Updated: Feb 28, 2019
Last year as I was sitting at my fly-tying desk spinning up some bugs for the next day’s trip I got to thinking about all that went into what I was doing at the vise. Not just the tools in my hand, or the ridiculous amount of materials hanging from the pegboard on the wall, but more a reflection on the gift that was given to me by my father.
When I was 7 years old, my father Joe brought home a vise and some tools that he had made by hand in the machine shop at Gates Rubber Company.
He was working the graveyard shift as a pipe-fitter and by way of marrying my mom, had been baptized as a fly fisher 10 years previous by my late grandfather Hank.
Joe studied a fly-tying book to come up with a design and enlisted a co-worker to help him do it. In those days many of the guys on the night shift would use raw materials laying around and make stuff like knives, hitches, log splitters, and even boat trailers on their time off and smuggle them home.
His first challenge was the vice. After machining the stem out of solid brass, he turned the head in the shape of a cigar and made a single cut down the middle to form two jaws. Then a hole was drilled, and a single screw inserted to tighten the jaws and hold the hook. The stem was then threaded into a clamp to attach to the table.
For the bobbin he took two dissimilar diameters of copper tubing and slipped one inside the other after tempering them both to the right pliability
I remember that my younger sister had seen my dad tying in the evenings and because she was so tiny, had crawled up into his lap and learned how to tie thread ants by tapering the body into an hourglass shape with endless turns of black sewing thread stolen from my mom’s sewing basket.
I sat down for the first time when no one was around and started wrapping turn after turn and watching the body grow and then begin to unravel when the steepness of the angle got to be too much.
My father taught me a half hitch and this seemed to solve the problem. I smiled and would go on and on tying the fore, then the aft of #14 ants until I would use up almost an entire spool. I eventually got bored with black ants and added red thread in the aft to imitate the ants that I saw while playing with my army men in the garden. I still wasn’t sure if I would ever catch fish on them. I don’t think that I ever did.
It wasn’t until I learned how to tie a muskrat wet fly that I caught a trout on a fly of my creation at the age of 9.
We were camping with my grandparents at Balman reservoir in the Sangre de Christo mountains near Westcliffe, CO when I first tied one on.
It had slate grey wings from a mourning dove that we had killed the fall before and a body of muskrat fur that my father had gotten from the South Platte river not far from our house in Englewood. The head was, like most beginner tiers, way out of proportion with the body and shaped more like a lemon than a tapered head from the pictures I had studied. Thank God for head cement.
I was still using a fly and bubble setup on a spinning rod at the time and had been casting all afternoon with a #14 renegade which was our families “go to” wherever we fished. Balman reservoir sits at 9500’ and like many high mountain lakes, the fish only feed during limited times of the day. Usually in the early morning and late evening of summer and even then, for only an hour or two at most.
Out of nowhere, every fish on the lake started rising and right on time, down came my father, brother, and grandfather for the hatch. I casted over and over and reeled in as slowly as I could. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. All of us had the same results.
My grandfather tied on a brown hackle peacock, the other family favorite, and went on to try a gray hackle yellow, grey hackle peacock, orange asher and everything else he had in his box.
I looked down at the miserable misshapen muskrat in my box and it was the last thing I had left to try. It looked so ugly I put it on without any confidence at all. The muskrat fur had not been dubbed on tightly and was beginning to unravel.
As you might guess, it worked. I felt the tap tap tug of cutthroat after cutthroat with the occasional brook trout over and over again for the next 45 minutes. Soon my grandfather was the first to humble himself enough to march over to where I was standing and give me the look. I proudly gave him one and everyone else until they were gone from my box. This was the first time that I realized that I could garner attention and family fame by having the right fly on hand. I enjoyed the attention and quickly figured out how to get it regularly. I started tying day and night and this was when my love for fly tying really blossomed.
When I was in my early teens, I used to sit at the picnic table of our family campsite during the heat of the day and whip up enough bugs for the entire entourage to fish that evening. One by one my uncles and cousins would work their way over to my “office” as they were putting on their gear and ask me for a few renegades or beetle patterns. I milked it for all I could by telling them how hard I had been working for the betterment of the clan and which one had worked well for me while they were all still sleeping at 5 am that morning. I liked the role that fly tying gave me in our family and I like it today. Although not a big fan of Insta fame I have a hard time not liking those that choose to post their creations online. I figure if they took the time then they should get an atta boy just like I relished as a kid.
I am ashamed to say that the idea for the Southern Belize fly tying initiative didn’t hit me until after I had returned from a year of living in Belize.
I realized that I had been so busy running a company that I had failed to see the overwhelming need for fly tying and tiers down there.
There are no tools, vices, or hooks available for purchase and there are few if any experienced tyers to teach the youth. For example, a single 4/0 mustad saltwater hook sells for $2.00. No wonder why no one can tie their own flies. Instead guides rely on their clients to bring them down and this results in zero benefit for the local economy.
So what is needed is to not only garner a steady supply of tools and materials at reasonable cost, but also to create a culture where Belizean teaches Belizean the craft. My hope is that one day soon a little boy will be tying on a picnic table somewhere on the beach with guides gathered all around him, collecting their flies for the days trip, and giving him the respect he craves and deserves for becoming an integral part of the game of fly fishing.
About the author: Scott Thompson is a guide for Minturn Anglers in Vail, CO and managing partner at South Water Adventures Belize. He is an Umpqua Signature Fly Designer.