George Grant cassette tape transcript -- two of two

This is two of two George Grant audio tracks orginally recorded on cassette tape. This is the Don Martinez life story, as told by George Grant. This story was previously published in the American Fly Fisher, Number 2, Spring 1982. The previous "one of two" transcripts has, to the best of my knowlege, never been published before.

This is a story about what is known of the life of Don Martinez, a great Western fly tier who spent many summer seasons at West Yellowstone Montana. It was written by George F. Grant and was is published in the American Flyfisher, the Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Although Martinez was not a native Montanan, it has felt that he should be regarded as a Montana fly tier because the most significant years of his fly tying life were spent in Montana, and he is probably best remembered in this region.

Donald Skillman Martinez was a professional fly tier who during the years from about 1932 to 1943 spent his summers in West Yellowstone, Montana, and his winters in Los Angeles, California, prior to his residency in Los Angeles.

Not a great deal is known about him, except that his early school years were lived at Washington Green, Connecticut, and at some time thereafter he lived in Chicago and for several seasons fished in Northern Michigan on the Jordan and Boardman Rivers. It appears that he attended College in the East, but it is not known where or if he graduated. There is a brief reference to his having taken a course in Entomology under the tutelage of a doctor Needham, presumably Dr. J. G. Needham of Cornell University. But to date this cannot be verified. A letter written from Los Angeles to a friend in the East discloses a sense of humor and a clue to his family background. He writes. Skillman is my middle name, my mother's family name, a town near Princeton, New Jersey, where the first settlers of that name held forth around here.

Anyone whose name ends in "ez" is automatically Mexican. The name Martinez establishes a presumption in people's minds that I am Mexican and not likely to have done much trout fishing. If they are not poor Mexican families become old Spanish families. I fall somewhere in between being neither one or the other, all of which has nothing to do with trout fishing. That is the end of that portion of his letter.

A visitor to the Martinez residence at St. Andrew's Place in 8th street in Los Angeles about 1940 would have felt that he was being transported into another world. If he was a fly tier or a fly fisherman, he would have been enchanted. His eyes most certainly would have been drawn first to several split bamboo fly rods fully assembled and hanging by their tips from the balance above the wallpaper. A closer examination would have revealed that the rods bore such names as Leonard Paine, Loose Stoner, and so forth.

He would have noticed several long pans containing water in which were soaking various sizes of Spanish silkworm gut being made ready for tying into tapered leaders. Nylon monofilament by this time had made its advent, but many older fishermen were reluctant to trust a newfangled product that often slipped a welltied turtle knot on the walls. There were pictures, fish fishermen, and wildlife as well as the scenic beauty of the Yellowstone country. In all its unspoiled splendor, a closet door pressed into servise as a bulletin board, displayed a varied assortment of snapshots, magazine clippings and pending orders for flies, a number of them with sample flies dangling precariously.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, was a table with an orderly array of boxes of completed flies ranging from minuscule dries to gargantuan Chenille bodied Palmer hackled wets.

Also, there were steelhead patterns on heavy hooks and standard pattern wets, but mostly there were dry flies, Quill bodied variants, spiders, bivisibles, hair winged Wullfs and more. For Martinez was a versatile artist. Despite the variance in size and style, all had the unmistakable touch of a master craftsman. By this time the visitor would surely have noticed that his nostrils were being assaulted by the penetrating fumes of paradichlorobenzene so extravagantly used in that era to Ward off attacks by Moss larvae on feathers and flies. But even the possibility of migraine would have been gladly risked in exchange for the rare privilege of being allowed to enter the sanctum of one of the world's finest fly dressers.

Seated in an old wooden deck chair in a relaxed, semi client reclined position, was Martinez himself nonchalantly feeding various materials onto a hook secured in the jaws of a most unorthodox vise. Now the visitor would have become oblivious to his surroundings while he watched entranced as defted hands worked quickly and precisely to form exquisite small dry flies. Cal Dunbar, longtime resident of West Yellowstone as a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, was a frequent visitor in Martinez home, and he describes the operation in this manner. I used to visit Don by the hour at his La home in one 1939 through 1942 and watch him tie flies.

