Anything Fly Fishing

My Early Days Tying Flies

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In my early days of fly tying, a person needed to be both hunter and gatherer. Now, I will admit to being old enough, as one blues tune says, “to remember when the Dead Sea got sick.” The problem in those days was that quality materials were hard to come by and a meager budget didn’t help matters.

To provide perspective, Lyndon B. Johnson was president when I began tying flies and I was making $1.10 an hour bagging groceries. My dad got a fly-tying kit from Herters, decided he preferred making lures, and gave the kit to me.

I quickly began pouring through the instruction booklet and soon learned the knots and basic uses for the tools. About the same time, I joined the Outdoor Life Book Club and selected McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia as one of my first books. Buried in its depth were color plates of classic fly patterns along with basic recipes. All I needed then were the ingredients.

(McClane – caption) McClane’s Fishing Encyclopedia was my go-to for fly patterns.

My biology teacher at the time also fly fished and tied flies. When I bemoaned my lack of supplies, most notably hackles, he listened quietly and just nodded. I didn’t think much about it but it must have stuck in his memory.

I had changed jobs the next year and moved to the hardware store where I was making fifty cents more per hour. He walked in quietly, handed me a paper bag and said something like, “I got something here for you.” Then, he turned and walked out.

Opening the bag, I looked in at a mass of chicken necks with the heads still attached. He had brought me at least two dozen necks of hackles, all in various shades of brown.

I heard later that he had gone to the local cockfight and simply picked up the losers when their owners tossed them into the woods. Some regular bystanders were scavenging for the meat, so my teacher had struck an alliance where they worked together, him taking the necks and the others taking the preferred edible parts.

I often wondered if the winners had better hackles. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, or in this case a biology teacher, I took the necks home that night, skinned and washed them, salted the skin side, and stuck each one on a piece of cardboard to dry. If not spread out on the cardboard, the necks would have rolled up in a ball and been more difficult to work with. Once dry, I stood the cardboard and necks on end in a box as if filing them.

So, I was set for brown hackles for at least a decade. That left me in need of every other color.

Many of my hackles were purchased as they wandered around barnyards.

On Sundays, when I wasn’t at school or work, I sometimes drove through the countryside looking for roosters. Whenever I spotted one of the appropriate color, I pulled in and began negotiating its purchase. A lot of folks in the country kept yard birds back then and were generally open to selling a rooster. What threw them off was that I didn’t want the meat. Once they understood that they got to have a chicken dinner and get paid, the price was usually within my budget. As I recall, I never paid over two dollars for a neck.

Grizzly-gray hackles were generally easy to find, and on occasion, I stumbled across badger and ginger hackles. I don’t remember ever finding a blue dun-colored neck, so I had to substitute as close as possible on some patterns.

I had another approach to the rest of my hair and feathers that involved my dad’s side hustle; he was a taxidermist. He kept a steady supply of projects going in the basement and I got the scraps. Bucktails were easy to come by, so much so that I began dying them in various colors for streamers and jigs.

On occasion, he would land something else a customer might want mounted, and if they left it without paying, it became part of my fly-tying supplies. I remember getting a fox and a pheasant that way, both windfalls for me if not Dad.

When clients failed to pay for taxidermy work, the critter became part of my fly-tying supplies.

A lot of my other materials came from hunting. Squirrel tails were so plentiful that I usually sold my surplus to Mepps for spinners. A few years later, when I went to college, I took up duck hunting and had those feathers to add to my fly-tying kit. Wood ducks and mallards were my favorites for wing materials and tails on classic flies.

Materials such as floss and tinsel could be picked up at the dime store for a fraction of their catalog prices. I often played with other materials like foam and cork on flies, particularly for bluegill.

Looking back, I was self-sufficient on most materials with the exception of thread, hooks, and fly-head cement. Occasionally I would splurge for exotic materials like marabou feathers and peacock herl, but those instances were few and far between.

Times change. Now, chickens have been selectively bred to create superior hackles. Other furs and feathers come from farmed animals and are preserved so that I no longer have to worry about moths eating my fly-tying kit. Even the tools have evolved, though I still use the same bodkin, whip finisher, and half-hitch tool. At least I got my money’s worth from them.

Though I upgraded my vise, I still use the same bodkin, whip finisher, and half-hitch tool.

Looking back, what I miss most is that old Herters catalog, more important to me than the Sears and Roebuck catalog was to other kids creating their Christmas lists. Perhaps a close second was the ability to raid my dad’s taxidermy shop when I needed materials for a new pattern.

The challenge of using what was at hand and substituting for other materials inserted a need for creativity at the vise. My fly patterns were usually variations on the standard and seemed to work just as well. And I picked up other skills while gathering materials, whether it was hunting, skinning, or negotiating for a rooster’s neck. I’m not saying I want to go back to gathering my own materials, but I will confess that there’s a certain nuance to using hackles from the losers at a cockfight.

Jim Mize still wonders what the possum did for Awesome Possum dubbing to earn its name. You can purchase his new book, The Jon Boat Years, from or buy autographed copies at You may also purchase his books by clicking here on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS “BOOKS” page.

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