Fly Tying Class – Lunch Delay

There will eventually be more to this post in the way of details relative to tying flies about the class I taught last Sunday, March 25th in Brewer, Maine, for The Penobscot Fly Fishers Club. Right now, before I finish tying some flies for an order, I have to get this out there. My mind won’t let me hold this in any longer.

Things started off Sunday morning early with the news that the fine staff of grandmotherly women cooks (for the most part as I recollect from last year, there were a couple elderly men helping there too), who made a delicious lunch last year of home-made chicken pot pie and ginger cake with whipped cream at the Penobscot County Conservation Association where the class was held, would not be feeding us this year. Whew. Mike, the man in charge for the club quickly followed that announcement by saying, “That doesn’t mean we’re not having lunch.”

A quick poll and discussion ensued and the choice of pizza from nearby City Side Restaurant was determined. Get a bunch of men together and pizza can always be a hit. Ladies like their “pie” too.

About noon, Mike came up and quietly informed me, “Go ahead and start the next pattern. I’m leaving in thirty minutes to pick up the pizza.” So we proceeded to tie a reduced, two-strip version of the old wet fly pattern, Split Ibis. About 45 minutes later, Mike returned – empty-handed. Informing the group that the pizza wasn’t ready, he explained, “They got the belt sander races goin’ on there today, they’re pretty backed up.”

OK. I couldn’t help it. I’m blue-collar redneck from fairly rural Pennsylvania, which is, as James Carville once described, “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between,” but my jaw dropped as I queried,” “Belt sander races? Belt sander races?” I never heard of it, but I knew instantly it had to be a redneck thing.

Apparently belt sander racing is quite a big deal, and in doing a quick internet search I found that it’s catching on across the country. Here is the link I found to the specific event, the popularity of which had been responsible for the delay of our lunch. My friends will tell you, not to get between me (or my brother) and food when hunger is a condition. But I was working so I acted professionally and disciplined; since I can be a gentleman when the need arises. This, despite the fact that Quill Gordon, writer of a good blog called; The View From Fish in A Barrel Pond, and in this post:

seems overly eager to relate what he perceives are a number of stories – I read that he used the word “many” – an obvious exaggeration, which have the common theme of me being in my underwear. I am really only aware of two. Or maybe three…not “many.”

Here is a link to the Portland Press Herald article, complete with a video of screaming belt sanders that you can watch:

And you can only guess, there are both Stock and Modified Divisions. There is even an official, BSRA organization, the Belt Sander Racing Asssociation. Rev ’em up boys! And girls. Check out the videos of the BSRA Las Vegas events, and yup, they got your scantily-clad cheer-leaders in their tight faux NASCAR uniforms.

I asked about “making it interesting,” as Seinfeld character George Costanza once stated in an episode, and of course it’s illegal, but I doubt that will deter Mainers (or Pennsylvanians) from doing it.

A bit later I thought of another idea, maybe not as appealing for lack of speed, but they could use orbital sanders on the floor, place them in a big circle (or square) and then award prizes to the machine that is the first one out of the circle. Or the one that stays in the longest. Kind of the electric version of cow chip bingo. More opportunities to “make it interesting.” Fundraisers for fire halls, clubs, etc.

By the way, the racing must have been pretty intense, because it wasn’t until at least an hour later that our pizza was finally delivered.

This sport has spawned such phrases as “In Grit We Trust,” and gives new meaning to the phrase, “Eat My Dust.” Anyone for a floor buffer riding contest?

Washing Bucktails and Hairstackers

During the week before the L. L. Bean Spring Fishing Expo on March 16 – 18 I was tying a Footer Special for a customer while staying with my brother, Larry. The belly calls for dark blue bucktail, so I pulled one out of my drawer bin. I have one of the large size A. K. Best hairstackers that a friend from Maryland got for me a number of years ago. They work great for stacking bucktail. I have been grateful to my friend ever since.