He used a Thompson head with a Chrome shaft about 18 inches long.

The shaft had a rubber nut on the end, which he placed in a one or two inch deep typewriter ribbon tin mounted on the left arm of his chair as a sort of socket. I've seen him tie Quill dry flies, size 22 24 and so forth, and glanced at a book he was reading as he proceeded. End of Quotation Ray Bergman made this brief but interesting observation in his book, Trout Don. Martinez advocates and is the designer of a hand vise tiers who use this vise need no other tool than a pair of scissors, and they produce flies faster than tiers using any other method.

This way of tying is excellent for wet flies, streamers and tackle dry flies.

Not only that, but you can sit relaxed and comfortable in an armchair while tying, thus avoiding the fatigue attending tying flies at a vise, or you must sit at a desk, table or bench. End of quote. Many close friends, clients, and neighbors of A. Martinez in his years at West Yellowstone, are as one in crediting him with the creation of the long famous woolly worm trout fly.

Colonel Joseph D. Bates, in his book Streamers and Bucktails, expresses the opinion that creation should be left to the deity and the more modest word origination should be applied to fly patterns. In this particular case, I would go a step further and suggest that a more fitting word would be adaptation or variation. There is no doubt in my mind that the pattern we know today and have known for over 40 years was first conceived by Don Martinez, but that in so doing he merely altered a very old concept to bring the woolly worm into being.

Ray Bergman, writing in the same book previously quoted, reported Martinez as saying, this is probably the most popular number that was ever commercialized. It was not original with me, but was derived from a very old Missouri bass fly of somewhat similar design.

I was merely the first to make them commercially as a trout fly or to be more accurate, trout lure the forerunner of the woolly worm. Regardless of whether this later variation was first tied in Montana or Missouri was the Palmer. And the antiquity of this type of trout fly construction is well established by Courtney Williams in his book Troutflies, a Discussion and a Dictionary, 1931, wherein he wrote, According to Ronald's, all farmers represent and hairy caterpillars, such as those of the Tiger, Irman and Fox moth, which are better known to most of us as Wooly bears. The Palmer is almost the oldest British fly, and Isaac Walton refers to it in the complete angler as follows. Mr. Barker commands several sorts of palmerflies, not only those ribbed with silver and gold, but others that have their bodies all made with black or some with red and a red hackle.

The name Palmer may seem a curious one.

In the days of the Crusades, it was a term used for warriors who had returned from the Holy Land, since it was the custom amongst them to bring back branches of palm. The flies subsequently took their name from the caterpillars they are supposed to represent because of their nomadic habits. This is the end of the quotation from Courtney Williams' book.

The proper method of constructing the woolly worm, despite its apparent simplicity, has always been a controversial topic among fly tiers. One of the discussions centers around whether the Palmer hackle should be applied so the filaments lean toward the eye or the bend. Another is whether the hackle should be tied in near the shoulder or at the tail. There is little question, but the hacker can be made more secure and durable if the quilt is reinforced by binding it down with a thread wire or tinsel ribbing, but which is better or whether it should be done at all is often contested.

Some early Martinez patterns, possessed by the American Museum of Fly Fishing, have the hackle filaments facing forward in the direction of the eye.

A pattern tied by him and shown in a color plate in Fortune magazine May 1946, also shows the hackle leaning forward. It is evident, too, that the Quill was tied in by the butt and wound forward, as there is a diminishing of filament length from bend to eye. The fly was reinforced with a narrow, flat gold tinsel ribbing, the most popular pattern, very likely the original one has a thick black chenille body. Palmered with a grizzly hackle tyres, who made these flies from Martinez, say that the tinsel rib was standard.

The short red floss or wool tag has always been considered part of the original pattern, but it is often omitted by modern fly tiers.

