By Paul Little

Published in Flydresser Autumn 2005

This question, posed by the Editor may provoke many emotions among the fly tying fraternity. At the outset it must be stated that the views in this article are my views and my views alone. Subsequent discussion may or may not provide the answer to the question, they may even raise additional questions in the process. Being a fly dresser who fishes, and not a fisherman who dresses flies, one has to be careful not to lose sight that, from the earliest beginnings of fly tying, flies were dressed to catch fish with, be they trout, salmon, grayling etc. or in more recent times salt and coarse fish.

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing trend to diversify and produce flies for display purposes, imitate the natural insect to infinite degrees, and to dress flies that are “clean” without a feather out of place. People who strive to achieve these goals (and in some cases succeed) are craftsmen of the highest order.

I am in awe of some of the work around today. However, we must not forget the innovative fly dressers of the past. Just turn to Frank Sawyer for example. Who would have guessed that the Pheasant Tail Nymph would still be around today with its plethora of variations, catching as many trout as ever. Frank Sawyer was particular in the feather he chose from the cock pheasant tail. He used the subtle fact that the some feathers had black markings near the stem which could be utilised as a representation of the baetis wing buds, turning almost black when ready to hatch. This was fine attention to detail in the early years from a practical fisherman. I am not part of the school that advocates “the scruffier the fly the better”.

We have been privileged over the past twenty years to see the development of one of the most innovative dressers that has graced a vice in the UK. That tyer is Oliver Edwards. Oliver, without a shadow of a doubt has changed the course of trout flydressing single handedly with his innovative ideas and use of materials in order to best imitate the naturals on which the fish feed. He has blazed a trail for others to follow. All aspects of the insect’s life cycle have been developed, a multitude of materials and tying techniques used, and many trips back to the blackboard have been made. But the one thing that really stands out is his ability to change fly designs and materials for the purpose of catching fish. He is not frightened to use synthetic materials to best represent the insect, Oliver has honed his fly dressing skills to achieve his final goal.Having said this, he is quite at home dressing spiders and traditional patterns, which are simplicity in themselves, in order to catch fish. But the greatest thing of all is that Oliver will demonstrate and share his skills in public answering the most detailed of questions about the patterns.

Having travelled to a number of fly dressing events, I have had the privilege to watch Charlie Chute dress fully dressed salmon flies. Charlie, born in Ireland and now living in the United States has consistently demonstrated his considerable skills in public in this difficult art. We have had conversations on various aspects of fly dressing from the “Art Fly” to the fishing classic. Charlie stands firm in his belief that the Classics should be dressed using classic methods (and here there is another story!) and that the finished fly should be fishable. But his main standpoint as long as I have known him is that he, unlike a number of other salmon fly dressers, Charlie is prepared to demonstrate his skills in public. As with Oliver, this is an admirable quality.

I have long believed that acquiring the skills to deal with natural materials in the creation of flies is the corner stone on which all other fly dressing hinges. I feel that this is paramount in the pursuit of fly dressing excellence and in order to reach the higher echelons of the craft, one must pay particular attention to the materials. For example materials should not just be selected from the packet and attached to the hook.

Ask a number of questions first: Are the feathers, fur etc., clean. Do the feathers need steaming. Is the feather exactly right for the task in hand.

Materials should be washed, steamed and prepared to get the best from them. Remember that the best results are obtained from the best materials. When it comes to dressing good flies, a silk purse cannot be made from a sow’s ear no matter what the skill level is. Believe me I have tried and failed on many occasions.

The use of synthetics in fly dressing is nothing new, however there is a plethora of new materials on the market. Once again I had the pleasure of watching Howard Croston of Hardys demonstrating fly dressing for competitions on the big reservoirs. Howard described some of his methods as “belt and braces” fly dressing, he had to make sure that the flies were fit for purpose, no more apparent than his rendition of various Blob patterns. Great to watch! And I have to say that I have seen some of the micro patterns that Howard dresses for river fishing and they are lovely flies. I have attempted to lead up to the answer of the initial question by considering the connection with fishing, materials and skills and flies fit for purpose.

Modification of my views has been necessary along the way to arrive at a final answer to the original question, “What is fly tying?”

The answer is that there is no one simple, single definition, there is no easy statement to answer the question. One must consider the materials used in the craft, the acquisition of materials to improve the quality of the product, whether those materials are natural or synthetic. But most importantly of all the dissemination of the skills one has acquired for the benefit of others is at the very top of the list. Over time, I have benefited from those who have trod the fly tying path before and have asked my mentor a number of times “Why he disseminates his skills so freely and with such enthusiasm?”

He replied “The answer is simple Paul, I do it as a thank you to those who have devoted their time to my cause. I only hope I can make him proud by following in his footsteps in my attempts to educate budding fly dressers.”

Finally I would like to thank our Editor for the opportunity of expressing my views here. I have had to think long and hard before putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard these days). It would be great to think that others have views on the matter and would be willing to share them with our readers.