Everyone has a way to unwind at the end of the day. Maybe you sit and watch the tube for a while, read, play on the internet or whatever. It’s crucial to our day to day sanity. The releases from the strains of our lives are the small things that keep us on an even keel. In my unwinding I usually find myself winding thread around a hook. Much like now, with the hook in the vice I begin turning thread around and around the hook.
I notice that the kinds of flies I tie are often a reflection of places I want to be or are on my mind. For the past couple of weeks I have been getting ready for a seminar in Mobile for the Mobile Bay Kayak Fishing Association. As you might have guessed the patterns that I once used while living in Mobile have been most often the subject of my tying. But even then I am always looking for better and more affective patterns. As a result of all of this I have done a pretty good job of refilling a saltwater fly box. Right now as a matter of fact I’m tying a saltwater fly, a shrimp pattern. As my thread wrap returns to the eye of the hook I take the hook out and get ready to put the barbell eyes on.
More important than that though is the time I have spent thinking about the time I lived there. When I drove away from the city I remember looking back in the rear view mirror and swearing I would never come back and live there again. I think I was bitter about parts of my time in the city. I was bitter about not having been able to finish my degree, bitter about my work experience, and tired of living in a failed relationship. I roll these memories around like the figure eight loops that I use to tie the tiny barbell eyes to the hook.
I lived in Mobile from when I was twenty till twenty four and I never expected to learn so much so fast. Often the lessons were learned the hard way. But I think it’s the same for everybody. It’s amazing what we can learn in a short period of time in life and still by the end of it feel like we now know even less than we did when we started. I shake my head at the thought and turn the beginnings of the fly back over. I reach up to a drawer in a stack of drawers that are to my left. I open the drawer and fumble around to find a back of bright orange cactus chenille.
I tie in the chenille right at the base of the hook shank and make a couple of wraps with the chenille before tying it off and cutting away the excess. As usual I throw the excess on my tying table adding to the mess. But it’s always a mess. I think it’s rather like life though, a jumble of ingredients and events that eventually come together to make us who we are. The jumble of clippings and materials on the desk is, I think, much as the scattered relationships and events we go through in life.
When I started putting the seminar together I felt that it would be a good time and great way to see old friends. Who knows I might manage to pick up a guide trip or even get an order for a boat. I guess we become much like the fish we go after. Like the redfish in the delta stirring around for white shrimp, I won’t pass up the blue crab that spooks out of the grass. I lean back in my chair and cut off a piece of hard nylon and pick up the cigarette lighter off the desk. I light the lighter and put the end of the hard nylon to the flame and slowly roll it around so that it forms a ball at the end of its length. I turn it around and repeat the process.
I’m really glad that I decided to do this seminar it really put me in mind of the people and places that I loved in the area. I guess it’s true what they say about the mind slowly letting go of the bad memories. I think our mental health depends on it. Or maybe it’s just that the cream always rises. No matter how you look at it, that’s the way it works. Or at least for me it is. I cut the piece of nylon in half and then lay a piece against the hook shank to see how far my “eye balls” will extend past the cactus chenille. I don’t know that it makes a nickel or dimes worth of difference to the fish but I like the way they look. Burned mono eyes seem to add a bit of flair to me.
I know that I learned much more about life while I was there than I learned about any subject while I attended class at South. I think I learned more about being a friend and a good guy for my gal in those four years than I did at any part of my life. Maybe it’s the real world experiences of the college years that add up to the most. I think the degree is just the prize while the experience is the true reward. I guess though I really wouldn’t know since I never finished my degree. I whirl these thoughts around like the thread coming out of my bobbin to secure the eyeballs over the chenille. But as each part of the fly begins, another thought occurs to me.
I reach back into the drawers of tying material and dig around in the drawer that holds the “flashy stuff”, you know crystal flash, flashabou, and so on. Finally I stumble over a small bag that holds a sort of creamy pearl crystal flash. I pull it out and separate out a few strands and cut them out. Once again the bag of excess material goes on the desk. A trip I took a friend on a couple years ago comes to mind.
My friend Garret and I had just gotten off work at Wintzell’s and we already had the kayak and tackle loaded up. As soon as we got off we drove down to Dauphin Island, both still wearing chef’s pants and kitchen shoes. When we made it to the island where we would launch the yak we unloaded the boat and gear. With that done, we hopped in my tandem kayak and paddled out to the rig that sits by the bridge.
