Book Review: By a Thread

Most of us would have a hard time naming a dozen influential fly tiers of any gender. Erin Block has done that (and then some) in her book, By a Thread, and it just so happens that the tiers she names are all women, which is fortunate, given the book’s subtitle, A Retrospective on Women and Fly Tying.

Well-researched, By a Thread is more than a list. With her amiable story-telling style, Erin introduces readers to a number of women who have had a lasting, if somewhat unrecognized, influence on the way flies are tied and even on the way we fish. From some of the most familiar names in the business, to the anonymous tiers of today, working in places where trout are but an abstraction and the concept of fishing for fun is unheard of, By a Thread weaves them all tightly into the tapestry of fly fishing history.

The opening chapter, on Juliana Berners, fly fishing’s legendary matriarch, was an eye-opener. Within the context of Dame Juliana’s time, Erin tells why the treatise attributed to her was written in the first place and gives us an idea of her persistence and adaptability but, personally, if both my father and step-father had been executed by one king, I would have got me to a nunnery long before my friend, the Duke of York, died fighting for another at Agincourt.

Mary Orvis knew one man’s Grizzly King is another man’s Ferguson and liked to dance. Carrie Frost started tying flies at her parents’ kitchen table and created an enterprise that at one point turned out ten million flies a year — all tied by women. She also owned a car but couldn’t drive.

Elsie Darbee tied her own flies and caught fish where others walked away skunked. She raised her own hackle, breeding for elusive true dun and, if anything from Sparse Grey Hackle is to be believed, she defended her birds fiercely, once stepping into the dark with a rifle and returning with “almost 80 pounds of dead coon”.

Sara Jane McBride more or less just disappeared, Carrie Stevens followed a whim and broke a record and, today, women like Cathy Beck, Sharon Wright and April Vokey share their passion and artistry, skills and knowledge with new generations of fly fishers. Some of the names in By a Thread may be familiar, others are more obscure, but there is no doubting the contributions of each of the women profiled in its pages. Erin Block tells their stories in an engaging style that not only makes them even more interesting but also quite human, like the rest of us.

Just as each and every woman in this book would be right at home on anyone’s list of influential fly tiers, By a Thread: A Retrospective on Women and Fly Tying would be right at home on any angler’s book shelf.

(By a Thread: A Retrospective on Women and Fly Tying, 6×9 softcover, 182 total pages, B&W illustrations, available from the publisher, Whitefish Press.)






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From Other Places, Taking American Jobs!

The following item is the result of recent conversations with local activists. Some did not wish to be identified, fearing reprisals for not being “politically correct enough.” A few, however, agreed to be photographed in order to illustrate their plight. We ask that their privacy be respected and remind readers that, while the statements made and opinions expressed by these brave workers do not necessarily reflect the views of the management here at Fish in a Barrel Pond, their patriotism can’t be denied.

“I don’t want to sound racist or nothin’,” said an activist we’ll call ‘Roy’, “but they all look the same to me! It ain’t right.”

“Yeah,” added ‘Myra’, “especially when they’re all in a big group outside the store, practically begging to go home with people. It’s creepy.”

“Just look at ’em!” said Roy. “I think they’re into drugs, too!”

We Know Why They're Smiling

Why Are They All Smiling Like That?

Roy and Myra are scarecrows and they have seen a lot of changes in their profession since they started, Roy claims, well over 200 years ago.

“I was Ethan Allen’s personal scarecrow,” he explained. “While him and the Green Mountain Boys was runnin’ around, spankin’ them ‘Yorkers, I was guarding his corn. That was real work, by thunder. Most people don’t think past the crows but after them comes the raccoons and bears! These new wannabes don’t have a clue.”

When asked how a 250-year-old scarecrow could look so young, Roy credited a regimen of regular rejuvenation, saying, “New stuffing every year, new britches every ten and I’m good to go! Oh, and maybe a new jacket now and then. Don’t get me started on how many heads I’ve gone through but, more or less, I occupy the same space I always have for nigh on two and a half centuries! I think I’m French-Canadian now. And I have gout.”

