Winter Hands

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Many of us do the bulk of our fly tying during the winter months when, depending on where we live, weather conditions can make fishing difficult and uncomfortable to near-impossible.  Why not tie flies instead?  That seems like a great idea, and in many ways it is.  Unfortunately, however, the indoor environment at this time of year poses significant challenges for the fly tyer.

Low humidity is the culprit, and one’s hands can become very dry, rough, and even cracked.  This causes misery even when one is not tying, but can really raise havoc at the vise.  Static electricity can cause furs, feathers and synthetic materials to adhere to the hands, clothing, and even vise and tools.  Skin spurs snag thread and materials, and dubbing becomes very difficult to control with dry fingers.  I’d like to share with you some of the tricks I’ve learned to deal with these problems.

Keeping your hands in good condition overall is the most important thing you can do to assist your winter tying activities.  This requires some effort and diligence, but the rewards are well worth it.  First of all, even if you’re a tough guy and can shrug off winter temperatures, do wear gloves whenever you’re outdoors.  Cold and low humidity sucks the moisture right out of your skin, and gloves offer some protection from this.

Use hand lotion or cream frequently.  There are plenty of unscented products out there, so you don’t have to wind up smelling like a field of flowers if you don’t want to.  Legendary Catskill fly tyer Art Flick was known for his use of Corn Husker’s Lotion, which I believe was the first product of its kind marketed to men.  In fact, when he was tying custom orders for clients his flies were said to smell of the stuff.  The best time to use these products is when your hands are engorged with water, as they are after bathing, hand washing, or doing up dishes.  You are essentially replacing the skin oils that have been washed away.  You keep your skin lubricated and hold the moisture in.

Bedtime is also an important time to put some lotion or cream on your hands, especially if they are very cracked or rough.  The product stays on your skin all night and works its magic.  If you have skin cracks, O’Keefe’s Working Hands is excellent for helping to repair them.  If I have finger cracks that are raw and painful, I follow up the O’Keefe’s with a little Bag Balm.  This is a product originally intended to treat scrapes and other irritations on cow’s udders, but which is now available in most drug stores.  It’s wonderful for taking soreness out, although it’s not the most pleasant stuff to use.  It’s greasy and smells like Pine Sol, so I don’t use it all over my hands.  I target it only on the painful finger cracks and massage it in.  I have it on good authority that Preparation H will work in much the same way.

To deal with skin spurs at the tying bench, I always keep a pair of nail clippers, an emery board, and a travel-size tube of hand cream available.  For rough spots and small skin spurs that are catching on my thread or other materials, I use the emery board to sand them smooth then rub in a tiny drop of lotion.  For bigger spurs, I nip them off first with the nail clippers.  Needless to say you want to do this very carefully; you don’t want to draw blood.

To defeat static electricity, I keep a can of Static Guard at my tying bench.  A quick spritz immediately puts fly-away bits of fur and feathers under perfect control.  Some tyers use laundry dryer sheets for this purpose, which is more convenient than the spray.  I can not use them, however, because I am somewhat allergic to all the additives they contain.

Finally, we come to the dry fingers issue.  Many tyers solve this problem by touching their fingers to their tongue for a bit of moisture.  While this certainly works, you may wind up with a furry tongue.  And heaven only knows what else.  I think of what my Mother told me as a child:  “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been.”  Fly tying materials clearly have the potential to be contaminated with various insect parts, parasite eggs, bacteria, viruses, etc.  They may have also been treated with a pesticide to protect them from clothes moths and Dermestid beetles.

I once asked an acquaintance of mine, who at the time was said to be the largest wholesaler of fly tying materials on the East Coast, what he did for insect protection.  I expected the usual answer of plastic bags and moth nuggets.  I was stunned when he told me that he had no insect problems whatsoever because he dusted all of his materials with Sevin, an organophosphate pesticide.  I don’t know if anyone is still doing this type of thing, but I for one am not taking any chances.

One strategy I use to help control dubbing with dry winter fingers is to wet a cellulose sponge with water and keep it on a saucer on my tying desk to the right of the vise.  I can reach over and touch my fingers to the sponge whenever I need a bit of moisture.  This is far more hygienic than “going to the mouth.”

When tying away from home, at a club meeting or similar event, I cut a piece of sponge to fit a small plastic container to serve the same purpose.  If you do this, just remember to open the container when you get home and let the sponge dry out.  If you leave the damp sponge sealed up in the container, you’ll have an unpleasant, smelly surprise next time you open it.

The other option for dubbing control is the use of “finger treatment.”  This is the stuff cashiers and bank tellers use to help them get a grip on money when counting it out.  A number of different brands of it are available at office supply stores; I’ve used several of them and don’t have a preference.  Don’t be put off by any pink tint they may have, the quantity you use is so small that it won’t affect even very light-colored dubbing.  You don’t need gobs of it, just stroke your fingers lightly over the surface so that you pick up a slight film.  During warmer weather this type of product will pull moisture from the air, so if droplets of moisture appear the surface you can just blot them with a tissue.  I cut a blotter from a piece of paper towel to fit the container all leave it in place all the time.

I hope that these little tips and tricks will help make your winter tying more enjoyable.  Soon you’ll be putting all those flies you’re turning out to good use, submitting them to the fish for their approval.  Think spring!

3 thoughts on “Winter Hands

    1. Mary S. Kuss

      I must say, Mike, that’s a new one on me. Anyone who ties flies with his or her toes must have extraordinarily nimble tootsies. I have good news for all of you toe-tyers out there, though. O’Keeffe’s also makes a product called “Healthy Feet.” So you’re in luck!

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Yay!

        But…come to think of it, this might almost be why the flies I tie are so sloppy. Fingers, eh? Very clever…who’da thunkit?

        But then what do y’all hold yer beer with?

        – Mike

        Reply

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