Vice Grip: Fly Tying and Travel with John Gierach

At the vice

There was a time when I’d rarely go on a big fishing trip without spending a week or two beforehand tying flies. Now and then they were familiar patterns, but more often they were place or species specific flies I’d never tied and in some cases never even heard of. Some patterns I liked the looks of and others I didn’t much care for, but I tied them faithfully, even going to the trouble of getting local flies as models.

From the first trout I caught using my own early attempt at a dry fly more than 40 years ago, I’ve liked the sense of craftsmanship and self-sufficiency that comes from tying my own flies. A.K. Best—my old friend and longtime professional tier—feels the same way. Back in the late ‘70s when we were fishing the Henry’s Fork in Idaho for the first time, we got some extended body Green Drakes from Mike Lawson’s shop because they were the only thing the big rainbows would look at. On the way out the door, A.K. said, “I’ve tied a thousand dozen flies this year and it burns my ass to have to buy these.” On our next trip he brought a fly tying kit.

I also agree with Ed Engle, the Colorado writer and angler, that tying flies before a trip helps to focus the energy that might otherwise go into random nervousness and overpacking. And, of course, you end up with a bunch of flies too. I’ve ended up with a bunch of flies, boxes and boxes full. I work out of six or seven boxes of trout flies on a rotating basis, some that I fish from time to time, while others have sat on the shelf for so long I have to open them to remind myself what’s inside. I don’t do a lot of Atlantic salmon fishing, but I will accept any invitationthat involves a Spey rod and that doesn’t come from someone who’s obviously twisted. (Granted, some folks who seem reasonable at first later turn out to be wing nuts, but that’s the risk you take with the sport of kings.) I favor classic patterns like the Undertaker, hairwing Jock Scott, Green Highlander, and Black Bear Green Butt because of their Old World prettiness and because they work, but every time I’ve gone my tastes have changed. For instance, I never thought much of the Green Machine until I skated one on the Adlatok in Labrador and caught some big, bright salmon. Now I wouldn’t go salmon fishing without them.


The same goes for my steelhead flies. There’s a lot of silk, oval tinsel, jungle cock, golden pheasant, fake seal fur, and blue eared pheasant hackle. I like the patterns—or maybe I just like the stuff itself—but there are also more modern concoctions that call for nothing more than a Zonker strip and some tinsel.

Rob Russell taught me to tie wonderful Intruders one rainy March night on the Kilchis River. They’re five or six inches with dumbbell eyes, palmered hackles, dangly multicolored saddle hackles, stacked arctic fox in contrasting colors, and great big jungle cock nails from the very bottom of the neck. They’re big-water flies that dive like seals and wiggle like squid, and although they’re thoroughly modern patterns, they still have that Victorian fussiness I can’t resist. I’ve yet to catch a fish on one, but that hasn’t shaken my faith in them.

My king salmon box started out simple enough on the King Salmon River in Alaska. The guy I was fishing with said, “It’s easy, start with pink and white. If they don’t like that, try black and purple. If they don’t like that, try pink and white again, both in size 3/0.”


But on subsequent trips to other rivers, I collected large rabbit and marabou patterns in various combinations of red, black, blue, purple, chartreuse, and orange. Plus the fabulous Popsicle with its orange, red, and purple marabou palmered onto the largest gold-plated salmon hooks available, and some large, snaky-looking things called MOALs, an acronym for Mother Of All Leeches. Some of them have actually caught fish.

I’d begun to sense a trend here having to do with size, but then on the Nestucca River in Oregon, fishing with a kindly local salmon fisherman, I ended up catching some nice kings on tiny, size 12 Comets that looked like midges compared to what I was used to. Why is it that a 30-pound king in Alaska wants the biggest possible hot pink fly, while the same fish in Oregon wants a little black Comet? Don’t ask me. And don’t ask me if the same flies will work if and when I ever go back.

I wonder if I’ll ever again use the Mackinaw flies I trolled in Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories a few years ago, or the 3/0 white rabbit fur sculpins with red eyes that accounted for some sea-run Arctic char up to 15 pounds on that same trip. It seems unlikely, but you never know. And what about the size 4 Hexagenia duns and spinners I fished for several consecutive summer nights in Wisconsin? Even as I was fishing, it had the feel of a one-time novelty, but I still have the patterns. Is it possible that all these flies amount to souvenirs? Or do they constitute clutter in a sport that benefits from simplicity? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

The burning question is whether there’s even such a thing as the “right” fly. During a flavilinea hatch, it’s nice to have a pattern that exactly matches the size, color, and silhouette of the naturals, but it’s even better to get an accurate cast and a flawless drift, even if you’re using a Parachute Adams that’s a size too big.


