I filled my mug with a handful of ice, followed by a generous dollop of single malt over the top and let it sit, allowing time for the ice to cool the liquor’s heat.
The last of the day’s sun filled the camper with soft-edged gold, and I pulled my fly box from the depths of my pack and set it on the table in front of me. Earlier that day, having spilled and lost a couple of flies to wind and water while rummaging through the contents streamside, I decided to devote what remained of the day to instilling some kind of logic to the contents.
While the hard plastic shell was scratched and faded in places, upon opening, the rubber seal designed to keep out moisture looked as fresh and supple as the day I’d bought it, 20 years gone by.
One half of the box was given over to a series of foam patches with small slits cut in to them to accommodate hooks. Here lay a tangle of small dry flies, organized once upon a time in some kind of order, now more a haphazard menagerie of color, size and species.
A working fly box, I told myself. A well-organized fly box was the sign of an angler spending too much time preening and not enough fishing, I told myself.
In days gone by, detecting these small mayflies, ants and beetles on the water came easy. Nowadays I required the light and smoothness of the water to be just right, otherwise I have to tie on a larger fly up front to help sight them. Comfortable with their lack of organization, I moved on to the other half of the box.
This consisted of a dozen small individual compartments, each with its own flip-top lid to keep its contents in place. Many of the compartments were full to overflowing, various parts of fly anatomy poking out from under the lids with little apparent order of size and species – grasshoppers, stimulators, PMXs and Trudes.
Fortified with a sip of whiskey, I scooped a finger into the first compartment and dumped the contents onto the table in front of me, culling to the side those with rusted hooks, fraying hackle and a few that just didn’t feel right. Every angler has their confidence flies, those they return to time and again, even on days when they catch nothing, taking refuge in the dubious logic that if a favorite fly is not working, surely nothing else will either.
Hoppers of various shapes and sizes filled two compartments, a mess of stimulators two more. From another I emptied and sifted a collection of Royal Wulffs – a classic dry fly not favored so much nowadays, its body of peacock herl and red ribbon topped with calf-hair wing and rooster hackle having been supplanted by flies tied with synthetics like foam, rubber, nylon and crystal flash.
One in particular caught my eye, an awkward-looking fly that brought back memories of a summer evening floating the Ark years gone by. This one was among the first dry flies I’d attempted to tie, and it showed. The proportions were all wrong – too big a wing, too small a hackle, too skinny a body, with the result that it refused to float upright or track naturally in the current.
Despite this awkwardness, big brown after big brown had risen to greedily take it, to the disbelief of both myself and my fishing buddies, proof fish seldom read the same books fishermen do.
Despite space being at a premium, I stuffed it back in the bottom of the compartment, sipping some more whiskey at the memory, comparing the golden evening now with that one many years past.
I next dumped a pile of caddis flies onto the table. Caddis are among the easiest, plainest and most effective dry flies, both to tie and fish – a pinch of elk hair, dubbing and some rooster hackle.
As fly fishing becomes trendier and the audience it attracts younger, a good thing, so too are gaudier materials and catchy names designed to attract anglers as much as fish, names like Hippie Stomper, Club Sandwich and Flatulator. The humble caddis fly is often lost in the crowd, yet few dry flies produce fish with such consistency. I tucked them back in their compartment unsorted.
With the light now leaving the day, somehow the whiskey too had drained from the cup. Order restored to my fly box, I set it aside and watched the sun brush a fleeting, reverse rainbow on the evening sky.
With luck, tomorrow I’d spend less time rummaging and more time fishing, and the fish and I would be on the same page.
Hayden Mellsop is a Realtor with Pinon Real Estate Group and a former fishing guide.