The Botched Job

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Figure 1: The Anguish of the Botch >

My father taught me that “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” He’d point out that a thing done hurriedly that must be done over costs time rather than saves it. I’d try to alter the axiom to “Anything worth doing is worth doing twice,” but he was not amused.

But over the years of fishing and tying flies, I’ve come up with a corollary proverb he might almost concede: “Anything botched is worth trying out.”

Although I’m surely not in the class of excellent tyers, my tying has improved dramatically over the years (and it goes without saying that ready access to the wide array of premium materials J. Stockard opens up to me has also played a welcome part); I’d categorize most of my work now as “functional.” But my early ties were a little worse than horrible, and I know that because I still have a lot of them. Being a well-trained miser (again courtesy of my Dad’s guidance), I’ve never been able to bring myself to slice my work off a hook and start again. I guess I’ve nevr done the math very well–never factored in the cost of a hook and the stream time that gets devoted to a fly. I’ve always just looked at what I’d wrought, convinced myself there was an unusually stupid trout with dual damaged retinas out there somewhere just waiting for this tangle of feather and fur, and stuck it as one more team benchwarmer in my fly box.

Now, I’m well aware of the statement made by some famous tyer whose name escapes me…that “Trout don’t care about neatness”…wisdom that has reached near-proverb status. And I know all too well the devotion to the ratty-looking fly held by the great Cal Bird. But I’m not talking about buggy rattiness here, I’m talking about truly abominable tying. For quite some time I committed it with impunity.

I’ve improved, but I still make some monstrosities and I still park them in what’s becoming more and more premium fly box real estate. I rarely use them, though, because while my hands remain thumb-infested, my eyes have matured. On the stream I’ll look at what’s on the menu and rule out the botched embarrassments with rarely a second thought.

But every now and then, usually when I’m getting skunked and the wristwatch says my fishing window is closing, I find myself reasoning that if I can’t get a take I can at least accomplish a little house-cleaning. And I’ll tie on one of those pitiful ties, and cast it out, intending to prove to myself in a couple of symbolic drifts that it’s worthless, so that I can demote it when I get home.

And sometimes that’s when I get the pleasant shock of my life. A couple of years ago I decided to tie an olive mayfly nymph; being too lazy to look anything up, I made it up as I went. At the thorax I got impatient and sought to make a wing case “the easy way,” using a dab of UV-curable resin. But I sneezed while applying it and blobbed on ten times the intended amount, and I convinced myself it’d shrink down in the curing, which of course it didn’t. I ended up with my “Quasimodo Nymph,” sporting a truly huge crystal-clear hunchback perched atop some rather sloppy dubbing. Into the fly box it went anyway, and on a morning of abject disappointment I tied it on with a contemptuous laugh, seeking a reason to throw it in the trash.

Figure 2: Quasimodo >

BAM! Six nice trout in the next 20 minutes! Not only takes, but savage takes. The morning was saved! I quit only because the fly fell apart. I immediately tied up a bunch more at home, improving durability in the process, and to this day Quasimodo remains one of my top four go-to flies. Without the hunchback it’s not half bad, but with that “mistake” it is occasionally deadly.

Years ago, when I first got into tying, I was using materials I’d mock these days. I acquired some of the cheapest hen hackle patches ever perpetrated upon the fly fishing world (some of those feathers looked like mattress industry rejects) and used them for dry flies, not realizing the difference. And they were all too large…and I’d trim off the ends to shorten the barbs, again ignorant of the reasons why hackle can sit atop the surface film and how naturally tapering barbs should move in the water. They were horrible, and yet I sometimes caught trout on them–low-IQ trout, bottom-of-their-class trout, to be sure, but trout nonetheless.

And I remember scoffing at the need to buy…you know, like, actual dubbing…reasoning instead that winding sweater yarn onto a hook shank was the same thing. I remember reading something about leaches, and tying up a ridiculous thing using green yarn, and dragging it behind a canoe while focusing more on holding the bow into the wind than on my rod, and nearly losing the rod over the side because I’d hooked the biggest trout I’d ever caught up to then on a fly.

I guess I’m sentimental, because whenever that happens I retire the fly to a special box reserved for heroes.

And as a kid, long before I ever tied flies, I used to whittle bass plugs, out of anything I could get my hands on, including corn cobs. I’d even cobble together treble hooks using three like-sized hooks I’d found during the previous summer, using glue or thread or both to bind them together. And I’d paint the plugs with acrylic paint from paint-by-number sets acquired on some previous Christmas. I made one my brothers laughed at for decades…until the laughter quieted substantially a few years back, because in Alaska, with my Dad watching, that plug caught one of the two largest salmon–in fact one of the two largest freshwater fish–of my life, to this day.

Figure 3: Other Old Botches >

Of course some botches are just plain botches…

…or are they? (Queue diabolical pipe organ music.)

The botched job: Believe in it, when all else fails. Like a 7th-string point guard or an over-the-hill outfielder with no experience and nothing to offer except wildly low odds and pure heart, a throw-away fly will now and then make a believer of you.