After the class I taught on Sunday, March 25th at The Penobscot Flyfishers in Brewer, Maine, my friend and I stopped at the recently opened Annika Rod and Fly Shop in Holden before heading back to New Gloucester. Several fellows from the class started to filter in for the usual Sunday evening gathering and as they moseyed about the shop, someone knocked something off the large tying table that owner Don Corey has set up as The Learning Center. The object hit the concrete floor with a loud, metallic, tinkling clank, and then I saw that it was a large size A. K. Best hairstacker and announced, “Oh, it’s just a hairstacker.”

Don Corey was quick to reply, ” No, that is not just a hairstacker.” Several of the fellows present chimed in with supportive affirmation of Don’s comment.

Of course I had to agree with their assertion. The large A. K. Best stackers are the best ones available for the purpose of stacking bucktail for streamers and bucktails. Problem is they are not made anymore. Those of us fortunate to have one are very protective of them.

Chris Helm of Toledo, Ohio, operates a large fly shop by appointment and mail-order in his home Whitetail Fly Tieing Supplies (that’s how he spells tieing), and even though he’s nearing retirement and not actively promoting his catalog business he has his own brand of hairstacker that he had custom-made by the same machine shop that manufactures the A. K.Best hairstackers. I believe they sell for approximately $50. The best way to order one is to call him between 10 AM and 5 PM, Eastern Standard Time. Call to inquire: 419-843-2106.

As I began tying the Footer Special I cut a section of blue bucktail, culled out the short hairs and inserted it into my stacker. But it just would not stack. Tap, tap, tap, and it would not stack. It was one of those tails that come in the package not completely cleaned from the dyeing process. It had a bit of waxy residue that made it sort of cling together, and that is a problem. I don’t use that much dark blue in tying bucktails, and I have several full blue tails, but I had dealt with this one before. When you are stacking bucktail, there’s nothing worse than bucktail that won’t stack. Previously, whenever I encountered this problem on a particularly unruly and uncooperative piece of deer tail I just bagged it and found one willing to work with me. On this day I guess I wasn’t in a mood for it to be ornery with me, so out I went to the kitchen and dropped it into the dishpan. My brother has a Burnham hot-water boiler in his house, just like I do, a finely-made Pennsylvania product from the company in Lancaster. Solidly-built, American made. Imagine that. Mine is 33 years old and still runs like a reliable old truck. That model has a hot-water coil that also heats the domestic hot water. The element that regulates the temperature can wear out in a couple years, and when it does, you pretty much have no way to limit the upper temperature of the hot water. Caution at the sink is in order. My wife used to love it because the dishes were always squeaky clean.

I gave a good squirt of dish soap and added hot water. A minute of washing, a minute of rinsing, then I took it outside to vigorously shake the excess water from it. This was one of those unseasonably warm March days, it was sunny and the back deck faces to the west. I stood it up on the railing against house and let nature take over while I located another dark blue bucktail to continue my tying.

When dry, the formerly sticky bucktail was as clean as could be. It felt like your hair does when you wash it and apply conditioner. Soft, clean, silky, smooth, almost slippery, it was so nice. Sweet! I thought to myself. And the hide was still pliable.

So I’m suggesting that any piece of bucktail or body hair that needs washed, it might be a good thing to do just that.

A few more notes on hairstackers:

1) Avoid any stacker made of plastic. Static becomes an issue. There is a new one on the market with a see-through acrylic tube at the bottom, maybe nice to see the hair, but it’s a gimmick, not necessary to see your hair stack. An idea generated by a well-meaning individual trying to separate unsuspecting consumers from their money non-fly tying tool designer, but that’s just a hazardous guess. One student last weekend had one and said he hated it because of static. I made the mistake once of thinking I could make cheap hairstackers to sell out of CPVC pipe. Bad idea.

2) Static: Use a comb, but never use a plastic comb. A metal comb, or the ones from Griffin Tool Company – that I used to think were plastic – no, they are made from solid steer horn, each one is cut individually. Steer horn is naturally anti-static. I have one and love it. And they have the feature of all being unique, because the variety of grain in the horn can add beauty to the surface. The one I have was hand-picked because it has a beautiful combination of being different on both sides, kind of a lovely wood-grain appearance to it, one side light and the other dark.

