fly-fishing book review on Spey Flies, Dee Flies Fly fishing book reviews 

Steelhead Flies
John Shewey
Hardbound:   216 pp.
Frank Amato Publications   $49.95
ISBN-13: 978-1-57188-400-8

Steelhead flies by John SheweyShewey and I go way back, at least as far as books can take you. I remember when he was talking surf perch, and I went out into the surf just to see if I could read tidal currents the way he suggested, as if the ocean were a giant river. And surf perch I found, using the simple flies he suggested. Since then, I've paid attention to something unique among fly-fishing writers--how to be artistic and innovative while being a scholar and historian when it comes to the act of enticing a fish to inhale a concoction of fur, feathers and steel. I've been adding his books to my shelves ever since.

Shewey's latest effort begins with a pictorial catalogue of the latest (and some of the earliest) fly-tying materials. In fly tying books, I enjoy the opening chapters the most. I like the overview of materials that are new, some that are ancient, some that are familiar, some that I forgot about, and all feeding my imagination and foretelling the patterns to come. More than simply listing out materials, you can depend on Shewey to take his message much further by showing in exquisite photographic detail what it is about specific feather types that make them perform. Making choices among the materials for the fly you're imagining and the river conditions you fish, becomes that much easier and interesting.

The chapters on patterns are what you expect from Shewey. The descriptions and exquisite photos are well-balanced for maximum educational impact--without wasting the readers time with fish stories and related anecdotes. Books of this type that orchestrate hundreds of photos with tying steps must be the most complicated to compile and write, yet Shewey shows mastery over the genre.

There are hundreds of books that illustrate tying steps, but Shewey gives the usual a twist that puts his approach above others. These extra twists are found in critical steps that enhance the fly's  effect, saves time, or adds an artistic difference that makes you sit back in your fly tying chair and say to yourself--Wow, did I just tie that? Coordinating the tying in of a tag and tip (they're not the same), twisting herls and fur in a loop, canting feathers this way and that, burnishing silk or wool for a smoother effect, zipping winging material together and other acts of taming natural and artificial materials up and down a hook shank, might make you feel not so distant from the fly-tying aristocracy after all.

The history of the art of the steelhead fly is well balanced with the tying steps, never presumptuous and always serving to help the sport along. Discovering a relationship between the fish, the flies, and the people who put it all together not only serves our sport; an historical perspective encourages us to evolve old designs as we explore new ones. After all, the history of the steelhead fly is based upon  unabashed borrowing of Atlantic salmon patterns, and any other pattern that dared venture toward Northwest waters.

Now, being historical in our fly tying isn't the point Shewey wants to make. I'm as likely to tie a Lady Caroline or Parmachene Belle as I am to mow the lawn in a tux. But these flies do give me plenty of ideas as I imagine my own design. Never try something new until you've tried something old, might be Shewey's point, which is a good way to approach most anything worth trying.

As an example, in the past, my own efforts in steelhead fly tying have been humble mixtures of chenille and whatever hackle was littering up my fly tying table. So I decided to see what Shewey's book could do for my tying.

Tying tips and tags is something new to my tying, as is burnishing threads, wrapping metal tinsels (I've always been a Mylar tyer), and highly orchestrated tying steps. I've never really paid much attention to where exactly materials and threads should begin and end around the hook's shaft, and my heads usually looked either too thin or too bulky. I never paid much attention to fancy ways of wrapping peacock herl, so I became especially interested in tying herl on a loop. In fact, my small nymphs and dries, though a hundred times smaller, look considerably better proportioned, organized and logical than their bigger brethren I've tied in the past.

After bending all the pages in Shewey's book looking for materials and methods to inspire a prototype, I came up with a fly I could name (the other prototypes I just named "crap").  I call it the Ouzel, in recognition of an ouzel I was puzzling over while taking a few notes for my book review. The ouzel did something I'd never seen an ouzel do, dive down to retrieve salmon eggs floating downstream.

The pattern is more nymph-like construction, sort of an Elizabethan Zug Bug, with oval tag and rib, peacock body spun on a loop behind thick Estaz chenille, and sparse red yarn behind the pheasant body feathers for the hackle.                   

