Robert Behnke on trout and John Barr on flies

  • By: Seth Norman

Barr Flies

How to Tie and Fish the Copper John, the Barr Emerger and Dozens of Other Patterns, Variations and Rigs
By John Barr
(Stackpole Books: 2007; 800-732-3669;
184 pp.; hardcover; $39.95
I love this title and can't wait to Google "Barr Files" and add a pair of the designer-cum-author's pattern names to the search-"Tung Teaser" and "Meat Whistle."

Talk about a Viagra alert.

Thomas Pynchon (with apologies to Flannery O'Connor) etched the line in a million minds: "All that rises must converge." Nobody who's drifted a size 22 Hail Mary over trout during a trico hatch believes this, but the idea still appeals, like karma or heaven. But convergence describes what happened in 1978 when Van Rollo, a successful fishing rep, convinced John Barr to submit pattern samples to a fly producer with a controversial project-a program to pay royalties to tiers who submitted "original" designs.

Umpqua Feather Merchants bought several of Barr's submissions, and in time provided "the moment that eventually enabled me to combine my lifelong passion for fly-fishing with the business side of the fly industry." Yes indeed-by becoming read more »one of this generation's most popular architects of commercial patterns.

In Charlie Meyer's Foreword to Barr Flies he writes, "With remarkable regularity, [Barr] cranks out patterns that dazzle with a rare combination of form and function…[flies] that catch fish because that's precisely what Barr was doing when the notion for the fly came to him…Virtually all those concepts creep intuitively into his awareness while trying to resolve some standoff with a persnickety trout."

It's that "intuitive awareness" that shows up chapter by generously illustrated chapter. In Barr's case we usually begin with a brief description of what prey a pattern will imitate, often followed by a tale of frustration that prompted or provoked inspiration and then a prototype. He rarely stops at mere success: he tinkers, fishes, adds-epoxy, for example, to his Copper John-substitutes, tests some more, sometimes for years.

Step-by-step tying instructions follow the introductions. Many patterns are simple enough to become standards for fishers with day jobs. Others may intimidate. Take the B/C Hopper for example, a foam fly that Barr fishes on its own, also as an indictor for the two- and three-fly rigs he favors and promotes. Is it buoyant? Larger B/Cs can be paddled or rowed; or, when lashed together pontoon style, support electric motors, I'm sure. But with the 65 tying steps shown here, my feeling is investing in B/Cs at your favorite fly shop is a better investment than Louisiana, the Purchase.

If I had my druthers, I'd buy Barr a drink or three and beg him to add more about how and why he chooses the particular materials he names, a couple of more insights that might train the rest of us to think like him.

At first, I was mildly uncomfortable how often Barr mentions Umpqua in this book. Then I thought about it, hard. Harder still, after a conversation with Jannifer Puyans, widow of the late and truly great Andre, who I happened to call while writing this, only to hear her sadly relate how a famous fly-fishing "innovator" had rushed to trademark one of Puyan's not-yet-public patterns shortly after his death.

New news, old story. Before the Umpqua program-and to this day, in most parts of the fly-fishing business-actual innovators had no protection from industry predators, many whose names or businesses you would recognize instantly.

So then, I wondered if, maybe, the real question is why Umpqua Feather Merchants, along with other companies operating above board, isn't mentioned more often?

About Trout

The Best of Robert Behnke from Trout Magazine
By Robert J. Behnke
Illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri
(The Lyons Press: 2007; 888-249-7586;
272 pp.; hardcover; $29.95
It's difficult to review books by close relatives, and personal heroes. There's the surprisingly slippery problem of realizing that your reader isn't necessarily intimate with the author; that he may not share your knowledge; and, even if so, your awe. All of which is by way of preparing you for the moment I write "Uncle Robert Behnke."

Species come and go-presuming you can define "species," which can be harder than you might imagine. Some leave tantalizing clues to their passing, but the vast majority exit without supplying records that we can read.

But thanks in major part to Robert Behnke, disciple of Paul Needham, as long as homo sapiens last in a literate state, so will the histories of North American trout, salmon and char presented in About Trout, a collection of columns culled from Trout Unlimited's Trout Magazine. Behnke has spent decades-a dedicated passionate career-tracking these fish through eons of geologic time, from measuring the drops in oceans that isolate populations to calculating how the rise of a mountain range divided a race. He's also sleuthed our kind's crimes, from the slow extermination affected by corrupting habitat and introducing new species, to the Army Corps of Engineers' almost instantaneous eradication of the giant race of Lahontan cutthroats in Nevada's Pyramid Lake.

As much as you learn, and as interesting as I certainly found these stories, there's also, always, a sense of mystery about what might have happened, as well as what will.

Histories are one thing, but it's the efforts to save living species that are most compelling in About Trout. Other stories are of populations lost too soon, if not long ago; and those whose extinctions we may see soon enough. Behnke has relentlessly argued the case for protecting wild native fish, insisting that science and society-and the federal courts-consider biology as well as genetics, recognizing that the profoundly different histories he describes, the behaviors imprinted in ancient times mean something. That helixes we see as identical (so far) do not prove that a three-sea native steelhead returning to its ancestral river is, biologically or legally, "the same" as a pale, finless, seven-inch hatchery hybrid rainbow.

Lastly, I can't think of anybody I'd rather see illustrate this work than Joseph R. Tomelleri, who pursues native trout on his own; nor anyone better deserving to write the foreword than FR&R's own Ted Williams. And we all owe Trout Unlimited a great debt for publishing Behnke all these years.

Seth Norman is the author of The Fly Fisher's Guide to Crimes of Passion, and his reporting has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.