written by Joe Jackson photos by Joe Jackson and Emmie Jackson
I’m staring at my fly box—one of several, I should say—at the end of yet another season that I’m still perplexed is gone. Doing this is always a dangerous thing; the last time I poked around my fly box I started asking questions about the patterns therein, and what ensued were twelve months of hopeless research, dozens of hours spent pestering fly experts, and an I’m-not-even-going-to-guess-it sum of marginally-related tying expenses.
This particular fly box contains legions of grayling patterns (your Usuals and your Pheasant Tails), and it is resting on a worn book by Wendell Berry called What Are People For? It isn’t really. I made that up because it fits my narrative. Bear with me.
Inside of What Are People For? there’s an essay of the same name that Berry wrote in 1985. It is as cynical and worrisome as it is ponderous and illuminating. Basically, Berry explains the plight of America’s farmer; that more and more of them are being replaced by machines and computers and that fewer and fewer “city folk” genuinely appreciate what they do despite imminent food shortages. The really disturbing thing, beyond the fact that this was written nearly four decades ago, is that the farmer’s dilemma sheds light on increasing conversion rates of ruralites to urbanites, as well as an escalating loss in those skilled enough (or even willing) to do manual labor. Berry caps the piece with a truly sobering thought: At the same time that we strive for advancement of technology, we’re also advancing ourselves into a state of obsoletion. Think of all the labor-saving measures that companies adopt; think of the automated processes of ordering a pizza or, for that matter, planting a wheat field. We’re not just staring down the barrel of “permanent unemployability,” as Berry calls it; we’re entering it willingly. If our purpose is not to work ourselves toward a goal anymore, then what are people for?
Take some time to just watch fish, especially when those fish happen to be rising grayling. Then make the best cast you can with the best fly you can tie and hope for the best. That’s all flyfishing really is.
Sure, it’s one of those essays that makes you shake your head and wonder just what kind of cushy hellscape your grandkids will live in, but it also got me thinking—believe it or not—about flies.
For some, fly tying is a science, for some it’s an art, and for others it’s a job. Flies themselves started out simple but effective—the farm boys of angling—and over the centuries (especially in the last few decades) they’ve advanced to a kind of space-age efficiency. Today you can buy pre-made composite loops, and you don’t need to match the profile of a stonefly with dubbing or turkey quill anymore because you can buy a perfect look-alike that’s been stamped out of foam or plastic. But why? Have we really advanced ourselves into such a state of faux productivity that now it even bleeds from our hours of employ into our very recreation? Into fly tying itself?
The author contemplating flies and what they’re for (especially when they get broken off on the hookset) somewhere in Northeastern Wyoming.
A pessimist might assert that there are no innovations left in the fly-tying world, and that everything now is an attempt to make all others before it is obsolete (not unlike what humans are doing in other sectors). Maybe the bagged composite loops and precut stoneflies aren’t a sign of laziness, but of striving to meet a benchmark that we ourselves have been elevating, year by year, to a point of absurdity. I struggle with this conclusion because, on the one hand, it goes against the very essence of flyfishing. We are meant to try and deceive the fish, but if our “fly” is such a perfect match as to be totally indistinguishable, we might as well be bait fishing. But on the other hand, as the most complex species on Earth, we really should give our best to whatever we take on, and if that happens to be our relaxing pastimes then so be it. In order to reconcile both of these stances, I’ve tried looking back on the last year and this “Behind the Vice” series that Fish Alaska and my various subjects have graciously allowed me to do.
Headed back from a fishless outing to Galbraith Lake. Sometimes flies don’t catch fish; sometimes they’re nothing more than ballast on the end of a fly line that lets your casts unroll properly. That’s okay.
Some of the tyers I’ve talked to strove for that space-age efficiency; either because they have that type of brain or because their livelihood depends upon how many flies they can tie in a day. But for all of them, I realized, fly tying is a passion; an unbridled, unhinged, untamable obsession. This gave me hope because, frankly, the deadbeats that Berry warns us we might all become one day cannot possibly inhabit the seat behind a vise and become very good at it. Even while it might become slightly artificial, or even strive to render its previous creations obsolete, true fly tying both demands and exists as a repository for devotion. And I think that’s been my biggest conclusion from “Behind the Vice”, along with my best possible answer for a variation of Berry’s question: “What are flies for?”
An epically-colored Dolly taken on a fly I never thought would work. Fish never stop surprising us.
If I may invoke the words of another sage here, Stephen King once said the following about his craft: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly.”
Not one of the tyers featured in “Behind the Vice” violates this rule as it pertains to tying. Not one of them comes to the chair, to the vise, or to the bobbin lightly. And for that, most of all, I say thank you. Gabe Smith, Shann Jones, Mike Cole, Scott Murdock, George Cook, Ryan Sorsdahl, George Krumm, Jason Rivers, Jonathan Farmer, Mark Hieronymus, Derek Fergus—thank you. You’ve indulged a fly nerd, yes, but you’ve also fundamentally changed the way I come to the vise.
For example, I no longer begrudge the 40 minutes it takes me to tie something articulated that the cohos are just going to beat to ribbons. Rather, I look at it as honoring a fish that is the very definition of purpose. I’ll amend Ryan Sorsdahl by saying that not only do “pretty fish deserve pretty flies,” but that these singularly-devoted migrants deserve to be hooked on something just as deliberate as they themselves are. For that matter, all fish do. Armed with such appreciation, I’m also far more careful about my proportions—even on something as rough-and-ready as a Hare’s Ear—as a result of some long winter hours spent watching Shann Jones demonstrate the humble Brassie and Scott Murdock dote over an Atlantic salmon fly. I also, thanks mostly to an outing with Scott just last summer, take more time to sit and enjoy the pocks of rising grayling. Each and every one is a miracle.
