Nov/Dec 2018Tied and True Text by Grant W. McClure, Photos by Maria LaRocca
A fly-tying journey from South Carolina to Alaska.
I stripped my fly through the cypress knees jutting out of the water like stalagmites, waiting for the familiar tug of a bluegill or largemouth on the end of my leader. A palomino mare watched from the pasture behind the pond as I laid out another cast. Just as the sun began to sink below the horizon at Storybrook Farms outside Charleston, my line came tight. I set the hook.
After a short fight I reeled in a bluegill, removing the fly from its small mouth with a pair of hemostats. I took a moment to appreciate its symmetrical shape, blue-green scales and round, amber eyes before releasing it back in the pond to fight another day. That was the first time I caught a fish on my own hand-tied fly. Nothing more than a piece of yellow chenille wrapped around a hook shank with a puff of black marabou feathers, the fly proved to be a producer. After several successful outings, I christened it the “Golden Ticket.”
On weekday afternoons my mom drove my sister Lexi and me down U.S. Highway 17 past Red Top to Storybrook Farms where Lexi rode horses, just a thirty-minute drive from Charleston. Spartina grass lined the side of the road near Rantowles Creek before we turned on Davidson Road and into Storybrook Farms. While Lexi jumped her horse Gypsy over rails and practiced cantering around the ring, I experimented with my feathered creations.
I spent all my allowance at Lowcountry Fly Shop on hooks, hackles, bucktails, bead-chain eyes and crystal flash. The fly-tying materials piled up in my bedroom: colors ranging from chartreuse to magenta to flame orange. Working by desk lamp, I toiled late into the night, gaining precision and honing dexterity. My bobbin became an extension of my hand. My back ached from hunching over my vice. Fly head cement stuck to my fingers. And I often woke up with red eyes from hours of intensive staring.
My obsession started with a small, red wooly bugger I tied at summer camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I clamped the size six Tiemco streamer hook into the jaws of an old Regal vise. Working the thread to the back of the hook shank, I secured a bushy marabou feather tail and two long strands of flash. I wrapped the hook shank with the red chenille before tying in a bushy, grizzly hackle feather, then tying a half hitch and cutting the thread. Finished, the fly looked like a mangled cat toy, but it was my own. A couple of hours later, that wooly bugger met its match: the yellow-orange petaled branches of an overhanging tulip poplar.
I spent my thirteenth birthday in a johnboat on the Black River outside Kingstree. My friend Preston and I motored up to a group of lily pads, and I tied on a small foam frog pattern which I popped along the surface. On the second cast, a fish snatched the fly from the placid surface of the river. I landed the fish — a decent warmouth. We motored back downstream to the landing, popped the motor and pulled the boat onto the sandy, Spanish moss-shaded bank. Later that night we grilled hot dogs, and I told Preston’s dad about the day’s catch. He turned to me and said, “All the best fishermen tie their own flies.” In that small moment, I knew I possessed a special skill.
I exercised that skill through my teenage years, and it landed me a job coming out of high school. The summer before I moved off to college, I found myself working at Lowcountry Fly Shop, the same store where I spent all my allowance.
On the way to work I drove across the Ravenel Bridge, over Shem Creek and past the Old Village. After flipping on the neon, fish-shaped Open sign, I sat down at my vice behind the counter and started whipping up flies. I tied special orders for salmon in British Columbia, bonefish in the Bahamas, permit in Belize and brown trout in New Zealand. I tied traditional fly patterns: Crazy Charlies, Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, Merkin Crabs, Gurglers and Parachute Adams. The flies ranged from big to small, from size twenty-two midges for picky wild trout to 4/0 baitfish patterns for cobia.
Over the course of the summer, my flies went global, travelling to places I could only dream about — but there was fulfilment in knowing that a part of me was joining clients on their adventures. Something that I touched, labored over, critiqued and selected was going with clients along the way. Even though I was not present on the bow, in the stream or on the bank — a small extension of myself was right there in Canada, the Caribbean or Central America.
