Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bill Shuck ~ Form & Function

'Just Emerged PMD' ~ Bill Shuck

Regional Fly: A fly pattern based on a recognizably local/regional style or type, its composition informed by the dictates of regional conditions. Or, as Bill Shuck defines it: “A design/pattern that evolved in a geographical area as a result of the water type & insect life that predominate there.”

Indigenous Fly: A rarer form of the regional fly, in our time. Defined the same as a regional fly, yet, one might say a purer form, constructed of materials native to the region of its origin. Many of the old designs were such. The Hare’s Ear & Muskrat Nymph, for examples. The Allgrouse featured in my last post is a more recent example.

Those of you old hands who came up before the internet might find those definitions (labels) redundant & serving no real purpose. And to those I would say the definitions are meant to evoke an interesting & entertaining fundamental of our game, for what that’s worth. I’m not dogmatic. It’s all about fun. But, guiding, I meet a lot of anglers who are ardent about improving their skills & enjoyment of our sport, yet seeming to take their cues, for the most part, from: fly fishing shows, online videos, media & the marketing forces which seek to popularize, & I’m hoping the definitions will serve to remind those anglers where the creative stream of our game actually springs from & what deeper benefit there might be in drawing creative water there.            

Most who read SHJ are probably aware the soft-hackle approach was developed to a high art in the British Isles before being transplanted into North America in the days of wooden rods. Neil Norman’s fine online journal, Soft Hackles, Tight Lines – A Soft Hackle Pattern Book is devoted to the early flies; & in those designs we see tying techniques & material choices developed to sophistication. Those who came before us were as intent & canny as any angler today.

 The earliest fly fishers into the Northeast & Mid-Atlantic region, armed with English flies, met trout streams & trout stream insects very similar to those of England, particularly in the area that is now Pennsylvania. The fly patterns they brought with them worked so well they featured considerably in the decimation of Northeastern brook trout populations, & some of these are still in use today, the dressings unchanged for 200 years, while others morphed slightly or radically to meet regional dictates. And of course, along the fertile streams of the New World, as new fly designers were born, new patterns were born, & those, more & more, informed by local conditions. In the mid-Atlantic, as in the British Isles, a regional school developed, exemplified in the designs of Pennsylvanian, Jim Leisenring, & from these some purely indigenous patterns developed as well.

Though our palette of materials is only limited by imagination, there are three unchanging elements of wet fly design: size, profile, motion. Barring nuclear mutations, the size & shape of those insects we seek to simulate remains constant. ‘Profile’ is the frame in which we create. Perhaps, Leisenring’s greatest contribution to soft-hackle design was his emphasis on profile – & that articulated in he & Pete Hidy’s ‘flymph’ imitations displaying the prominent thorax we see as a characteristic of natural mayflies, particularly.  

 ‘Tradition’ is, simply, The Living Archive Of What Worked. To my mind any definition beyond that is merely construct, the jingle-jangle of individual perception. The authentic tradition at the core of our game is not static but a continuous stream wherein there is no old or new, no East or West. And the hallmark of a good fly design is its universal effectiveness. A good fly travels well. There are far too many examples to list here. We’ve noted how effective the British designs worked in the Northeast. Though trends may carry some of us far from our regional forebears, profile, & what the trout are saying, remains much the same. Though my own home water, the upper Columbia River, is unique & vastly different in character from the educated streams of Pennsylvania, much that works on Brodhead Creek works here equally as well. Each trout stream teaches universal lessons to be taken away, while at the same time functioning as a unique creative crucible, & that is why there will always be regional anglers tying & fishing flies informed by their home waters & the nuanced demands of the trout inhabiting them. That is where we meet Bill Shuck, a “man of the country”, to borrow from Cormac McCarthy.

