Scott Murdock Blog by Joe Jackson
Because It Looks Cool: Tying Artist Scott Murdock
I recently drove a little over 700 miles in the span of a day for the sake of one fly—and it’s one that I would never dream of tying to a leader.
It’s a fly that you have to see to appreciate, and I don’t even mean in a photograph. You have to watch it come together, listen to its creator recite a concise history of Atlantic salmon flies as he works, and feel the palpable buzz of a masterpiece in the making. You must ask questions, and you must look closely at the paired married wings because they are not, as it appears, one agreeable bunch of chartreuse-dyed turkey quill; it’s actually ten individual barbules of green turkey scrupulously pieced together with eleven alternating barbules of yellow turkey and capped by two barbules of argus pheasant (altogether, an assemblage that took two hours to complete).
Hours later, after the tail of golden pheasant is tied and the body of embossed gold tinsel, dyed angora goat, and black hackle is constructed, I ask why it is that the creator chose argus pheasant as the underwing. It’s a mesmerizing brownish-purple with a celestial arrangement of white spots—beautiful, to be sure—but I wonder if there’s a story behind its selection. Perhaps, like much of the Atlantic salmon fly world, it’s rooted in tradition.
Scott Murdock ties the underwing in flawlessly and shrugs.
“Because it looks cool.”
Having learned quite a bit of the tying craft from Murdock himself, I have to concur that “because it looks cool” is as good a reason as any. It’s also amusing and somewhat relieving that, despite the lordly air of Atlantic salmon flies, they can still be occasionally driven by mere whim. And Murdock is certainly a whimsical tyer; he’s also one of the few I know that can go from tying something as breathtaking as, say, an Evening Star to cranking out a dozen rough-and-tumble Pink-Butt nymphs.
For Atlantic salmon flies, it began somewhere in the early 19th Century in the British Isles. The flies employed here were of the wet variety; that is, tied with soft hackles and quill or feather wings. By the middle of the century, Irish and Scottish anglers came to employ larger patterns in pursuit of Atlantic salmon, and this development likely coincided with rapid growth in the millinery (hat-making) industry which allowed unprecedented access to tinsels and exotic feathers. Flies became increasingly complex to match the wariness of the salmon themselves, featuring advents like married wings, throats, cheeks, and horns. Perhaps one of the most famous of these examples is the Jock Scott, which was developed by and named for a water bailiff of the River Tweed in 1850 and, when tied in its original form, contains over fifty materials ranging from teal to tinsel and bustard to toucan. The kind that you can buy today for $1.50 online barely represents the original in anything but general color. By 1900, there were already hundreds of salmon-fly patterns, many of which would match or surpass the Jock Scott for complexity. Today, there are thousands.
For Scott Murdock, it began a little later: sometime in the 1960s. He grew up in Massachusetts, near enough to the American origins of flyfishing to be infected early on. To boot, his family owned an original H.L. Leonard split-cane rod, which they donated to the American Museum of Flyfishing in Manchester, Vermont and visited regularly. By the ‘80s Murdock had begun tying most of his own flies to fuel his trout pursuits. Soon after, he had his first stint in Alaska with the Air Force, then his second, and by 2002 he had made the move permanent for a job with the U.S. Customs. It’s safe to say that Murdock would’ve nursed an addiction for traditional fly tying all this time, but in the vicinity of 1986, on a visit back home to Massachusetts and the familiar museum in Vermont, he saw his first Atlantic salmon flies. They were part of a series of patterns tied by the great Megan Boyd of Scotland, a woman who, despite her knack for resplendent creations at the vice, never fished a day in her life. For Murdock, this exposure to the Boyd flies queued an obsession even deeper than that of traditional fly tying; one that has lasted the better part of four decades and which, Murdock tells me gravely, “There is no twelve-step program of recovery for.”
Before he really knew it, Murdock had tumbled down the rabbit hole—or, more accurately, the tangled and dizzying network of rabbit holes. He started reading books and realized that the Atlantic salmon-fly library was, simply-put, “extensive.” He began experimenting with different flies and soon found out that there were dozens if not hundreds of distinct styles: patterns from the Spey, patterns from the Dee, the Esk, the Tweed; married wings, feather-wings, hair wings, and absurdly technical methods in between.