I had often heard that Martinez tied Wooly worms without the aid of a vise while he talked to and waited on customers and he's West Yellowstone shop. Mrs. Ray Cervacious, First Lady of West Yellowstone fly fishers, who tied flies for dawn and later was a business associate, had many opportunities to observe him, and this is what she wrote me. Dawn did tie while waiting on customers. He held the hook by the eye in his left hand and wrapped the material with his right hand.

But he did this only on large woolly worms that he could get a good hold on and only on rush orders. The metamorphosis of Don Martinez as a tyre and user of dry flies is very interesting. When he came to West Gelstone about 1932 or 1000 1933, and opened a small shop in a corner of the old Totem Cafe, he was probably the first fly tier to bring with him to that little rural community, possibly even to the state of Montana. A real knowledge of how to properly tie and fish dry flies.

Although he is best remembered because of the Wooly worm, there is little question but that at the outset his real love was for Quill bodied, sparsely hackle dry flies and that he tied them so well that they compared favorably with those produced by the Darbys, Rube, Cross and other Eastern experts.
One gets the feeling, too, that his ability to tie such flies was a source of great pride and satisfaction to him. After several years of trying to educate Western fly fishermen to appreciate the superiority of lightly dressed flies, he reluctantly resigned himself to the facts of life. Western dry fly fishermen, ignorant as they were of the niceties of the floating fly, believed then, as they do now, that the important qualities of a dry fly were floatability, visibility, and durability, perhaps with small streams and spring creeks. Accepted in a letter to Preston Jennings, February 1939, Martinez expressed his feelings in this manner for my own use and for a limited number of my customers.

I prefer a fly with a scanty hackle.

However, in order to please the majority of people I work for, it is necessary to make a pretty bulky fly in the samples I am sending you separately. The hackle is a bit longer and more of it than I like, but in order to induce people to use my stuff at all, I have to make them this way. There is no profit in making flies that will never be used.

By 1953 he had capitulated completely and was now tying what he called rough water dry flies with bodies made from caribou hair. They were, by his own admission, more shaggy and bulky than the ratfaced MacDougall and the irresistible after which they were fashioned. His radical withdrawal from previously held opinion is apparent in a letter to Field and Stream 1953 in which he said, I guess every dry fly user has quietly gone nuts trying to keep his fly floating in fast water. Usually the best rise takes place at sundown or thereafter.

By then the line is soggy the wrist and hand are tierd, and it's murder trying to get the fly to float.

Well, anyway, I made up some flies with clip caribou hair bodies along the lines of the Irresistible, but made the bodies oversized so that the air held in the spongy hair offset the weight of the hook and made a positive floater. Of course, a fly with a bulky body looked clumsy, and I didn't think they'd work on large, smart fish in clear, shallow water. I thought they'd be worthless in the fire hole and in Flat Creek at Jackson, Wyoming, in the past, we all will use 16s and 18s very lightly dressed.

These bulky flies not only worked fully as well as the slim bodied affairs we'd always used in the past, but they worked even better. Martinez was never an imitationist in the generally accepted use of the words.

In fact, he had an aversion to what he termed Louis Rheadish flies. He did. However, in keeping with the thinking of most of our renowned dry fly dressers, try to produce artificials that had some resemblance to the Naturals that were hatching on the waters he fished. Unlike most of the tiers in the early part of this century, it is possible that he did have some formal education in the study of aquatic insects. In one of his letters to Jennings, he said, One of the many regrets I have is the fact that I dozed through a course in luminology under Dr.

Needham, I took it with the vague idea that it might help my trout fishing, which it probably would have if I had studied harder. A thorough reading of other letters in this fascinating exchange of ideas between these two men leads one to believe that Martin Penis was modest and self effacing in his assessment of himself and that he knew a great deal more about trout stream entomology than he professed to know one of his a frequent visitor in Martinez home, and he describes the operation in this manner. I used to visit Don by the hour at his La home in.....the tape cuts short here.