Saturday mornings at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop

At the original Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in Lake Elmo, across the street from the second iteration, you could smell the coffee on your way down the stairs. There was a wooden desk just to the left, where, more often than not, Jean Mitchell was knitting, reminding me of Madame LaFarge during the ‘terror’ in 18th century France. Bob might be tying flies at the vise that was always ready for customers to use, and a group of people, mostly male, was gathered around a table with mugs that had their names on them, telling lies about encounters with big local trout. Dr. Patrick Daly, with those twinkling Irish eyes and turned up black eyebrows, was a Saturday morning regular, as was Dick Schwartz, who loved to tout his Orvis ‘Far and Fine’ as a more than worthy competitor to Sage’s 479LL, an assessment I vigorously opposed. Jonathan Jacobs was usually there too, sometimes with his little daughter, a former board member of our TU chapter. He insisted on calling me Layton instead of Skip like everybody else did, so I will always refer to him by his full name rather than Jon. Legendary guide and caster Bob Nasby showed up to.

Dry Fly Dick Frantes was seen often on the Kinni, but rarely in the fly shop. You could always tell Dick from others on the stream because he wore a white pith helmet when he fished. Dan Bruski was a regular, as were Don Ausemus, Kevin Becker, Denny McGinn, Bill Stieger and Dean Hansen. Dennis Hook and Jan Jancourt brought in bamboo rods for our inspection. A few bamboo rod builders brought in their wares to show off. The names of some of those guys escape me now, but the recent Kiap-TU-Wish ‘Hot Dog Boil’ at the Ellsworth Rod and Gun Club reacquainted me with some of them, whose faces I remembered, but whose names escape me still. In order not to display my ignorance, I conversed with these guys without letting on that I didn’t remember their last names. 

In the 70’s and 80’s, I was privileged to be as much an employee as a customer. My pay for helping out was a 10% discount, which, my wife would tell you, I used way, way too much. I could sell rods, reels, materials, supplies, and make change from the cash register, even though there was no cash register. Money was kept in a small gray metal box on the desk. In those days, the latest Graphite III offering from Sage sold for a bit over $200. As I write this, I’m bidding at Ebay on a used, two-piece, 389LL for much more than twice what It cost to buy brand new. 

On the other side of the parking lot was a field of grass, where a few of us taught fly casting to beginners, and tried to work out the kinks in the technique of old timers. You could try out a new rod, mounted with a reel and line from the upper dresser drawer in the fly shop, each of which was carefully labeled with line weight and type, then come back inside and buy the rod…or not. When we sold reels, we filled them with backing from a spool that was suspended from the ceiling, and used the right knots to tie the backing both to the reel spool and the new fly line. There were only two manufacturers of lines that we sold at the shop in those days, Scientific Anglers and Cortland, and there were heated arguments about the superiority of one over the other. There were fly tying classes offered, and I taught a few of them. Often, the class focussed on a single skill, like tying parachute dry flies, or soft hackles, or bead heads. Most of the materials in those days were actual feathers and fur, metallic tinsel being the most common inorganic material. Of course, as fellows learned to tie, and to have confidence in their creations, they bought rods, lines and reels, tippet material, hooks, hackle necks and fur patches. I was lucky enough to be part of a happy, successful business. Bob and Jean enjoyed their fishing as much as anyone. They lived in a house overlooking Lake Mallalieu in Hudson, and Bob could be found early summer mornings fishing the Trico hatch just upstream of the bridge on the main branch of the Willow. Jean said that one of her favorite things was to float the Bighorn River with famous guide, Ron Granneman, and stay at the Bighorn Angler in Ft. Smith. The year after the Sage 389LL was introduced, Bob took one on a float trip and returned to the fly shop to say, incredulously, that it was the only rod he fished with. 

I just bought one at the Ebay auction. Lucky me!!

Skip’s Loose Threads

Skip’s Loose Threads, May 1, 2023

It’s been a brutal Winter! Too much snow, too much cold, too much inside. About all you can do is organize fly tying stuff, put parafin on already lubricated ferrules, and think about prior years when Winter fishing was fun and possible. I remember a Winter day on the South Branch of the Root when I found out that felt soles are a magnet for snow. Every step I took, I gained an inch in height! At least until my added length made it impossible to stand.

A few days past, I was looking at my fly rods, wishing I had the Sage 4711LL which now belongs to my younger son who lives in Colorado. At that time, I also owned an ultra light weight Sage 279LL which had a ring and hood reel seat, instead of the screw-locking one installed on the 4711LL, and that memory caused me to recall an incident where it failed.

Several years ago, I was in Aspen, Colorado to play the harpsichord in performances of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. I had been asked by my violinist friend Jaime Laredo to join him in this project. I had been to Aspen before, and was aware of the free trolley that made a round trip through town every half hour or so. At the end of the trolley line was Slaughterhouse Road, where a stone foot-bridge spanned the Roaring Fork. One bright, sunny afternoon, when rehearsing was done, I gathered my fishing gear, stepped onto the trolley, and was driven to the bridge. The trolley man asked me when I would be done, and I asked him when his last trip to the bridge would be. He said 9pm, and I told him I would be at his turn-around spot at that hour.

