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  • June 17th, 2011

The Tie That Binds

By Joel M. Vance

Okay, it’s a mystery that Agatha Christie couldn’t have solved on deadline with a $1 milllion contract hanging on the line.  How can a big ol’ guy with hands like an NFL guard tie a trout fly the size of an elf’s weskit?

I have delicate hands, those of a concert pianist, maybe, or an artist who uses a single strand of camel hair to paint landscapes on the head of a pin.  And I can’t tie a No. 2 wooly bugger without it looking like a road-killed Persian cat.

Thus is life.

Fortunately I know a few people who tie flies that look more like insects than something out of a guide to the Ephemera of the World.  Trout crawl out of distant trout streams and hitchhike to their tying benches to attack their creations.  I couldn’t catch a trout with one of my flies and a quarter-stick of dynamite.

Mark Van Patten has parlayed his ability to turn the negligees of defunct roosters into bits of fluff that make trout salivate into a business which includes a television show on Public Broadcasting.  It take much skill beyond thread and feathers to interest anyone in watching someone make love to a gob of feathers.

Watching road tar congeal would seem to hold more promise of drama, but Mark manages to grab the bored watcher and jerk him onto the tying bench with him.  People whose idea of an ideal trout fly consists of two kernels of Jolly Green Giant on a No. 12 hook find themselves investing in rooster capes apparently spun from gold, vises that become vices and other ephemera of the fly tying addict.

Mark’s show has gone international and for all I know Thai trout are suffering from creations inspired by his weekly efforts.  This from a guy who took off for two weeks when he was 15 years old, telling his folks he was going camping, and went to Woodstock.

He and his 14-year-old buddy had tickets, bought on the sly, and an antique Dodge they’d bought for $50 which had no seats–they used milk crates to sit on.  The gas money gave out somewhere in Ohio and they traded their tickets to a bunch of flower children in a decorated Volkswagen bus for enough money to fuel the Dodge.

Mark went on from Woodstock where he claims the bare back end of a skinnydipper in the documentary about the rock concert is his to become the youngest ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Conference.

He also formed Missouri’s first stream cleanup team and no coordinates the nation’s largest stream cleanup program for the Missouri Conservation Department–and ties trout flies for fun and profit. One of the web pages on Mark’s web site shows a photo of him with his Jack Russell terrier, Jake.

I suspect that more than on hair off of Jake’s chinny chin chin has wound up hiding a hook.  In my fly tying days, a mania that fortunately was cured by taking up golf, which is a worse obsession than fly tying, we had a multi-colored collie who used to run and hide every time I brought out the fly tying vise and a pair of scissors.

Since those traumatic times with the collie I’ve sought out those who tie trout flies and suck up to them shamelessly, begging for a fly fix.  Mark was a natural for my sickening sycophancy.

He was working on a memoir, including the story of the Woodstock trip, and I volunteered to give him suggestions.  “I’ll tie you some flies,” he said.

All right!

And it came to pass that Mark showed up one day with a fly box and I popped it open and the effect was like opening the door to an outhouse and finding the Taj Mahal inside.

There were exquisite dry flies in several sizes, wet flies and nymphs.  The ghost of Dan Bailey hovered over us, exclaiming, “Oh, wow!”  I had messed around with a few words, mostly making messy black marks, and Mark had countered with art.

It was trading horse apples for golden goose eggs.

“They”re too pretty to fish with,” I wailed, like a little kid.

“I’ll teach you how to tie them,” Mark said grimly.  “Given your skill with raw materials you won’t have to worry about pretty.”

Things work out.


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