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