Under the knife

As you regular readers know, I am forever buying old fishing tat. Gear or materials that nobody else wants finds its way to me and I spend hours messing around trying make whatever it is of some use. One purchase from last year was a wooden box full of fly tying materials and a fly box. The photos were unclear but the fly box looked to be a nice old Wheatley. These still command good prices so I was delighted when I opened the timber box to find not only was the fly box a Wheatley, but it was in near pristine condition. The same could not be said for the trout flies inside as the moths had destroyed all the fibres on some of the flies. What with one thing and another I have only now got around to doing something with these tired old flies. In total 18 assorted wets and dries were damaged beyond saving but I figured I could possibly salvage the hooks. Similar exercises in recovering the hooks from damaged flies have been carried out many times over the years with varying degrees of success. If the flies have been used and left wet the chances are the shank under the dressing will be rusty and useless. Points have to be rigorously checked and, if necessary, sharpened with a small diamond file.

I know what you are thinking – why bother? Hooks, even good quality ones, are cheap to buy new. I suppose it is just my desire the reuse or recycle at every opportunity that drives me to make use of as much as I can. Anyway, it would be fun tying a load of different patterns. Cleaning old materials off the hooks is best done using a scalpel, simply running the blade along the shank to cut the tying silk so the whole mess falls off. Careful checking of the metal is necessary and any damage renders the hook useless. If you are going to try doing this a home please take care handling the sharp blade, it is easy to give yourself a nasty cut.

First up there was the remains of a Butcher on a size 10 dry fly hook (odd choice of hook for a wet fly but never mind). I stripped the old dressing with a blade and tested the hook in my vice. It seemed to be OK so I used the hook for a dry daddy. Come to think of it, I am sure I read somewhere that a small Butcher tied on a small dry fly hook is a good sea trout fly.

On the same size and style of hook I found a black herl body ribbed with fine silver tinsel and the stump of a black hackle. An orange daddy is a great back end pattern so I tied one on the newly freed hook. I might be wrong but I don’t think this pattern is used much outside of Ireland. Dressing is just your standard Daddy but form the body with orange fur. I rib it with pearl tinsel.

Next up was a size 12 heavy wet fly hook which I initially thought was once dressed as a Dunkeld going by the gold tinsel body, gold wire rib and remains of an orange hackle wound at the throat. Once I started to trim off the dressing though I found the stump of a blue feather fibre tail, surely a sign this had once been a Kingfisher Butcher. No harm re-tying this hook as a Dunkeld though. I will be fishing for rainbows this summer and they do like a smallish Dunkeld dressed in the Irish style with a blue jay or guinea fowl throat hackle.

Three size 12 wet fly hooks sported nondescript light greyish fur bodies which could have been anything in their previous life. Once all that fur had been scraped off I was left with 3 nice heavy wet fly hooks with old style Limerick bends. These became Straggle Dabblers for use on the Conn. I bought a spool or two of the UV straggle last week so here was a chance to try it out. I have shied away from straggle/chenille/fritz type materials for a long time, much preferring natural materials. Maybe it is time for me to lay my prejudices to one side and embrace synthetics more often. We will see how these straggly ones work out.

There was a size 12 wet March Brown which was fine except the hackle had rotted away. Not being a fly I would use much anyway, this one also went under the knife. I whipped up a simple deer hair caddis on the hook, a claret seal body with gold rib, well marked deer hair for the wing and a red game cock hackle in front.

Lead wire wound thickly around yet another size 10 hook looked as if it was intended to be a buzzer of some sort as it had been given a generous coat of varnish. This one took a bit more effort to clean as the lead had oxidised, but the hook was sound underneath. I left he lead in place and dressed a Damsel Nymph on top. Just a very simple barred marabou tail with an olive seal’s fur body and a partridge hackle dyed olive.

Tarnished gold wire rib over an yellow coloured tying silk body suggested a Greenwell had been tied on yet another size 12 wet fly hook. Most of my flies for use on Conn and Cullin are tied on this size, so I made a Golden Olive Bumble.

Fiery brown fur ribbed with narrowest gold tinsel was all that was left of what I can only presume was a Fiery Brown wet fly busked on another size 12 hook. This one morphed into a hair wing Green Peter, as did one of the other size 12’s. A man can’t have too many Green Peters in this parish!

A size 16 dry Pheasant Tail had seen better days. Small hooks like this make me nervous, the thin wire can so easily snap in a good fish at the best of times and an old hook of unknown vintage could be brittle or soft regardless if it looks OK to the naked eye. I cleaned that hook and gave it a good twang in the vice to check its temper. Sure enough, it snapped cleanly at the bend. You can’t win them all I guess.

A largish size 12 round bend wet fly hook sported the remnants of a black silk body, black hackle and dark grey wings, surely a Black Gnat I thought. It was only when I started to strip the old dressing I found the body was in fact tarnished metal tinsel and the fly was in all probability another Butcher. To be honest, I prefer a sproat to a round bend but I tied this hook up as a Pearly Bibio.

A slim dubbed grey fur (Mole?) on a size 14 hook was turned into a Partridge and Orange spider. I can never have too many of these as I use them so much for early season river trouting. A peacock herl thorax is an addition that I believe makes an already good fly so much better.

A size 10 dry fly hook with an upturned eye was dressed as a Pheasant Tail of sorts but the hackle, wound half way down the body, was in very poor condition. A dry Wulff was much better suited to such a large hook I thought, so I made a Royal Wulff variant with natural grey squirrel wings and tails instead of the usual pure white.

The rest of the old flies were hard to place, the scraps of fur or thread left of them could have been any fly, so I just stripped and tested them all. These were size 12 to 14 hooks, just what I use around here so as long as they were mechanically sound they could be usefully recycled.

Apart from the fly box there were spools of perfectly good tying silk in green, black and yellow, 2 spools of copper wire, 2 of olive floss and a leaking bottle of varnish. The tying silks were on large spools, so another job for me will be to re-spool on smaller ones which will fit my bobbin holders. The old vice which was in the wooden box would only be fit for scrap I suspected but on inspection it turned out be very little used and functioning perfectly well. A good clean and lubrication of the threads was all it took to bring it back to life. This is now my spare vice and is set up on the table at my digs so it will be in frequent use from now on. Indeed, all the flies here were made using this vice.

I am perfectly aware how grossly inefficient tying flies in this manner is but that was not the point. Processing these disheveled old hooks was great fun and the time at the vice flew by. Once the varnished heads had dried, I placed the new flies in boxes alongside all my other patterns. With so many to pick from it is doubtful if they will all be tied on the end of my line but again, that is not the point. That simple enjoyment gained from taking something old and broken then turning into a useful item is hugely satisfying to me. In our current throwaway society all this mucking about recycling singles me out as an oddity, but I am happy to embrace my strangeness.


As for the fly box itself, it just required a good clean then I filled it with sea trout flies. The clips in these boxes are a perfect size for holding size 8 to 14 flies. It really is a very nice box.


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