A couple of weeks ago I started making lists. Not Christmas lists. Lists of flies I’d like to tie this winter, blueprints for how I want to re-imagine my fly boxes. Lists of “the thing with feathers.” Lists of hope.
Its almost cliché to quote Emily Dickinson’s poem titled “Hope” is the Thing with Feathers when talking about flies. Ted Leeson probably did it best in the Habit of Rivers, and since I first read that it seems like I have seen a half dozen or so other occurrences. But overuse doesn’t make Dickinson’s metaphor any less valid when applied to flies and fly fishing. Flies are miniature carriages of hope—hope for the next trip, the next fish, the ones we didn’t catch last year, presumably because we didn’t have the right fly.
Is it self-deluding? Yes, I am certain it is. I didn't catch those fish last year for several dozen reasons besides having the wrong fly. A poor cast, or no cast at all, or maybe I never fished the river I should have. And this year I’ll make many of those same mistakes again—but hopefully less often.
That is not what fly tying and the hope that goes along with it are about. Here at my desk in the basement—while the world snows and ices itself into a deep, harsh winter—I can wrap feathers and thread around hooks with a hope that is unique to something new, something untried. The old flies still work. They always will and as long as they do someone will get an inordinate amount of pleasure from telling everyone else that all you need are Hare’s Ear nymphs and Adams dry flies in a variety of sizes if you want to catch fish in the West.
Bravo, my friend. You may be right. And yet, I do not care.
There is something exciting in the new fly (or the old fly that is new to me) that keeps me tying and reading and tilting my head to understand what I am seeing in a photo of some fly pattern I have never seen before. That excitement is hope, the hope that this fly will surprise me, or fool some previously uncaught trout, or solve some problem that has heretofore flummoxed me.
Gary Lafontaine said: “Even if an assortment of three flies could cover 99 percent of trout problems, it would still be the other 1 percent of the fish that would be worth catching.”
I think that quote sums up why I tie flies and why I tend to look at my boxes and wish I had a about seven dozen more flies to choose from. Because I want to catch the fish worth catching.
And here at my vise, in the basement of winter, I start with the hope that this fly will be the one to make it so.