Roy and Myra

Roy and Myra

The life of a scarecrow has never been easy, but the demands of the job have changed. Bob and Myra, once proud guardians of the land and the bounty their masters wrought forth from it, now find themselves reclassified as seasonal decorations. Locally sourced and relatively organic, they still embody the best of Vermont agriculture, but it’s just not the same.

“Work’s work, I guess,” said Myra, “and thank goodness we’re still on a farm, but standing around all day with people taking pictures does wear on us. I have a hard time keeping myself in order, what with my arms tied to these corn stalks and all, so I’m usually a mess on windy days. Those ‘things’ at the stores never look disheveled. Why, I bet you couldn’t yank those silly hats off if you tried!”

Saw a scarecrow down at Trader Joe's and his hair was... perfect!

Saw a scarecrow… down at Trader Joe’s and his hair was perfect!

“I’ve heard they have to be brought inside!” added Roy. “Look at ’em! They’re not like us at all! That’s raffia, not straw!”

“And those outfits! They don’t even dress right! Send them back where they came from, wherever that is! Where are they from, anyway?”

Not Made in USA

Not Made in USA

“They’re everywhere!” exclaimed Roy. “They arrive by the thousands, every single day and nobody does a thing about it! Every one of them has stick up its butt and I’d like to smack those smirks right off their faces! They ain’t scarin’ nothin’!”

“Now, Roy, there’s no need for violence. Don’t fall apart on me!”

“It’s that stupid movie’s fault! Ray Bolger does a floppy song and dance in “The Wizard of Oz” and everyone thinks we’re happy brainless fools! I’m sorry, but I just hate change!”

At this point, Roy really did fall apart, partly because he was so upset but mostly because he was full of mouse nests. It was a devastating, season-ending injury, but Roy is reportedly resting comfortably after receiving treatment at a nearby scarecrow rehabilitation facility.

Scarecrow Hospital

Scarecrow Hospital

Roy and Myra fret for future generations of American scarecrows. Once honorable field workers, they, and many just like them, have become pumpkin hucksters and flower sellers and they wonder what will become of the younger scarecrows.

Scarecrows like ‘Chad.’



Chad has heard the traditional stories, passed down from scarecrow to scarecrow, of the way things used to be, and he’s not so sure the old ways are for him.

“Some years, I only work weekends or when a bus tour is expected, but I guess I’m lucky to have even that. I don’t think I could cut it as a traditional scarecrow, though. I mean, out there in the cold spring rain, protecting sprouts and having to stay in one place through the fall to fight bears? No way, man. I sell flowers.”

When asked what he thought of the proliferation of foreign scarecrows, Chad was more forgiving and progressive than some of his elders, like Roy.

“So what if they’re not from around here,” he said. “I see them go by in cars on the road sometimes, coming in from the stores in town. Some of them are pretty hot and I wouldn’t mind hooking up, but it’s not like we run in the same circles, you know? Heck, it’s not like we run at all, so I guess as long as they’re not right here, I’ve got nothing against them.”

Straw Men?

Straw Men?

“Frank” and “Lumpy” just recently found out they are scarecrows. They are proud of their new-found profession and their enthusiasm shows.

“We don’t need all them foreigners coming here and taking our jobs! It’s time to stand up and be counted!” yelled Frank.

“All over this great land of ours, shirts and pants sit empty, just waiting to be stuffed,” said Lumpy. “Who knows how many scarecrows are out there? Maybe dozens! They just don’t know they’re scarecrows yet. Why, I, myself, had no idea I was so good-looking or so good at my job until a couple of months ago. I’m still not really sure just what my job actually is, but look how well my clothes fit!”

“If more of us would come out of the closet, we wouldn’t have to worry about these foreign invaders!” added Frank. “Out of the closet, or the box, or even the pile in the corner! The more of us there are, the fewer of them are needed. And the best part is, we’re free! Scarecrows have always been free!”

