Tying on with grandfather

One of my life’s regrets is this: When I was young and foolish — which is to say, before I became middle-aged and foolish — my father offered me a fly-tying tool kit that once belonged to my great-grandfather.
Now I’ve never been much good at crafts, or really at anything involving a combination of patience and fine motor skills. When I was in elementary school and junior high, I built plastic model airplanes based on WWII vintage aircraft. The wheels generally ended up crooked, the propellers never spun, and the antennas were missing because I either lost them or broke them before they could be affixed — or I simply couldn’t get them to stand straight in the tiny little hole that I had accidentally clogged with model cement.
My plastic cockpits always ended up an opaque mass of gluey fingerprints, which was probably good because it meant you couldn’t see the mess I’d made trying to paint the pilot who was now stuck inside. The only thing my models were good for were target practice, or for blowing up with firecrackers. In fact, they generally met one fate or the other within a couple weeks of building them, so that I wouldn’t face the embarrassment of a friend visiting my house and seeing one. (I didn’t have a younger brother to blame them on.)
When, in my young adulthood, my father offered me the fly-tying kit, I declined, assuming that any attempt of mine to tie a fly would have the same basic result as my attempts to build plastic models. Not only was this act highly insensitive to the sentimental value of the kit, which had belonged to my father’s grandfather, but as I’ve later come to realize, it was also shortsighted on several other counts.
Over the past few years, I’ve received a few lessons on fly-tying from friends and at various fly-fishing events or clubs. Under close supervision from my closest fly-fishing friend, David O’Hara, I’ve gone so far as to tie a few flies with my own hands. I’ve even caught a trout or two on flies I tied. And I enjoyed it. I not only enjoyed catching the trout, but I especially enjoyed catching the trout on a fly I’d tied.
Despite my bumbling ineptitude, I even enjoyed the actual tying of the fly. And that — along with the high price of purchasing flies that are as likely to end up in a tree or on a rock as they are in the mouth of a fish — left me thinking, somewhat wistfully and with no small amount of regret, of the fact that I could have had my own fly-tying kit. And not just any kit, but one that had belonged to my late grandfather.
This past week, I purchased a few raffle tickets for a New Haven River Anglers Association fund-raising raffle. There were many gifts, mostly donated by local merchants. But the one that caught my eyes was a little portable fly-tying kit. Wouldn’t it be neat if I won that, I thought, though with no real expectation of winning anything.
The next day, to my surprise, I received a call from Wes Butler, secretary of the NHRAA, who’d held my tickets for me when I’d had to leave. I’d won one prize — the tool kit. So some time in the next week or so, I’ll probably swing by Middlebury Mountaineer or Vermont Field Sports and pick up some fly-tying supplies, and probably a book or two on fly patterns. And I’ll start tying my own flies.
And when I do, I’ll think of my great-grandfather. I’ll imagine him sitting in his den, after a long day of work, tying up a fly or two, maybe to use for perch on a local lake, or for a trip to Northern Michigan’s Au Sable River for trout. Or maybe I’ll think of my grandfather, a doctor in rural Michigan whom I still remember well. Some of my earliest fishing experiences were with my grandfather at family reunions in Ludington, Michigan, when he’d take us out to catch perch and bass in the nearby lake.
Then I’ll tie a fly with my new fly-tying kit.
And all thoughts of my grandfather and great-grandfather will fly out the window, replaced by thoughts of those plastic models I used to build in junior high. I wonder if I can catch a trout on a hook covered by a mass of gluey fingerprints and a snarl of thread and feathers. Do trout know if an insect is missing its antennae? At least I won’t have to paint the pilot.

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