Free Substitutions

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Ahhh, free-sub…we start out liking it, because there are thirty eight kids who want in on the kickball game but only one kickball. Free-sub gives us hope that we too can rotate in before the recess bell. Then a few years later we establish ourselves, maybe in another sport, maybe as a strong-side front line volleyball spiker…and free-sub becomes a bore, ensuring that once we rotate out we never get back in. Then we evolve further and become a fan, and the picture gets cloudy…I mean, we can accept footballers running on and off the field with abandon but it just doesn’t sit right that a baseball pitcher doesn’t have to hit…and years later still, we appreciate the free-sub concept again, when we start coaching kiddie sports and the parents are counting how many minutes their little booger-eater was in the game compared to Johnny.

Free-substitution is a mixed bag of blessings and curses. By the time we start applying it to fly tying materials, we appreciate the ability to use fluff off an old sweater when the Aussie Possum runs out–we do appreciate that. But it’s the curse side of materials substitution I want to dwell on today.

Don’t get me wrong — there are few on the planet more prone to use “found” or “similar” materials than I. I greatly enjoy the creative juice aspect, and I celebrate when my “faked” handiwork fools a fish. But over the years I have realized that the downside of free materials substitution is that people long ago were really smart. So when the pattern calls for something specific from nature, there are generally good reason, and switching something else in is often a desperate, rather than genius, move.

A few examples:

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Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

There are multiple steps to tying flies that are potentially problematic, but one in particular resurfaces for me in numerous fat-bodied flies: The dreaded downramp.

Consider a fly body that increases in diameter from near the tail (Figure 1). Almost regardless of what you use to build up that base (yarn, thread, whatever), it fattens up as it extends forward toward the fly’s head. It may need to get fatter as a result of some underlying lead wire wound around the hook shank, or simply because the insect it imitates is fatter than a needle. Now, I’m not talking about fly bodies that look fat but are mostly air, courtesy of fluffy dubbing; I’m talking more about fly bodies substantially built up with a base.

Figure 1 – Built-up Base of Body

Over that body base is usually then wound materials that establish the “look” of the fly: dubbing noodles or dubbing-loop fluff, yarn, peacock herl, palmered hackle, wire or plastic tubing or D-ribbing…whatever. For simplicity we’ll call all that stuff “the works.”

The problem: Starting to apply “the works” from back to front, over the body’s base, is easy. “The works” easily climbs that up-ramp from thin to fat (from left to right in Figure 2), each turn laying close and nice to the previous turn, just like you want it.

Figure 2 – The Ramps

When winding “the works” up-ramp, there are no gaps, no body base peeking through to look sloppy and promote unravel during use.

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Become One With Your Materials

Guest Blogger: Scott Hetzer, Eclipse Fly Co.

We all remember our early days of tying flies. Whether you started because of an inherited tying kit, read about it in a book, or these days, learned about it on YouTube, we all remember the sense of overwhelming possibility and creative potential. We start with world-famous pattern recipes, buying up all of the listed materials down to the brand, color, specific variation, etc.  This is fun, going to your fly shop or favorite online retailer to ‘unlock’ new patterns. I would even argue that this stage in one’s tying journey is among the most enjoyable and exciting, now nostalgic. As you progress… gaining proficiency, developing preference, creating your own style, materials begin to accumulate often in great quantity and variety.

In my own experience, going by the book and following recipes as instructed certainly serves its purpose, but also can result in a ton of unused products. There is an inflection point, when you realize that not only can you make substitutions with your favorite/available materials, but you can actually develop a strong enough relationship with the materials that they begin to tell you how they want to be used. I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well, if not in tying flies, but certainly angling, or likely in any other creative endeavor. Whether you are letting the trout tell you what they want to eat, or letting the materials tell you how to use them, many of us can relate to an “a-ha” moment of realizing that great success can often be found when we let the subject of our pursuit tell us how we should proceed.

Pheasant tails, a material we have all used at one point or another, are the perfect example of this phenomenon. As an aside, myself being a commercial tyer, this is of particular interest, as razor thin margins make using the full potential of a material imperative. Pheasant tails often have two distinct sides. One will be stiff, barbed and webby, feature more prominent color, and have much more overall volume (great for wrapping bodies and tying in tails). The other side of the feather has totally opposite characteristics – flimsy, drab color, and far less volume. As its profile is different, so too are its applications.

The exact pattern that taught me this lesson was Charles Jardine’s ‘Holy Grail Emerger’. (If you haven’t tried that pattern, you should) Solving for the problem of leaving enough room to properly anchor in the soft hackle collar under its whip-finished hot spot, I came to the realization that the refuse flimsy side of my pheasant tails not only provided fully adequate coverage for the pattern’s wing pad, but also saved critical space due to its less voluminous nature. Additionally, it’s muddled appearance has since become the preferred look, making this situation a win, three times over.

Since stumbling upon this component of fly tying, the lesson it has taught me has been applicable in countless situations, and I believe has served a great role in becoming more proficient at the vise. This approach to tying can create a connection between the tyer, material, and fly, of which offers an incredible sense of creative fulfillment. Despite saying all of this, fly tying is a highly personal pursuit. It is strictly whatever you make it, and it will always be of utmost importance to engage in it whichever way provides you with the most enjoyment.