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Fishing With a Paintbrush

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 19, 2010

The resurgence of fly fishing brought about by that movie, “A River Runs Through It,” has increased revenues in fly shops dramatically. Every wanna-be fly angler desires to be the best dressed on the stream. They look like they just stepped out of one of those high-priced, fly-fishing catalogues. Every fly angler who chooses to tie his or her own flies has to have the most expensive feathers and the latest materials.

Yes, I admit it. There is something about those extremely expensive, genetically engineered feathers that makes me drool. However, you do not need to invest a small fortune to have a great time tying flies and catching fish.

When I started tying flies nearly 40 years ago, many of today’s materials did not exist and, at least in my part of the Ozarks, there was no such thing as highpriced feathers.

I was raised by a pair of pre-depression fly anglers. My grandfather and grandmother were as pure to the sport as anyone. They plucked feathers as we needed them from the four barnyard roosters that ran with our chickens. My grandfather was pretty proud of his chicken collection. He had one that was a perfect ginger color, one white, one grizzly and one black. There wasn’t a dry fly made that he could not tie with a hackle from one of his own roosters.

Our roosters were pretty darn neurotic. I suppose it was because of the occasional grooming we forced on them. After a good plucking they would fight each other and anyone else who happened to venture too close to them for a week.

We never ordered our fly-tying materials out of a catalog. We mostly used what we had around the house. We did buy our hooks and some thread from the fly shop at Bennett Spring. However, many of the materials we used were common household items. Granny’s quilting thread was a bit heavy, but worked in a pinch. If you waxed the thread with candle wax it worked well and lasted at least long enough to lose your fly in a tree or to a big fish.

My grandfather and I were tying caddisfly adults one September when we ran out of white-tailed deer body hair for the wings of the adult dry fly imitation. It was still two months before the opening of deer season and the caddis hatch on the Meramec wouldn’t wait that long.

Gramps went out to the garage and pilfered around for a while and came back in with a paintbrush. The paintbrush was old and well used. There was no telling how much lead-based paint and turpentine it had spread. The natural bristles had the perfect color and stiffness for the wings of our caddisflies.

One of my grandfather’s most cherished possessions was a ball of yarn pulled from an old wool World War II army sweater. The color was a good match for scuds and native caddis larva found in many of the Ozarks spring-fed trout streams. The wool would soak up water allowing the fly to sink. He called his version of the fly an “army worm.”

Gramps and I would collect tinsel from the Christmas tree and save it for flies. We reminded Granny to be sure and buy the gold tinsel as well as the silver. Gold is a great color for the trout at Bennett Spring. I discovered that the batting Granny used to make quilts took dye pretty well and made great dubbing for nymphs and dry fly bodies. Dubbing is fur, or a good substitute material, applied to a waxed thread then wrapped around a hook to make a body for many fly patterns.

The first dye I used was a tea made from the green husk of a black walnut. I found that if I added a little cream of tarter to the dye and then soaked the material a second time in some moss green Rit dye, the materials came out a beautiful olive color. Olive is one of the most prevalent colors in aquatic insects. Along with black and brown, it’s one of my staple colors when fishing for trout.

We could get very inventive when it came to tying flies. We used to collect the white fuzzy stuff that came out of a milkweed plant. It made a good dubbing that repelled water fairly well, allowing the fly to float.

We often used pieces of yarn to make fly bodies. You could change the thickness of the body by pulling the individual strands of yarn apart and only using two or three strands instead of a whole piece. A piece of a clear plastic sandwich bag made a good-looking shell-back for a scud or fresh water shrimp imitation.

For ribbing, we used fine copper wire from an old transformer, or a single strand of wire pulled from a multi-strand electrical wire. The wire added weight for flies we wanted to sink.

We had an English setter bird dog that provided an occasional clipping of hair, but the cats around the barn were our best source of dubbing fur. I would take a carding tool and give the cats a good brushing. The barn cats were pretty wild, so I had to wear leather gloves to protect my hands from their claws and teeth.

Before we could use the cat underfur, we had to wash it thoroughly. Otherwise, the fish would have smelled the predator.

I did a lot of squirrel hunting as a boy. We kept the tails and body fur for fly-tying. Squirrel tail is ideal for crayfish claws, wings on streamers, and tails on many flies. Mixed squirrel body hair was perfect for scuds and buggy-looking nymphs.

Rabbits were also a great source for dubbing fur. Rabbit fur is one of the easiest furs to apply to the thread. Blends of squirrel and rabbit make some of the best dubbing available. Many manufacturers sell blends of rabbit and squirrel body hair dyed various colors.

If you live in town, hunting may not be an option for you, but there are many materials available right there in your own home to make a fly. Check out the stuffing in an old stuffed toy, animal or pillow. Pull out some dental floss for fly bodies. There is no limit to what might work for tying flies.

Tying your own flies is more fun and rewarding when you can turn junk from around the house into a fish-catching treasure. You might even catch the fish of a lifetime on one of your flies because your unique creation might pique the interest of a big fish that has seen all the standard flies.

And when someone asks you what you caught him on, you can proudly say, “A fly I tied myself.”

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