Fly Life Magazine

McGuane, “Fish are suspicious of perfect imitations . . .”

By Skip Clement

Short story writers’ books, novellas, and essays in the genre of the out-of-doors always find my doorstep, especially if their messages are about fishing – in particular, fly fishing.

Calibaetis spinner.

En mi casa, Jim Harrison’s and Thomas McGuane’s books never seem to need dusting, according to Debbie who helps with house cleaning. They are always open to a page on the floor by my bed, or next to a chair I share with Mr. Larry, a stray ginger-colored cat of unknown vintage that thinks I’m his purring pillow.

In The Longest Silence, Thomas McGuane’s chapter on fly tying is a classic. It’s title commonplace, Tying Flies – one of 33 titled stories in that famous book of fly fishing musings.

My association with McGuane’s characterizations of fly tyers is because of being a dedicated “Ten Thumbed” assembler of fur and feathers. A title bestowed on me by Hughie McDowell, New Zealand’s legendary fly tyer, fly casting instructor and fly fisherman. And because of being a contrarian – convinced that I could find a cure for “the” fly – thus falling into the “Defiant” category.

Click on cover to buy. “Fish are suspicious of perfect imitations of the naturals.” – McGuane

McGuane’s Tying Flies – excerpt:

“It seems to me there are several schools of fly tying: traditional, imitative, defiant and autobiographical. Traditional tying produces a fly that is usually a generalist pattern and has a greater pure aesthetic component than those of my arbitrarily named categories. Some of these high-concept flies, like other aesthetic ideas of their day, have gone into an appropriate eclipse: the Parmachene Belle, Queen of the Waters, even the royal coachman, as well as the elaborate salmon flies of the past that are now enjoying a resurgence but only as objects for display. In their prime,  with ingredients drawn from the most recondite corners of the Britsh Empire, they were the equivalent of Victorian architectural follies, far removed from their origins in utility. Other traditional flies have a restraint and beauty that makes them undiscardable: the Adams, the Quill Gordon, the Hendricksons, the Cahills, all remain useful and pretty . . .”


“ . . . The imitative school is looking for truth and often overshoots the mark. Fish are suspicious of perfect imitations of the naturals. This quest to copy, to some anglers like me, is not an interesting idea and may remind one of those superior grade-school companions whose model airplanes made one’s own efforts such objects of ridicule. Nevertheless, there is a passionate coven of fly-tyers using all the material the space age offers to make astonishing replicas of the things fish eat. It would seem to me that if some canny manufacturer succeeded in making plastic copies of blue-winged olives, pale morning duns, calibaetis spinners – and if they can make such nice outfits for Barbie, what’s to stop them? – that something has been lost.”

My shrimp. Zorman illustration.

Featured Image: Bill Klyn (L), Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, presents author Tom McGuane with the Curt Gowdy Media Memorial Award at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s 5th International Symposium. Photo by Pat Ford.

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