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  • Shannon Messer

Ugly Flies Catch Fish

As I sit here sipping bourbon gifted to me by a former client that I now consider a good friend, Brandon, from Kentucky, I ponder how people felt the first time they sat at a tying vise. The pressure to tie a beautiful fly was intense and a bit overwhelming for most of us. While teaching fly tying I have a phrase that I use and certainly believe in. “Ugly Flies Catch Fish.”

This is a statement I started making years ago to people getting into the tying game, something to set them at ease so they could make it thru a fly pattern. Do you remember when you started tying flies, and how you tried so hard for the perfect fly every time? Let’s face the facts. At first, we lack the skillsets that lead to perfectly tied flies. This statement, in my opinion, was more fact, but it was an attempt to build confidence in a new fly tyer.

Over the years of wading many of the best and most technical trout streams in the United States I have learned many things, some on my own, but most from legends in our area. You quickly learn to pay attention to your surroundings as they will reveal a road map to success if you are willing to accept it. This road map can come from Mother Nature or from an old timer that at one time had the pressure of catching trout to provide food for the family at home.

I recall many late evenings while fishing with Jerry and Scottie on Straight Fork witnessing great hatches causing my blood to pump at a frantic pace, as trout were eager to take a perfectly drifted fly. The problem for myself, and even Scottie, then was that we were catching trout, but we were not catching the quality of trout that Jerry consistently did. Picture the scene from A River Runs Thru it, the father sitting on the hillside reading while letting the boys learn valuable lessons from Mother Nature. That was how we felt, but Jerry was showing no mercy. Every time he would have his five fish limit of the nicest Smoky Mountain Trout you would ever lay your eyes on! I made a pledge to myself that I was going to crack the code, but later I found out that I could not see the forest for the trees.

Let’s backtrack a bit to the time that I started tying flies on a Thompson AA Vise under the watchful eyes of Roger Lowe, Alvin Gilliland, and Charles “Charlie Bear” Messer. I always strived to tie the neatest fly I possibly could. Now, remember, hackle feathers were not the quality that we have today, thus adding to the challenge of tying the perfect fly that any fly angler would love to have in his or her fly box. I would go as far as keeping a sharp razor blade on hand to cut all the materials off the Mustad 94840 hook that most of us tied on back then. I was doing my best to impress people that eventually were honored and recognized by the Fly Fishing Museum in Bryson City, NC. I later learned that instead of impressing people I needed to be impressing the trout.

A few of our common patterns we use include the Charlie Whopper, Yellow Palmer, and the Female Adams. The Charlie Whopper is one of several family patterns that the Messer’s are known for, but that will have to wait for another time. The Yellow Palmer is a fly that you can fool trout on all summer long, regardless of the watershed fished, thus making it a very popular fly to use.

As we were sitting around the camp organizing fly boxes and preparing leaders it hit me! Jerry always wanted the ugliest Yellow Palmers that I often removed from my fly box! It eventually got to the point where Jerry would select the hackle feathers for the Yellow Palmers that I tied for him. Of course, that was after I found out what he was doing with all the worn out, ugly flies that Scottie and I would discard at the camp table.

I made it a point to sit back and observe what Jerry was doing that one evening trip, praying I possibly could become half the fly fisherman he was. After watching Jerry take a couple of nice brown trout, I made my way to him, and point blank asked what he was doing that I wasn’t? He took the time to educate me on how he fished the ugliest, worn out dry flies that most people would discard for junk. Jerry would dress the fly prior to hitting the water, but that was usually the only time, since he understood that the trout would key in on an injured, large meal. By using oversized hackle, sparsely wrapped flies he was in essence fishing with a cripple, emerger, or a spent fly, all in one.

Jerry revealed to me his secret box. It was tucked away in the front, left pocket of his Army issued, battered and beaten, camouflaged jacket he brought home from the jungle of Vietnam. That box revealed the rattiest flies you would ever see! Within the box rested tired flies with bits of hackle unraveling from many hook shanks, exposing years of use and abuse from hungry trout, revealing a great story and a priceless lesson that day. Ugly flies catch fish!

That evening on the water is tattooed on my brain and certainly influences the way I tie my personal flies…big, and a bit ugly. I went on to even tying Jerry’s Big Ugly, and tried selling in the shop. However, no takers with the exception of one smart guide, who still contacts me for them for his guiding business. I strive to tie perfectly tied flies for retail in the shop, and I will always challenge others to do the same. However, in the meantime, if you can get the tippet thru the eye of the hook then it just may fool the largest fish you have ever taken.

My advice to anyone starting on the wonderful journey of fly tying is to never be quick to let outside influences negatively affect you and your ties. I find myself often using the Bob Ross theory during my tying videos. It is your fly, so tie it the way you want it! Use oversized hackle, use larger wings, change the recipe to meet your needs, and don’t ever feel bad about it! The more you tie, the better you will get, but most importantly strive to tie a quality fly that will last. One last thought…pretty flies catch anglers, but ugly flies catch fish!


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