Right off the bat, I must admit that the title may be a bit optimistic and premature, because I haven’t accomplished anything quite yet teaching Little Red Bear about tying flies and fly fishing. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
One of my favorite uncles, my mother’s youngest brother, was a first class fly fisherman in the day. One of his best friends was a conservation officer with the Missouri Department of Conservation at the time, and they would spend every chance they got fly fishing the Ozarks streams. Like my mother, he had grown up in the country and was all about nature and the outdoors. He had served in the Pacific on Iwo Jima and Okinawa among others in WWII not too many years before, and I always figured maybe the peacefulness of fly fishing is what may have so appealed to him after it all.
Uncle Paul firmly maintained that anyone could catch a fish if they hooked up a worm, used bait and fed them, but it was a true challenge and art to catch a fish on a lure that you had made yourself. So he taught me how to make and tie my own flies and to fly fish as a boy. He reassured me that the hungrier I got, the better I would get at making them.
I don’t know whose idea it was that I should learn how to tie flies at the age of nine, my mother’s or my uncle’s (it certainly wasn’t my father’s because he was a city kid, thru and thru), but there I was sitting at his kitchen table one Saturday morning learning all about the different kinds of flies and bugs to imitate. Shiny Mylar strips, tinsels, miniature corks, colored wires, hooks of all sizes, chenille stems, horse hairs, bits of assorted furs, spools of thread, and tools and miniature vices I had never seen before all spread out on the table before me.
And all sorts of wondrous feathers — peacock eye feathers, guinea fowl, pheasant, grouse, quail, marabou, ostrich, ducks, roosters, chickens and others. Feathers from all over the world from birds I had only seen and read about in Encyclopedias! All a small boy’s imagination could hope for and a whole new world suddenly opened.
As it turned out, fly fishing is the only kind of fishing I ever really enjoyed, to tell the truth. And now steadfastly agree with my mentor. Tossing a worm-baited hook into the water is not only lacking in challenge, but also an insult to the intelligence of the fish. And since they spend so much time in schools, they do tend to take it rather personally.
There is just something about fly fishing. The excitement and sudden rush of spotting a flash of silver under the water in the distance. Working and playing out the fly line, back and forth, back and forth in a relaxing zen-like rhythm imitating soft lapping waves along the shoreline, the heavy line artfully arched over your head. Cast out and land the lure in exactly the right spot where you just saw a riffle on the water, widening circlets across the way. Being at the water’s edge with the songbirds in the background while water ripples around you. A turtle pops up to say ‘Good morning!’ and forest critters edge cautiously to the shoreline for a drink. Frogs croak their greetings as red-winged blackbirds cheer you on from the nearby reeds. Simply — magical. Nature speaks to you, if you listen. For myself, I just could never find that same joy in any other type of fishing.
I would spend hours on summer afternoons, just as Uncle Paul showed me, fly rod in hand in the backyard practicing to drop a fly inside a hula hoop target laid on the ground at the back of the yard. Eventually the larger hula hoop was replaced with a smaller metal bucket. I always look back on all that, together with the time my uncle spent with me infusing his love of the outdoors and respect for wildlife, as probably where my life-long love of nature and conservation got its start at an early age. We never know at what precise moment the stars may align and how a few minutes spent with a child may influence their whole life to come. And there’s a lesson there in itself.
We would visit my uncle’s home regularly thru the year on Saturday mornings, me in the kitchen learning to tie flies at the kitchen table with Uncle Paul, working side by side each of us with our own vise and every time a different type; while my mother visited with Aunt Laura in the living room. Wrapping and making the Wooly Bugger Worm was always my favorite.
It was Uncle Paul who gave me my first hunk of beeswax and taught me to always wax the sewing thread to keep it from tangling while tying the flies. A trick I still use today when hand sewing teddy bears and things.
Some of the little tools, grips, vices, supplies and books used back then are still with me today. We made frequent trips to visit the Culver Lures store on Missouri Avenue in south St. Louis at the time. A somewhat dark little store because the two smallish front windows were cluttered with merchandise, with a white wooden store front and wooden floors too, as I recall, overflowing with every fly tying and rod making item imaginable. Stand at the counter, tell the man smoking the stubby cigar what I needed and he would go find it and ring it all up on the cash register. Hand over the cash and away we’d go to make more lures. The store is long gone now and remodeled into a condo. A different time.
Used to have an honest-to-goodness fisherman’s straw hat with flies stuck in all over it, too. Don’t know where that might have went over the years, sadly. I suspect my mother may have pricked her finger on a hook dusting it one too many times when I was away at college and it was shown the door. But just a guess. No one ever seemed to recall its whereabouts or fate later, whenever queried.
It turns out Uncle Paul was right — there are few thrills in life to compare to catching and landing a fish on a lure that you have handmade yourself. Marriage and the birth of children are certainly at the top, but that first fish is right up there on the list, too!
And that all brings me to Little Red Bear. Being an avid fisherman himself with his assortment of bamboo and stick poles and always up for a challenge, Little Red Bear now wants me to teach him how to make his own lures and teach him how to fly fish.
Red has always been a “throw out the bait and wait” type, as he puts it. Not my thing, as I said. So I can readily see his wanting to move up the fishing ladder, so to speak. The only problem is, with those big bear paws of his, I’m not sure that I’m up to the challenge of teaching him. Showing him how to make biscuits is one thing, and admittedly his are better than mine now (although I still make the best cornbread). But Little Red Bear sitting and tying teeny little fishing flies? Not so sure.
Still, I’ve yet to see Little Red Bear not accomplish something he sets his mind to, so we’ll see. There was that time at Perch Lake when he hauled that giant, cantankerous and ill-tempered . . . . . Well, I really should let you read and enjoy that ‘Sir Snapsalot’ story for yourself. He even tells folk how to make their own bamboo fishing poles in that one! Red’s famous for them in these parts.
In the meantime, I wonder what Uncle Paul would think now about the time he spent with a young nephew years ago, teaching him how to tie flies and fish, and who grew up to later write stories about conservation and an uncommonly special bear and his friends in the Ozarks Mountain Country that we visited and fished together ourselves? I like to think he might enjoy them. Time is never wasted when spending it with a child.
Thanks as always for visiting. I will keep you posted, and we’ll see how this fly tying adventure goes with Little Red Bear, I suppose. I can’t say ‘no’ to someone looking to learn and try something new. Even if it seems as though it may be a mighty challenge along the way. — Jim (and Red!)
Family Times — Together Times — The Best Times!
~ Children Learn To Read on the Laps of Their Parents ~