No vise in tying one on

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By Heather Killen



For the last couple of months, a group of Middleton-area anglers has been meeting to tie one on at the local church.

With days numbered and counting down to the opening of fishing season, these fishing enthusiasts have been learning some old-school fly-tying techniques at the United Church.

Millie O’Neill, of Middleton, once employed as a fly dresser for the Alexander Martin, has been teaching them how to tie flies on without a vise. 

Fly dressers are professional fly-tiers who’ve mastered the art of baiting hooks with artificial bugs that are slick enough to trick the fish into biting. While flies can be bought ready-made at fishing supply stores, serious anglers make their own.

The purists will say that fish are finicky and the best bait to lure one is usually whatever bugs are hatching at the time, according to O’Neill. If mayflies are getting all the bites, match the hatch and bait the hook with something that looks like a mayfly.

If you don’t have a mayfly in your tackle box, you’ll need to make one. O’Neill’s old-school method doesn’t require a hook vise; she deftly winds and ties the fly with her right hand, while the left one holds the hook.

This method is helpful to know while out on the water because you can’t always take a vise with you when go, she says.

O’Neill says during her time at Alexander Martin, a U.K.-based rod and tackle maker, she hand-tied as many as four-dozen flies each day. She was one of eight fly dressers employed at her location, which also specialized in handmade rods. Most of these flies were shipped to the U.S.

“Alex Martin would host special Saturdays and invite our best customers out to the river for a day of fishing,” she said. “The customers would bring us a fly they liked and say, ‘Tie me two more of these,’ and we would copy them.”

O’Neill’s not the only one teaching fly-tying in Annapolis County. Until recently, Richard Durling had been teaching local seniors. He learned to tie his first fly when he was 10 years old and living on the south shore.

“I was spending my summer at my uncle's, located on the Medway River in Mill Village, “ he said.  “The guy next door was always salmon fishing on this fabulous river and I started asking questions.” 

With that first fly, Durling caught a 12-pound salmon and was hooked on a life-long passion for fly-fishing. When his mentor passed away about 20 years later, Durling was presented his prized Hardy bamboo fly rod.

Fly-fishing is considered by many to be an art form, and fly-tying is a specialized skill in itself, according to Durling. Recipes, or patterns for flies, have been available since the 19th century and the British patterns tend to be more decorative than the ones popular in Canada and the U.S., he says.

Despite the number of patterns and wide range of materials used, there’s a real knack in knowing what flies to use, and that comes down to skill as much as luck.

“I’ve caught big trout on small flies and small trout on big flies,” he said. “You have to see what’s in the water and that’s whatever they’re taking.”

Durling has become an ardent collector of vintage tackle.  He has bought, swapped and sold fishing tackle and many of the unusual items comes with a story, which he is happy to tell to people with time to listen.

Over the last 40 years, he has picked up over 350 bamboo rods, various fly reels and other vintage fresh water fishing items.  Among his treasures is a 1939 Alexander Martin catalogue showing the various flies, rods and reels that were available to order from the company at the time.

Durling’s fly-tying hobby eventually grew into a rod restoration business.  Until recently, he restored vintage rods and made and custom bamboo fly rods from ferruled blanks. 

The most complicated rod he worked on had roughly 500 wraps, he says. The early split cane rods were held together with animal glue that would dry out over time. In addition to adding a decorative touch, the wraps reinforced the rods, he said.

The custom-made split cane rods take many hours of patient and precise work, and even the smallest fly is a result of time, and patient winding, but it’s a job done more for love than money.



Organizations: United Church

Geographic location: Middleton, U.S., Annapolis County Medway River Mill Village Canada

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Recent comments

  • May Moss
    April 29, 2013 - 09:44

    Hi. Millie O'Neil (one L) is my aunt on my mother's side. I remember visiting her work place, just off Princes Street when I was only 5 or 6. She emigrated to Canada in 1951, so that was quite some time ago! Circumstances were such that she ended up doing different things for a living, but I knew she still tied flies for fishing friends. I have a mounted collection of her work in my house and believe me it looks very complicated. Need I say how proud we all are of her continuing skills and the fact that she is passing them on to others? Yes, her old teacher, Susie Todd, would have been very proud of her too - and she only died here in Edinburgh just a few years ago.