Book review: “The Classic Wet Fly Box”

Photo by N. March

The Classic Wet Fly Box

By Mike Valla

Published by The Whitefish Press, 2012; $24.95 softbound.

Book Review written by Bud Bynack

“The classic wet fly don’t get no respect these days. It’s an age of hatch matching, and of adrenaline junkies who seek the thrill of the top-water grab that comes with fishing dries, and of bobberheads who live for the coup counts of indicator nymphing. As angling historian and master fly tyer Mike Valla notes, the eclipse of the classic wet by dry flies actually has been proceeding apace for a century, since the days of Frederick Halford and Theodore Gordon. Nymphing has largely replaced swinging a “cast” of two or three wets, and why and when one would fish a particular classic pattern often isn’t clear to today’s anglers, because it’s far from clear why they work. Some of the figures from the angling past whom Valla quotes also indulge in speculation that sounds more like puzzlement about what trout take some classic dry flies to represent and why they take them at all, and a look at the famous fly plates in Ray Bergman’s Trout, with their rank after rank of colorful wet-fly dreams and fantasies, provokes the same question.

Actually, Valla writes, the multitude of wets that appears in Trout is misleading, because “writings that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and books—going back to the mid-1800s and before—indicate a striking repetition of the same wet-fly names, the ‘core’ group. . . . The top dozen would include: The Black Gnat, Brown Hackle, Coachman, Cowdung, Governor, Leadwing Coachman, Montreal, Parmachene Belle, Professor, Royal Coachman, Scarlet Ibis, and Silver Doctor.”

These were real fishing flies, in other words, and not only do they form the core of the 100 patterns covered in The Classic Fly Box, they form its implicit argument: that classic wet flies are not anachronisms, but flies that catch fish, and that a truly “classic” box of wet flies contains fishing flies—simple, effective ties.

Mike Valla learned to tie at the side of Walt and Winnie Dette, and since the publication of Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies (Stackpole Books, 2009), he has emerged as a leading angling historian of the American fly-fishing traditions. Not only does he know this tradition, but he cares about its perpetuation. All the patterns offered here are shown one to a page in excellent photographs, with accompanying remarks by Valla and historical quotes, supported by fly recipes in an appendix.

You can tie and fish the flies in The Classic Fly Box, and they deserve your respect.”

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