I’ve known Morgan Lyle for a while now (virtually), we became acquainted through the online tenkara circles, and so when I saw that he had a book I knew that I wanted to get some to sell in the Three Rivers Tenkara shop. Get Morgan’s new book Simple Flies HERE. As somebody that cobbles together sentences from time to time (at my blog Casting Around) I’m always interested in what writers have to say and it’s exciting to get to ask questions of one of those writers. So I put a few questions to Morgan about writing and fishing and his new book and this is how it went…
First of all—great book. It’s a fly tying book that one can sit down and read. You give us the “how” but also the “why” behind it all. And you back that “why” up with sound references and explanations. But at the same time a guy or gal that picks it up and just flips to the patterns will be well served too.
How did the idea of the book develop? Did it start out as the fully conceived concept that it is? Or did you set out to make a fly tying recipe book and along the way your research and reading became more a part of it?
Morgan Lyle (ML): Thanks Anthony. I’m glad you enjoy it. The book started out as an exploration of how and why very simple flies work so well. The fly that inspired the whole project was the Killer Bug — nothing but yarn on a hook, with a couple turns of copper wire. No tail, wing case, hackle, not even tying thread, and yet I was catching trout on it left and right. And it was devised by a very accomplished tier [Frank Sawyer, who also developed the pheasant Tail nymph] who was fully capable of making flies with tails, hackles, etc., and in this case chose not to. Including recipes and tying instructions seemed logical, since these are pretty basic flies, made of easily obtained materials.
I’m not as well read I wish I were, when it comes to the fly fishing how-to books. But two of my personal favorites are Randall Kaufmann’s Tying Dry Flies and The Fly Tyer’s Nymph Manual. They were my first fly tying books, and so a bit sentimental to me, but I still feel like those two books would do a good job of arming a trout fishing fly tyer with just about everything that he needs (but I’d reckon you might say way more than he needs).
What book or books were there for you in your formative years? Looking back do they hold up? What are some newer or lesser known books that you’d really like to point people to?
ML: Apart from own experience with the Killer Bug and other simple flies, such as the tenkara patterns, a major inspiration for Simple Flies was a book called What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and Other Myths by Bob Wyatt. It was published in 2013 and it’s just a great read. I recommend it highly. It was from Bob’s book that I learned about the Deer Hair Emerger, which is now my go-to fly whenever trout are rising. Dave Hughes’s Wet Flies was a huge influence on me. Pop Fleyes by Bob Popovics and Ed Jaworowski is one of my all-time favorites. Hatches II by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi is a classic that taught me much of what I know. Ray Bergman’s Trout and H.G. Tapply’s Tap’s Tips were the books that really made me a fly-fisherman.
Some might argue in this internet age that books, especially how-to books like a fly tying book, may be obsolete. There is just so much information online. Everyone has everything at his or her fingertips. But although there is a lot out there, it’s all really disconnected. It may be that the internet is really good at storing information but really sucks at presenting it in a useful way – maybe that’s the advantage that physical fly tying books, and especially ones that have a cohesive theme or thesis, have over Google and the Internet. On the Internet you can find bits and pieces but you’ll never find a complete story.
Did ideas like this cross your mind when you were working on the book and help shape it?
ML: There’s just something nice about a book. The fact that so much information and so many ideas are available online is a tremendous benefit for anyone who’s into fly-fishing or fly-tying or any other interest. But yes, I (and Stackpole Books) thought a long-form look at the subject of Simple Flies was something that hadn’t been done before. The concept of using simpler patterns and carrying a simpler selection of flies was a big subject in social media and elsewhere online, and a book was the perfect format to bring it together in a cohesive way, as you say. This is a challenging time in some ways for the publishing industry, but I bet more books are being written, bought and read now than ever before. Whether many people are able to make a living writing books is another subject.
I’ve never been a very complicated fly tyer. In the beginning that was mostly due to material cost (and lack of skill). When I started tying I was a poor college student, then I was a poor grad student. I couldn’t afford to buy all the materials listed in the magazine articles, so I got used to using simple materials. But I can remember a turning point about 6 years back when I got really disgusted with the fly tying industry and magazines. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the materials anymore, but it seemed like every time I looked at a recipe for a fly in a magazine it required some new material that I didn’t have, that I’d never even heard of, and that invariably I couldn’t even buy locally. It began to seem to me that somewhere in a smoky back room decisions were being made that every fly pattern had to include some new material. I’m not saying that’s true of course. Incidentally that’s just around the time that tenkara happened to enter my life. So, an urge to simplify born of disgust and a bit of angsty rebellion was focused by my new interest in tenkara and I found a new enjoyment in simple flies and a sort of vindication of them and support from the others in the tenkara community.
Where you always interested in the more simple flies or is there a turning point that spurred you on in your interest in simple flies? Did thoughts about the younger, less money-laden angler, or perhaps more frugal angler figure at all in the patterns and materials in the book?
