ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Tying flies

Posted 11/29/23

For some, fly tying is an art form, demonstrated by the significant beauty of the elaborate patterns developed in England and Scotland for Atlantic salmon fishing. 

Based on their cost, an …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Tying flies


For some, fly tying is an art form, demonstrated by the significant beauty of the elaborate patterns developed in England and Scotland for Atlantic salmon fishing. 

Based on their cost, an angler would not wish to lose many in a fish or on a snag. 

For others, fly tying is strictly a practical matter in that it offsets the cost of buying commercially tied flies, most of which are now tied offshore. 

And for most of us, catching a trout on a fly we tied is a real thrill. I know it was for me when I landed a nine-inch brown on a Royal Coachman that came from my vise many, many years ago. 

As a matter of record, I don’t remember the year or at what age I began to tie flies. I do know that I was very young. I also don’t know what prompted me to tie flies, even though I spent some time racking this old brain about that very issue. What I do know is that despite the fact that I didn’t have any proper fly-tying equipment, my fly tying began in our cellar on the side of the coal bin, where my father had a crude vise that he used to sharpen saws. Somehow, I figured that I could mount a hook in that vise and use it to tie flies.

At the time, we had chickens and there were always some loose feathers scattered about the coop floor. So I retrieved some and began the process of tying flies. 

At the time, the only hooks I had available were about a size four, black, straight ring-eye bait hook that no respecting fly-tyer would use. Nevertheless, I forged ahead using the feathers from the chicken house, along with some thread that my mom provided, as tying materials. When I was finished with these rather makeshift creations, I coated the thread with some of Mom’s clear nail polish. 

Some years later, likely when I was about 16, my father introduced me to Robert (Bob)  Zigsby. Dad met Bob while working at a private estate, where Bob was doing the painting. Sometime during their discussions, my father learned that Bob was a fly fisherman and fly tyer. 

A bit later, I was whisked off to White Plains, where Bob kept an apartment with his wife. On our first visit, Bob gave me a beautiful, small jungle cock neck which I still have today, never removing a feather. He also gave me some Ray Bergman Gold Label dry fly hooks and some dubbing. I still have the dubbing and some of the hooks with my fly-tying material. 

Soon after I met Bob, he drove me to a sports shop along Route 22 in Armonk, NY, where we purchased my first vise—a Thompson Model B, which I also still have. 

Later I learned that Bob was a member of the Southern New York Fish and Game Association, which held fly-tying classes at the County Center in White Plains on Thursday evenings. So I started to attend those sessions with Bob and another friend, David Young, who was the father of one of my classmates. 

It was during those classes that I met all the renowned fly tyers/fly fishers of that era in Westchester County. 

Herb Howard, always with a lit Camel between nicotine-stained fingers, was one. Herb made beautiful hackle pliers in a variety of sizes, and sold the pliers commercially. He also made the best size 6/0 waxed fly-tying thread I’ve ever used. Fortunately, I have a number of spools in a variety of colors. Enough, I’m thinking, to last the rest of my days at the vise. 

Another company is marketing thread under the Howard name, but it’s definitely not the same. William Conner always had a suitcase full of India gamecock neck flies for sale. These necks were small compared to today’s genetically engineered capes, but cost only a few dollars then compared to necks these days, which can run into the hundreds.

Then there was Irv Lacey with his ever-present pipe, managing the classes.

Every February, Southern New York manned a booth at the annual sportsman show in the New York Colosseum. That’s where several of us tied and sold flies. The proceeds were used to send youngsters to the New York State Conservation Department’s education camp at DeBruce, located near Livingston Manor, NY. I attended that camp twice as a teenager.

Looking back after a long life, I can say without question that I was fortunate to have all of these men as mentors to a teenager and young man on his way to becoming a decent angler, and later a fisheries biologist. Those men and a few others helped me form the appreciation and skill that I have for fly tying and fly fishing. And as I sit here writing these words, with the wood stove, cranking away, I have to wonder where I would be today without their positive influence on my life.

For me, fly tying has been an adventure where I learned to tie flies for fishing—which are not very elaborate—and then the classic Catskill patterns, which are art forms and are mounted in shadowboxes. 

It’s been a lifelong passion that has provided me with hundreds of hours at the bench and hundreds more, casting my flies.

fly, fishing, england, scotland, atlantic, salmon, fishing


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  • barnhllo

    Enjoyed this immensely. Bought my first fly tying kit at Beech Mountain Boy Scout Camp well over 65 years ago...still have that cheap vice. I served as Camp Director at the DeBruce Conservation Camp in 1967 and witnessed the interest of the campers in fly tying and fly fishing. I started my grandson tying when he was ten....he has caught several trout on his own creations. He (and I) follows no recipes...just ties what he has seen in the stream; His stuff works! We will resume our winter tying soon and dream of fishing for trout in the Spring.

    Thanks for this piece,

    Lloyd Barnhart

    West Sand Lake, NY

    Sunday, December 10, 2023 Report this