."


Upland Gunning

Phil and his dad hunted birds together as soon as Phil was able to carry a 20 gauge shotgun. During these early hunts, young Phil learned the ins and outs of hunting waterfowl and upland gamebirds (mostly Woodcock & Grouse) from his dad and the "love of the land" was reinforced.

On October 10, 1974, Phil acquired a Brittany Spaniel named "Britty." From that day on, the two were constant companions both in the field and at home. In his book, he tells of their many good and a couple of the not so good hunts they were on together.

A good portion of Phil's career as a professional guide for upland hunting was with Britty at his side. Slightly over 1,200 birds were taken with Britty by the time of her retirement at age 13. Phil has had other dogs since then but as he says, "..none better." Phil's book has about two chapters about Britty and his bird hunting that will make even the most hardened reader a bit misty eyed.

Trout Fishing

Phil's dad had an 18 foot sponson canoe-style boat that was very stable and it allowed Phil, his brother and dad to stand up to fish. The North and South branches of the Dead River were early bodies of water that the three fished regularly. When the South Branch was removed from fly fishing only, they lobbied the Fish and Game Department for several years without success to have it returned to fly fishing only. The once productive river is a shadow of what it had been during the fly fishing only days. Phil also fished other waters in the Rangeley/Stratton/Eustis area of Franklin County.

One of Phil's favorite spots was a foot bridge that crossed the outlet of Doge Pond where it empties into Rangeley Lake. Phil recalls, "...Each spring, even before the ice left the lake, there would be a big Smelt run into the brook. I've seen the bridge lined with fly fishermen angling for some of the big Trout that followed the Smelt...I have also witnessed numerous Trout over four pounds taken from the bridge and have caught many in the two to three pound range myself." The bridge was taken out when the old hotel that sat out on the point was torn down "...and another good fishing spot became a memory."

Atlantic Salmon Fishing

Phil's book has quite a long section titled "Let's Talk Atlantic Salmon Fishing" in which he relates many good and some not so good stories about his time on the water with and without clients. I'd have included all of them here for their interesting reading but the focus of this writing is Phil, not his clients.

Fishing the St. John for Atlantic Salmon

"From the mid fifties to the late sixties, I was located in Aroostook County...At that time the St. John River was renowned for its Atlantic Salmon fishing. I spent much of my free time during the summer on the St. John in quest of Salmo Salar. I learned that if you owned property in New Brunswick and occupied it for two weeks or more in a year, you did not need to have a guide to fish for Salmon. Otherwise, a guide was required for every three fishermen who shore fished and a guide in each boat or canoe. Of course, this was a "make work" law to employ local inhabitants, who for the most part, were more than willing to drink your beer and smoke your cigarettes and were anything but a guide in the true sense of the word."

"After a few trips of paying a guide, two friends and I pooled our resources and built a small camp on the banks of the St. John, just below the Pines Pool at Bath, N.B. The big hydroelectric dam was being built at Beechwood at the time and the Salmon were slowed down in their migration up the river. Consequently, we had excellent fishing in the pools a couple miles downriver from the dam. During the sixties another large hydroelectric dam was constructed several miles downriver from Woodstock and the Salmon went into a steady decline for a number of years."

"The fishing was truly great and at that time it was legal to sell Salmon. The daily limit was six fish and I managed to hit that high on two occasions. My dad, however, outdid me one day when he took seven, releasing one. With such a liberal daily limit, I supplemented my income by selling whatever I couldn't use. I took 90 Salmon one season from the St. John."

"As I think back over forty years to the day when I took my first Atlantic Salmon, June 23, 1953. It was a ten pound hen taken on a number eight Black Dose at the Stillwater Pool on the Narraguagus River in Cherryfield, Maine. Another fisherman had just stepped out of the spot after having fished it for a few minutes and I stepped right into his boot tracks on a sandbar, just a few casts and the fish took. Renowned Cherryfield resident Harry Smith, "king of the river" and a legend in his own time, sat on the bank across the river cheering me on. Needless to say, I was one happy fisherman. Or as they say nowadays, 'fisherperson.' Anyway, that fish was to launch me into what has become a lifelong obsession. I have fished several of Maine's Salmon Rivers including the Machias, Columbia, Dennys and Penobscot. I never was able to connect on the Dennys, however. In Canada I have fished the South West Mirimachi, St. John, Renous, Moise, Matane, Restigouche, Upsalquitch and the Matapedia Rivers. My favorite has been and still is, the Matapedia in Southern Quebec."

