Boxing clever

‘And so this is Christmas’ as the song goes. In this house we were not particularly looking forward to it this year but here we are so making the best of it was the order of the day. A little time off work, eating and drinking, snoozing in front of the telly – we undertook the usual pastimes of the lucky few of us in these difficult times. After the feasting and over indulging in mince pies I grew restless (as usual) so decided to sort out my fly boxes, a job I have been putting off for about, let me see – 5 years or so! I’ve not been happy with the boxes for at least that long but the task of reorganising them had been put on the long finger until now. In preparation for the expected house move a large cardboard box contained all the boxes so I unearthed it this morning and lugged it up to the sitting room.

The basic problem is that I own far too many flies. One medium sized box would contain all the flies I need for the season. Instead, there is a proliferation of boxes filled with all manner of patterns 99% of which will never be used by me. Over the years boxes have arrived in my collection only for them to be filled up in short order and I find myself with no space once again. This provides me with the justification to buy another fly box and so the cycle repeats itself. Twice over my angling life I have sold off most of my fly boxes and their contents only for the addiction to return later and the whole process begins again. I guess as addictions go mine is a pretty innocuous one, I don’t go robbing people to feed my habit  or conduct shady deals in poorly lit back streets. I’m not driven into debt or destitution, nor see those I love go without so I can own a jewel encrusted box to hold some bumbles. No, it is just your average fly fishers infatuation with all things fur and feather.

I take solace knowing I am not alone when it comes to this particular affliction. The tackle bags of fellow anglers bulge just as much as mine with an overabundance of fly boxes. I seem to be in good company. Why do other anglers fly boxes hold a deep attraction to us? Given the chance we all love to poke about in someone else’s fly boxes, looking for killer patters, admiring the quality of the tying and sometimes dropping broad hints that we might like to own one or two of them.

If we accept the premise that we flyfishers are prone to excess when it comes to artificial flies it now remains to decide how to organise the collection so that I:

  • Rationalise the collection of boxes, reducing their number if possible
  • Understand what flies I have and arrange them so I know what flies are in each box
  • Weed out any unwanted patterns and replace them with new (deadly) ones

One regret I have is the gradual decline in the quality of the actual boxes themselves which I own. The ‘mass extinctions’ of my boxes in the past saw the aluminium and wooden ones sold, mistakenly replacing them with cheap plastic ones. Yes, I know they do the job but I miss the texture and solidity of those aluminium Wheatleys. A couple of good ones remain but most are nasty soulless plastics. The same goes for the big wooden box of lough flies, I previously owned a magnificent one made of mahogany but a cheap plywood one took its place when it was sold over 15 years ago.

Well used but all the better for that, an old aluminium box

The lights on the tree flickered and the old black cat was in his usual position, stretched out his full length in front of the fire, when I cleared the dining table and pulled out the cardboard box which was filled to overflowing with fly boxes and began to sift through them. I counted a nice round thirty fly boxes in total, a mix of assorted sizes and colours all jumbled together, some in regular use and others that have not been opened in anger for many seasons. As if that wasn’t enough I added a couple of containers from the fly tying kit which were receptacles for flies fresh off the vice and were now looking for a home. Pouring myself a fortifying glass of port, I started by looking at the wet fly boxes first. Here was a perfect example of the mess I had created for myself, boxes of flies in all manner of distress and with no rhyme nor reason to their contents.

My thinking for many years has been to pack one large fly box in my lough bag which contained a high proportion of my trout and salmon flies. My logic was that I would always have something to fish with, be it on Conn, Mask, Carra, Corrib, Beltra or Carrowmore. It might not be exactly the fly I wanted but a close enough pattern/size would be in there (somewhere). This sort of worked but I ended up with rows of the popular flies (Bibio and Green Peter for example) and then ran out of space. The overflow of flies then started to fill other, smaller boxes and the whole thing has since sunk to a disappointingly low level of organisation.

Dry patterns are in similar disarray, lots of flies but jumbled into different boxes so that easily finding the pattern I wanted is beyond hope or the power of prayer. Don’t even start me on salmon flies! I used to fish a lot for salmon but rarely venture out for them these days. Some old flies from Scotland are still hanging around and because I enjoy making salmon flies there are many, many newer ones filling boxes too. To be honest, it was a bit shocking to realise how many salmon flies I possess. I thought I was better organised than this as I keep 4 fly boxes in the waistcoat for grilse fishing on the rivers. Small singles, doubles and trebles in my favourite patterns used to reside in those boxes but such well defined structure has fallen like the Roman empire into chaos. These previously pristine plastic boxes were now home to all kinds of everything (as Dana might have sung).

