"Sometimes, you just need to go downstairs and waggle a rod..." - Scott Hanson

"Write what you know. If you don't know, make it up..." - Scott Hanson

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tying In Hand with Cole Madden

This article was originally published in The Drake magazine several years ago. It's a look at how a local fly tyer, Cole Madden, did something that most of us would never think of doing: tie ornately dressed salmon flies without the use of a vise. It's really something to see, and I consider myself lucky to have witnessed it firsthand. Not that it has inspired me to try it, but it was interesting, nonetheless...

In every facet of life there is a movement towards that which is new, high-tech, and brings an ease of use. Computers need to be faster, clothes need to be trendy, and phones need to have more capabilities. In the world of fly fishing, there is a calling for rods to be faster and more powerful, reels to be lighter and stronger, and artificial flies to be more realistic. This is a natural trend, and I am not one to disparage it. I like to use fast computers as much as the next geek. But I do know a guy who eschews technological advances, in his fly tying as well as other facets of life. He’s a college student by the name of Cole Madden, who got into the art of tying classic salmon flies a couple of years ago, because, as he stated, he “enjoyed tying more than fishing, and (he) wanted to work on something that was more complex and developed than the regular dries and wets. Like when you start reading chapter books instead of picture books.” That alone bucks the trend of tying new-fangled flies. But Cole took it a step farther, when he decided to tie these old-time flies the way they were originally tied – without a vise!
Cole is a 20-year-old Junior at the McNally Smith College of Music in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is learning more about another passion of his, music, while studying Music Production. He grew up just across the border in Hudson, Wisconsin, which is a short drive from several prime trout and smallmouth streams, namely the Willow, Kinnickinnic and Rush Rivers. Cole has spent many hours on these fine rivers, but as he stated, tying flies has brought him his most enjoyment.

Tying flies without a vise is almost unheard of these days, but that was not always the case. Fly tying vises didn’t show up on the scene until the mid- to late- 1800s, well after the arrival of ornately designed salmon flies. Back then it was commonplace for fishermen to tie their flies “in-hand”. Today, tying with modern materials would be almost impossible without a vise, but the unique materials that were used, and in Cole’s case still are, allow this niche to survive into modern times.

I sat down to watch Cole tie one of his beautiful flies, or - to be more exact, I watched him tie part of the fly. We met after hours at our local fly fishing hangout, Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, so Cole could feel free to spread out his large cache of exotic materials. As a general rule it takes him two to three hours to tie one of his flies in-hand, so he had been working on this particular fly for about an hour already before I met up with him. The process is lengthened by the absence of a vise, but really the abundance of materials, especially procuring all of the layers of the wings, is what takes up the most time.
Seeing how much work goes into tying one of his flies without a vise, I asked Cole exactly why he started doing this.

“I started tying in-hand because I wanted my flies to look authentic, like actual vintage salmon flies that could catch fish. I figured that tying them in a more traditional way would give my flies a more traditional look” he told me.

The fly Cole tied for me, an unnamed beauty that already had some striking claret-colored hackle palmered over the body, was about to get a guinea feather installed as a throat hackle, and then I would get to see how Cole tied the wing on. When I first saw the in-progress fly, Cole had placed it on the table top - with a length of thick thread hanging off of it. Having never tied an old-style fly, or any other fly, in-hand, I had made some assumptions about the process. I assumed there was copious use of half hitch knots to make sure the fly didn’t bust apart at inopportune times. I was shocked to find out that Cole never uses knots, other than the finishing knot at the end. The special wax he uses on the silk tying thread is so sticky that it stays in place even when there’s no pressure being applied to it. He can pretty much lay the unfinished fly down on the table whenever he needs to, with little fear of having it unravel.

The wing is what’s most intriguing. Cole ties some of his salmon flies with very intricate “married” wings, but for the most part he uses “mixed” wings. Mixed wings still require a deft touch, but are not quite as delicate as married wings. On the fly I watched Cole tie, he cut eight similarly sized slips of beautifully colored feathers for each side of the wing, including three sections of turkey feathers brightly dyed in primary colors, slips of both Florican and Kori Bustard feathers, mottled turkey, and the obligatory Golden Pheasant tippet and tail. Tying a mixed wing is just like it sounds: the slips of feathers are pretty much just held together in a clump - and then tied on the hook with tight turns of thread. The colors mix and mingle together to form a vibrant wing that rivals the most intricate of married wings, with a shorter amount of time invested.

One of the most difficult aspects of tying a fly in-hand is dubbing. When tying a fly conventionally, the weight of the bobbin keeps the thread taut while twisting on the dubbing. Without a bobbin, the thread tends to twist along with the fur. It takes some deft finger manipulation on Cole’s part to get it to work well, but over time he has figured out exactly what needs to be done to get the fur on the thread.

