Hank Hair Fly

Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, former National Park Superintendent

Hanks of Hair

Do you have to be able to tie flies that look like the perfect flies tied by professionals to catch fish? Absolutely not. One of the finest fly fishermen I know who fished the waters of the world from Scotland to the Rockies and Alaska is one of the worst fly tiers I have ever known. The flies that come off his fly tying vise look like one of your most productive flies that have been chewed on by dozens of trout. This expert fisherman catches fish regularly in spite of the fact his flies look like they had been chewed on for a week by a goat. He refers to those ugly tied flies as “hanks of hair.” 

Hank Hair Fly

What are his secrets to scoring with ugly flies?

They are his combination of knowledge of where trout hang out, his ability to read the water, and his casting presentation and line management ability. He was a seasonal park ranger for more than twenty-five years. This college English professor produced a film on fly fishing for his PhD dissertation. He worked for me at the Madison Sub-district in Yellowstone National Park and later at Denali National Park. As a recently trained “Buck” ranger right out of the three month academy I was assigned to the Madison Sub-district of Yellowstone in the summer of 1968, because Jack Anderson, the park superintendent, discovered I was a fly tier. Jack was one of the legendary superintendents of the National Park Service. 

I am a lot better fly tier than the professor’s “hank of hair” flies. But, I never catch as many fish as he does. I am not an expert fly tier. My best looking flies are not as good as what you might find in professional fly fishing shops. I could never become a professional fly tier. I am too slow, and do not have the patience to tie multiple numbers of patterns. If I tie three patterns of the same fly, I switch to some other pattern. When I retired in 1994, Tim Wade, owner and guide of North Fork Angler’s fly shop in Cody, Wyoming, and frequent contributor to Fly Fishing Magazine and the fishing channels on television; asked me to tie flies for his shop. He wanted twelve dozen grasshoppers. What! I can’t tie a single grasshopper pattern that I am proud of….twelve dozen of the same fly would send me to the funny farm. 

My brother is a fly tier. He is eleven years younger than me I was born before WWII and Tom was born after the war. I taught him fly tying, but he apparently didn’t have the best teacher. He describes the flies he ties today look like they came off a car’s grill. However, he is an excellent fly fisherman because I also taught him how to read the water, fly presentation and line management to minimize drag.

You do not have to be a great fly tier to be a successful fly fisherman. Just do it. With practice you will get better results. Beautiful, well tied flies catch fish also. Tie the best flies you can and practice the important skills of reading the water, presentation and line management. Those are the skills of the best fly fishermen I know. I learned that from that English professor who tied the ugliest flies I’ve ever seen, but catches more fish than anyone else I know. 

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