The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide

The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide

Plus, limited edition 'Shad,' and the history of fly lines

  • By: Seth Norman
The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide By Tom Rosenbauer (The Lyons Press: 2001) 376 pp; softcover; $29.95 New fly-tying primers better be good, because they're competing with fine books already in print. I subject each to a rigorous exam informally titled the "Somebody's Nephew Test," to which we will return. The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide is the eighth book author Tom Rosenbauer has written for this series. I've not seen them all, but the two I have, subtitled Prospecting for Trout and Reading Trout Streams, are informative, enriched by experience, research, black and white illustrations, and observations such as "The trout's tail is swaying almost imperceptibly, like a drunk standing at a bar, trying to appear sober as he talks to his wife.Fly-Tying is more of the same, but lavishly illustrated by hundreds of color photos to insure that tyros get a look at every step. Part One offers "The Basics," 70-something pages that proceed "assuming you have never faced a fly-tying vice and the only thing you've done is lacing your shoes or attaching a fly to your leader." Part Two includes five chapters of sample patterns: streamers, nymphs, emergers, dry and saltwater flies. Text introduces each with descriptions of origin and use; there's also a panel identifying standard construction materials and viable substitutions. The step-by-step instructions that accompany photos include a variety of tips and suggestions, many of which were new to me. The fact that there is a baker's dozen of samples flies in the book, spread out through 180 large pages, suggests the detail included in each. What follows is a bonus absent from many primers: Part Three is a 125-page pattern Index, usually showing four flies per page, containing "recipes for every fly in the 2001 Orvis Fishing catalog." To each of these Rosenbauer has assigned a difficulty rating from 1 to 5. As is my custom with primers, I perused the illustrations and instructions first, mindful of the woefully inadequate brochure that accompanied my first tying kit. That Christmas present was gifted to me during the Eisenhower Administration and Reagan was in office before I dared try to wrap a hackle again. Thus the "Somebody's Nephew Test:" all my friends seem to have a young relative, usually living a long way away, who desperately wants to tie flies. God forbid I should send them a book that would sabotage their interest. Turns out that Rosenbauer had an experience identical to my own, 35 years ago, and that his own memories of frustration directed Fly-Tying's design. This shows so clearly that I can comfortably relay my copy to a boy in Des Moines, confident he will end up with a fishable fly, and maybe a passion. The American Shad, Selections from The Founding Fish By John McPhee (Meadow Run Press: 2004) 88 pp; hardcover, slipcase; $125 (limited edition of 500) For thousands of years the many-boned American shad has been intricately knit into the lives of peoples living along Atlantic Coast rivers. Revealing the cultural, economic and political impact of their spawning runs on our ancestors is what John McPhee is all about in The American Shad, Selections from The Founding Fish. A long-time New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, McPhee has produced 26 books, including The Founding Fish. According to Meadow Run Publisher William Trego, Selections is a complete re-ordering and rearrangement of the original, intended to "make it a more linear, cohesive story." The "Founding" here refers to a long-held belief that an early shad run on the Susquehanna River ended famine among Washington's troops at Valley Forge despite British efforts to intercept the bounty. Some researchers report that Nathan Hale himself insisted this event saved the suffering army-and thus, perhaps, the Revolution. Maybe so: McPhee presents pro and con evidence as part of his investigation and cites scores of references both Colonial and contemporary. While the question itself is of interest, what's quickly evident is that the larger aim of his sleuthing is to identify the myriad threads that bind together creatures of land and water. Such tangled webs these weave-including all the lines, nets, weirs and picket fence "racks" employed to exploit this resource; also the contracts and laws that so often failed to regulate egregious practices. Battles were joined over shad runs: in 1738, a raid by upstream farmers on the illegal shad-catching tools built on the Schuylkill-structures that blocked runs and imperiled navigation-left one John Wainright "as Dead with his Body on the Shoar&his feet in the River." Two hundred years later there are fewer shad to war over, of course, but plenty enough to provide a fishery the author appreciates and writes about in a style that's understated, personal and self-deprecating. One thing that frankly baffles McPhee is that so few of us pursue this species as sport fish. At one point he questions a guide: I asked him how significant, over the years, guided shad fishing had become. Roughly, how many shad-fishing clients had come to the Miramichi? He said, "You're it." "It?" "It." He said the all-time number of sports who had come there to fish for shad was one, was me. Talk about saying volumes…McPhee lets the reader frame his or her own response to that. "How queer," was mine, having fished for shad often on the West Coast rivers to which they've been transplanted. Although not so aereobatic as their tarpon cousins, shad take a fly and streak…So perhaps it's just a matter of fashion? If so, the author's discussion of shad-as-table fare suggests their day may come-and probably go again, for surely that journey is more extreme and erratic than seems reasonable. From fertilizer to servant food, as "coarse" fish and haute cuisine, shad's roles seem to rise and fall nearly as often as the tides on which they arrive from the sea. America's Fly Lines The Evolution of the Modern Fly Line By Victor Johnson Jr. (EP Press: 2003) 166 pp; softcover; $21.95 Author Victor Johnson Jr., called me when he was preparing to publish this book. He'd already self-published Fiberglass Fly Rods: the Evolution of the Modern Fly Rod from Bamboo to Graphite, which is the Bible of some fiberglass fishing fiends. Now Johnson wondered where to go and what to expect with A History of Fly Lines in America. I hadn't a clue. I also had embarrassingly little knowledge or understanding of flyline history. Even Myron Gregory's efforts to promote flycasting as an Olympic sport, circa 1960, came as a surprise. The author includes a copy of the US Olympic Committee's initial, luke-warm response to that proposal in America's Fly Lines, along with a 100-plus photographs of people and products, patent drawings, tables and diagrams; as with Fiberglass Fly Rods, Johnson has done his homework. He begins with "Fishing lines from ancient time," proceeds to the "US fly line industry: 1800-WWII," adds post-WW II lines, then works his way to contemporary lines and manufacturers. One later chapter offers advice on how to care for fly lines, another a price guide for lines now collectable. It's a solid and valuable reference. Also a chronicle of challenges: constructing and weighting tapers, adapting and inventing new coatings and cores, the effort to unify standards so anglers could match lines to rods that were also changing. I had a new appreciation for the many innovative people and companies that help me cast and fish better after reading the book. It even occurred to me, last Friday evening, that those tailing loops might not really be the line's fault after all. Could be the rod. Two Centuries of Soft Hackled Flies: A Survey of the Literature Complete with Original Patterns 1747-Present By Sylvester Nemes (Stackpole Books: 2004) 174 pp; hardcover; $34.95 Many American fly fishers cannot contemplate soft-hackles without thinking of The Soft Hackled Fly and author Sylvester Nemes. Nobody else has done so much to introduce and promote this style of fly to generations of anglers on this side of the Atlantic. So simple, so elegant and deadly, soft-hackles offer a nod-and-wink antidote to the increasing complexities of our sport. In a sense, so does Nemes's latest book, as he presents of collection of writings that often reveal how wisely our sporting ancestors angled. If The Soft-Hackled Fly is a classic, the best introduction to any fisher interested in these flies and the tactics used to fish them, Two Centuries will likely stand as a definitive reference on the pattern's evolution to date. For once a book jacket blurb gets it right: "While it will please those who love arcana, Two Centuries…contains much more than trout-fly trivia and quotations from old books. Nemes sifts through two centuries of fly-fishing wisdom and lore, most of it applicable to modern angling." He also presents excellent photos of more than 160 patterns, offering these not merely as historical relics, but because they are so lovely and still work so well.