The same goes for nymphing. The wrong fly at the right depth will often out fish the right fly at the wrong depth. And when fishing streamers, the speed and action of your retrieve can be more important than the size and pattern of the fly. This kind of thinking gives rise to the minimalist Adams/Hare’s Ear/Muddler Minnow school of fly selection that everyone sort of believes in, but that no one has actually practiced since the 1960s.

Different fish are selective in unique and sometimes incomprehensible ways. A steelhead may ignore a nice big fly that bounces right off its nose, only to rise through four feet of current to grab a little skater. On a trip to Canada, the Atlantic salmon ignored any and all flies except those that had some green on them. This kind of thing happens, but no one knows why.

And there’s always the possibility of sheer, goofball, not-at-all-by-the-book inventiveness; the kind of thing that once allowed my friend Larry Pogreba to fish a pink rubber squid through a pale morning dun hatch on a fancy Montana spring creek and catch several enormous trout.


The only way to really fish well is to live on or near the water, put in the years to learn the idiosyncrasies of the river, pay close attention to the season, time of day, weather, stream flow, water temperature and clarity, and live the kind of life that lets you drop everything at a moment’s notice to go fishing. Failing that, you at least long for the comfort of having the same flies as everyone else. I still tie most of the flies I fish, but I’m not totally opposed to buying some on-site. I’ve always claimed a healthy fishery is good for the local economy, so I feel I should contribute in the same way that if I want this to be a world with a post office in it, I should send a letter once in a while. And anyway, tying all your own flies is like growing and raising all your own food; it’s satisfying as hell, but it can become a full-time job.

Sometimes there just isn’t enough lead time to tie dozens of new flies, some calling for materials I don’t have and that aren’t available at the local fly shop. And it’s also possible to tie for weeks before a big trip and still arrive without the hot new fly that hit the shelves about the same time you were getting on the plane.

There’s always a hot new fly. Precious few of these patterns are genuine breakthroughs destined to last for a hundred years, but more often they’re idle comments on existing traditions, explorations of half-baked theories, attempts to use new and interesting materials, to impress other tiers, or excuses to rename old patterns. The results are often pointless fads like the craze in some pretentious restaurants of plopping fried quail eggs on everything or calling sandwiches “paninis.”


Fly tiers—whether they’re amateurs, pros, or guides—always look for an edge and can’t leave well enough alone for both practical and emotional reasons. They remind me of some poets I used to know who would write a poem every morning with their first cup of coffee while they were still fresh from sleep and open to new ideas. In a way that was just an exercise in craft, but they all secretly envisioned publishing a critically acclaimed book called Mornings, Caffeine, or maybe Hangover that would jump-start their careers.

As for holding onto flies from old trips, sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. A Royal Wulff or Pheasant Tail could work anywhere, and if you show up on an Atlantic salmon river with Blue Charms, or on a steelhead river with Green Butt Skunks, people will at least know where you’re coming from. It’s also possible to return to a river after six or eight years with flies that were the gold standard there on the first trip, only to have a young guide say, “Yeah, I think my dad used to fish those.”


John Gierach

By the time I went landlocked salmon fishing in Maine recently, I had already pieced together a box of flies from three previous trips. As per my usual MO, it was heavy on Carrie Stevens-era classics that I’d tied at home, supplanted by commercially tied flies: some traditional patterns, some newer creations tied on traditional models (right down to perfect little eyeballs painted on lacquered heads), and others so starkly plain and modern they looked drab by comparison. They worked predictably. That is, my partner Jim Babb, cleaned up on a recently invented Woolly Bugger variation, catching 14 salmon one morning between breakfast and lunch, while I did most of my business on streamers you wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the river in the days before fiberglass canoes.

The last night in the motel as we were packing up to leave, I gave Jim all but a few of my flies. I figured he lived in the area and fished for landlocks all the time, while I lived half a continent away and would only watch them gather dust on a shelf in Colorado. Like all acts of spontaneous generosity, it was, as they say, liberating. And anyway, it was Jim who once taught me a useful life lesson in the comparative value of flies. A few years ago on a small creek near home, he finally got me to stop resorting to heroic measures to retrieve stuck Parachute Hare’s Ears, not by pointing out that I was getting too old to be climbing trees, but by describing the practice as, “risking $10,000 worth of medical bills to save a two dollar fly.”

[This story first appeared in the 2015 issue of Stonefly Magazine. Words by John Gierach. Photos by Dave Cox]