Murdock’s library of both books and mastered techniques grew to meet the diversity of the craft. He’d begun branching out and originating his own patterns. He entered his work into contests sponsored by the Federation of Fly Fishers, taking several district and even a few world medals (“Much to the chagrin of the renowned tyers that didn’t know I existed,” Murdock adds). In 2006, he was invited to tie at the annual Federation of Fly Fishers conclave in Whitefish, Montana. A few years later, Murdock’s work on some Carrie Stevens’ patterns (the feather-wing beauties from central Maine that include the famous Gray Ghost) caught the eye of Sharon Wright, an accomplished Maine fly tyer and historian who was producing a book on heritage feather-wing streamers and asked to use some of Scott’s patterns for photographs. He happily agreed and, consequently, found his flies not only in the book but in two consecutive issues of Fly Tyer magazine.
From there, Scott Murdock and I chat about the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) fly-tying course I took once upon a time, for which he was a co-teacher alongside Shann Jones. In the second-semester, advanced iteration of the course, Murdock taught me how to tie such flies as the Silver Doctor and the Grizzly Ghost, both of which I still have. He jumps into a subject he calls “the feather-pushers” (the fly-tying equivalent of drug-pushers), which involves various domestic and exotic bird species and the people who peddle them. Murdock hasn’t taken it to the museum-heist level of Edwin Rist in Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief (which I highly recommend, by the way), but I can imagine a similarly crazed gleam in his eye as he proceeds to rattle off names like Henry Hoffman and Paul Rossman and Aaron Ostoj. I jot down notes at the approximate speed of a sewing machine before the conversation takes a left turn.
“Give me three colors,” Murdock says.
My pen stops and I have to think for a moment. “Let’s go with chartreuse, black, and gold.”
There’s rustling on the other end of the line, presumably as Murdock rummages through piles and piles of feathers. “You know,” he declares at last, “that’s not half-bad.” More rustling. “Why don’t you come up and I’ll tie you a salmon fly?”
I leave Anchorage at something like four in the morning and make it to Fairbanks by two (with some snowshoe hare hunting in between). It’s snowing lightly and the temperature is twelve below zero when I pull into Scott Murdock’s driveway; good “tying weather” if you ask me.
Scott Murdock’s tying room—which he calls “The Palace”—is equal parts salmon-fly museum and well-stocked fly shop. On one wall is a neat assortment of pretty much any tying thread you could ever wish for, and on another are frames upon frames of patterns he’s tied over the years. He’s got a whole series of Scots Tartans. He’s tied practically every conceivable color combination of the Rusty Rat. My eyes leap to a frame filled with mid-20th Century wet flies, then to one featuring the Evening Star and another containing a Pryce-Tannatt (both of which, Murdock tells me, are among the hardest flies to tie). There’s a Duke of Edinburgh, along with a foursome of flies that Murdock designed to honor autumn, winter, spring, and summer in Alaska. In between these masterful creations are gifts or trades for commissioned fly projects; hooks mottled with gold flakes from Yasuhiro Ogasawara of Sapporo, Japan, a poster of Nova Scotian salmon flies, a gorgeous rendition of an Atlantic salmon by marine artist Sam MacDonald.
On the opposite wall are drawers upon drawers of feathers, saddles, hides, and capes. Most notable to me is an expensive peacock skin from Paul Rossman. “I was really drinking the Kool-Aid when I bought that one,” he adds.
On the tying bench are the two paired wings necessary for the completion of my fly. Together, these wings are the centerpiece of the salmon fly Murdock is preparing to tie; the twenty-three-barbuled puzzles that took two hours to complete the previous day. Beyond them, though, is an assortment of flies seemingly far out of place for a salmon-fly artist.