Trapping and Hunting

Being the outdoorsman that Phil was, he did a fair amount of trapping and hunting both as a boy and through later years. His trapping consisted mainly of Muskrats, Mink and Beaver. He started his trapping when he got out of the Navy after WWII. As the extra Salmon were a supplement to his income, so were the trapped animals.

His Deer hunting began at the age of 12 when he was big enough to carry a rifle. He never became obsessed with Deer hunting but managed to take 15 Deer over a period of about 25 years.

Health

Phil, like many of us as we age, has had more than his share of health problems. I mention it here because I think there is a message to the rest of us. Without going into too much detail, Phil says, "...As to the specifics of my health if you've got a half hour I'll tell ya...It all started with the discovery of an aortal abdominal aneurysm. That was corrected with surgery on the 15th of Dec. '94. In Jan.'95 they found a cancer in my esophagus which was promptly removed. (Cancer and esophagus). As a result of the cancer surgery an infection settled in my 5th cervical disc. Surgery followed and the disc removed and replaced with a bone chip off my right hip.

The following month, March, a blocked bowel saw the need for my gut to be opened again from wish bone to pubic bone (3rd time). A month later adhesions followed and the fourth surgery in four months slowed me down a bit...Since then I've had surgery twice for kidney stones and am under medication for pancreatitis along with 11 other meds for high blood pressure, dumping syndrome (no esophagus) hand tremors.. Other than that, I'm in pretty good health.

Trouble is I look healthy as a horse according to my R.N. wife, who incidentally, is at the very least, responsible for my still being on the up side of the grass...I smoked for 58 years before finally seeing the light and quitting about 5 years ago. It was however a bit too late to stave off the terrible shortness of breath I suffer with, can't do a damned thing physical and it really ticks me off to be so damned helpless where I was so active all my life. The hell of growing old and having been stupid in youth!...Saw my kidney specialist today and asked him point blank his opinion of how long before I have to go on dialysis. His reply, probably between 3 and 5 years. That sounded like good news to me; if I'm lucky I'll drown before then when some big salmon pulls me into a deep pool on the Bonaventure River! So there, you have my medical history since 1994."

Flies & Fly Tying

"I met Herbie Welch once when I was a kid and bought one of his Black Ghost streamers, which foolishly, I fished with and finally lost on the bottom to some damned log. Can't remember for certain what I paid for the fly but it was exorbitant compared with the then current fly prices. Think it was like 75 cents when most other flies were going for less than half that...The only other time I saw Welch was when I watched him fish, (beautiful caster) and lose a big (4-5 lb) brook trout at Bemis, which is at the upper end of Mooselookmeguntic Lake up in the famous Rangeley region...

I never had the pleasure of meeting Carrie Stevens but she was in her hey day when I was just getting started in fly tying in the late 30's and early 40's and we both bought our materials from George Fletcher. George started his fly tying material business from his home in Kingfield, Maine. He later moved it to the town of Rangeley. It was known as Fletcher's Fly Shop. Although Stevens' winter residence was in Anson, Maine some 15 miles from my present home I never really knew of her till many years later when I worked with Joe Bates on his book Salmon Fly Tying and Fishing. And that in itself is another story...I've tied a lot of her patterns during the intervening years and of course her famous Grey Ghost remains as one of the best streamers for trout and landlocked salmon."

Phil was not an innovator of new fly patterns save one, the Silver Down East (shown below). "On one of my Salmon fishing excursions in Down East Maine, I saw a chap named Henry Dowling take a nice fish at the dam at Whitneyville on the Machias River. Taking the opportunity to talk with him later, he showed me the fly that took that fish. Simplicity personified and, with no name. Just some Red Squirrel tail hair for a wing with a gray body, that's all! Later on, after I had moved to Aroostook County, I came up with a pattern based on Henry's creation. I dressed the fly with an oval silver tag, Golden Pheasant crest tail, black Ostrich herl butt and, flat silver tinsel body ribbed with oval silver. The wing was of reddish Fitch tail with an orange hackle tied collar style pulled back and, black head.

