Brian Kozminski, owner of True North Trout Guide Service, penned this excellent essay on fly-tying and fly fishing culture here in Michigan for the Spring 2017 Edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors, which will hit mailboxes later this month. Subscribe today by clicking here to become a member of Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Midwinter’s frigid grip has us snug tightly in between two Polar Vorteces. Seems common place these days. When I was a child, it was just another winter storm. If school was cancelled, it was a real blizzard with snow measured in feet and drifts that covered the ’69 Dragon Wagon Pontiac grocery-getter. Lake Charlevoix had open water last week and some local intel on smaller lakes report hit or miss panfish catches, but I will wait for a solid six inches before I meander out on the big lake for a walleye or burbot dinner. Nonetheless, temperatures in the single digits and a howling wind that can plummet a windchill into the negative teens tend to keep me close to fireside activities with my family. This is also a prime time for me to take inventory and stock up on flies that were either donated to the cedar gremlins of the Jordan Valley or so effective that voracious trout decided to steal a few to place on their mantle in some deep, dark domicile. Either way, I find it always exciting to attend various fly shows in the short days of winter solstice and pick up a few tricks, along with scads of ever-newly developed materials that seem to be erupting from some remote craft corner of the world we never knew existed. Claims like “will add Life-like movement,” and “irresistible UV color,” usually sucker me into buying at least a few packets of synthetic glitter and dubbing from various producers. But why? Why do we tie? And furthermore, why do I keep adding to my exponentially growing room of moth ball-laden Sterilite containers with more beads, rubber legs, hooks and a plethora of fur and feathers?
First, let’s establish that I am not a “good” fly tier. It’s not that I am bad, or lack necessary skills at the vise; it’s just that I can’t sit down and rip out eight to 10 dozen articulated Red Rockets or Viking Midges while binge-watching Netflix or a Red Wings series on any given weekend like some production guys I know. It is a weird dilemma, actually. My OCD personality has an internal battle with the creative left brain Aquarian and usually allows me to reproduce half a dozen flies of any given nature before I begin to question, “What If we opted for this color, or substituted this material?” I wish I could auto-pilot and bang out 30 dozen rubber-legged Stimulators or Swisher’s PMX patterns, and make them identical down to the number of thread wraps and twists of grizzly hackle, but I lack the genetic background. The struggle is real. I am not alone. So why do I tie? It is relaxing for me. Part serenity, part man-craft and a dose of creativity. The history of fly fishing dates back to ancient Macedonia. Between Beroea and Thessalonica runs the River Astraeus, where man caught fish with speckled skins on a hook fashioned with a feather. But we have come a long way since those early days more than 2,000 years ago.
Here in Michigan, fly tying nostalgia dives deep. Fly boxes around the world are stocked with patterns from local fly tyers and they have been top producers for the better part of a century. Lesser-known names like the Strawman Nymph and Whinnie Fore & Aft are complemented with more popular monikers like Roberts Yellow Drake, Michigan Hopper, Madsen’s Skunk, Griffith’s Gnat and the Adams Fly. The Adams has an annual celebration in Kingsley and it is found in nearly every angler’s fly box in various forms. Originally tied with red Rhode Island Rooster and grey wool for the body by Len Halladay of Mayfield for his friend Judge Charlie Adams in 1922, its world fame is attributed to its immediate success at replicating mayflies on the nearby water. The Roberts Drake is in every guide box I know near the 45th parallel. Clarence Roberts was a Conservation Officer who was not only respected because of his stature, he was notable for being a stickler to the rules. His pattern had a yellow deer hair body to imitate mayflies near his home waters. I would not want to be found on the Upper Manistee or Au Sable Rivers in mid-June without a couple dozen just in case a barrage of drakes come pouring off the silky-smooth rippled pools of the south branch. Art Whinnie first tied the Michigan Hopper with the most basic of materials readily found in Michigan: deer hair and mottled turkey wing. Its buoyancy and seemingly more irresistible appearance as it becomes more tattered makes it a great grasshopper imitation. This fly was later developed and made famous by Joe Brooks; some may know it as Joe’s Hopper. Griffith’s Gnat, imitating a smorgasbord of midges, comes to us from the late George Griffith, who was one of the founders of Trout Unlimited. Conflicting reports say he collaborated with a friend to invent it. He later denied it was his pattern, but simplicity rules again with peacock herl and grey or grizzly hackle to fool the most wary trout here and in tailwater fisheries out West. Borcher’s Special from Ernie Borcher had a slightly darker body of wrapped turkey feather to match darker mayflies near Stephan Bridge, and can still be found in the fly bins today at Gates Au Sable Lodge. The Houghton Lake Special is somewhat of a lost treasure. Those who tie and use it know how effective it can be prior to a hex hatch. First tied by a school principal of Pinconning, Bob Jewel used to race up to the Au Sable in a Corvette to fish with Calvin Gates, father of the late Rusty Gates. They would often grease up the fly and strip it like a streamer, or perhaps an emerging Hexagenia limbata. Earl Madsen fashioned a white rubber-legged deer hair attractor fly in the 1950’s we still use today. The Au Sable Skunk is anything but. Deadly in midsummer’s heat whether fished dry or just under the surface as a wet fly, cold water brook trout and the larger fish that hunt them find this hopperish-looking fly irresistible. So, with all this rich history and all these successful flies, why do we feel the need to tie new and improved versions?