Anyone who does much hair stacking needs a good comb; culling underfur is also imperative to good, clean stacking.

3) When you do encounter a bit of static, you can wipe your hair piece with a dryer sheet. Don’t confuse my mention of “hair piece” with a toupee.

4) If your hair sits at the top of your stacker without falling into the barrel, you need to clean your stacker. I have a nice metal stacker, hand-made, a gift from my machinist-hunting-fishing-fly tying friend Truman, the bottom is aluminum, the top is brass. The brass hairstackers on the market are nice, but you must be aware that when brass tarnishes, it’s dirty and impedes stacking. Cleaning works wonders on hairstackers. Use a Q-tip and metal cleaner, or a piece of Brillo pad separated and forced through the barrel; twist it and slide it back-and-forth to polish it up. When I was tying commercially, Comparaduns were one fly I tied tons of, and I used to clean my stacker once a week. If you want to really make it stack effectively, apply a touch of car wax inside. Talk about s-m-o-o-t-h. A small piece of paper towel twisted and pulled through the barrel several times will polish it and finish the job.

Don Corey has a very nice shop; he operates it part-time. Here is his web address:

Shop hours are Tuesday and Friday, 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Saturdays 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Other times by appointment. If you are heading to the Grand Lake Stream region, most likely you’ll be driving right by Don’s shop. Plan a visit to Annika Rod and Fly Company; and he’s also chock full of the latest information on where the fishing is good…

Steamed Feathers – Revisited

We all have some difficulty from time to time finding good quality hackles for streamers. And for the record, the feathers we use for featherwing streamers can be anything suitable. (The WordPress spell check says featherwing isn’t a word but I’m going with the manual over-ride, which is me. Hey people make up new words everyday, so I’m going with my artistic interpretation, unless the default dictionary just needs to add the word. Streamer feathers are not saddles exclusively, or neck hackles exclusively, just whatever is the right shape for the specific type of fly we are tying. When we do find a good package of say, strung saddle, which are normally the best feathers for featherwing streamers, there are often many “perfect” feathers that we deem unusable only because the stems are twisted, crooked, bent, and basically not what we desire for tying passable fishing flies that we would be proud to show off to our fishing buddies, much less presentation or collector’s specimens.

I wrote a topic a while back about steaming feathers, especially hackles for streamers – and I believe this is a technique so beneficial to our feather restoration efforts that more tiers should be informed of its benefits. Hence my followup post on the topic.

These three photos illustrate a feather that I “fixed” last week, taking a basically unusable saddle and transforming it into a prime example of what we want. This specimen was in worse need of “correction” than the other example I posted.

Saddle hackle - strung package stock; not only with an undesirable 45-degree bend, but the stem has an even worse near 180-degree twist in it. It needs help.

Same feather with some fluff removed to illustrate the twisted stem. Not to be confused with Twisted Sister.

The same saddle hackle feather, after steaming. Almost arrow-straight and ready to tie in. Nothin' like the application of a little moist heat to induce persuasive cooperation.

When steaming saddle hackle feathers it is imperative to avoid getting burned. Steam can scald in an instant. After stripping the fluff, I hold the butt end with my tweezers, and I grasp the tip end with my left hand. Three seconds under the steaming spout of a small teakettle opening while holding the feather stretched taut will yield straight stems.  Solves a lot of the tying difficulties we encounter trying to make maximum use of available feather resources. It does require some effort, but what in life that is worthwhile does not require at least some effort?

Hope this technique helps, streamer tiers.

Widgeon Smelt

This streamer pattern is an original one I created in the 1990’s, patterned after the popular and effective flat-wing streamers, Joe’s Smelt and Jerry’s Smelt – Jerry’s being one of my favorite Maine streamer patterns, one I’ve had lots of success with. There will be much more written about this fly to expand this pattern and information about it into a more complete article, but not before next week. I apologize for that, but my goal today is to get something new for you folks out there to look at, and perhaps give inspiration to tie and try. If you ever fish minnow patterns for trout, salmon, and steelhead, you may want to test this fly. I’ll be writing more on the fishing tactics on the Widgeon Smelt, as there is a very unique situation of my stream-side befuddlement that took place with this fly back about 1996. So you may want to make a note to revisit this topic, say around April 4th.