I used the fly extensively on the St. John and, took a lot of fish with it. I named it the Silver Down East. I subsequently did a variation with a gray floss body ribbed with fine silver oval tinsel and called it the Down East Special. In retrospect, I suppose I should have called them Dowling Specials 1 and 2. Years later, after I had returned to Farmington, Colonel Joe Bates, called me to inquire if I was interested in tying some flies for him that would be featured in a forthcoming book he was working on. The book was Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing.

The Colonel came to my home and over a period of three days, I tied some 36 different Salmon flies with the promise that there would be a full page of color photos of some of the flies featured in his book. After the book was published, he sent me an autographed copy of the limited edition. Included was a bill for $13.00! There were photos of just five of my flies in the book but, it did get me some business. But, the Colonel had 31 of my ties that went into his personal fly book. What really galled me about the whole affair was the fact that he gave credit for the Silver Down East Special to some Tyer on the Mirimachi. I inquired about it later and the Colonel's reply to me was, "As Mae West said, 'I'm not here to argue'".

"Over the years I have tied nearly all varieties of flies except salt water and bead heads, I HATE 'EM. Wouldn't tie them and certainly would not use them. They've only become legal in this state over the past few years. Prior to that time it was illegal to affix any weight to any fly. As far as I'm concerned, in my somewhat biased opinion, using them to fish with is akin to using a weighted lure and spinning rod. We always were able to get our lines down even back well before the advent of sinking lines. Our lines were silk and if not dressed to float they'd sink like a rock....As to fishing with any celebrities...can't think of any off hand except Joe Bates and he was ticked off because I caught fish and he didn't. His wife was a lovely person and can't understand how she put up with such an egotistical individual. He was a good writer and researcher, I'll give him that but like a lot of people of his ilk, and he was somewhat of a freeloader too...."

"I prefer, and fish with double hooks for Salmon. I' m convinced they hold better and certainly ride better in the water. The fellow that used to guide for me was a single hook advocate. But my ratio of hooked and lost fish was way less than his. Actually, I've lost damned few salmon on double hooks..."

"Silver bodied streamers need ribbing (3 twist, oval or similar)...Feather wing streamers should go on 8x (or longer) hooks, hairwing (bucktails) on 6x. And streamers to me don't include hairwing flies. They were referred to as bucktails in my day..."


Jobs and Hobbies

"I had a varied and colorful work history having conquered many fields of endeavor to move on to one more challenging. I've been a salesman of one sort or another for many years having sold lots of things from professional photographer to automobiles and vacuum cleaners, trading stamps, potato handling equipment, malt beverages (beer), police officer, professional hunting and fishing guide, assistant manager of a sporting goods store, professional waterfowl carver and fly tyer.

My goal as a professional carver was to win a ribbon at the world's championship, professional category in Ocean City, Maryland. I did so in 1990 with a full sized common loon. I even did short stint of laying hardwood flooring which was the toughest job I ever had, really tough on the back. I have maintained my interest in hunting, fishing and trapping down thru the years."

"I taught classes in fly tying locally for about 20 years and have taught close to 100 people over the years. For what it's worth, I wrote an outdoor column for the Maine Sportsman for a number of years. The Sportsman is a monthly publication relating to all outdoor activities here in Maine. Most specifically hunting & fishing. It has columnists from every section of the state. I covered the Franklin County section which included the famous Rangeley Lakes area.

I also taught a class in rod making having done so myself since the components became available in the glass rod era." After Phil moved back to Farmington in '69, he found that there was great interest in learning to tie flies. "So, not being one to let an opportunity pass by, I started teaching classes in fly tying...Along with teaching fly tying, I soon found out there were many people who wanted to learn how to fly fish. So, I again took the lead and started what I believe was the first fly fishing school in Maine. I operated the school out of Quimby Pond Camps on Quimby Pond in the famous Rangeley region. Nothing but brook trout inhabits the waters. I judged the fly tying contest held for several years at the annual Maine Sportsman's Show in the state capitol of Augusta. I retired from all work later in 1990 and I now wear a t-shirt that says; "I'm retired but I work part time as a pain in the ass." I love it!...