                 Ouzel by Toney Sisk

Now, I'm not a commercial tier, as no doubt this fly shows. And like many of my unique patterns, other people have probably already tied this fly and have given it their own name.  Nevertheless, this is probably the loveliest fly I've ever tied. For me, it looks likes it wants to get up and dance, which would be quite an interesting presentation technique. Naturally, I did what any person would do after tying a new and interesting fly--I headed out to the nearest steelhead river and offered it up.

The first thing that I noticed about my fishing is the care with which I presented the fly. I fished it close to shore where the fish I never catch always travel. I watched it rise and fall as I played with it. I kept pulling it out of the water, holding it up to the sky, admiring its tinsels and tag. I dug my finger into its tail tie-in point to see if I could flair the tail like I do on dry flies. The tail surrounded half the shaft, like half a skirt. Doing this made it glow in the water more, with the tag tinsels and ribbing shining through like the glowing salmon eggs the ouzel was fishing for--thus the name of the fly I eventually gave it.

I wasn't sure I was presenting the fly so much as offering it up for admiration, as if a fish would proclaim "Now, I haven't seen one quite like that in these woolly bugger waters in quite some time. And I like what you did with that tail."  There is one problem I have with Shewey's book, however. It can lead to possessiveness. After tying a few of these well-appointed flies, and after rushing out into the nearest steelhead river, and after fishing it delicately in the flow, I promptly lost it on a rock, causing me to yell a word that even a fish understands. I fished my backup prototype very close to shore for the rest of the afternoon. So much for stoically taking things in stride as lessons learned.

Back at the tying table, I tied other flies as well. Old patterns merged with new thoughts, a-la-Shewey. Fortunately, some of these didn't make it past the waste basket. Like the Hare's Ear Spey, the Zug Bug Governor and Brad's Brad Bugger. Apparently, you don't want to challenge historical forces too much.

Still, there is art in this kind of tying, not that Shewey believes in tying a fly purely for art's sake. On the other hand, if art imitates life (or is it the other way around) and if the life of an insect is its habitat and biology, then an artistic presentation is not such a bad way to go about our sport.

After all, as Shewey isn't afraid to admit: You aren't trying to match the hatch in an anadromous stream. Most any reasonable fly is going to work. The steelhead is attacking a fly more about of defensiveness and irritation than a desire to eat. Looking at this from the fish's perspective, the animal is trying to spawn and doesn't want to be messed with.

 I mean what would you do? Suppose you were late for your anniversary dinner, stuck in traffic. Everything--the too slow cars, the too fast ones, the traffic helicopters, the kids in the back seat, the person who cut you off, the traffic reporter on the radio who is telling you the traffic is slow, your ringing cell phone, your ringing ears--everything is messing with you. Sometimes during my worst moments, I know exactly what's going on in a fish's head. Anything that ventures by is going to get messed with.

It makes you wonder if it isn't all about the fly. It can be challenging staying excited about your fly rod, fly reel, line and leader for an extended period of time. But the fly has more power to motivate for longer periods, and thus holds more weight in our imaginations. 

All of our ideas about fishing get expressed in the fly, almost like the fly were a piece of fiction. We design it according to our ideas of what the fly ought to be doing when it gets in the vicinity of a fish, and what we think the fish ought to be thinking when it sees our approaching fly. Now, when the piece of fiction gets close to the reality of a fish, well . . . anything can happen. Sometimes good things. Sometimes stupid things (like losing it on a rock). Sometimes nothing at all (which is all to common). And sometimes we head back to the vice grumbling about how we need to tweak the fly once again to make it match the conditions. Fortunately, we have the right book to help us through this journey of trial, failure and success.

Lord knows what John Shewey will document next. Atlantic salmon flies? Tarpon flies? Shark flies? I would find these compelling as well. Not that big books with big flies catch big fish. Rather, the books Shewey touch serve to encourage us to stretch and grow our techniques, and if we don't periodically stretch our techniques, we can get bored. A good book involves you and then sends you somewhere you didn't think you were heading. I'll be pulling this book off the shelf in years to come as I think about the most evocative and volatile flies to tie, the steelhead fly.

--Toney J. Sisk


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