Today, I am home only two days before heading to Hamilton, Ontario, on Friday this week to present and demonstrate fly tying as part of the Showcase of Fly Tyers at the 37th Annual Izaak Walton League Canadian Fly Fishing Forum. I am spending the weekend with my very good friend, Rick Whorwood, of Stoney Creek, minutes from the show venue. Check Rick’s website – his link is on the right – for some of his upcoming events. I have not seen Rick since the last time I attended the Forum in 2003. He and I have both been very busy and have not managed to get our schedules together. Rick tied the Jock Scott salmon fly for Canada Post several years ago when they issued the second series of fishing fly postage stamps, and he is replicating the 19th version of the Jock Scott from Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories for my book – in progress – The Favorite Flies of Mary Orvis Marbury.

Anyway, the Widgeon Smelt was one of the patterns I presented in a fly tying class I taught as guest tier at the Gray Ghost Fly Tyers in Yarmouth, Maine, on March 13th, prior to my weekend demonstrations at the L. L. Bean Spring Fishing Expo.

A small school of Widgeon Smelt - size #6 and #8, a packaged gift to my friend from Portland, Maine, Rod McGarry.

Here is the pattern recipe:

Widgeon Smelt

Hook: Mustad 94720, or 3665A, or any long-shank streamer hook, sizes #2 to #12. Yup, small sizes, too; that information will be part of some of the additional writing that I’ll be adding next week.

Thread: Red Danville Flymaster 6/0, black for head.

Tail: Olive schlappen fibers. Part of the tail is also formed from the frayed fibers of the pearlescent mylar tubing used on the body.

Body: Pearlescent mylar tubing, secured fore and aft on the hook shank. Leave enough room for the elongated head.

Wing: Sparse gray marabou, over which is a single Widgeon flank feather. I bought a 1 oz. bag of European Widgeon feathers around 1992, from a fly tying shop no longer in business – Classic and Custom Fly Shop, Connecticut.

Gills: Red thread, but I prefer to further enhance and paint the gills with Wapsi red lacquer.

Head: Black with painted-on eyes, yellow with black pupil. After a couple coats of Wapsi Gloss Coat, I added a coat of Black Pro Lak head cement. The eyes are painted on with the tip of a large size straightened paper clip. Then I use Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails, but gently, making only one brush stroke over each eye. Don’t worry about coating the whole head the first time. If you try to put too much on with the first coat, the Hard as Nails will react with the Wapsi lacquer eyes and smudge them. These heads have about 5 – 6 coats of Sally’s to protect them. I suppose you could use epoxy as well, a thin coat.

A closer image of the Widgeon Smelt heads.

You can see the feathers are very similar to teal, gray mallard, and there may actually be some of them mixed in with the widgeon feathers. I select the wing feathers to be long and somewhat narrow. The wing presents flat when fished, and gives some naturally imitative, scaly-looking barring to this pattern. I tied these flies for my friend Rod McGarry because he has promoted my visits to Maine, placing me in contact with several venues that successfully resulted in bookings for classes, etc. Thank you Rod! Rod commented when we tied this pattern during the class that he really liked it. We had breakfast together at The Village Store in New Gloucester, Maine, on Friday March 23rd. So I tied this half-dozen and gave this set to Rod. He guides for Jeff MacEvoy at Weatherby’s Sporting Camps in Grand Lake Stream, Maine. I am certain considering my success fishing the Widgeon Smelt in the Moosehead Lake area of Maine that Rod will do well with it in Grand Lake Stream.

Widgeon Smelt - head macro image. Note the smooth, shiny finish. That's how I like to finish this pattern, and also on my Jerry's Smelt heads. It takes a bit more time, but I think the results are well worth it. You can also see the vivid red gills.

Please stay tuned next week for the fish stories to go with the fly. Thanks for reading!