Bill is standing in the stream. He fishes the same water that Leisenring fished & his fly designs reveal direct lineage. Bill does not promote himself. Doesn’t write a blog. Doesn’t sell books or videos or a special purpose rod bearing his name. You won’t find his flies in any catalog. Yet, though he is far too humble to say it of himself, I would list Bill Shuck as one of the modern masters of the wetfly. And Bill is in fine company, hanging with a talented group of regional angler/designers that includes Ray Tucker & twist-body magician, William Anderson There is no dogma in these guys' game. Though they are rooted in the authentic tradition of their region, like Leisenring, bottom line, they are bait-makers looking for a fish count. For his love of the game, Bill generously shares his work with SHJ. Some of these are his own designs, & some are patterns that have caught his eye. 

 Though chances are we haven’t seen them before, looking at Bill’s flies we see something at once familiar, ‘classic’, one might say, while at the same time, we see, they are fresh – an evolved re-shuffling of classic elements resonant to the core of our flyfishing brains. We might ask ourselves: “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”

There are some who might define Bill Shuck as a ‘neoclassicist’, & I would agree that is fair, in the most positive sense, yet most apt to describe the appearance of his flies. Like the rest of us, through media he is up on things, though it is obvious he doesn't dive in indiscriminately composing fanciful designs of the latest 'hot' materials. He is discerning & pragmatic. He understands that it is still hard to beat natural materials.

As a soft-hackler, I see Bill Shuck’s level of craft as a bar to aspire to. As an angler/guide fortunate to spend a lot of time peering into water, as well as a variety of other folk’s fly boxes, Bill’s flies reveal to me that his time on the water is well-spent – I see regional influences, function & form coalesce to graceful syncopation. These are not fanciful, but informed designs, well done. Bill has an eye for a killing bait. Plain & simple, these are soft-hackle flies meant to be fished.

Thanks for sharing your work with us, Bill. And thanks for keeping your hand to what is truly authentic, worthwhile & integral in our game.

Biot & Plover March Brown ~ Bill Shuck

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


Brown Allgrouse
Tying local.

  When Colonel Carey migrated from England to British Columbia, some say, seeking the perfect trout fly, a grail of sorts, did he bring a box of North Country spiders with him? Did he bring requisite materials from the Isle of Tradition? Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know is, his ultimate expression, the Monkey-Faced Louise (eventually the Carey Special) may be the largest sized North Country spider of all time, the original built entirely of the indigenous materials Carey found in B.C.

When we first arrived beside the Columbia River in NE Washington in the early 1970’s (fairly close to the B.C. lake country where Colonel Carey sought his grail), we were a young family, an hour’s drive from town, building a homestead, raising livestock, operating a reforestation business, & there was very little in the budget for fly tying materials save for essentials like thread, hooks & wire. Yet I lacked for nothing, the homestead, neighborhood (& neighbors), my wife’s knitting & sewing baskets, providing a mind-spaghettiing array of supplies. Moose, elk, deer, bear, raccoon, skunk, coyote, muskrat, beaver, lovely pine squirrels, rabbit, turkey, pheasant, waterfowl of all kinds, starling, suicidal (window banger) songbirds of many useful types, ruffed grouse, & of course domestic chickens, all you wanted – the list of critters the river, woods & roads provided is too long to print here.

Material combinations were only limited by imagination.

And I had my books, among them, Leisenring, Brooks, Skues & some of the earlier British writers, & these were both inspirational & informative, teaching methods & mixes of materials to create flies that were rarely seen in 1970’s Western fly boxes. These old books & methods were actually freeing. So I tied my flies of native materials & the native trout of my home water enjoyed & appreciated them. I think of those days as my indigenous (nativist) period, & my trouting game has never been better than it was in those times.