I still maintain my Registered Maine Master Guide's license which I have held since I got out of the Navy in 1946 and am still tying commercially. Tied 228 dozen (2736 flies) last winter. This Winter (2003) I have an order to tie over 3600 flies!"

Some Closing Thoughts

During the relatively short time I have known Phil, I have come to know him as a unique individual who throughout life, did the things he loved yet kept his feet well grounded. His various careers and hobbies have vast proportions compared to most of us. Yet, as varied as his life was, his passion for the outdoors and fishing links us all in some way.

Phil has touched many throughout his life and he will be one who leaves the world just a little better than he found it.

Here are a few of Phil's flies with recipes, also check the list of links to Phil's flies elsewhere in this series.

Black RAT & a double

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Black wool yarn.

Rib: Flat embossed silver tinsel.

Collar: Soft grizzly hackle.

Wing: Silver Fox.

Silver RAT

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: GP.

Body: Flat silver tinsel.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Wing: Silver Fox.

Collar: Soft grizzly hackle.

Rusty RAT

Tag: Oval gold tinsel.

Tail: Peacock sword herl.

Body: Yellow floss rear 2/3 veiled with yellow floss on top only, herl front 1/3.

Rib: Oval gold tinsel.

Wing: Silver Fox.

Collar: Soft grizzly hackle.

Cosseboom

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: Green floss.

Body: Green floss.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Wing: Gray Squirrel.

Collar: Soft yellow hackle.

Nighthawk

Tag: Oval silver tinsel, yellow floss.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Black Ostrich, yellow floss, red Ostrich.

Body: Black floss.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Throat: Yellow and black hackle.

Wing: Black Bear.

Sides: JC, Kingfisher.

Head: Red and black.

Mitchell

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Yellow floss, red Ostrich.

Body: Flat silver tinsel.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Throat: Black hackle.

Wing: Black Bear.

Sides: JC.

Head: Red.

Abby

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: Red hackle barbs.

Body: Red floss.

Rib: Flat embossed silver tinsel.

Hackle: From the orange dubbing, yellow hackle.

Throat: Brown hackle.

Wing: Brown Bear or brown bucktail.

Sides: JC.

Laxablue

Tag: Oval silver tinsel, yellow floss.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Blue floss.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Throat: Blue hackle barbs.

Wing: Blue dyed Grey Squirrel tail.

Durham Ranger

Tag: Oval silver tinsel, yellow floss.

Tail: GP, red hackle barbs.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Rear yellow floss, front orange, fiery brown and black seal's fur.

Rib: Flat silver tinsel followed by oval silver tinsel.

Throat: Blue hackle barbs.

Wing: Mix of light brown bucktail and orange calf tail.

Sides: JC, blue hackle barbs.

Topping: GP.

Silver Down East

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Flat silver tinsel.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Hackle/Collar: Orange hackle.

Wing: Russian Red Squirrel tail. The color is reddish brown and was originally reddish Fitch tail but is nearly impossible to find today.

Silver Gray

Tag: Oval silver tinsel.

Tail: GP.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Flat silver tinsel.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Hackle: Silver badger.

Wing: Underwing, tippet, overwing Teal.

Sides: JC.

Topping: GP.

Orange Blossom Hairwing

Tag: Oval silver tinsel, orange floss.

Tail: GP, red hackle barbs.

Butt: Black Ostrich.

Body: Flat embossed silver tinsel rear , front yellow floss.

Rib: Oval silver tinsel.

Hackle: Yellow from rear of floss.

Collar: A goodly amount of orange hackle.

Wing: Brown bucktail.

More Phil Foster Flies:

Royal Coachman Bucktail Hairwing

Black Ghost

Chief Needabeh

Gray Ghost

Grizzly Prince

Hummer

Light Edson Tiger

Little Brook Trout

Warden's Worry

York's Kennebago

To contact Phil Foster to buy flies, his book or just talk send emails to phifo@webtv.net or call Phil at 207-778-3636. ~ Ronn
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