We anchored out and caught speck after speck. It was an amazing night. Just as Garret looks back at me in the rear of the boat, he tells me thanks for taking him out on the best night of speck fishing he ever had. As soon as those words leave his lips, he casts out. Unfortunately that cast threw out more than his lure. He threw his entire rod and reel. I sit smiling remembering that night. I felt for my friend, but I guess all you can do is laugh when you look back at moments like that. We would return to fish again there after work but luckily Garret never made another offering to Poseidon.
I finish tying in the flash and sit back thinking about what to tie in next. As I watch the bobbin and thread swing back and forth spinning, I remember the first time I tried to cast a fly to a redfish in Mobile. My friend Scott and I went down to Dog River and paddled our way in. It was in the fall and the tide was coming in that morning. So as we got into the bowl that opens in the river just past the bridge, we came to a flat and I knew in my heart of hearts that this flat held droves of redfish. I stood up in my Native Ultimate and poled around the flat. Scott followed suite. Soon Scott looked away from the flat and saw gulls diving on a mess of brown shrimp coming into the river to spawn. Scott paddles out quickly and begins catching speckled and white trout.
I however didn’t move. I slowly poled across the flat watching and trying to peer through the murky water to see the redfish it hid. Finally I saw one with its tail in the air. I slowly poled closer hoping to get a cast to it. Before I got there, the tail dropped I picked up my fly rod and made a cast where I thought the redfish might be heading. I stripped the fly in and then I saw it, a slot red closing in on the fly. More than any other aspect of the fish I saw its tail. The end of the tail was a brilliant blue.
I saw the red speed up to eat the fly and then it saw me and shot off. Even though I missed the fish and it didn’t eat the fly, I was so excited I had to sit down. That was the beginning of what was to become an obsession.
I reach forward into one of the drawers that occupy my table and pull out about three pieces of rusty brown sili-legs or maybe they are a part of an old jig skirt. Who knows, who cares. I tie them in on the underside of the hook shank under the eyes. With them tied in I see six very long brown “legs hanging down. I reach and grab them, pull them taunt and trim them off evenly. I then take the hook out of the vice and flip it over and then reach back for the hard nylon and cut off a small piece and tie it on by the eye of the hook so that the nylon rests on the barbell eyes. This actually worked out great because now my weed guard doesn’t take a ton of extra thread wraps to make it stand up. Genius. This ought to work in the delta really well in all that weedy cover out there.
The first time I visited the delta was before I was into fly-fishing and was at the time the president of South’s Bass Club. The club’s vice president and I got the invitation to fish with Jeff Dute and an older friend of his who’s name has escaped me in the intervening years. The vice president brought down his boat. Yeah, a college kid with a brand new bass boat. Rich kid, I would find out later that he liked to hang it over others. But all that aside, I rode with the older gentleman who’s name I think may have been Don now that I think about it. Don had a smaller bass boat with a smaller motor than our vp.
It was apparent from the start that Don believed that you were only as old as you felt. He also felt that his boat was in truth a corvette and the channels and creeks of the delta were his race track. His control of that boat at speed was amazing and had me holding on to my hat! I loved each second. I had a ball. But in seeing those creeks and channels I found a place I would fall in love with. Each channel was so different and yet so similar, it was easy to see why so many people got lost. Don’s masterful handling of the boat left the other two members of our party far behind. We caught a good many fish that day and I learned a lot in one day from Don.
I promised myself I would learn these places but like so many things we promise ourselves it never came to pass. But it did leave me with memories. One day I’ll build an everglades skiff and check it out properly. I look down at the weed guard and press it down to the point of the hook and trim off the excess. I think we have a winner here.
Well I might as well finish it up, so I flip it back over in the vice and reach up to dig around in the drawer with all the different kinds of chenille. At this point I have to stand up and look in the drawer for what I’m after. There it is, palmer chenille, in olive no less. Jack pot. I have noticed over the years that olive is just a color that’s hard to go wrong with. I mean it works everywhere and on everything.
The palmer chenille is such a neat material. It’s like E.P. streamer brush but with a more natural flash and all the fibers are only on one side. You can palmer it and shape it like you would streamer brush, but it’s easier to work with. The big thing that really drew me to the material is that it has a sort of natural shimmer. I always like that in a material. It seems to me that life glows. Not too much but in a subtle way that is never too showy. It has a way of really flashing.
It glows like the young lady I would be calling to speak to when I get finished with this fly. I met April when I was a cook at a restaurant in Mobile. I had pretty much given up going back to college at this time. It just seemed like too distant of a dream as though I had jumped to reach the edge of a cliff and missed. At the time I met her I was dating my long time girl friend and tiny April was hired as a waitress, oh wait, server. What ever.