Another interesting twist to Cole’s story is how he gets the hooks he uses for his salmon flies. Proper salmon hooks can be expensive, even the ones that are made without eyes. Cole has learned how to deal with the costs. His father has long been a student of metallurgy, so Cole asked his dad to teach him a few things, and soon he was heating, bending and straightening some less expensive hooks (like Mustad’s 3366) into classically-styled eyeless salmon hooks. It takes him hours to make one hook salmon fly-worthy, but this is totally worthwhile to Cole, who values the time spent as much as he does the finished product.

Cole Madden’s ability to tie beautiful salmon flies in his hands is proof that modern techniques aren’t always the only way to do things. And the fact that he uses his brilliantly colored flies to catch trout and smallmouth bass in his local streams proves that you don’t always have to match the hatch if you want to catch fish. 
The photos above are some in-progress photos of Cole tying in-hand.

The above 4 photos are of some of Cole's finished flies. I used a vise to photograph them, but he didn't need one to tie them...

Monday, April 18, 2016

Opening Day Fishing Report

Like I wrote in my previous post, I went fishing last Saturday for the first time this year. I took my buddy, Bryon, out to one of my secret brook trout creeks that I hadn't been to in several years. It's a tiny little thing that can be jumped across in some spots, but it is chock full of brookies, and we had a hankering to catch some, so off we went. I spent the entire morning teaching one of my Community Ed. fly tying classes, so we didn't leave for fishing until about 1 PM, and then we had to stop to buy new fishing licenses, and then right after we crossed the border we made a run to the border to scarf down some delicious tacos and burritos, so we didn't make it to the creek until almost 3 PM. It was a sunny but unseasonably cold day, made worse by the gale-force winds that were hammering us from all directions. Wait a minute, if they were hammering us from all directions, would we even feel any wind...? Perhaps I should rethink that last sentence...

Since we were on a super-secret creek, I had taken some time beforehand to tie up some super-secret new brook trout flies. Actually, they were well-known flies, but I tied them in a smaller size than I ever had before, to better fit in a brook trout's mouth. They were mini Madame X's, tied on size 12 hooks. I have caught tons of brook trout over the years without these new flies, but when the Opening Day of Trout Season is coming up, I feel the need to tie something new. My new flies worked well, and I can only believe that it was because they were super-secret and new, and not just because brook trout will eat anything...I should say that the new flies worked well for one of us. I won't name names, but half of the people on this trip caught far fewer brookies than the other half of the people on this trip. It wasn't because of the flies though...
Size 12 Madame X's
After a few hours of freezing our butts off at the super-secret brook trout creek, we drove a few miles so we could freeze our butts off on a stream that mostly holds brown trout. We did not even try our super-secret new flies on this stream, because both Bryon and I knew that these wary browns would require a different approach. So we each tied on one of our favorite nymphs, and immediately started catching fish. And this time, 100% of us were catching fish, instead of just 50% like on the other creek. We weren't slaying them in record fashion, but there was enough action to help us forget how cold we were. Plus nobody fell in the river, which is always optimal. What a great way to start the trout season! 
One of Bryon's many browns

  • Gear Used: Bryon fished all day with his newly acquired Phillipson "Johnson Profile" Series 800 7'6" 6wt glass rod and Cortland Vista M reel. I switched off between my Anglers Roost 6'10" 3/4wt glass rod and Daiwa Lochmor 200A reel while fishing for brookies, and my Fenwick FF756-4 glass rod and Lamson LP-2 reel. All gear performed flawlessly.

Friday, April 8, 2016

My Opening Day

Tomorrow is my Opening Day of the Trout Season. Not according to the DNR, or thousands of other trout fishermen. But for me, it is. Although the season has officially been open for three months now, I haven't had a chance to get out. But tomorrow I will. And I can't wait!

Tonight I find myself acting like I did when I was a kid on the night before the trout season, when I knew my dad and I were going to get up at 4:30 (AM!) so that we could be on the water when the season officially started at 5. I have gone through all my fly boxes to make sure I have the right ones, and not only that, but that they are all lined up the right way. I went through my vest and cleaned out all the old, empty leader bags that I have left in there from years gone by. I tied up some new flies that are sure to be better than the thousands of flies I already have.

The most attention was paid to picking out which rods to bring with. I have a few more now than I did when I was a kid. Back when I first started out, I had just the one spinning rod and reel combo to choose from. Then I graduated to owning a fly rod, and immediately became a stuck-up fly rodding "purist", so I still just had the one rod and reel combo to choose from, even though the spinning rod was still out in the garage, collecting dust. Now I have what I would call a healthy amount of rods to choose from, and an equally healthy amount of reels. Tonight I picked out a few favorites to bring with tomorrow, plus a few back-ups, you know, just in case.

Yup, the amount of stuff I bring with has expanded over the years, but inside I'm still just that 12-year-old kid who won't be able to sleep from the excitement. I hope your Opening Day is just as exciting!
Me, with one of my first trout. I was super excited it wasn't another chub... Squeaky, our cat, liked it too!