ML: We all know you don’t tie flies to save money. Most of us will die with Tupperware boxes full of feathers and fur in our homes and never-fished flies in our fly boxes. It’s also true that fly-tying is a business, and if no new patterns had been developed in the past, let’s say, 50 years, an awful lot of books and articles would never have been written and a lot of materials would never have been sold. I suppose if you went out and bought all the stuff you need to tie all 52 flies in the book, it would set you back a few bucks. But I like to think you can pick and choose the patterns that will suit your fishing and acquire the stuff to make those without breaking the bank.
What I’ve enjoyed most about learning about simple flies is identifying that one important characteristic that triggers a bite. It might be a segmented body, a wiggly hackle or the fly’s overall shape and action in the water. I think every fly that works consistently has a salient characteristic. It may have other characteristics too, but I’m convinced many of those are more interesting to the tier than to the fish. There’s a cool quote from the late Jack Gartside in my book, where he says he devised the Soft-Hackle Streamer to “reduce to a minimum the details and essentials of baitfish imitation, creating the illusion of life and completeness of form through subtraction rather than addition of materials.” I admire the restraint, even austerity, demonstrated by guys like Jack over the years. It’s a fun exercise in deciding what’s really important in a fly.
So the big question – how much does fly pattern matter vs. presentation? There are extremists on both sides of course and I’m sort of on the technique side but moderate about it. The “right” fly with bad presentation and technique is almost never a winning combo. But I also say that fly pattern doesn’t matter until it does. Some in tenkara circles seem to think that fly doesn’t ever matter much – within reason of course. Like for instance a size 12 Black Ishigaki Kebari is all that you’ll ever need.
I’ve seen a change of fly seemingly work too many times to simply write off the idea that some flies work better than others at some times, but I’m always willing to admit that my biases may blind me a bit. I’ve successfully fished a red, size 12 takayama sakasa kebari during a decent hatch of tiny blue wing olives. But then had no luck at all with that fly or other similar flies during heavy sulphur hatches – numerous times. Switched to a sulphur emerger and then had success. That’s just one example – but it seems like fish do get selective at times. It doesn’t seem to be the message of Simple Flies that fly never matters, but that even when it does matter, that more general and impressionistic flies may be the answer.
Penny for your thoughts on the fly vs. technique discussion and also the idea of impressionistic flies vs. realistic.
ML: I’m with you. Sometimes you need the right fly. I remember once catching several trout during a sulphur hatch on the West Branch of the Delaware with Killer Bugs, which look nothing like sulphur duns or nymphs — but that was very much an exception on that river. I think that once a fish has eaten a few dozen of the same exact bug day after day for several weeks, that bug starts to become that fish’s definition of “food.” If you have fish that enjoy prolific hatches, I think you have to at least make the effort to select a fly that’s the right size and shape. But this varies from stream to stream, hatch to hatch and fish to fish. I saw an interesting article recently about whether some individual fish are more likely to bite than others.
But presentation is definitely more important than pattern. As they say, the wrong pattern fished well will catch more fish than the right pattern fished poorly. Put another way, fish want to eat. They want to say “yes.” The trick is not to make that impossible for them, by scaring them with your shadow or a splashy cast, by letting a fly drag that’s supposed to dead drift, or, sometimes, by not offering them a fly so much bigger than the naturals that it might as well be a pinecone. You really can catch fish all season with an Adams or a CDC Elk or a Pheasant Tail nymph in different sizes, as long as you fish carefully and intently.
So I see a few of my favorites in the book, the Walt’s Worm, the Takayama Sakasa Kebari, Al’s rat. If I had to pick one fly for my small stream trout fishing I’d be tempted to go with the red Takayama Sakasa Kebari on a heavy hook. I think it works well when no hatch is on, dead drifted, and also pulsed and on the swing, and I’ve had luck with it as an emerger during some hatches. I use it on mountain streams a lot and I’ve blind fished it on rich spring creeks with great success too. I like Walt’s Worm too—but if I was forced to go with one I have to admit I just don’t enjoy tying it as much as a Takayama style kebari. And with tenkara I really hate getting snags on the bottom so I usually fish a more active style to keep a fly off the bottom, which I like the Takayama for.
If you were forced to go with one of the flies in the book for your trout fishing which would it be?
ML: The Takayama’s a beautiful fly and the very definition of an attractor, kind of an Asian cousin to the Royal Coachman. I’m too wimpy to choose one fly, but I can give you a pretty narrow range: For rising fish, either a Usual or a Deer Hair Emerger; for nymphing, a Killer Bug, Pheasant Tail, Peacock Herl Nymph or my current favorite, the Improved Montana Stone.
But ants are good too. And sometimes at dusk you need a Rusty Spinner. And then there’s wet flies, which are all great. And Woolly Buggers. And worms — I didn’t even include the San Juan in the book, but it’s brilliant. And if I’m fishing on the beach, it’s either a Jiggy or a Bucktail Deceiver or maybe a Seaducer but my new favorite is Chico’s Marabou Madness…
Part of the fun of fly-fishing is trying different flies. I think the one-fly approach steals some of the pleasure and fascination. You can go overboard, as some of the experts I quote in the book are quick to point out, wasting time frantically changing flies. But I do like tying different flies and trying them out on the fish.