How It All Began

Originally written for the excellent Eat Sleep Fish I thought I would re-publish it here...

Paintballing and quadbiking on a stag do. No part of this seemed a good idea in my thirties. And so it was, eight minutes into the first skirmish that I screamed to the marshal “BROKEN LEG”. I’d turned my ankle 90 degrees outwards breaking my fibula and cracking my tibia. In less than ten minutes I had become a self-unemployed man, confined to a third floor flat, with his leg elevated trying to buy knitting needles on Amazon.

Having mentioned constantly how much I wanted to tie flies over the previous year, John Andrews of Andrews of Arcadia, purveyors of fine vintage tackle… for the soul, dropped off a small canvas bag with a rusty vice, a few random plumes and bobbins of thread, hooks wrapped in greaseproof paper and a copy of Fly Tying by Helen Shaw. For my convalescence he said.

I leafed through the book while waiting to see my consultant after an operation to make me very partially bionic. Excellent black and white photographic plates imprinted the concepts and pitfalls of the craft in my mind. How materials spin round the hook without the proper application, the physical properties of different materials and how best to implement them. It was all going in to my maker's brain but I had yet put any into practice.

So an awkward evening was spent hobbling around my flat in desperate search for something I could both clamp my vice to and yet sit at with one throbbing set of toes in as high a position as possible. Finally sitting down between two chairs I set the hook in the jaws and tied on. No bobbin holder, I guided the cotton by hand, clipping the thread into that little slot on the bobbin flange so I could hang it under the table when i needed a break. Desperately trying to skip to an advanced level I mangled hackles and slips onto the shank.

My first fly complete in a shade over half an hour, I attacked a new hook with fury, beginning to learn from the previous mistakes and filling with pride over the frankly horrific (but probably still fishable) fly I had created. With no wax or varnish in my kit at that point, it makes me very glad to say those flies do not exist today, unfortunately the pictures have lasted!

It wasn’t until four hours later that I realised the time and stood up to go to bed, transfixed by this zen-like, meditative craft, I got five paces from my makeshift bench before remembering my crutches and the hospital orders of “NO WEIGHT BEARING”. Petrified that I had snapped the titanium bolt holding my leg together, I took myself safely to bed and dreamt of nothing other than thread twirling around wire.

Three years later and my hobby has become part of my living, my therapy and medicine. An absorbing and endless search for neater, more imitative dressings. The only pain it doesn’t quell is the bill for materials and tools I always seem to need, yet have no room for on the bench.

Among the many skills I teach, fly tying is the most enjoyable by far. It has attracted the most peculiarly random students, many with no interest in fishing at all. All seam to leave with the same zen-like calm. I now warn the class at the end of the session that the patrons of the pub downstairs may well be more oppressive than usual after three hours of staring at a hook filling up with feathers and thread.

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