One issue that seems to be a common thread in all the boxes is my preoccupation with having spares of my favourite flies. OK, so having one or two of the same pattern makes a lot of sense. A broken hook or a lost fly could be a disaster on a day when the fish were being finicky, so having one or perhaps two of the same fly is a handy insurance. I have gone totally overboard though and now some boxes are full of a small number of patterns but plenty of them. Thinking back, I can’t recall the last time I was stuck without a spare of any particular fly that was catching me fish. Was this due to good organisation or did it show me the chances of not having the right fly were minimal?

I am not going to count all the flies I own but looking at the pyramid of boxes on the table I’d hazard a guess there are 4000 – 5000 at the moment. Most will never be used now. The box of grayling bugs for instance are of no use to me now as there are no Grayling here in Ireland. The big collection of tubes and waddies which gave such sterling service over the years on the salmon rivers of Scotland have no use here in the west of Ireland. There they sit, colours slowly fading and tinsel tarnished, the foot soldiers of so many campaigns now retired and forgotten. Even the boxes of lures for rainbow trout which gave me many happy days in Scotland are probably surplus to requirements now.

So what to do with this lot? I badly needed a system, some structured method of knowing what flies were where. First I had to create some storage space in the boxes I planned to use for spare flies.  That was pretty easy and didn’t take too long, soon I had a large box for salmon flies and a smaller one for trout patterns. Now the task of clearing out any surplus flies from the other boxes could begin, an altogether more time consuming job.

Trout River boxes. These live in a waistcoat specifically used only when I fish rivers like the Robe. Since I have done very little river fishing over the past three or four seasons these boxes are all fairly full. I could add a few mayfly patterns but that is about all I need. I do have some new spider patterns in my head and so once I have made them up I’ll make room for them by weeding out some older ones.

Lough Boxes. The ‘single box’ option is not working for me so I need to think this over. Separate boxes for wet, dry and salmon flies seems to be the logical answer but I am short of a big box to take the salmon patterns. Hang on, I had two large boxes of flies and lures which I used for rainbow trout. What if I empty one of them and use it for the salmon flies? Brilliant! Those rainbow flies have not been used in years so repurposing one of the boxes makes a lot of sense. I’ll move them into an old cigar box for now. That done, the salmon flies were then transferred over and at the same time I culled the ones which I deemed to be surplus to requirements. To say this was an eye-opener is a gross understatement, Almost half of the salmon flies were removed mainly because they were repeats of the same size and pattern or in some cases I had no faith in them. Row upon row of Green Peters, Bibios and bumbles were sorted through and the spares sent down the tunnel into the waiting maws of the ‘Spares’ box. A dozen size 8 Beltra badgers, nearly the same number of size 10 Bibios and multiples of my other favourites were thinned out over an hour or so. All good flies but there is no point filling up boxes with identical patterns. The upshot of all this was a ¾ filled salmon box and two completely empty leaves in the newly renamed Trout fly box. A shaft of light shone on my work and I felt I was getting somewhere at last. With some space in the both the wet fly and salmon boxes I can make some new patterns to try out next season. Hundreds of spares are now in one place so I can top up as required too.

Before : Old rainbow trout lures

The salmon river boxes (which habitually live in what i term the ‘grilse’ waistcoat) required a good tidy up but that didn’t take me long. I have loads of my usual patterns and there is a little space for any new ones I want to make this winter. I sorted through the tube fly boxes too and tidied them in to one box for big tubes (unlikely to be used), a tin for small, heavy tubes and one for micro tubes (both highly likely to be in action next season). I was ‘suppin’ diesel now’ as they say here in the west.

Micro tubes. Started using them over 40 years ago and they still catch me a few fish

Drys. Well this was a mess and no mistake. Boxes after box, no clear organisation and a lot of very old flies jumbled together. I counted 6 dry fly boxes. Two small ones were acceptable as they housed small river flies for summer evenings. The others were a veritable smorgasbord of flies so I plunged in and emptied them out on to the table and started over again. It soon became obvious my stock of dry mayflies has been decimated so there is a wee job for me during the winter evenings. Many of the delicate flies were misshapen and so I removed them and will tie replacements. By the time I had finished there was a pile of flies which were only fit for the bin. Space had been created and the remaining flies sorted into some semblance of order. Hours at the vice beckoned to tie up a range of replacement dries for both river and lough. That’s progress isn’t it?

