My Menagerie of Flies

The Yellowstone was flooding. I had a newly married couple from Colorado scheduled for a river trip. It was late June and the river would have been high and brown at that time of year anyway. But three straight days of steady rain had turned the river onto chocolate freight train of standing waves and cottonwood trees rolling down stream. Many of them still with green leaves attached.

“Let's fish the Gallatin,” I said to Cliff and Julie. In retrospect I'm not sure why I didn't choose a hike into Yellowstone Park. But the way things turned out it's hard to complain.

Cliff told me he wanted me to spend most of the day with his new wife Julie—a trim and athletic ski instructor who had never fished before. “I've been doing this all my life,” he told me. “I need you to teach Julie how to fish. I want the lessons to come from you so the fun part will be between us,” Cliff said with a grin.

We hiked upstream along a high and muddy but still fish-able Gallatin river a few miles upstream from Gallatin Gateway. The salmon flies had come and gone a week or so before. You can still fish the big flies for a good two weeks after the hatch however, so I rigged a rod with a larege closed cell foam salmon fly adult as a bobber with an equally large brown open cell foam Marshmallow Nymph trailing of the bend of dry fly hook.

Julie said she'd never even held a fly rod before. But she was eager. You could tell that much. I made a few demonstration casts as close to the bank as I could in the shallowest water I could find. I didn't want to splash and spook the better looking water a little further out where a juicy seam formed between some deep still water and much faster current. I wanted to save that for Julie. I made a few slow motion false casts asking Julie to notice how slowly I was moving the rod and how I stopped my back cast right behind my ear with a vertical thumb.

I put the first cast down with an audible plop. No less than a second later a huge dimple appeared with a sound like a brick dropping into a swimming pool. The big foam dry fly was gone. I set the hook hard and watched what looked like a three foot swirl disappear out into the river. The line stopped moving. I pulled back as hard as I dared without the slightest movement in the line. Like a rookie I said “It feels like a good fish but he mush have his head behind a rock because I can't make him budge.”

As soon as I made that foolish pronouncement my rod started bending and pumping hard. The rock swam out into the big brown waves in the middle of the river. I'd never been spooled so fast in my life. You have to think quickly in adrenaline moments like that, with little time for doubt or hesitation. I fell forward into the swiftly-moving river breast stroking with one arm while holding the rod up high with the other, doing my best to act like everything was perfectly normal and under control. “Stay here!” I yelled at Julie. “I'll be back!”

The fish was moving so fast I didn't have any trouble keeping tension on the line. My beltless waders were filled to the brim and I could hardly swim. A fast 50 yard train of standing waves slowly flattened out into wide shallow pool below. I managed to stand up, with water gushing out the top of my waders and made my way over the edge of the river with deliberate but shaky-footed steps. There must have been 200 pounds of water in my waders. I looked over my shoulder. Julie was swimming right behind me, grinning from ear to ear.

It took a while but I finally brought that fish to the net. Measured against my rod he turned out to be (almost) a full 24” inches long. A hump shouldered male brown trout with a lower jaw like a spawning Sockeye Salmon. But length wasn't the real story. I've never seen a fatter trout at any length and he looked like he had a softball wedged in his stomach. He regurgitated an entire handful of salmon fly nymphs in the net.

I didn't have a camera. I didn't want to spoil the moment by saying anything negative. I grinned at Julie and flipped my net with one hand while guiding the fish back out with the other. He ripped my thumb open with a powerful flick of his tail. Julie yelled out: “Oh my god, I do have a camera, in my backpack. I totally forgot! I hope it isn't ruined.”

Just as she said that Chuck Tuschmidt drifted by in a small 14' foot raft. Chuck pulled over and asked if we needed help. “I saw a backpack and pile of jackets upstream,” he said. “Half in and half out of the water. I was afraid someone had drowned!”

Chuckie still tells that story. About finding me a Julie standing side-by-side, soaking wet and grinning from ear to ear. And me with a blood streaming thumb.

I've caught bigger fish on streamers. And in Alaska too I suppose. And in the ocean. But that was the biggest trout I ever caught on a dry fly. That it was my pattern, a fly I designed and built myself made it a perfect story. That's what this book is all about, in a way. Not only tying but designing your own creations. The flies I'll talk about in the pages that follow are only a snapshot in time. The patterns I work on are never finished. Every pattern I tie evolves a bit. Every season. If they didn't it wouldn't be fun anymore. And that's part of the story too.

I also have a few new themes I think. When I was younger, when I was a still a building contractor, wood worker and boat builder quality was traditionally measured by complexity. The best finish carpenters with the greatest skills could make the most elaborately complex dovetail joints, custom-milled trims and perfectly, painstakingly fitted joints. I used to think about fly tying the same way. The better I became the more complex my flies would become, I used to think.

But a funny thing happened when I switched careers and became a computer programmer. A software designer and engineer as they like to say in the trade. Complexity is the devil in software codes. My sophomore year algorithms instructor told us “Complexity is easy. Anybody can do complex. Clean and simple and elegant is what's hard.”

We were taught to think of new projects as three quarters design and one quarter execution. Software never really works out that way. But it works out for the best if you set those goals in any case.

When I finished my BS in Computer Science as a 45 year old non-traditional student my fly designs changed dramatically. Almost over night. Actually it wasn't all that fast. I worked my way through school doing river trips and Spring Creek guiding in the early 1990s and lessons I learned at the Yellowstone Angler fit right in. I'll explain my guiding stories in greater detail later on. But in a nutshell, what I learned from the other more senior guides I worked with, for almost four years, were all about simplicity and utility. A dry fly that floats well, dries off quickly and casts without fluttering or twisting the line, for instance, is far more useful and important than elaborate feather sculpture that requires constant attention just to keep it afloat. Quick and easy to tie combined with utility: floats well, sinks quickly, casts easily and still catches fish will be my major themes ahead.