Last weekend I had the chance to sit down with fly fishing author Skip Morris in his home town on the Olympic Peninsula. Skip had just published a new fly pattern book with his wife Carol Ann, Trout Flies for Rivers, and we talked about the new book, fly tying and fly design.
Do you have any sort of philosophy as a fly designer that you bring to the vise?
Skip Morris: If I had to pick a central idea for fly design, it’s probably function #1, and durability #2. And I try to keep an open mind.
I’ve got a fly pattern in Trout Flies for Rivers called the Wooly Wing that bobs like a cork — you snap it, and it’s up bobbing again. I found out wool floats great, using plain old sculpin wool for the wing. There is an article on that fly coming out in Fly Fisherman magazine.
The fly is a general caddis or stonefly imitation. I’ve fished it on the Yakima, and just got back from fishing it on the Kootenai in Montana. That fly worked great when the caddis came out.
A lot of fly designers come up with a theme and then they crank out variations of that theme. Your fly designs are varied to the point that they don’t even look like they’re coming from the same designer.
For example, the Anatomical series of flies like the Anatomical Green Drake, is totally different from your other patterns. What is your take on ultra-realistic patterns?
Morris: Tying realistic – it’s fun, and if you’re sure that’s what the fish are eating, you might have an edge. I use the Anatomical Green Drake when the bugs are active, and I’m not seeing fish move to the dry fly. The debate is going to go on long after I’m gone on realistic versus impressionistic patterns. I straddle that fence.
It seems like new fly designs develop over time. Is that something you’ve experienced?
Morris: I’m always experimenting – it can take a couple years to get a pattern. That will lead me somewhere else. I imagine it happens for a lot of people.
I developed one pattern for beaver ponds for sea-run cutthroat. But sometimes it’s the only fly that will take salmon. It’s a wet fly called the Raccoon. One day fly fishing for salmon, fish were showing everywhere, but turned up their nose at everything. Everything except a yellow wet fly with a little yellow hackle. I ended up with a fly for coastal salmon and steelhead while I was tying for cutthroat in beaver ponds.
Did you have any influences when you started tying flies?
Morris: I had nobody to teach me. I got books out of the library and taught myself. The books were pretty confusing and had lousy images mostly. We didn’t have bobbins then, and you had to stick the thread in your mouth. I started tying between the ages of 11-13 in the early sixties.
Where do you consider your home waters?
Morris: There is a lot of good and interesting fishing here [on the Olympic Peninsula] but when I’m home I tend to work all the time. We do getaways in British Columbia where we fish for cutthroats and I still try to get to the Deschutes and Central Oregon once a year.
I noticed your wife co-authored this book. How is working and fishing together?
Morris: My wife did more work on the new book than I did. She tied a lot of the flies and did all the photography. She’s a really capable photographer.
Fishing together is not really an issue. I’m an easy-going teacher and that worked well. If you teach a little heavy handed it can be a problem. She’s a really good caster. She’s got it in the blood. Sometimes I have to drag her off the stream. And she’ll outfish me sometimes, and it’s really rude. Fishing together is easy. Working together is the tricky part.
What’s different about this new fly pattern book?
Morris: The main thing about that book is I did it the way I’d want a pattern book to be. It’s got different indexes so you can find what you’re looking for. A lot of the patterns are tied by the originators like Al Troth, Dave Whitlock and Mike Mercer.
I’ve been using pattern books since I was 11 or 12. I’d look at a pattern and say, how do you tie it? What I tried to do in here is either include the details the reader needs or out and out step by step with instructions. There are 31 tying sequences in here. There is also a DVD included that has two hours of tying sequences.
The materials discussion in the book are great. I love the hook chart that shows you what hook code numbers match up with fly usage scenarios.
Morris: The hook chart – that thing took weeks. I had to go online and get catalogs and get samples of hooks. I mic’d out the hooks with a micrometer. Standard wire? Standard length? These companies don’t have things standardized very well. Some remain guesses.
On the materials section, I tried to just use the stuff people use. If I went and started to talk about all the synthetic wing materials, half of them would be gone in four years. I just didn’t try to get too deeply into that stuff.
Do you have an opinion on synthetic versus natural fly tying materials?
Morris: I’m not a purist. I combine the two all the time. In general I tend to use synthetic dubbing for dries and natural for sinking flies. Synthetic doesn’t soak in water. Some of my flies are almost all synthetic. Some are almost all natural. I’ve been tying since I was a kid and I’m 58 years old. I’ve gotten really free of all the philosophical boundaries. I try to make flies the best way I can make them, mine or anybody else’s.
What’s the attraction to tying flies?
Morris: You can go through all the pragmatic stuff. There are only so many flies in the bins at the shop you can pick from. If you really stuck to a few patterns, you could save money.
But I really think that it’s an intriguing craft. The possibilities are staggering – and I say that after 50 years of tying. I’ll go through a book like this and be shocked by how many ways you can wrap something around a hook. I think it’s a captivating, almost limitless craft with the appeal of its history. And on top of all that, you get to catch a fish on the fly you tied.