The way that the restaurant was set up, the kitchen was open to the dining room, we were part of the show. Sometimes more of a show than our managers would have liked. The bar was just in front of the kitchen with the drink station and expo area between the two neatly hidden away from the public without seeming so. It was a well designed place.
By this time though I had been a line cook for four years and it was something I could always count on. It certainly wasn’t my managers. It was the fast turn over of serving staff. Most of them were students and those that weren’t were very often running from something it seemed. Life in a restaurant is, to me, one of quiet desperation. You can feel that desperation that seems to eat away at your soul almost.
Some people do truly love working there and perhaps they will become chefs or whatever. April loved her job and she was constantly smiling. I knew through the grape vine that she had a little boy. What struck me about her was how doggedly determined she was about life and yet still seemed to glow with energy and life. I found out later on that she also worked downtown as a bar tender. I knew about the hours a downtown bar tender had to keep. Regardless of how much they made, it was a grueling job. I couldn’t imagine doing that and being a mother. Her straight dark chestnut hair accented her smiling green hazel eyes perfectly. I often caught myself staring at her and she at me.
I knew what I could see in her, she was a beautiful young lady at a lithe one hundred and ten pounds and a frame of about five four. She had all the curves a fella dreams of. She still does. I knew I would fall for her if we spent too much time together and over the months we worked together I almost did.
It would be a year and a half after I left that restaurant before I heard from her again. She is now pregnant again. In the world we live in when we hear of a single mother we often wonder how they do it. When we hear about an unmarried woman with two children, we often look away. But still she just keeps on fighting through regardless of what is thrown at her or what others may think. She amazes me. I will see her this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I pull a length of the palmer chenille out of the bag and I tie it right behind the tiny bit of crystal flash. Slowly, round and round I began to palmer it down the shank of the hook taking the time to smooth it back between each wrap so that it wouldn’t overlap. Over and over, in truth the distance is a short one but attention to little details make it seem longer. By the time I get to the dumbbell eyes I make a figure eight around them before I tie it off by the eye of the hook. Then I trim off the excess. I take hold of the bobbin that I had let swing and spin idly under the fly and make a neat head of thread before tying it off. Most people at this point would use a whip finish but instead I use two or three half hitches. From what I understand it is the traditional way of tying off a fly but who knows. I really don’t see what makes a whip finish so great anyway. It takes longer to do and doesn’t give the degree of control the half hitches do. But that’s just my opinion for all it’s worth.
After I trim off the tag end I reach out across my small tying table and grab my little bottle of clear finger nail polish. The world’s cheapest head cement. I’ll never understand why people use epoxies or head cements that cost three or four times as much and do the same thing. Oh well, I guess there is a lot I don’t understand. Then again I too used to use all manner of different glues and epoxies. I was always told that with age comes wisdom. I just wonder when that’s going to happen. It seems to me that the older I get the less I know and the more complicated things become. Maybe instead with age comes admittance of ignorance and true learning follows.
I sit back in my chair and stare at the poof ball I have made that now sits in my fly tying vice. At this point, it simply looks odd. To make things worse I reach out and grab a comb and begin to comb out the fibers on the palmers chenille. No matter what you do, you never get it all to cooperate when you are doing the actual palmering. Once the nail polish dries I take the fly back out of the vice and lean back in my chair again and continue combing out the fly.
I never expected to see April again and this weekend I will see her again. In a couple weeks following, I’ll be back in Mobile to help host that seminar. It’s strange that when we run from somewhere we are constantly pulled back. Maybe it’s because we leave too much undone. April is naming her little girl Lillyanne. I helped pick out the name. I bet she’ll be as beautiful as her mother. I try to imagine what she will look like. She isn’t mine and yet I can’t wait to meet her. Maybe it’s because she is a part of the woman I love. Who can tell with these things?
Well now the fly truly looks like a puff ball. A fro fly! Nah, it’s time for a trim. I turn the fly so that the hook point and weed guard are up. I take my scissors and begin to trim the underside of the fly flat. Then I turn the fly on its sides and do the same. Once three sides are done I take the fly and trim the fibers at an angle starting at the eye of the hook and moving backwards letting the fibers stay longer as I go. Now the fly resembles a shrimp. A little extra trimming to get the stray fibers and I’ll have this thing done.
Maybe in the coming weeks more and more will come together, but for now I’ll relax and make a phone call to a pretty girl with green hazel eyes in Mobile.