I met incredible people working at LFS, such as my coworker Matt — a renowned bamboo fly rod crafter. I made friends with Michael, who sent a photo of Belize bonefish with my fly in the corner of its mouth. Sandy, a coastal fly fishing pioneer, fished with one of my crab flies he dubbed the “24K Crab.” I found gratitude in being able to network through a solitary task. Fly tying demands focus, attention to detail and a lot of practice. The hours I spent hunched over my desk late in the night paid off. I’d come a long way from that crudely-tied wooly bugger — but I was about to go even further.
In the summer of 2017, I travelled to King Salmon, Alaska, to work at Alaska Trophy Adventures Lodge on the Alagnak River. Between netting fish for clients, washing dishes and assisting the guides, I sat down at the vice in my tent. In the wilderness of Katmai National Park, flies served as currency. I tied black leech patterns for post-spawn rainbow trout, mouse flies for skating along the bank and gaudy pink streamers for salmon.
Fly tying brought me to a place far from the quiet pastures of Storybrook Farms. Thousands of sockeye salmon swam upstream, dodging the waiting jaws of brown bears, to spawn and die. Bald eagles perched on downed fir trees, while sandhill cranes landed in the distance, and a mother wolf skulked into the reeds, out of sight. For the first time in my life, I experienced true wilderness: snow-capped Sugarloaf Mountain, blueberries growing in the tundra, a bundle of spawning lampreys rolling downstream like tumbleweed.
By the end of the summer, I longed to return to South Carolina, tired, homesick and ready to go back to civilization. The harsh landscape, isolation and long hours took their toll on my body. It was finally time to return home.
Unable to sleep on a redeye from Anchorage to Seattle, I stared out the window into the inky darkness. Then the night began to move. A band of greenish-gray light rippled across the sky. I nudged the passenger next to me, perhaps waking him from sweet dreams. He was a bigger guy in a fishing shirt named Paul. We’d spoken briefly before takeoff. Paul and his dad were on the way back from a trip to Ketchikan, where they limited out on halibut. At 2:00 a.m., I needed someone to confirm I wasn’t hallucinating. We both peered out the small window in awe. He turned to me and said, “Whoa, man. It’s the Northern Lights.”
When my flight touched down in Charleston the next morning, my fly-tying journey came full circle.
One year later, I found myself working in Columbia as an intern with South Carolina Wildlife magazine. I moved out to Chapin to live with my Aunt Dee Dee and Uncle Ken, and their three daughters: McKenna, Kelsey and Salley. On a rainy Wednesday in May, I sit down with Salley, the youngest daughter, and tie a fly on the porch. I let Salley pick out the material. She chooses a fuchsia rabbit strip with purple frosted tips for the fly’s tail. I tie in the rabbit strip, and suggest adding a few strands of glow in the dark crystal flash. She nods and smiles at this idea. I let her pick out a long, bushy hackle feather to wrap around the shank. Salley asks me to add a pair of googly eyes on the head of the fly. After adding a drop of head cement, we cut the thread. The end result looks like something from a Doctor Seuss book: pink, chartreuse and glowing. The next morning she takes the fly in for show and tell, where she proudly displays her creation.
The art of fly tying opened up my world. In my ten years of tying, I’ve honed my craft, met a community of passionate anglers and travelled across the country. The often tedious, meticulous hours melted away at the vice tested my patience, fostered an eye for detail and instilled a sense of pride. Experiencing the primitive Alaskan wilderness with its playful bear cubs, humpback pink salmon and caddis-eating grayling renewed my appreciation for South Carolina’s cypress tree-lined farm ponds, tannin-stained blackwater rivers, the warmouth and great blue herons. I am thankful I can share my talents with a future generation of anglers, like Salley, and I am eager to see where my journey takes me next.