Years ago, I waded into an advantaged position that afforded me accessible angles to a pod of rising fish. I was on a river in central Pennsylvania that I had been longing to fish, and I had spent countless hours preparing to have this moment. Using a wading staff, I pushed my limit venturing waist-deep in a strong current. I could hear my wife’s worried voice in my head while my heels occasionally shifted, keeping me as steady as possible against the force of the creek. I hadn’t completed rigging the rod because I couldn’t tell what insect the fish were eating from the stream bank. Peering into the back eddy to my left in my new vantage point, it appeared as if the diminutive blue-winged olives were hatching. BWOs. Crap. 

I had to tie on a small fly in a precarious spot against the flow. Leaning on my wading staff with my left hand, I tucked my fly rod under my left elbow and used my right hand to dig through my hip pack to find my small dry fly box to find the three to four size 20 or 22 BWO flies that might capture these rising fish. 

I grabbed the first fly. Sliding up my sunglasses, I noticed that the hook eye was clogged by thick cdc (Cul De Canard feathers) stems. Grrr. 

My next fly was a small comparadun, a fly that uses deer hair to form the wing of an emerging insect. But this fly had too much deer hair too close to the hook eye. Denied again. 

Third fly…of course, it also was too aggressive on the deer hair and couldn’t be tied on a line. 

Fourth fly…back to the cdc…this one finally had a clear eye. 

I had to make this one count. 

The cardinal sin of fly tying is blocking the hook eye. If a fly can’t be tied on a line, how can it hook a fish? It cannot perform its function. It’s a waste. Or is it?

Chubby Chernobyl with a borderline clogged hook eye.

Michelangelo stated, “There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.” I’d spent time tying flies to prepare for this trip, and either I wasn’t mindful enough to not crowd the hook eyes, or I purchased flies I hadn’t thoroughly inspected. This lack of attention and preparation left me shorthanded. I caught several fish that afternoon, but in about 30 minutes, I broke off my fly, and my hatch-matching effort ended prematurely. 

Hooked Brown Trout

There are many times I have tied beautiful (and not so beautiful) flies but encroached on the eye, and I’ve had to cut off the work I had completed. It’s frustrating and feels like going backwards to use an exacto knife to tear down your fly. But each time I tie a fly, I gain knowledge of how to improve and what to avoid next time. A few extra thread wraps can block the eye of a hook, especially on very small hooks. A few millimeters of material placed too close to the eye along the shank can make the difference between a useful fly or a learning exercise. Attention to details and mindfulness is a critical step in tying flies. Approaching fly tying as a creative outlet with a learning mindset helps me stay positive and realize I am building skills and knowledge with each effort, regardless of the result. 

To learn and create something artistic is rewarding in and of itself. James Anthony Froude clearly supported the importance of learning from our mistakes, “Instruction does not prevent wasted time or mistakes; and mistakes themselves are the best teachers of all.”

When tying or buying flies, make sure the hook eye is clear enough to be tied on a tippet. You work hard and take time to drive to the site, hike to streams, and wade into position to make your cast. The fly, leader, and tippet are the final and most important pieces of that effort to fool and catch a fish. All that effort can be interrupted by those few extra threads wraps and those few minutes of undivided attention to avoid blocking a hook eye. In other aspects of my life, I have noticed that without preparation, double checking the details, and gaining the perspective of others, I can be left without the tools I need to create the results I desire. The practice of fly tying is a calming hobby that I enjoy, but I love the ability to make something that is creative, durable, AND useful. 

Wading back to the bank with no remaining fishable BWO flies, my frustration waned, and I allowed myself to chuckle. I was proud I learned to tie those small flies, even if only to make flies I couldn’t use with my first effort. I knew I had new flies to tie and new things to learn, and thankfully I wasn’t taking myself too seriously. 

“The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” E. E. Cummings   

One Reply to “The Cardinal Sin of Fly Tying”

  1. It is so good to take things in stride! SO good to laugh! And to learn through mistakes!
    It is scary that you waded in such deep water with a current! Plus trying to find a usable fly!
    You seem to enjoy all the challenges of this sport!
    Keep at it!

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