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Fur and Feathers for Fly Fishing
"The Fish Journal" Issaquah Press, Published May 11, 2008
By Dallas Cross


    As a youth I lived near the Teton River in Driggs, Idaho. A tributary creek meandered near town and my first solo fishing adventure was when I hiked to it, found worms under semi-dry cow pies, put them in my Prince Albert can with wet grass, and then swirled them beneath the undercuts of the banks of the creek. This produced a willow limb stringer of small trout that mom proudly fried up for our supper.

Dad had become a fly fisherman under the tutelage of my maternal grandfather and was tying his own flies. Seeing the much larger trout he brought home I asked him to take me to Teton River. His response was that if I was to fish with him I had to use flies. My mother, an accomplished fly fisherwoman, offered to accompany me on the river after dad taught me the fundamentals of casting a fly on the lawn. Thus, on Teton River I began my life long avocation of fooling fish with fur and feathers; with my mother coaching nearby and helping me out of trouble whenever I over waded my capability.

My father was an Agricultural Extension Agent for Teton County. He was constantly inventing flies to best his fellow county agents and win significant cash in their annual biggest and most trout contest on Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. One of his flies he named the “county agent special.” Using it he shellacked the competition one year eliciting requests from his colleagues to buy the specials. Being enterprising he began tying them for sale and demand grew. This was during World War II and the supply of fly tying feathers from jungle cocks and other exotic birds was scarce. The key to Dad’s special fly was having access to the hackle feathers from a unique and unusually marked chicken that belonged to one of the farmers he was advising. Just as his market was peaking the chicken unexpectedly died. Local conjecture was that the prized chicken succumbed because of over exposure to the elements.

Dad did get some of his fly market revived when he found a colt with an extremely fine and mottled mane that could be used to tie the venerable sandy mite fly. Before the war the fly had been tied using camel hair and this supply had disappeared. The sandy mite is still an effective summer wet fly for trout tied simply with orange floss woven around the hair making a segmented belly. The hair is then bent back and tied off to form hackles over the back. Dad’s sandy mite fly market also declined when the rancher quietly sold off the balding colt.

Later on we moved near to Silver Creek and Wood River in South Central Idaho. I began tying flies and selling them to the local sport shops which were really bars with fishing goods in the front. Grandmother raised chickens that provided the front, white and rear, brown hackles for a very popular fly, the renegade. The body of the fly is tied with peacock herl. Getting herl was problematic until I got a job at the State Game Farm. While working there I would accidentally step on a peacock’s tail that swept out under the show pen fence and, lo, a new herl supply.

I have constantly scrounged fly tying materials. The most rewarding sources have been through friendship with taxidermists, fly tyers and hunters. My sister even sent me the hide of a porcupine. On the way to a women’s society luncheon she unabashedly explained to her companions, her sudden Utah highway stop to fetch the skin with, “My brother likes road kill.”

I recently found prime elk and deer hides in a thrift store and shared swatches with my fly tying friends. In my current inventory I have feathers from a relative who rescues emus, strips of metallic plastic from potato chip bags, and tubes and beads from hobby and sewing shops. Perhaps, my most desperately tied “fly” was a length of mercurochrome-dyed pipe cleaner lashed onto a bare hook with fishing leader, for a streamside-made imitation of the San Juan Worm fly. It worked.

There are many local resources and opportunities to learn how to tie and fish with flies. Trout Unlimited of Bellevue-Issaquah (www.tu-bi.org) has a mentoring program for Boy Scouts seeking the fly fishing merit badge, and sponsors an annual conservation and fly fishing academy in July for youth. In Issaquah, Creekside Angling’s calendar at (www.creeksideangling.com) has schedules for fly tying and casting. You can just show up Saturday on the Snoqualmie River at its confluence with the Tolt River near Carnation and get free lessons in two-handed Spey fly casting sponsored by River Run Anglers (www.speyshop.com). The Overlake Flyfishing Club (www.offc.org) has excellent fly tying exhibitions.



Picture of tied flying fish tie
"Flying Fish" a saltwater tube fly tied by the Author