When I arrived, PMD spinners were laying eggs in the shadows that the bridge cast on the water, little yellow mayflies dancing vertically under the stone arch. I had brought two rods in my case: the Sage 4711LL and an almost eight-foot two weight, a Sage 279LL. Pretty soon I was thigh-deep in the Roaring Fork, casting to rising Rainbows under the bridge. I had an audience, too…hikers on the footpath parallelling the river stopped to watch. I’d tied on a long 6X tippet, and had turned the two pawls in my reel to provide the least possible resistance to a hooked fish. The reel was a Hardy-built Orvis CFO123. I had just hooked my third trout, when the hooded butt cap fell off the rod into the water, followed in quick succession by my reel and the little knurled ring that secured the front reel foot. I reached for the line, and with the rod tucked under my arm, managed to net and release the fish. I could see the reel in the clear water, but every time I moved my feet, the water clouded up. The audience was getting larger, with a few scantily-clad teenage nymphs just downstream of me. I started to pull on the fly line, but the reel on the bottom just revolved and let out more without moving. I hoped my fly line to backing knot was good. I wondered how much backing was on the reel. I tried to spot the butt cap and ring in the water to no avail. Eventually, after ten minutes or so of frustration, I just reached down with my right arm and picked up the reel off the bottom, retreated to shore thoroughly soaked, thankful for the warm sun, even though all the bugs were in the deep shadow. Still wet, I made it back to town on the next trolley. The trolley man laughed when I told him my story. When I got back to the Twin Cities, I sent the little rod to Sage on Bainbridge Island to be refitted with a new butt cap and knurled ring. Cost me eighty bucks. To this day, I don’t know why the glue under the butt cap decided to dry out. Was it the altitude? By the way, the Bach Brandenburgs went very well, thankyou. 

Skip’s Loose Threads

Floppy Flies

Back when most fly fishers had never heard of nymphs, or Mr. Skues, before WWII, a forward-looking Orvis catalog listed what was described as “All Purpose Nymphs” in three basic colors and a variety of sizes. They were all based on the profile we now associate with a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear.

The sizes ranged from #10 to #16. They were tied with the same materials. But the way those materials worked in the water was very different. The larger flies moved a bit in the currents, simulating life. The smaller ones were much stiffer, and therefore more resistant to being animated by water. The “floppier” flies caught more fish. Our fly tying materials vary a great deal in softness. We pick Marabou for its ability to wave around and give the impression of a leech. We use Grouse and Hen neck feathers for soft hackles. We try to find the stiffest, most web-free hackles for dry flies, and the softest deer or elk hair for Caddis imitations. We often forget that our beautifully tied flies are meant to appear alive, in and on the water.

I remember a young, talented fly tier who delighted in exacting imitations of insects that had bent legs, gossamer wings, properly uplifting tails, and even the correct number of abdominal segments. At the fly shop, we’d “ooh” and “aah.” As impressive as those flies were, they were designed for human wonderment, not the hungry eyes of trout. So what is a “Floppy Fly?” An insect imitation that appears alive when set in motion by river currents. This means that as the size of an imitation decreases, the mobility and softness of the materials used increases.

Some years ago, I was tested by a dual-hatch situation that occured on the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park. It was October, and the first snowflakes of the year fell gently on my nose and on the water. When the sun shone, tiny Baetis, #20, suddenly covered the riffle and trout fed avidly. When the sun was obscured by clouds, the small insects ceased hatching, and I was treated to large Gray Drakes, Siphlonurus in size #8. In addition to having to modify my leader and tippet to fish the two different hatches, the day was alternating between clouds and sun about every twenty minutes. But the selective fish fed only on the predominant insect, ignoring the other species that had been hatching only minutes before.
My solution in both cases was a soft hackle in the right colors, fished in the film to those rising Cutthroats. Both were dark gray. Both were tied on dry fly hooks, and had a collar of soft hackle from a Sage Grouse — I used two large hackles on the bigger fly. The smaller fly was dubbed with wispy Muskrat underfur; the larger one, #10 had much stiffer dark Hare’s Ear. And the fish ate them both.

When we tie streamers and bucktails, it is important to use feathers in smaller sizes, and hair in larger ones, because the feathers are floppier, and work in the water to imitate a living minnow. When you tie underwater flies, the “floppy quotient” of your materials should increase as the size of the fly decreases.

Skip’s Loose Threads

Sometimes Simplicity Wins

In a previous article, I wrote about the history of fly-design moving between poles of simplicity and complexity, with a funny story about salmon fishing in Scotland. Sometimes, and more frequently than not, simplicity wins.

