Individual taste in books varies as much as the favorite rod or fly.  With that in mind, we hope to review books and videos from the ever-growing fly fishing world, and share them with you.  Books will be the best of all worlds, new and old.  Many of the old books are now available in reprint, and the wisdom contained is timely today.  Others can be found in second-hand book stores, or by mail order dealers. As we find videos we feel are outstanding they will be included. Be assured, reviews are based on what we have actually read, and due to that fact, may not appear weekly.

November 21st, 2005

Fish Flies
By Terry Hellekson

Reviewed by Eric Austin

Fish Flies
A few months back I was doing an article for "Just Old Flies" here on FAOL and I was stuck. I couldn't find much information on the Colorado King in the books I had. I posted a question about it on-line, and to my rescue came Terry Hellekson, with a complete history of the fly from his 1977 book Popular Fly Patterns. I ordered a copy right away, and was just delighted with the book. The more I delved into its contents, the more interesting material I uncovered. Terry's latest book, Fish Flies, is Popular Fly Patterns on steroids, to the one-hundredth power. Billed as "The Encyclopedia of the Fly Tier's Art," this is one volume that more than lives up to its billing.

The book begins with a general overall history of fly fishing that is one of the best I've read. It starts with the Macedonians and ends with a serious look at the fly tiers of the Catskill region. The next chapter is an in-depth look at how fish perceive color, and a wonderful treatise on dying. Mr. Hellekson has a very useful chart of RIT dye recipes here that spells out how to achieve the various duns, claret, Silver Doctor blue, imitation lemon wood duck, olives, etc., using off the shelf RIT dyes. There is a chapter on tools, and an excellent section on hooks, listing in detail the most popular Mustad, Tiemco, and Daiichi hooks. Next is a chapter on materials, and finally a section on tying, which at first blush seems fairly basic, but on further study is just right on the money, extremely sound in its fundamentals.

From this point on, the book is fly patterns as far as the eye can see. Not just recipes though, and this is what I love about Mr. Hellekson's books. Sprinkled in with many patterns are his own observations, anecdotes, clarifications, his own pen and ink drawings, histories, old photos, and tying tips. This is the meat and potatoes part of the book, a rock solid, in-depth look at patterns by an experienced tier. Just the section on the Trude Fly for instance is two full pages of general history, material selection, and tying tips.

I've gotten ahead of myself here. It must be noted that this book is massive in size and scope. It's basically a pattern book, yes, but a pattern book unlike any you've ever seen. I'd like to take a recipe from the book so you can see what it is that's so special here. Here is a recipe for an American traditional wet fly, the Babcock:


    Hooks: MUSR70, TMC3769, or DIA1550, sizes 8-14

    Thread: Black.

    Tail: Scarlet red hackle barbs.

    Ribbing: Flat gold tinsel.

    Body: Red floss.

    Hackle: Back tied on as a collar and tied back and down.

    Wing: Yellow calf tail tied over the body.

    Topping: Three peacock sword feather barbs.

    See Color Plate 3.

    The first version of the Babcock had no tail or topping. The wings were white duck quill sections with a narrow strip of black quill section along the top. This fly was named after brother W.J. and Charles H. Babcock of Rochester, New York...

The history goes on from there. Note that Mr. Hellekson specifies a Mustad, Tiemco, or Daiichi hook for each recipe. Note the reference to the color plate as well. There are 32 color plates in the book, each containing somewhere between 16 and 24 flies, depending on fly sizing. Mr. Hellekson has tied all the flies shown, and done a beautiful job. The pattern chapters begin with traditional patterns sorted by dry flies, wet flies, and nymphs. Each of these chapters starts with specific tying instructions, and proportion charts, that are dead on in my opinion. You can read through these chapters as you would a Farmer's Almanac. There is a seemingly never-ending stream of commentary, little tidbits of information on every page, pieces that make you say "I didn't know that." The fun never stops in these sections, but soon, this book becomes very serious.

We now come to the heart of the book, the sections that makes this not just a pattern book, but a very well researched fly tying text book, one that if I were king would be taught in schools. With chapters entitled "Mayflies:Order Ephemeroptera," "Stoneflies: Order Plecoptera," "Caddisflies: Order Trichoptera," "Terrestrials," "Damselflies and Dragonflies: Order Odonata," "Leeches and Worms: Order Annelida," "Midges: Order Diptera," and "Crustaceans," Mr. Hellekson embarks on a very scientific and detailed view of the entomology of fly tying. With each chapter he breaks the patterns down by family, with lots of Latin, and then proceeds to show a pattern for each stage of the fly, and these are his own patterns for the most part. At the end of a given chapter he lists even more patterns, ones typically sold in shops and used today by fly fishermen. The research for these very important chapters was done at Cornell and U.C. Davis, and is just staggering. This level of research, both entomologically and historically, puts this book in a class of its own as pattern books go.

The last section of the book deals with Streamers, Steelhead Flies, Atlantic Salmon Flies, Spey Flies, Pacific Salmon Flies, and dry flies for Salmon and Steelhead. I suspect this area of the book is near and dear to Mr. Hellekson's heart, as he was originally based in the Pacific Northwest. The Steelhead section is very Western, and the glow bugs and egg patterns commonly used in the East have been left out. That said, all the Atlantic Salmon Flies currently used in the U.S. and Canada are represented, and you probably won't find a better Western steelhead treatise anywhere.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one group of flies that are almost entirely absent from this book. As far as I can tell, there are only a few dry fly recipes with CDC listed as an ingredient. Mr. Hellekson makes it pretty clear in the materials section that he doesn't particularly like CDC as a fly tying material. I think this is born of Mr. Hellekson's view that a fly will catch more fish on the water than it will while being dabbed with Frog's Fanny. I can't say I disagree, but in as comprehensive a book as this is, to leave out dry flies tied with what many consider to be the "miracle" material of our time, is quite an omission. I've spoken with Terry about this, and a major problem he has with CDC is that much of what is sold as CDC is not even the real thing. Rather than feathers found around the preen gland, down feathers are being palmed off as CDC by some wholesalers. In addition, once feathers are dyed, the preen oil is gone, even if they were true CDC feathers to begin with. This makes CDC, in his view, a less than desirable material for dries. He does like it, and uses it in several patterns, for sub-surface flies.

So there you have it. Fish Flies is a serious, substantial, weighty, well-researched text book, produced by a text book company. It might not be as glitzy as say Forgotten Flies, but it is every bit as formidable in its own way. Mr. Hellekson has contributed a lifetime of research to this, and it shows. Perhaps the best feature of the book is its bargain-basement price. From beginning fly tiers to the commercial pros, no fly tier can afford not to own this book. Mine now sits right beside my copy of The Fly Tiers Benchside Reference.

Fish Flies
By Terry Hellekson
Published by Gibb Smith, USA
Dimensions: 8.5" X 11
832 pages
Color photographs, Bibliography, Index
ISBN: 1586856928
(On Amazon right now for $31.50 US)

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