The Harebrain, designed to imitate Gulkana sockeye smolt.
I’ve learned to make time for experiments, and to do my best to make these experiments as outrageous as possible. Gabe Smith, Mike Cole, Jason Rivers, and Derek Fergus demonstrate this ability particularly well, and it only takes a brief glance at what they’ve come up with to see the value in such a thing. You cannot be afraid to mess up. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? You tie something that looks like a radioactive owl pellet and embarrass yourself in front of…yourself? Give it a try and see what works.
Naturally I’ve done my best to do this over the past few months. The new-and-improved Def Leppard, in fact, is probably my best example of experimentation gone right. It’s also my homage to the likes of George Cook’s Popsicle, George Krumm’s Leechy-Sculpiny Thing, Mark Hieronymus’s Goblin, and Jonathan Farmer’s Avenger. There’s likely a lot about it that can be improved, but hey, I whipped it out the night before a king trip and whadda ya know, the prototype swung up a gorgeous 25-pound chromer. As Mark Hieronymus would say: “Listen to the fish.”
Trying to remember all of George Krumm’s stillwater advice…and not particularly succeeding.
My Harebrain fly is another example. This one is as much a copycat of Mark Hieronymus’s Doppelganger as it is an emulation of Jason Rivers making use of whatever material he happens to have on hand. Back in March, I found myself with more snowshoe hare products than I knew what to do with. I tied emergers and dry flies galore with the feet, of course, but I had piles of salted hides on top of that. The obvious application was to use the long, felty hairs for smolt patterns, for which they performed admirably. I really can’t think of a material that better simulates the soft and semi-transparent fragility of a baby salmon, particularly when paired with an olive-and-black underdub (for parr marks) and a wing of marten tail fibers. Initially I tied these on stinger-style hooks like you see on most baitfish patterns, but after some short-striking rogues made a fool of me in the Gulkana Canyon, I turned to articulation. The Harebrain is now one of my favorite swinging flies, made all the more satisfying because I obtained the materials myself, and because in order to do so I had to know a bit about the land and the animals that live there.
The Def Leppard, 3.0. This is the latest version, spun up in colors destined for a coho.
I will say, too, that composite loops of hare fur are fiendishly difficult to wrangle, but they make some of the most authentic salmon flesh look-alikes. Before I realized how Derek Fergus tied his MOAL patterns, I tried to wrap a composite loop of this stuff around Dacron with only one vice. I still shudder at the nightmare which ensued. The trout didn’t care, though.
Beyond that, I tie my leeches in a fundamentally different way thanks to the insight of Ryan Sorsdahl, George Krumm, and Derek Fergus. No, leeches aren’t just black and brown, and they are far more streamlined and multilayered than certain fly renditions might have you believe. You can’t just look at what you’re trying to imitate; you have to see it.
Speaking of seeing, I’m taking a closer look at my fly boxes right now, folks. There’s the grayling box, a bead box, a flesh box, a trout streamer box, a steelhead nymph box, a steelhead swinger box, a salmon box—you know how it goes. It creates the kind of pile that makes my wife frown and say, “You need all of those?”
I can say without a doubt that this collection has swollen significantly thanks to “Behind the Vice,” and it would be proliferating even more if the project lived on. George Krumm, our fearless Fish Alaska editor and notorious fly guru, asked me back in August if I was going to continue with “Behind the Vice” into 2022. My initial answer was a slightly tamed version of “Hell yes!” but then I had a personal development around November that forced me to reconsider. Fear not, fellow angler. “Behind the Vice” is only entering hiatus, and the personal development has everything to do with fishing and it’s one that (I hope) you’ll be hearing about soon. In the meantime, I hope the fly world experiences as many quantum leaps as it can handle.
In parting with this project for the time being, I have to admit I got a lot more out of it than I thought I would. When I pitched the idea to George back in December of 2019, I figured, if anything, it would be a good excuse to legitimize talking flies for hours on end. I had no idea that it would last for an entire year, or that I would get to have lunch with George Cook, or that I would get the inside scoop on how the Mr. Bodangles was named, or that I would take a close, nearly-philosophical look at what flies are—what they really are, and how they’ve evolved—and what they mean to Alaska.
What are flies for? Well, now that I think about it—I have no idea.
Flies are just as much a tool that fulfills our most basic, primal needs as they are a canvas for all the inner artists that angling curmudgeons deny. The greater sport of flyfishing is no different. Whatever you want it to be, it is. If you want to cast sheer purity on wings of bamboo and silk lines to rising fish, then that, my friend, is your essence of flyfishing. If you want a fly to contain everything but the kitchen sink and either sink like uranium or float like a cork, that is your essence of tying. The real point of all of this is that it is pointless, and in this way, it is the ultimate reflection of life itself. There is no purpose because there are a million purposes; 7.9 billion of them, in fact. Real fulfillment, real purpose, the real, final answer to Berry’s question is as abstract as the art of life itself. I know, this was a big circle that led basically right back to where I began, but it’s a journey that wouldn’t have happened without a hook and some feathers.
On that note, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead; or at least before I end up on a street corner shouting “What are flies for?” at a traffic light.
Joe Jackson is an even bigger fly nerd than when this started. Yet again, he wishes to thank each and every subject of “Behind the Vice” for indulging his curiosity, as well as for reminding him why we do this silly thing and what flies are truly for.