To say that Murdock is solely an Atlantic salmon fly tyer is to diminish his contributions to the more practical school of fly tying. His “fishable” flies may seem pedestrian compared to the salmon patterns residing on his wall, but they are just as impressive for sheer effectiveness. His Pink-Butt fly, for instance, which is tied with qiviut, grizzly soft hackle, brass wire, and cerise yarn and can be fished as a nymph or wet fly, is still my all-around favorite for springtime. His L.G.F (or, “Little Gray Fly”) is one of the better imitations I’ve seen for Delta Clearwater mayflies. The Che’jill Special (tied for a clandestine spring creek in Yukon) is the fly on which I caught my first Arctic grayling over six years ago.
On the Alaskan salmon front, Murdock has developed several gems, as well. He’s got the Momo, which follows modern fly trends with its use of hourglass eyes, rabbit strips, and a tube, but he’s also done a superb job of adapting the traditional salmon-fly style that he’s come to love into flies that stand up well against today’s articulated, bells-and-whistles patterns. The Kitzhütch (Ukrainian for salmon) is a coho fly bound around a curved wet-fly hook, and it features a floss tag, counter-wrapped tinsel, and colorful schlappen. The Green Meanie follows suit, tied with angora goat, Arctic fox, Krystal Flash, schlappen, and marabou, and is especially effective for Gulkana River kings. The Meanie, in particular, demonstrates Murdock’s emphasis on fly color.
“Every fish in every river has a predisposition for certain colors,” he asserts. “We don’t know why, but they do.” Murdock conspired for years with the late Howie Van Ness (perhaps the most knowledgeable fly guru in Alaskan history whose Alaska Fly Shop was known as “a bar without booze”), who recommended the initial colors for the Meanie.
Van Ness also introduced Scott Murdock to an angler named Shann Jones (covered in the second installment of these Behind the Vice blogs), who told Murdock about a little fly-tying course he’d been teaching and adapting for several years. Murdock offered his assistance as a co-instructor, to which Jones happily agreed on one condition: Murdock would have to take the course first. What followed were years of flyfishing curriculum development, during which Jones and Murdock threw out the playbook that featured the Woolly Bugger as the first fly for beginners and started anew. Jones would kick students off in the first semester with the basics of casting and tying; Murdock would take over in the second term for more advanced techniques like composite loops, articulated patterns, tube flies, and, naturally, Atlantic salmon patterns.
It is this imparted knowledge that makes up my own understanding of the craft; it’s the only way I can follow Murdock as he previews the process ahead of us. He’ll start by tying in the silk loop at the blind eye of the fly, he says. Traditionally, this loop was made from silkworm gut. He’ll proceed to lay a thread base, which will need to be even and precise to a fraction of a millimeter, then he’ll wrap tinsel for the tag, golden pheasant for the tail, ostrich herl for the butt, and an arrangement of embossed tinsel, angora goat, and black hackle for the ribbed body. “Oval tinsel protects the hackle the best.” He’ll add a throat of guinea and proceed to use a folded index card and clothespins to ensure that the body and throat fibers orient downward. Next, he’ll secure an underwing of argus pheasant and, while “squeezing the snot out of them,” he’ll wrap the married wings into place and hope they hold shape. Chartreuse hackle tips will round out the wing sides, jungle cock will take the place of the eye, and a long, pleasantly curved feather of golden pheasant will top the creation.
While I’ve tumbled butt-over-teakettle for basic fly tying, I have not yet fallen victim to the vices of Atlantic salmon patterns. But it can only be a matter of time. The feather pushers and the reverential history of tweed-suited tyers on the banks of Scots rivers will take hold, and maybe one day I’ll have a Palace of my own.
“Alright,” Murdock says at last. “Let’s get started.”
He takes up the chair behind the vice where he’s spent thousands upon thousands of hours before, just like this, tying things together because they look cool. I look on, hoping desperately that I don’t miss anything. He fetches a spool of gold tinsel and begins.
Joe Jackson is a fly nerd who wishes to thank each and every subject of Behind the Vice for indulging his curiosity. Joe has written for Fish Alaska, The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, and American Flyfishing, and his favorite fly to tie is a toss-up between the Splitsville Caddis and the classic Hare’s Ear.