Of all the materials available, ruffed grouse was & is my favorite. For usefulness, I’d give it equal billing with ringneck pheasant. Tail, wings & every part of the ruffed grouse’s anatomy provides feathers useful to the soft-hackler. The Allgrouse is a pattern I started tying in the 70’s that I still consider one of the most killing in my box. I tie these with brown phase & gray phase ruffed grouse, resulting in two versions, an overall brown, & a gray version. Together, in sizes #12 to #16, these will cover a lot of mayfly species.
Gray & brown phase ruffed grouse tail feathers 


Hook: #12-#16

Thread: primrose yellow Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk

Hackle: ruffed grouse body feather or wing shoulder covert

Tailing: 3 ruffed grouse tail fibers

Abdomen: ruffed grouse tail fibers twisted with a single strand of pearl krystal flash & the tag of the tying silk (original was without krystal flash & reverse wound with fine wire)

Thorax: ruffed grouse tail fibers taken from the bronze band near the tip of the tail feather

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Swing The Fly Review

Swing The Fly Magazine
   The Voice of Spey

Though I do read stuff online, it’s not my favorite mode. I still prefer the tactile, portable book or magazine enjoyed from a favorite recliner, posted in the bathroom, or toted off to bed.

I hesitate to believe that free digital media is entirely to blame for the diminishing titles of print magazines. I suspect diminishing quality of the medium is more to blame. When a magazine devotes two-thirds of its thin volume to advertisements readers eventually tire of it & drop subscriptions. Yet I’m fairly certain there will always be a niche for quality magazines – The Drake, Fly Fishing & Tying Journal, California Fly Fisher, & Gray’s Sporting Journal come to mind. And also a bright new one, Swing The Fly, which began as a free online journal & moved to print in winter, 2016.

Upon receiving my first issue of Swing The Fly, I was immediately impressed. Square-bound, not stapled, at a half inch thick, printed on excellent quality, heavy recycled paper, it more than met tactile requirements. (Makes a handsome coffee table book.) Inside I was welcomed, in photos & real ink, to an unabashed celebration of things that are authentic & rooted in the soul of our game – & with no trace of didactic expert-ness, onanism, or market-driven kitch. Advertisements are sparse & understated, not in your face.

Along with an old master, Trey Combs, Swing The Fly offers a strong line-up of fresh voices. I was particularly impressed with Mia Sheppard’s writing chops. Mia is an Oregon mother, fishing guide & writer whose succinct article, The Great Public Land Heist, sheds light on the dominionist movement chipping away at the idea of commonwealth in the form of accessible public lands. Sheppard compresses this fractal issue admirably, & has the sand to present it for what it really is, a social/ideological issue our times are compelling us to confront. There is an important message clearly evoked yet tactfully unspoken at the nexus of Mia Sheppard’s article, regarding what it actually means to be an American, as well as an angler, participating in the Public Trust. A heavy lift for an angling writer (speaking for myself), & a controversial subject for an angling magazine to present considering the current political/ideological lines being drawn.

Unique to any magazine I’ve read lately, or within memory, there is a decided rhythm & pace to the overall presentation of Swing The Fly that is almost organic, like the metered pace of casting a two-hander, swinging a fly down some lonesome run. It is immersive. I’m not sure if that is intentional or if it just seems to fall together that way, this magazine being the creative offspring of editors who are, foremost, hard-core anglers & guides. In either case, I'm fairly sure any who love two-handed rods & swinging timeless fly patterns for steelhead, salmon & trout, will find Swing The Fly an experience well worth the price of admission.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spike, On Fly Lines

G.E.M. Skues ~ wikicommons
     Those who peruse the right-hand column of this page may have noticed, filed under ‘Gatherings’, the fairly loaded title: Amber Liquid Anglers & Sportsmen. I know, funny title. Spike, the guy who writes it, is funny too. Spike is a writer & a wit. Wit is the best kind of funny because it is always alloyed with truth. If the current Republican primary doesn’t have you convinced, Spike provides further evidence to support my suspicion that we are, in fact, angling at the edge of The Apocalypse. Spike, on fly lines:

Monday, March 7, 2016

Wine Merchant

Wine Merchant ~ Steven Bird 
    Leisenring’s Black Gnat is a killing fly, long one of my favorites. Never being able to leave well-enough alone, I’m always tinkering with the sexy mingling of black & claret that, I think, makes the LBG so effective. This version sprouted some distance from the parent tree, took up trade & changed its name.

For fun.

