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.)