The arrival of yet another motor coach meant it was back to work for this small band of activists. Glad for the work they have, but fearful of losing out to foreign competition, they are desperate to be heard. As they posed for the cameras, we asked for some parting words.

Looking over his shoulder (we think), Lumpy said, “Everyone out there should stuff hay, leaves or whatever into their pants. Not the pants they’re wearing, of course, unless they want to, but you know what I mean. People don’t need to be importing foreigners to lollygag around their yards. Us Americans can lollygag with the best of them!”

American scarecrows, just one more example of traditional workers losing their jobs to foreign invaders.

(Thanks to the good folks at the Dutton Farm Stand in Manchester, Vermont, who had no idea whatsoever this nonsense was taking place!)





Categories: Humor, Rural Life, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Unpredictable Hatch

There is comfort in knowing that, just before dusk of a mid-June evening, mayflies will emerge above the silt flats off Exile Island. For twenty minutes, it’s the closest to a sure thing we’ve got around here, at least when it comes to fishing. Hatches come off, not quite like clockwork, but with enough reliability that some anglers are confident enough to head over early to sit and wait for the show to start.

Once the heat of summer sets in and the “major” hatches end, it gets trickier, but one can still find certain places at certain times to pick up a few fish rising to one thing or another (as in “you’ve got one thing and they want another“).

The majority of flies flung upon and into Fish in a Barrel Pond represent life forms that originate or live in its water. The places they live are places where fish congregate. Find those places and another part of the puzzle falls into place.

My favorite hatch is not really a hatch at all. It involves insects that are desperately trying to avoid the water in the first place, and conditions must be perfect, so it happens only as the result of tragic accidents.

Winged Ant

Winged Ant

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An Angler’s Guide to Bar Glasses and Beer Goggles

For some, alcohol is an important part of the overall fishing camp experience, and I often find myself being reminded of the need for proper glassware to more fully realize the potential enjoyment of the finer things in life. More than once I’ve heard, “Why are there no glasses for red wine? These are all for white!”

Only once have I replied to an indignant angler, “Drink your Merlot from a mug like a man!”

I shouldn’t have. She was offended, and with good reason, of course. Any fool would have known she was drinking a bold Cabernet. Continue reading

Categories: Humor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Same Old Thing

There is a lightning-scarred hemlock on a “corner,” where a small cove projects from the main body of Fish in a Barrel Pond. I know that casting a red humpy into the shade of that tree will often bring a trout rocketing to the surface from six feet down, up the face of a submerged ledge. If a humpy doesn’t do it, a fluttering stimulator usually will.

Down the shore a bit, that same ledge is more exposed, and it’s always worth skating an elk hair caddis over the drop-off on a warm afternoon. Adding a pupa imitation, about 18″ down, can add to the excitement, creating the potential for double hook-ups.

In the gloaming of a late spring evening, yellow drakes can come off so thick that it’s tempting to catch one fish, to show I can, and spend the next fifteen minutes just watching the orgy. Anglers lucky enough to hit the Hexagenia hatch will talk about it for years and if they never hit it again they’ll say things aren’t like they were in the old days.

I am always ready for the ant falls of August, carrying imitations as early as Opening Day, and I like going out on gloomy days because drizzly afternoons bring hatches of blue-winged olives.

blue-winged olive

Stylishly Fringed Wings

It’s possible to scare up a trout or two more often than not and, after ten years of fishing this one small lake and nowhere else, things are sometimes so dialed-in that it almost appears I know what I’m doing. Dark visions fill my head of ending up some earth-bound Mr. Castwell, doomed for all eternity to catch those same fish at the same corner “for ever and ever.” Continue reading

Categories: Fly Fishing, Humor, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

That’s All?

