From the April 2008 Conservationist
Photo: Michael Zeugin
By Michael Zeugin
Most of us Adirondack aficionados feel we are environmentally and economically up-to-date. We know what buying locally means, even if we don't always find it possible. We wait for berries not flown in from Chile. We stock up on locally grown produce at the farm stand down the road. We buy a Hornbeck or Placid Boatworks canoe, rather than an Old Town or Mad River. And we eat lots of apples in the fall.
While I'm not fanatical about the buy locally concept, I do try to use products made close to home; it just seems right. So, recently I transferred this buy locally concept into my fishing life and began tying locally. No, this doesn't mean I'm standing out in the Ausable with one of those match-the-hatch portable, chest-mounted, fly tying kits (yes, there is such a thing). Nor am I sitting in the family cabin finishing a copy of Fran Better's famous Ausable Wulff. But you might find me out in the woods, one hand pinching my nose, the other plucking some tufts of hair from a skunk carcass or picking a feather out of the grass in South Meadow.
Bored with tying the same old patterns from feathers plucked from a capon in Singapore, I started tying flies with scavenged stuff from right here in the Adirondacks. Why? Because it's fun, creative, thrifty, and although I haven't yet proved tying locally lands more and bigger fish, it sure adds a wallop of satisfaction to anything you catch. There's a sort of circular, Native American ethos to this pursuit.
Besides, when my daughter joined me in the outdoors, feathers, hair and other animal flotsam normally examined, enjoyed, and left behind, suddenly ended up coming home with us. It is nearly impossible to say no to a kid collecting things she sees as treasures, especially when you know they will resurface years later during bittersweet clean-ups.
One day, while on my new fly-tying kick, copying quirky Irish and British patterns (one can only stomach tying so many of the standard Royal Coachmen), I spotted some grouse feathers we'd collected at the bottom of the Cooper Kiln Pond trail off Bonnie View Road. "Let's use some Adirondack grouse feathers," I said to my daughter, "instead of this woodcock." "Oh, cool," she said, "I've got some too."
She darted out of the kitchen, where I had bolted the vise to my place at the table, but came back with some grouse and turkey feathers she'd collected on hikes. "I want to use these when I start tying flies," she said, holding them in front of me. "But, I'll let you use a piece or two now, and I'll watch." Tying locally takes on a whole new meaning when your 10-year-old daughter wants to watch, keep you company and ask questions.
A few imported peacock feathers for a tail, rose-pink body-dubbing from a shop in Wilmington (scavenging of a different kind), followed by tinsel from Massachusetts, and then the rust brown Adirondack grouse feathers for wings, finished with some darker grouse on the throat. Suddenly my British Woodcock and Pink pattern had turned distinctly American- Adirondack.
Soon we whipped up a few samples. "We're not matching naturally occurring insects here," I explained. "Fly tying can also be creative."
As I explained the concept of attractor flies-things a fish thinks look good to eat, or maybe just good to kill-I trimmed some blue-grey grouse feathers, and looped the nylon thread around them once, twice, three times.
"I need some darker feathers for the throat," I muttered, squinting more than I used to. As I wound on some grey mohair from Massachusetts, she handed me a charcoal grouse feather, with a tan stripe running through it. "That looks nice," she said. "Make me one to use when I go fly fishing, please." As would any father, I complied.
When I handed the finished fly to her, she held it in her yet uncalloused hand as if it were a finely polished gem of inestimable value. My heart swelled.
"It's perfect," she said.
"Wait until you catch a fish with it," I added, starting another.
Then I pondered if, or how, I might use that precious tuft of black bear hair she discovered snagged in a snapped twig, a memento of one of our early backcountry ski trips when she was only six. A Black Gnat Wulff, perhaps?
Michael Zeugin caught his first trout in the Ausable River at age three. When not pursuing outdoor sports, Zeugin teaches writing for the NJ Institute of Technology and Rutgers University.
Editor's note: Even if found in the wild, it is illegal to possess most feathers without a permit. Also, although you may use legally acquired game bird and waterfowl feathers, it is illegal to sell them. Good luck tying locally!