Fishmail: Of vice and men

March 29th, 2003

Dolly Parton, a popular singer, was once asked by a TV interviewer why her image was so gaudy and low-rent. “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap”, she replied, thus giving me a gag which has served me well for many years as a way to grab the attention of my readers at the beginning of articles such as this one. Inspired originally by an old friend who used it to start a book he wrote that we gave away free with a now-extinct magazine, I have since shamelessly hijacked his inventiveness several times in all sorts of ways, and I do so again here unapologetically. Dolly’s sentiment, it seems, has many applications in all walks of life – I mean, she almost has a fish named after her – and I thought about it today as I started to tie flies in earnest for the start of the new trout fishing season.

I’ve written before about the awful deception inherent in tying your own flies – that it is a cheaper way of obtaining them than buying commercial examples from tackle shops and mail order suppliers. That lie is never revealed more starkly than in my own tying. Anyone who looked at my attempts to produce lifelike insect imitations from piles of fur and feathers would, indeed, be extremely surprised at how how much it cost to produce something that looked quite as incompetent; their minds would boggle furiously at the idea that the scrawny jumble of fibres clamped in my vice had cost me a couple of quid to produce, rather than the handful of pennies a commercially-tied version would have cost. That these demented creations sometimes catch fish would probably be even more surprising to casual observers, but somehow they do – and there, really, lies the appeal of an expensive, messy and often frustrating diversion.

This idea that things are never what they seem is epidemic in my world. It is, for example, hard for a casual observer to believe that Paul Arden is a world-class womaniser, a dyed-in-the-wool Lothario in whose company no German or Austrian woman can ever feel really safe. But, like Dolly, his studiously cultivated image as a bush-hardened, barstool-dwelling trout bum has taken many years and literally several pounds to create, and is as devastatingly deceptive as the best mayfly or sedge imitation – one reason, certainly, why Paul will be dallying with supermodels as you read this over your Sunday morning cornflakes.

What he should really be doing, of course, is getting himself ready for the trials and tribulations of an early-season grueller on a cold and windswept reservoir, which is by any measure a lot more fun than being drooled over by some lissom brunette with a thing about men with goatees. It’s a lot more fun for me, at any rate, because it means that I get free flycasting lessons (with his almost pornographically delicious David Norwich rod), a chance to raid his flybox and, thus, a chance to make jokes about Paul’s own flies.

Now, I thought my flies were scruffy. And actually, they are scruffy. But next to one of Paul’s, they look like a carefully manicured poodle alongside a Siberian wolf. This is not for want of trying, you understand; as a careful and attentive student, I always pay great attention when the maestro advises me that I need to make my creations more dishevelled. I spend hours teasing out neat seal’s fur bodies into untidy, sprawling messes that bear as much resemblance to emerging midge pupae as Shakespeare rods bear to a Loomis. But, as recent discussions on the bulletin board demonstrate, imitating one of Paul’s creations is a task which is way beyond the means of even the most creative fly-tiers. But it is worth trying, because for reasons known only to the universe Paul’s flies catch more flies than anyone else’s I have ever used. In this sense, at least, he has a truly Dolly-esque talent (although his flotation aids are nowhere near as impressive) – his flies may look cheap, but the cost of acquiring the ability to tie one is beyond that of mere mortals. His sedges look nothing like sedges, but they outfish mine by three or four fish to one. His fry patterns look more like Woolworth’s earrings than baby roach, but they deceive autumn trout in a way that the exact copies fail to. All in all, it adds up to something that I have believed for some time – that fish actually don’t like things that look like real food.

Now, I’m sure that someone will be along in a moment to point out that my technique is massively inferior to Paul’s (and I’m not talking about supermodels here), or that Oliver Edwards seems to catch plenty of fish on his miraculous creations, or that trout on many American rivers are now so fly-weary that they will not take anything except a copy of an insect that is identical in size, colour and translucency. But that, really, is beside the point. All this has really been a preamble to the announcement of a new monthly creative flytying competition here at Sexyloops, in which readers will be invited to submit examples of flies chosen by the tying moderators. In exchange there will be prizes, which may or may not include flies exclusively hand-tied by me (second prize; two flies tied by me), an afternoon’s whip-finishing with Ben or maybe even an evening of vice with Paul. But you’ll have to be really, really good for that; and probably German too. Watch the board tomorrow for April’s competition; meanwhile, may your creations look cheap and your tackle expensive.

“Even my non fly-fishing readers (should such exist) must see that a three piece rod is just common sense. It’s more than common sense. It’s patriotism. If I buy this rod, I am keeping it out of the hands of terrorists”.Andrew Brown

 
Sean Geer (sean@fishmail.co.uk) is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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