10 thoughts on “The Botched Job

  1. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for being transparent about your tying prowess. In the end, the only thing that counts is whether or not the fly catches fish (note plural). Over the years I have found that while periodically trout can be maddeningly selective (that only happens when you don’t have the right fly!), on all other days, if it will float or sink or do both, the fly will catch fish. Keep up the mediocre work on tying, that way you have to keep coming back until you get it right, or you forget your dad’s saying.
    all the best,
    Joe

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for reading. Don’t take those photos as examples of my normal work–my tying these days turns out pretty decent flies, as long as I stay away from short-shank #20-or-smaller hooks…and parachute patterns, which I’ve never mastered and never cared too much about to practice. Soft-hackle nymphs down through #18 are especially easy and I turn out good ones, and they constitute most of my choices when on the water–I have my favorite (often made-up) color patterns and tail & hackle lengths, but the techniques tend to be consistent, except that some require use of dubbing loops and others do not. I’ll also tie really small streamers and fish them like I would a wet fly. Now and then I’ll whip up a good hair wing dry or a diving caddis of some sort, or an Adams or March Brown. I don’t use dries very much, but when I tie them in the classic Catskill form, they come out nice.

      But there are times when I’m making things up as I go (I tend to get bored and do that), and it’s not the creativity but the mid-technique indecision that will occasionally get me. That’s when a botched fly will sometimes rear its ugly-to-the-bone head. I’ll either unwind the last step and try again, or just forge ahead like an idiot, telling myself “No, it’s good, it’ll work….”

      It’s all fun, and the years improve the results, as you know. And QuadiModo was an inspiring example of an unlikely player proving to have championship stuff. That one especially still makes me smile. I now have several proud rows of “Quasi” in my fly box at all times. : )

      What are your favorite “mistakes” that turned out to be great producers? I’ll bet we all have some; would be nice to hear about them from the whole gang.

      – Mike

      Reply
      1. Joe Dellaria

        Hey Mike,
        As you point out, practice makes perfect. I just cleaned out all of my fly boxes to remove the flies that never get used. As Mike Cline pointed out below, I intend to sell the whole lot on Craig’s List. There were numerous flies that I now recognize as mistakes – unfortunately, none of them produced like your QuadiModo! So far my mistakes have been flops. Part of the problem is, I have not worked up the courage to tie most of them on!
        The closest I can get to answering your question is my turkey maribou strymph. One of the guys at work got a turkey several years ago. He gave me most of the skin. I elected to pull feathers and keep them in bags for future use. I don’t remember which feather it was, but one of them had 1-3 inch maribou feathers attached at the stem. At first I was annoyed, as I had to remove them. Then it struck me that it might be interesting to use these palmer style. I played with the idea and finally arrived at the final version: one feather as the tail, palmer 1-2 for the body (depending on how long they were and how big the hook was, and build a thread head unless I used a bead head. It ended up being a cross between a nymph and a streamer, hence, the name strymph. It worked well in the early season but wained as summer came along. I just found a whole row of them today during my cleaning effort. So, I have promised myself to give it a try again next year (our season closes from Oct. 15 to the first Saturday in January.

        Reply
        1. Michael Vorhis

          I like the sound of the “strymph,” Joe. I too have played around a little with marabou, using it in ways one would normally use soft hackle barbs. It moves well in the water but it’s not very durable so I don’t use it that much. For tails I sometimes mix it with some soft hair, but palmering bares it to all the forces that make it disappear little by little off a fly. Your “strymph” (which is a good name by the way) sounds like it could mimic a leach, so I’m not surprised it would work. Not sure why springtime would be better for it than summer though…could that have had more to do with color? I might try a few like you describe it and see what happens.

          I think you’re right that one of the main headwinds impeding a badly made fly is that we just don’t tie them on. Like NoSlimeSlinger says, precise replication is much overrated, and I think tying precision with it. The notion that being a week late or a hook size too large on use of the light dun dubbing will mean no strikes may feed our obsession but it’s probably just a myth–sometimes I think a trout looks up and sees a fly and thinks, “Hey, now lookit that, there’s a…a…um…a…BUG of some kind.”

          Merry Christmas Joe!

          – Mike

          Reply
          1. G.W.

            Excellently stated! Merry Christmas.
            “And I heard Claus exclaim as he cast to his right, ‘I’ll get him this time for a hell of a fight!'”!!!

  2. Mike Cline

    Don’t throw those “botches” away. Put 50 of them in a box and they will sell on EBAY. You’ll even get more if you name them.

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Ho ho, Mike, clever reference to an erstwhile bit of verse! I chuckled at that one…yes, I could probably auction the duds off…but…what if one of them could have been the next Black Ghost? That thought would nag me for all my days. Far better to buy more fly boxes and fill them up, hoping that one day I’ll do enough fishing to try every fly. Now that’s a plan I can go for.

      Something tells me you don’t botch flies anymore Mike.

      Reply
  3. G.W.

    Very enjoyable reading. Anyone who noticed at the last second that the hackle on the bugger was hanging loose, and let it fly (pun intended), knows exactly where you are coming from. If it resulted in a memorable fish, that makes it even more memorable. My first bass fly was on a #2 Mustad, w/quail feather wings at 90 degrees. It would sink slowly near the small bushes sticking out of the lake, and the bass would hammer it.
    I’m late 70’s now, have a cave full of flies, but always remember that fly. I’m still tying, and know for a fact that realism in the finished product is highly overrated and overstated.
    Thanks for a great article, and best of our flyfishing world to you!
    The Ol’ Noslimeslinger

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Good to hear from you Noslimeslinger! I know what you mean about continuing to cast a fly that’s coming apart. A few years ago I started to carry a tiny scissors in my vest to trim off dubbing noodles that are shedding long sections of themselves, courtesy of the filaments having gotten caught in the teeth of a couple of trout. Hapens every once in a while–a knife or clippers won’t do it but a little scissors can, and I don’t have to spoil the water by wading back to the bank. It’s especially useful if the fly is still working and if it’s the only one I have of that type.

      I can picture that big ol’ #2 bass fly of yours wih its wide wings.

      Best to you these holidays and into the next fishing season!

      – Mike

      Reply

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