Wine Merchant

Hook: #12 Mustad 94840

Thread: wine UNI 8/0

Hackle: natural black/bronze hen

Body: claret yarn, single strand, touched with black rabbit & twisted 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Walleye on the Fly

        Canadian & American surveys of the upper Columbia, above Lake Roosevelt, indicate that up to 70% of the native fish species spawned within the system are eaten by walleye before reaching maturity. Short of pulling down the dams & allowing the river to flush, there is no plan other than suppression for reducing their numbers. Biologists think if the 70% depredation rate can be decreased by about 7%, native trout may remain sustainable. Toward that goal, Washington & Oregon have suspended catch limits on walleye, as well as other introduced, non-native species – channel catfish, bass, & northern pike.   

Always has to be some dufus who wants those fish like he caught back home in Alabama or Wisconsin. Walleye were illegally bucketed into the upper Columbia in the 1950’s, & from there have fenestrated downstream to inhabit the entire river. Below Chief Joseph Dam, where there are still salmon, walleye munch salmon smolts.

It’s not a good situation.

Walleye are good, filleted & fried, but they are not good fighters. A big one is good for a short, bulldogging fight, but that’s it.

In fall, during the October caddis hatch, walleye move onto those areas which traditionally concentrate trout, to feed on the big fall caddis. For a few evenings in September walleye were thick on one of my favorite trouting locations, & quick to take the swung October caddis imitation – so I did what anybody would do.

Skillet biology.

Filleting those sacks of walleye was a task nearing commercial proportions, but was worth it. Invitations were sent out, beer was brought in. The friends from up & down the river had a great time at the fish fry.

(Some of us had too good a time.)

And in the end, everybody agreed that skillet biology was a pretty good way to counter the harmful affects of bucket biology.

We do our best.       

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Close Look At Freshwater Scuds

Brian Briscoe photo
   Upper Columbia flyfisher & photographer, Brian Briscoe, has embarked on the ambitious project of photo recording the various menu items found in the upper Columbia mainstem & drainage. Brian kindly shares his amazing work with SHJ. The scuds were collected from a B.C. lake & exhibited at the annual West Kootenay Fly Fishing Club Symposium last year. There is a lot to be learned from studying these photos. As scuds are important trout forage in most lakes & slow waters, Brian’s observations on shrimp form & behavior shed light on effective imitation.

Brian Briscoe photo
The shrimp in the photos are mature, at about ¾ inch in length. A size that seems to surprise Eastern anglers, though I’ve found ¾ inch models in the Washington lakes I fish, as well. As it is with aquatic insects, we see that colorations vary within a population, shades of olive, & many exhibiting an attractive flare of bright orange or pink at the tip.

Brian Briscoe photo
Brian makes a truly salient point regarding tying imitations of these, pointing out the fact that scuds straighten their bodies when in motion. They swim very rapidly in bursts, the body held straight. Only when not in motion do they assume the characteristic ‘C’ shape we see so often in popular imitations. These swimming scuds might be well-simulated tied on a long-shanked, drop-bend hook like the TMC 200R, the profile, to my eye, a near perfect match.
Brian Briscoe photo

Scuds are bottom dwellers, so imitations are best fished deep. I can see that the ‘C’ shaped profile might do well dead-drifted beneath a bobber, but if the imitation is to be delivered via a sinking line & dredged near the bottom, stripped, one might be better served with an imitation tied on a ‘conventional’ hook design affording a straight profile. To my own eye, a Carey Special design, stripped, might be a closer match than a ‘C’ shape scud design for simulating the swimming shrimp in the photo at the left.

Brian Briscoe photo
In improving one’s game, there is no substitute for observations garnered from time on the water, surely. Thankfully, & fortunately for fly tiers, those like Brian, whose curiosity leads them to record what is in the water, offer fly tiers a unique, valuable window, through the frozen image. Well done, Brian. Much thanks for sharing your work with us.

More on scuds in this excellent article by Phil Rowley:  

Brian Briscoe photo
Brian Briscoe photo
Brian Briscoe photo