Only A Fly Tier…

This is going to be a short post, partly to let everyone know that I am back home where I have access to my own equipment computer, at least for a few days before I head off to the Izaak Walton 37th Annual Fly Fishing Forum in Hamilton, Ontario this weekend. I just have a short, sort of funny post to write.

There are some quirky habits and behaviors that are peculiar to fly tiers. Well, there’s a surprise. Like last Saturday, my brother Larry got into my car to ride home after my wet fly class at Pineland Farms Market Cafe near New Gloucester, Maine. The class was a success and I’ll try to write a review of that later on.

Anyway, as we started to drive away, Larry asked, “What’s this?” as he reached into one of the little cubby-holes between the front bucket seats and pulled out a sealed bottle of Grif’s Thin Head Cement. “You have head cement in your car?” he queried me in a rather surprised tone of voice.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Most people have gum in there. Or Altoids. Or Lifesavers,” he observed.

“Well, I got a bottle of head cement. It’s been there for a couple weeks now. I haven’t taken it into the house. Haven’t needed it.” I replied. Then after a pause, I added, “I am a fly tier.”

Added / edited this morning, March 28th: My friend Bill posted a comment that Grif’s is no longer available. Yes that’s right folks, one of my favorite head-cements, the Thin which I used as a first coat on anything and everything that was in my vise for almost 20 years, and the Thick, which I started using for smooth, glossy heads (underneath black ProLak sometimes) when Hille’s Lacquer Cement was no longer available, is not manufactured any more. What is in inventory wherever it is will be all there is. Here is a location that bought the remaining stock of Grif’s from Wapsi in February: Fishing Creek Angler, Fly Shop and Bed & Breakfast, Benton, Pennsylvania. For now they have some…

There is also a link to their website on my links bar on the right.

Vintage Silkworm Gut For Sale

A friend and fellow fly tier, Roger Plourde, of Plainville, Connecticut, has vintage silkworm gut for sale. He says he has enough to support me posting an announcement here so I am presenting a couple photos of the vintage cards and the information to go about placing an order. Roger is one of the contributing fly tiers for my upcoming book, Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892, and he has already completed his patterns and I must say they are extremely well-tied. He and friend Paul Rossman cooperated to dye some of the materials for the flies that Roger was tying, and they even used antique methods, like dyeing with onion skins to obtain certain colors. Well, I am digressing, but Roger is a very good fly tier and I was pleased to have his participation in my book, which is still in the stage of continuing work.

This gut is the same brand that I have used for antique fly replications that I have previously posted here.

Photos below:

This is antique silkworm gut, made by Ataka and Co. Ltd. in occupied Japan, so that dates it to post World War II. Roger Plourde has these carded coils of gut for sale in different sizes. This photo was taken with flash.

4# Silkworm gut, photo taken without flash. The actual color of the cards is more yellowed as in the flash photo.

If interested in ordering any of this gut, contact Roger Plourde at:

His inventory presently contains these sizes: 3 – 4 – 6 – 12 – 15 lb.test cards of 10 yds. for $15.00 per card. There is a small added charge for postage.

Cabin Weekend Fly Tying Session

A week ago Thursday my close friend, Truman, “TG” McMullan and I went to my family cabin for a three-day fly tying visit. We planned to hang out, relax, cook our own meals, and tie flies. We tended the fireplace and set up our fly tying stuff on the drop-down desk top that my grandfather and local undertaker, Romain F. Bastian, custom-built into the wall of the fireplace and living room area. TG and I have done this often enough that we’re kinda of set in our ways, at least regarding where we set up and sit; I’m always on the left. The desktop has a dark green felt covering that was cemented on long before my time. The edge provides for perfect clamping of our vises, there are electric outlets at desk height, and a small desk lamp provides general lighting, which during daylight tying hours, is quite enough. And as you can see, there is plenty of room to “expand” our work area. Before dawn (yes a few times I started at 6:15 AM, at least applying additional coats of head cement as soon as I poured my first cup of coffee), and after dark we also use the ceiling light.

The photo below was an early morning photo in natural light to catch the ambiance of the fireplace as we savored our first cup of coffee. At that moment of the day, right then, there is nothing better in life.