Emergers are a class of immature insect in the act of ascending to the surface, attempting to split wingcases, or drying wings, or escaping the remains of a nymphal exoskeleton. Trout, being effi- cient predators by necessity, feed upon the most vulnerable insects, those that, because of a disability or handicap, will never fly away.

During a hatch, there are thousands of individuals in the process of becoming adults. If everything goes as nature intends, they will all look alike. The cripples have one thing in common: theylook different from the successful individuals.

The differences may vary, but there will be some trigger that lets the trout know which ones are vulnerable, so the fish can rise confidently and not waste precious calories in an unsuccessful effort. This is also nature’s way of eliminating less robust individ- uals from the breeding pool. After hatching, the birds take their share, again targeting those individuals that exhibit less than perfect flying ability.

Consider now the standard dry fly, with hackle, wings, body and tails, tied on a metal hook which often breaks the water surface. Can you see your fly on the water amid a hatch of insects? If you can, then your fly doesn’t look like the naturals. The trout will also notice these irregularities and perhaps eat your fly. Ironically, the take is precisely because all of your ingenuity to craft the right silhouette, match color and size, and simulate movement creates just the opposite impression to the fish. The fish recognizes that your fly is a fake, but sucks it in because it won’t fly away. I think it’s terribly humbling to consider this, but it leads to a clearer understanding about what makes a great emerger imitation.

If any irregularity in the natural causes it to be targeted by trout, the more general and simple we can make those irregularities, the better. With fewer elements in each fly, we can concentrate on getting the colors and size right. The goal is to convince the trout that our imitation is a member of the same species that’s hatching, but also that it is crippled.

Soft hackle flies do exactly that, provided the body is the same color as the natural’s underbody, and the hackle is soft and sparse enough to get wet and simply lie along it. Don’t worry about flota- tion. Even wet, most soft hackles will stay in the film, despite the hook point. By the way, make sure you tie them on light weight hooks. Are your soft hackles hard to see on the water? I hope so. You may not be able to see the fly, but you can watch your tippet for a tell-tale twitch, or lift your rod tip if you see a rise where you think your fly is.

Skip’s Loose Threads

How do I get started tying flies?

One of my colleagues at work mentioned that her husband was a fly fisher, but that he was making noises about taking up fly-tying as well. She wanted to know what she could buy to get him started in the right way. I’m sure that there are lots of folks out there in the same boat, and a little guidance might help. So here goes.

The first requirement is a comfortable space; a good, comfortable chair in front of a white or light colored piece of wood or laminate, thick enough to be stable, but thin enough to fit the vise’s clamp. One friend used a folding chess board, to which he glued two pieces of white board. Another lays down a white placemat on his desk. I bought a simple desk at Scandinavian Design about 25 years ago that is built from white melamine that serves as my tying table now. Is Scandinavian Design still in business? I just checked, and the answer is “yes.” They even have a desk like mine, but not in white.

The second requirement is a really good light source. I have a pantograph lamp that uses two bulbs, one incandescent in order to capture all the natural colors, and one fluorescent for brightness. I use a 100 watt bulb that I replace every few years by buying one on Ebay. The fluorescent bulb has never been replaced…knock on wood… it’s forty years old! I also use a large magnifying glass, 4 inches in diameter, that I can position between my eyes and the
business end of my vise to make those #22 Tricos easier to tie. There are ‘goose-neck’ fly tying lights that throw a narrow beam of light, but when I’ve had to use one of those my eyes got tired very fast. When you are tying on the road, the desk light in most hotel rooms
is adequate if not ideal.

Then, you need a good vise. The jaws of the vise should hold hooks firmly enough that you can bend the shanks with pliers while the bend of the hook is secured in the vise. The jaws should also hold the various sizes of hooks that you will be using. If you tie trout flies, you don’t need a vise that’s capable of holding size 3/0 bass bug hooks. There are several ways to open or close the jaws of a vise, and most of them employ a cam or lever, sometimes with an
adjustable collet and sometimes not. There are many vises available, with all sorts of gadgets on them to rotate, hold a bobbin, hang a tool, or secure a thread, but what’s truly necessary are really good jaws and a simple way to open or close them. I use a Regal Inex vise, which runs around $150. It has a clamp base to secure it to my tying desk. I still have the vise I bought when I was 11 years old, an AA manufactured by DH Thompson.

That brings up a problem. Your fly-tying place better have plenty of places to store stuff because you’ll never, ever, throw anything away. You can buy small tools like scissors, bobbins, whip-finishers, and hackle pliers in a kit or individually. You generally get what you pay for in terms of quality. I love Matarelli bobbins and Ice Scissors.

Complete fly tying kits are available, and may appeal, but my experience is that half of what comes in the kit you will never use, and you’ll be running back to the fly shop to buy more of what ran out. If anyone would like to discuss this with me, let me know. My phone number is 715-690-4503 and my email