We have to push the envelope. The fly industry is not unlike the fashion game: they are always searching for newer, better, stronger and more effective materials. We also have anglers in the game, both men and women, who are exercising their fly tying muscle. The streamer game has exploded like no other. First to open up Pandora’s Box and really expose fly anglers to a trout’s underwater world was Kelly Galloup and Bob Linsenman. They had caught and named many fish on the rivers they fished, but they were on the hunt for the elusive monster fish of the rivers. Catching a dozen twenty-inch fish every year is admirable, but they had larger fish in mind. Kelly’s research went deeper than previous attempts. He actually donned a wetsuit and dive mask to watch streamer-eating trout. He wanted to see what was key to the predatory response necessary for the take. We all have theories. Big trout are very smart, on an instinctive level. They are very good at conserving energy and eat only when absolutely needed: sometimes, once a week; others, many times in an evening. Kelly broke the mold with many patterns, most notably the Zoo Cougar. With its deer hair shaped head and neutral buoyancy, it replicated large baitfish and sculpin minnows to get the attention of the true leviathan trout for which they searched. The proper balance of marabou feathers, a little flash, deer hair and duck flank give this fly a rather life-like appearance. There is the theory that we are educating the trout we pursue. After years of seeing the same Zoo Cougars, Bottoms Up, Circus Peanuts, Hog Snares and Sex Dungeons, the trout have become wiser, perhaps more evolved. So we are ever tying new patterns: the Drunk & Disorderly from Tommy Lynch, the Game Changer from Blane Chocklett, the Ice Pick from Rich Strolis and theSwinging D from Mike Schultz, to name a few. But what about the basics?
At the end of the day, after swinging some of these seven-inch articulated creations on 7 weight TFO Clouser rods with SA Titan taper lines to get “down and dirty,” and we don’t get any takes? That is the name of the game. You are going for the apex predators of the river, not the average eight- to 12-inch trout. If you were looking to put numbers in your creel counter, the Europeans have been perfecting the Polish and Czech style nymphing for decades. After reading George Daniels book Dynamic Nymphing, I was totally sold on the technique. Unreal effective. Use 30-foot leaders with sighters and double or triple heavy bead-head flies that have “depth charger” added to names like Pink Squirrel or Sexy Walt’s Worm. Seriously want a fun day on the water? Dredge a couple of these flies on a 4x or 5x through some productive riffle zones and be amazed at how many feeding fish are right in front of you. This is the preferred method of the US Olympic Fly Fishing Team, and yes, one actually does exist. They compete against France, Italy, Spain, etc. After all, fish eat 90% of their diet subsurface: It only makes sense.
A client and friend from Ann Arbor was in Petoskey over the holiday break and we decided to watch the weather and try to float on New Year’s Day. The window of opportunity was promising. The forecast called for partly sunny and highs in the upper thirties. Not too warm for January 1, nor the coldest I have found myself unthawing my line from the rod in mid-winter, either. The river held true to its promise of solitude and sparkling white beauty known only to a select few. After some tree-trimming and lunch, Andrew made a usual cast with a usual strip and a sudden stop in his sequence.
“It’s ON!! That’s what I am talking about!!” he exclaimed. I jokingly muttered that he had on a carp as we both watched a hefty brown roll at the surface 15 yards downstream. This is what it is about. We quickly netted, measured and released the 26-inch female brown before the adrenaline and reality set in.
“That was a remarkable fish. You don’t know how many people have chased that trout,” I responded.
Then we got to thinking: Would she have taken a woolly bugger or deceiver? Was it the right fly? The right color? Or perhaps the right angler, the right cast, the right depth/retrieve and time of day? So many factors come into play.
Still some ask me, “Why do you fly fish?” Fishing as leisure, pure pleasure and pastime. My purpose is not to fill a freezer. I believe in selective harvest, that is bringing a fish home once in a while, a true pleasure to enjoy. I don’t have to kill everything I catch. I look forward to certain spots because they hold the allure of large fish once caught before. If catching fish was a means to an end, providing for my family, I would opt for a much more productive method. Fresh leaf worms in a can, usually red, Hills Bros. (some may catch the reference). If all the previous history isn’t apparent enough, nor the total oneness with nature, if the encompassing serenity and peace of the pursuit of a trout on mere fur and feathers weren’t enough, then I guess it would be the final piece of the puzzle that may make sense.
When I have all the parts of the equation figured out, the weather is perfect, the hatch is right, the fish are feeding and I don’t have my mind on texts, emails, faxes, schedules or due dates. It is me and the fish in front of me: all that matters. I don’t care how many “likes” I get from some previous post on my blog. This fish has all the dopamine my adrenaline junky addictive mind needs, and often, I am thinking of these moments all winter to get me through to the next season.