I'm seated at left, my friend, TG is on the right.

Truman was tying wet flies in preparation for our return trip to the Moosehead Lake Region of Maine this coming September. A group of us are booked into Wilson Pond Camps, just a few miles from Greenville. TG and I love to go float tubing. This method of fishing is often a complete get-away from other anglers, considering that the popular rivers in the area, particularly the Roach River, can get a bit over crowded. We have spent the day on a pond more than once without seeing another angler. And for those of you that have never tried a float tube, consider this: fishing from a float tube is like fishing from a Lazy-Boy Recliner. I fell in love with it my first time, remaining skeptical to the last, even as I put on my flippers. Over the three-full days we were there, TG tied 91 wet flies, pictured below:

The photo is not the greatest because we had no tripod, and it was hand-held under natural light. I apologize for the less than stellar clarity photo, but I hope you get the idea. Lined up from left to right, top row: Beatrice, King of the Waters (palmered hackle), Black Gnat, Cahill, Cardinal, Rich Widow. Bottom: McGinty, Queen of the Waters, Alder, Katydid, Iron Blue Dun, Cowdung (wingless because TG lacked the cinnamon color duck quills), and the Rube Wood. These are fishing flies, with one coat of head cement, ready for the water.

I went intent on working on Carrie Stevens streamer patterns, in preparation for the introduction of the next two Collector’s Edition Sets that I am creating. I actually made up the two prototypes for these sets, and had time to spare so I started on more, finishing seven additional streamers besides the seven flies I wanted to finish for the next two sets. The photo below was a Saturday morning shot of my work station.

Completed wing assembly on the left for Don’s Delight; in the center some prepared hackles for wings in progress await the assembly line. On the right lined up on my tool block: Rapid River, Larry’s Special, Larry, Lakewood, General MacArthur, Casablanca, America, and the Victory, all size #4 – 8x long. Two more of the Victory in smaller sizes are in between the larger size repeated foursome in size #1 – 8x long – the General MacArthur, Victory, Casablanca, and America.

I tied some of these streamer patterns by selecting the wing components and assembling them in advance. On some of them, and it seemed to run like this in sets, I made the bodies first, including the belly, throat, and underwing, leaving the only remaining task to be the attachment of the wings.

We had a great time. TG brought home-made bread and rolls, we grilled venison burgers, made customized Reubens and Rachaels for lunch, ham and cheese omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage, thick custom-sliced slab bacon from the local market, grilled chicken salad, pasta with chicken and vegetables, fresh-ground coffee every morning, and enough beer and wine to enhance our meals and camaraderie. We don’t always eat like this. We also watched a few movies and took walks in the woods with Abigail, my Cocker Spaniel.

The photo below features the four patterns Carrie Stevens created for her series of patriotic flies during World War II:

Starting at upper left – Casablanca – 2; top center and right: General MacArthur; 3 – Victory – 2; and America – 4 at bottom center and right. The first three patterns are in sizes #1 and #4 – 8x long; the America also includes a #2 and a #6, both 8x long. The irons are Gaelic Supreme Mike Martinek / Carrie Stevens Rangeley Style Streamer hooks. All four patterns feature red, white, and blue banded heads.

The photo below is of eleven additional patterns:

Left row from top to bottom: G. Donald Bartlett, Gray Lady, Rapid River, Don’s Special.

Middle row: Lakewood, Larry’s Special, Don’s Delight, Larry.

Right row: Lady Miller, Jenny Lind, Merry Widow.

The streamer flies were all tied at the cabin, but I had to finish them with coats of head cement after I returned home. I am developing three different themes for these sets of flies. These streamers are dressed on Gaelic Supreme Hooks, all sizes #1 and 2 – 8x long.

As added enjoyment, on Sunday afternoon we saw eleven deer in three groups; Monday morning from the house, a group of ten paraded across a grass lane and about fifteen minutes later four more crossed the woods lane to the rear of the house. All in all, it was a good weekend, and it is really great to have a close friend to share these experiences with. Truman and I had so much fun that he says we need to do this next year, at least three or four times. I’m up for that.