It’s that time of year; if you live in the north, most of the waters are frozen and, for the most part, you have to put your equipment away for the season. Holidays consume much energy and help distract from the fact that you are suffering from withdrawal. This is when fly tying season explodes, as we anglers are not willing to give up the ghost and we need hope to get us through to next spring. Many new fly tiers will be born in these next few months.
When you start to tie your own flies, a pattern emerges. Usually the first few flies you tie, (be it a new pattern or an old, familiar one) tend to fall short of expectations and end up in a “special” Plano-like box collecting dust, because you can’t bring yourself to fish them once you have rejected them.
When I first started to tie, my mentor understood this about all beginning tiers and would inspect the first three or four replicas. As he came around and picked one up from my pile of examples, I would hold my breath in hopes it would pass inspection. Old timers have a special way of giving you a hard time once you are in the inner circle. One of the ways to tell is if they feel comfortable enough to joke with you and laugh with you. I’d often get critiques like this: “Your tail is too long. Your hackle is not sparse enough. The big ears on that Catskill dry are so big it’s going to do a nose-plant when you cast it.” If he was really feeling devilish, he’d just throw it in the trash and say,
“No respectable fish would eat that.”
One winter, a group of us newbie tiers had so much fun, tying every Saturday, with lunch, coffee and sugary snacks always in supply as creative inspiration. You can imagine how many rejects I collected that winter. It was during that time I began to develop the philosophy that rejects are important flies. My greenhorn rationale at that time was that I’d put time and labor into it and the fish are not that picky! I had a gut instinct that imperfections might be ‘true to nature,’ but felt I could not voice this, as I had no evidence, and my frugal nature prevented me from wasting dozens of flies that were not perfect.
Some of my fellow fly tiers were more critical than I and would take an X-acto knife to the ‘unacceptables’ immediately; clear the hook back down to the bare shank and start over again. Something about being this critical about nature rang so untrue for me. Being an avid nature observer, I’ve seen that nature is messy and has variations for good reason. I’ve always been a big believer in Darwin’s 10% chaos theory and felt it was very true about fish bugs as well. I feel that fly tying rejects represent the “chaos” nature is used to generating and that fish will key in on this fact. Cripples, mutants, lopsided or simply ‘off’ flies can sometimes garner a hit when nothing else is working.
One story comes to mind that drove this point home and solidified why fly tying rejects are always welcome in my box. Upstate New York: Salmon River. My fishing group and I headed out to try our hand at steelheading for the first time. Most of us were trout setters. I’d never seen or fished for steel before. The Salmon River is VERY popular. You don’t go for the isolation, as there is none, unless you go during the dead of winter, in the middle of a lake-effect snow storm.
I wasn’t having much luck hanging out with my group, so I broke off and headed downstream to immerse myself so I could learn more. I worked my way down and fished the likely ‘trouty’ places with no success.
A ‘string bean’ New Englander was across the river working a nice long drift. He was having success. I’m no fool, so I stopped and watched to learn. He was catching fish and letting the line go slack, allowing the steelhead to wiggle off after a few jumps. It was driving the other anglers near him crazy to watch his ease of connecting and long distance release, when they were having no success. I immediately had respect for him. I switched my floating line to the intermediate line he was using then tried to work another area close by.
Still no takes. Bored because nothing was happening, I kinda loitered around to learn.
After an hour or so a gruff voice called to me from across the water and said, “If I teach you how to catch a steelhead will you go away?” I jumped to my feet and said yes, yes I would! He told me I had to do everything just as he told me. I said no problem!
I ran downstream to the next set of riffles and cut across to his side of the bank. The way his leader was rigged was different, but not terribly unusual. Not having an indicator was a unique approach. No, the entire key to his success was revealed when he opened his box to tie on a fly of choice. My mouth fell open at the astonishing fact that he had an entire box of what any respectable tier would have called, REJECTS! In fact, they were completely unsellable; they looked so bad with thread tracks every which way on top of materials. It proved what I felt was true and completely blew my mind! I watched him connect with over 30 steelhead, and land half of them on those flies. All his hooksets were right where they should be, so these fish were really eating his rejects that looked like a five-year-old tied them.
My first cast after his instruction, landed my first steelhead. This river gets so much pressure that putting something out there that is different from what all the shops are selling, and more natural looking, was his key to success. My New Englander friend was kind enough to give me a few flies and I still have them today. I look at them fondly, every now and again, as one of the best lessons I’ve learned.
From that point on, I have capitalized, not only on my rejects, but when other tiers get disgusted with their results. I tell them, “I’ll gladly fish those if you’re not going to.” Sometimes I get great new flies that way, but most of the time, they usually give me a puzzled look and think twice as there must be some hidden value they are not seeing.
There it is. Rejects catch fish. So if you are still feeling new to fly tying and are worried your flies are not perfect… absolutely no need to worry. Celebrate Chaos!!! Be different, because different catches fish too! And if you want to send me your rejects,
I’ll gladly make good use of them…