As if surviving at the bottom of a lake or stream, passing through two dozen or more life stages (instars), shedding their skin each time wasn’t enough, mayfly nymphs eventually rise to the surface and shed their skin one last time, emerging as winged adults. Having dodged all manner of fishes on the way, they breathe air for the first time and then fly off into it, also for the first time. Bypassing the traditional insect pupal stage, one morning a nymph is eating algae off a sunken log and that evening it’s flying for its life, trying to get to a bush or a tree before the birds and the bats can get it.

I wonder if mayfly nymphs realize what’s coming and how their lives will change. Would they do anything different?

Mayflies rest and get their bearings after their initial, panicky flight. One might think they’d be hungry after all they’ve been through, but it just doesn’t matter; they have no working mouth parts and couldn’t eat if they wanted to.

Everything's Different Now

Everything’s Different Now

Even after a complete change of form and relocation to another world, mayflies are still not mature. They shed their skin one more time, trading their dull, lightly fringed wings for shiny ones that sparkle like crystal, sometimes changing the color of their bodies, even to the point of becoming nearly transparent. Plus, their sex organs function! All grown up and decked out in new duds, now it’s time to get it on. Continue reading

Categories: Humor, nature, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

Deer Fly

Deer Fly

Deer flies are persistent and their bites are painful. In some places they are important pests of both humans and livestock. Strong fliers, they can move several miles from their breeding grounds in search of a meal or just following their chosen target, waiting for a chance to strike. Males are typically mild-mannered, feeding on pollen and flower nectar; females, however, feed on blood, using two pairs of “blades” to lacerate skin, soaking up flowing blood with a sponge-like tongue.

Some species have iridescent eyes, which almost makes them pretty. After nailing me but good on the arm, this deer fly agreed to sit still and let me take a few close-ups of her eyes. Actually, gripped in the jaws of a pair of pliers, she agreed to nothing, having no choice in the matter.

Deer fly

Look into my eyes…

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Categories: nature, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

For Want of a Nail

Beyond dues, assessments and other monetary considerations, there is a price to pay for membership in an organization like the Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society. They say a person can’t truly enjoy fly fishing until they have a family of their own to ignore, but ever since the first shower was installed, all those years ago, part of that price has included, at minimum, a weekend at Fish in a Barrel Pond with at least one’s spouse, maybe even the grand-kids.

Not steeped in the lore and traditions of grand old fishing clubs like this, those spouses and extended families are prone to confusion, fear and misunderstandings. It often falls to me to assuage their fears and explain how things are done around here, though I think some anglers harbor secret wishes that that everyone will be so miserable they never want to come back.

This spring I was approached, for the fifth time in as many years, by one of those disoriented spouses I find wandering around from time to time, who said, “Quill, there’s a spider in the shower.”

He was clearly distraught but there wasn’t much I could do since I’d been paid good money to put that spider in the shower in the first place. Continue reading

Categories: +The Neverwas Nonesuch Angling Society, Fly Fishing, Humor, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

They Have Very Short Bucket Lists

Having reached the ripe old age of 420 minutes, there’s not much left for these two to do. They don’t even have mouths. If you look closely, though, they do have little moustaches like Salvador Dali.

Click to Enlarge

I’m sure these two will be sharing their wealth of life experience and dispensing advice to this evening’s duns before heading off to procreate and die. Their get-ups are pretty elaborate for a one night stand that will last only a second but at least they’ll go out in style.


You can click this one, too.

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The Nearest Fly Shop

The nearest fly shop is not all that near to here and sells a lot of stuff besides flies, but it’s better than nothing, I guess. With a couple hours off and a specific pattern in mind, I motored over the mountain this morning, hoping for the best but willing to settle for a nice drive.

Hay fields and the Battenkill gave way to signs of civilization as the road passed through a golf course, and I once again wondered if golf wasn’t really invented by fly fishers, to keep a certain type of people off the water.

Just past the Range Rover dealership, I turned right, in front of the kind of hotel that has real bellboys stationed at the door, wearing plus fours and argyle stockings. Proceeding through one of those five-way intersections every New England town has at least one of, I was soon at the doors of the closest thing to a fly shop in this neck of the woods.

Above the Doors

Above the Doors

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