Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fly tying and the Mind of God: Imitation vs. Innovation

I have flyfished now for 56 years, beginning on a small artesian pond in the Texas brush country. I started tying flies in my teens, and have always found flytying to satisfy my creative impulses. When I started fly fishing the Blue Ridge, I tied my own patterns, hoping that they would succeed. And they did, with the tiny brook trout that populated the streams in the upper elevations of Shenandoah National Park. They had survived over the millennia by being willing to seize the moment. But when I had the opportunity to flyfish Henry's Fork of the Snake River, I struck out entirely with my motley collection of homespun flies. The fish wouldn't touch them. For the first time in my life, I did what most flyfishers do as a matter of course when fishing new waters: I visited a fly shop and purchased a dozen flies, most of which were variations on a single bluewing olive hatch. That day, I learned that no matter how inventive you are, you must still muster the humility to look at what's going on around you.

When I began to flyfish my home waters of the Lower Laguna in my early 20s, I was able to unleash my creativity, mainly because the fish didn't care. I created poppers from deer hair, discovered that they would sink after a few casts, and began experimenting with various ways to keep them afloat. I ended up discovering closed cell foam, and married foam with spun deer hair to create the earliest iterations of the VIP popper, the subject of the second article I wrote for Fly Tyer. It's been one of my top three flies ever since, mainly because the fish don't care much about how the fly looks, as long as it doesn't misbehave. Many anglers, who have tied the VIP, agree. 

In fisheries such as the LLM, a fly is successful mainly because of how it performs; that is, its castability in wind, how it lands on the water, its sink rate, how it performs in seagrass-filled water, and its hookup rate. But in a cold water fishery populated with wild, spawning populations of trout, these variables don't matter as much. Instead, the fly is usually effective if it imitates a naturally occurring insect that the fish are keying on at that particular moment. Tying flies to match the hatch takes considerable discipline and "imitativeness," as opposed to inventiveness. Of course, there are non-imitative flies that are successful, too, such as the Wulff patterns, and Western attractors such as the Stimulator. Attractor patterns are, by definition, invented by anglers who are willing to think outside the box of imitative fly tying, and conceive of a synthesis of qualities that may not occur in Nature. In a sense, the inventive tyer taps into an archetype that has no literal physical expression, at least as yet, but somehow appeals to the fish's sense of propriety, or provokes its indignation. We really don't know what a fish thinks when it sees what is clearly divorced from all recognizable life forms.

Inventiveness comes at the beginning and the end of an angler's learning curve. When I fished the Jackson River in western Virginia, I learned that attractor patterns were, by and large, ineffective on that tailwater fishery. I learned one day from flyfishing guru Harry Steeves, who happened to be fly fishing below Gathright Dam one morning, that I had to know precisely the size and shape of a particular midge pupae in order to hook the largest trout I'd every enticed the following day. But while fishing in the same spot one day not long after this humbling lesson, it suddenly occurred to me--don't ask why--that a particular synthesis of two popular dry fly patterns would prove successful, even though the pattern did not match any natural insect on that difficult fishery. I went to my hotel and tied the pattern that night, and it became the "Jackson River Special." My buddy Bill May and I caught a lot of trout the next day on that pattern, and it continued to be my most effective fly for that fishery.

The difference between the novice fly tier and the seasoned one had to do with several things, including: the countless days of immersion on my Virginia home waters, the humility to learn from masters such as Harry Steeves, and the willingness to listen to what Nature was whispering to me. When you embrace all of those ingredients, then you become eligible on the far end of the learning curve to innovate effectively. Houston Smith, who wrote Forgotten Truth, and was known for his books on comparative religions, came up with a concept that resolved the conflict over Darwinian evolution and Creationism. Pointing to events in nature that cannot be reduced to the forces of natural selection--such as nonadaptive coloration among birds--he coined the term, "the descent of the archetype" to explain the playful creativity of the divine expressing itself in the world.

I believe that inventiveness at the fly tying vise can be, at the pinnacle of one's learning process, a moment of an archetype's descent into expression. It can be the fly tying equivalent of a Coppery Tailed Trogan or a Painted Bunting, both of which make no sense in a world governed in large part by survival of the fittest. It can mirror a pattern in the mind of God, which exists only as a creative expression capable of arousing an answering response in the mind of fish. Flies such as Bud Rowland's Numero Uno, and perhaps my own VIP Popper, look strange and idiosyncratic, but are endowed with something beyond the rational, imitative mind. When the VIP made the cover of Guide Flies several years ago, I was admittedly embarrassed to have the VIP pictured beside Harry Murray's Mr. Rapidan, a fly that has become immortalized as a Blue Ridge classic. I have always realized how odd the humble fly looks, but how effective it can be. In one sense, it wasn't my creation as much as a gift of momentary inspiration informed by years of failure and yearning. It was the utterance of another realm finding a fertile place in my imagination.

The other day, Ryan said, "I want to invent a new fly." As a relatively old man, I thought, as all fathers do, "Learn more first." But then I remembered the endless winter nights of inventiveness at the tying vise as a young man. So I said nothing, knowing that Ryan's creativity would, in time, merge with prodigious on-the-water experience to spawn original creations, the broad shape of which had been known for all eternity in the one mind we share.


juan said...

Mr. Sparrow, what kind of retrieve is ideal on popper flies?

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