The Dog, the Boy & the Trout

Gordon van der Spuy shares his fly-tying philosophy

The first fly I ever tied consisted of a carp hook, my mother’s sewing thread, hair from our dog Goldie, and a liberal dollop of Bostik (hobby glue). I tied it without a vice and didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I’d modelled the fly on something I’d seen in a magazine. Mine looked terrible by comparison but surprisingly Goldie’s nymph caught fish, and not just one or two, many. The first time it happened I almost peed in my pants. I’d cast the fly out and hurried off to relieve myself behind a nearby tree. I was in mid pee when I heard the reel screaming. How I didn’t wet my pants and lose the rod, which at that stage was being dragged off into the lake, is a miracle. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the fish. I was chuffed, I’d caught a fish on something I’d tied myself. After that, I went rogue. Everything in the house became possible fly tying material. I cut up feather dusters and pantyhose. I sampled the pets — the budgies, hamsters, dogs, rabbits, chickens and fantails. I raided my mother’s knitting basket, crochet drawer and her sewing kit. She had awesome stuff! The big problem came when I discovered my mother’s jewellery box. The pearls looked like they would make brilliant eyes. I didn’t realise they were real at the time, and Mom only discovered her cut up necklace months later when she had to go to a fancy do with my dad. It wasn’t good because by then I had caught plenty of fish on Mom’s Pearl Booby and it had become one of my firm favourites. I got told off properly, and all I’d done was show initiative by taking something which hardly ever got used and turning it into a serious fish-catching tool. My parents didn’t share my sentiments on the matter though, and gave me an ultimatum instead. They would buy me a fly tying kit if I promised to steer clear of everything in and around the house. From then on, I tied like a man possessed. It was all I wanted to do. Whilst most kids my age were playing computer games and trying to impress girls, I was wrapping feathers. At some stage I even started to become good at it, and the flies I was tying were looking more like the ones I was seeing in magazines. The funny thing is, the ‘better’ the flies became, the less fish they seemed to catch. Those earlier ‘reject’ flies of mine seemed to have done a better job. I’d caught lots of fish on flies like Goldie’s Nymph and Mom’s Pearl Booby, even though they didn’t look as nice as the magazine flies. I was perplexed. The answer came from one of the most unlikely sources. One day I was sitting in a History of Art class when Dawie Smuts, our crazy art teacher, was waffling on about some guy named Louis Sullivan. Louis had invented the skyscraper. Why we had to learn about the ‘History of Architecture’ in an art class was beyond me. Daydreaming about rising trout seemed a far better proposition, but then he said it… FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION I think 20 light bulbs went on in my brain simultaneously. Sullivan had coined the term ‘form follows function’, the idea being that the form of an object would be determined by the function that it was intended for. These words tickled me because I could immediately see how this philosophy could be applied to fly tying. Up until then I’d been doing the traditional thing, adhering to proportion charts with the discipline of a Buddhist monk. I followed fly tying recipes and step-by-step instructions to the letter, aiming for perfection in the process. Perfection it now seemed, was overrated. I’d never really questioned anything. If the book said, “Tie in three pheasant tail fibres for the tail,” I did that. Sullivan’s philosophy forced me to drop the sheep mentality and to think! Pheasant tail fibres, for example, are horrible for tails. They’re too thick and, tied as a tailing, leg or wing-case material, are not durable at all. Surely there was a better alternative. I started playing around with different materials and eventually settled on tying the tails of my Pheasant Tail Nymphs with softer hackle or hair fibres. This immediately solved the durability issue and also allowed me to tie sparser, finer, more natural-looking tails, especially on the smaller flies. The traditional approach to tying has always been very academically orientated, with a very strong textbook styled influence. We’re taught to follow instructions, as opposed to being taught to think for ourselves. We’re shown what to do, but rarely told why we’re doing it. What Sullivan’s approach got me to do was to figure out what I wanted the fly to do, and then tie it to do that. Fly tying, like swimming, is a practical pursuit. Learning to swim without getting wet is impossible and fly tying is not that much different. The very best flies in the world were designed in water, as much as they were in the vice. Terry Lawton in his book Nymph Fishing: A History of the Art and Practice, tells the story of Frank Sawyer fishing a red Pheasant Tail Spinner until the hackle disintegrated. What is interesting to note is that fish still took the fly as it sank. That, it is believed, was the origin of what is now arguably the most famous nymph in the world, the Pheasant Tail Nymph or PTN. Sawyer took the knowledge he had acquired from this experience and developed the idea further. He noticed that fish fed subsurface for most of the day, so he took the next logical step and created a fly which fished at the depth of his quarry. Fishing sunk flies on chalkstreams was not the done thing back then, and there were a lot of people who considered Sawyer to be a piscatorial heathen. Luckily, Sawyer was a practical man and didn’t care what other people thought or said. Sawyer’s experiences on the water influenced what he did at the vice. You can’t divorce the two. A lot of people approach tying from an aesthetic point of view, paying more attention to what the fly looks like, as opposed to how it will behave or fish. We are pattern-orientated rather than being purpose-orientated, and in many ways I think we’ve got this whole thing the wrong way round. I don’t think you can tie effective flies consistently without thinking about how you’re going to fish them. I remember fishing a favourite spot on the Vaal River as a young boy. The guy standing in the run next to me was absolutely hammering fish. He had one on just about every cast whilst I stood there fishless. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and walked up to him to ask him what he was doing. “You need to get the flies down,” he told me. “The water here is fast and the drifts are short; if the fly doesn’t get down immediately, chances are the fish won’t even know it’s there.” “Give me your fly,” he said, taking a large split shot from his top pocket and crimping it onto my tippet with his teeth, a few centimetres above my fly. “Try it now,” he said with confidence. I lobbed the fly out in front of me and got savagely taken on the first drift. It was as easy as that. One small change and BOOM! A fly can be tied perfectly, but if it doesn’t efficiently get to your intended quarry it’s pointless. You need to be thinking beyond mere patterns when you tie. Presentation is where it’s at, and that is what you should be thinking about when tying the fly. Form follows function!

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