Matt Dickerson: Strange attire for the outdoors
I was pondering recently the strange phenomenon of what creatures find attractive, and why.
Take trout and salmon. I have an upcoming opportunity for some Pacific steelhead fishing over a three-day weekend after a work-related trip to Oregon. My brother is coming from San Francisco to meet me, and we are splurging to hire a guide for the first day. The guide will provide flies while we are with him.
We’ll then fish on our own the next two days, and we will need to supply our own flies then. So I asked our guide-to-be what flies I should bring, and he mentioned the “veiled assassin” as a must-have, go-to pattern. He sent me a link with a recipe and pictures so I could tie a few up. Now those who have been steelhead fishing know that in this context “a few” means anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred. Steelheading is like no other fishing I’ve ever done when it comes to losing flies. I can bust through a dozen in an hour easily. So I have to hope that these work, because I am tying a lot of them.
So what, you might ask, is this “veiled assassin?” The name doesn’t tell much. Perhaps a fly that sneaks up ninja-like on unsuspecting steelhead, stabs them with a sword, and hauls them back to the angler waiting patiently on the shore?
Indeed, based on its appearance, that may be exactly what the fly is meant to do. And I’m not talking about my botched attempts. Sure, my fly-tying “skills” may be such that I can turn even the simplest nymph pattern into something resembling an alien come to destroy the earth in a space ship that has fallen apart from too many light years of travel. But I’m talking about the actual photographs of professionally tied “veiled assassins.” Looking at them doesn’t given much more indication than the name what natural food they imitate. The answer, as best as I can tell, is either “nothing” or “everything.”
For example if you squint your eyes just right, the middle of the fly does look like a glob of pink egg with some milky white sac around it. That makes sense. Steelhead swim upriver toward the end of the salmon run in order to eat the eggs that dislodge and drift downriver.
Except this pink body isn’t round; it is elongated — only vaguely like an egg if you squint. And there is also what looks like a smaller iridescent green egg behind it. And a darker pink bead like another even smaller egg at the head of the fly. So perhaps it represents eggs from three different species that somehow got stuck together?
Except the pattern also has a pink and green tail made from dyed hackle fibers or very small biots. The tail and the hot pink chenille body, along with the bright shimmering green chenille butt, suggest a fly imitating a small ocean crustacean, like a krill. I’m sure steelhead feed on krill. Except that I will be fishing 20 miles upriver from any saltwater where steelhead might have last seen krill.
And to make the fly weirder, like a typical insect imitation it has what appears to be a wing-casing made with mylar and also hackle behind the bead. So the “veiled assassin” represents part insect, part krill, and part salmon egg? It is about the ugliest fly I have ever tied. And yet my guide, as well as some fly shops and websites, claim it is a great steelhead pattern. Something about the attire of that fly makes it attractive to the fish. Don’t ask me what. And don’t try to get the steelhead to explain either. But I’m tying a lot of them.
Or take humans. When it comes to what we find attractive, we may be even harder to fathom than steelhead.
For Christmas, my sons and future daughter-in-law gave to my wife and me a boxed set of the first several seasons of a British television detective drama called “Foyle’s War,” which is set along the south coast of England in the late 1930s and 1940s. We had never seen it before, but several of our friends have raved about it.
We watched the first episode on Christmas afternoon, and the second and third within a week. We realized at once why our friends loved the show. It is wonderful television featuring great acting, well-written dialogue, mystery and tension and human drama, and moral virtue. Plus an actress named Honeysuckle Weeks. How can you not like a television show with an actress named Honeysuckle Weeks?
But what really hooked me (sorry!) was when the main character, Detective Christopher Foyle, went fly-fishing with his son in the first episode and skillfully hooked and landed a fat brown trout in some quiet English stream.
It was also the scene that captured my wife, though for a different reason. Foyle went fishing wearing a tweed jacket, looking very dignified, proper and British. My wife thought he looked great, standing there fly-fishing in a tweed jacket. She said that all fly-fishermen should wear tweed jackets. She said that if I wore a tweed jacket, she would go fishing with me.
So if you see me wandering around town this winter or out on the river this coming spring wearing a tweed jacket and looking like I belong in 1940s England, you’ll know why. In fact, if the tweed jacket works I am considering getting a lot of them in case I lose one. I’m going to leave off the hot pink chenille, though; I’ll save that for the steelhead.
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