I stated at the beginning of this post that I owned far too many flies and that is very true, however this exercise of tidying up the fly boxes has shone a light into the dark recesses of my collection of flies and I now accuse myself of willful negligence. While I own lots of flies I have just kept adding the same ones and not really made any effort to add new patterns. There are lots of slight variations, adding a different coloured hackle here or a shiny tag there, but no real invention. I have time before the new season to address this glaring omission and now have the space to hold any designs.

Space in the wet fly box, now I simply must make more flies!

The past two seasons have seen me concentrate more on coarse fishing than my usual forays for trout and salmon. The coming year will see me limited to only a few angling days so I need to be more balanced in my choice of venues. At this stage that means more fly fishing and less maggot drowning for me, hence the drive to sort out my fly tackle. Jobs like sorting out the fly boxes, jobs I have been putting off for years, area a good way of re-focusing my thoughts. Next up will be tying flies, something else that had slipped off my radar of late. I know that many of you readers of this blog are particularly interested in the fly tying posts so hopefully there will be more of them to come over the next couple of months.

The bottle of port was a good bit lighter by the time I finished but it looks like I am much better organised now. I’ll have to get used to where everything is and top up certain patterns before March but that is OK. At least it was time better spent than just vegetating in front of the telly. Nelson stirred in front of the fire, his meow telling me he was hungry (again) so I pack the boxes away for now and attend to him. Maybe Christmas isn’t so bad after all.


6 thoughts on “Boxing clever

  1. Yes, the salmon flies really added up. Spring flies, summer patterns, lough flies….. It is such a fascinating side to our sport, hard to imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have all these different flies to pick from.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great account of a very real and I would think common problem. I’ve had a similar type of process on a smaller scale thank God! I kept my Wheatley box when folk were getting rid and am glad I did. That said I’ve acquired quite a few other types of boxes! I like the sheepskin lined leather wallet thingy for my most commonly used traditional’s . Rainbow fishing I only dabble (no pun intended) a little and in truth have had no strong desire to expand. I have of course a box but of only a score or so garish patterns that I don’t really know how to fish very well and probably will never try to find out about. Dries fascinate me , increasingly so. I’m amassing a few in their own wooden box and this I would imagine will be an area for expansion! I have then got a box of ‘sea trout ‘ flies, mainly traditional patterns and I suspect a very small amount compared with some! Choice of a fly is something that I seem to be forever struggling with – like everyone else probably- but my conundrum centres primarily on whether I have faith in a pattern at a particular moment as this tends to run through every aspect of fishing at that moment. If I feel happy with a pattern I cast better, feel the line is ok, leader the right length, conditions not too bad. All these things crash when my confidence drops in my choice of fly . – what was I thinking it’s too bright, cold, early in the season……. etc. for this fly. A rise or missed take can instantly reverse my thinking pattern! I started off fly fishing with a spinning rod and a bubble float with usually only about half a dozen flies often pre packed from Woolies. Typically 12’s and nearly always silver butcher x2 , pennel x2, blue Zulu x 2. I generally fished only one fly at a time to ensure they lasted. That said if I had a couple of bubble floats I would consider myself well prepared! The point is I think I was nearly always confident in those days and often wonder how it all got so complicated! Nowadays a residual aspect of my early fishing approach is the inclusion of a Bibio in most teams of flies and yes I have stacks of them!
    Merry Christmas!


    1. Duncan, I guess most of us end up fixating on certain flies, be that dries, salmon etc. I have seen dedicated rainbow trout anglers with boxes bulging with buzzers/lures/boobies in every conceivable colour and size. As I say, we are all prey to these obsessions but it is just another facet of our sport. Like you, my first taste of fly fishing was with the bubble float. Luckily for me I had found fly tying around the same time so I was learning rapidly about the flies and very soon graduated to a fly rod. The world was never quite the same after that! Interesting that you mentioned confidence, it is something I keep meaning to write about as it fascinates me. Hugh Falkus wrote well about the subject in the book on salmon (well worth a read). The good old Bibio will forever be a staple for those who fish for wild trout. The variations which are on the go these days give us plenty of options but sometimes the original will outfish anything else. Thanks for getting in touch Duncan, hope the 2022 season is good to you! Sray safe, Colin


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