break out your deer hair stacker

alternate title: it’ll fish

i have not written much about my current gainful employment as after school program site coordinator, and, since i resolved in 2014 to complain less, it may continue to be an untapped subject (with a few rants saved in drafts). the job is both rewarding and frustrating, and results in us eating a lot of nachos for dinner at the end of each very long day. however, there are little connections made there that augment quality of life rather than detracting from it. a few volunteers from our local fly fishing club will be coming out to work with my after school kids, and when they came to visit the site and introduce themselves on monday, one of them, a man named harry who would make a good santa clause, announced that on thursday evening, the club would be meeting at a nearby rec center for fly tying night.

guess who would not let me forget about fly tying night? in spite of barfing on wednesday evening, and skipping school on thursday morning, quinn was up and ready to go thursday afternoon, and when we finished with after school program, we headed off for our fly tying date. which, if it’s up to him, will likely become a regular event on the third thursday of each winter month.

there were about ten older gentlemen who looked like they had been busy tying flies for a half hour or more when we arrived two minutes past the start time, and almost all of them did a double take at a mom and young child walking in, but harry practically leaped out of his chair to welcome us. he had assured us there was no age limit, and that they would be happy to teach anyone who wanted to learn. this proved to be true, and another man named john patiently worked with quinn, standing over his shoulder for a whole hour and taking him through every step of tying a “western coachman” fly, which happened to be the fly the group was attempting that evening. several of the men chimed in from their work stations about how quinn was the most important person in the room that night, both to serve as a vessel to carry this crazy-specialized art into the future, as well as, “to get us to the fishing hole when we get too old to drive.” john indicated he would keep tying with him as long as quinn wanted, but i had to insist on taking the boy home after an hour to make it to bed on time.

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western coachman by quinn

during the course of the week, quinn had told me that while he already knows some things about fly tying, he is really interested in learning a whole lot more, because one of his goals in life is to “become a grown-up and master fly tyer.” he also mentioned that he would need to write down the things that he learned at the fly tying meeting, since he would want to remember everything he learned, and if he wrote it down, he would be able to go back and read it again later. i have many 4-8th grade students in the public school setting who have yet to find a use for note-taking, and here is a boy who isn’t even fully literate yet, creating meaning and necessity for note-taking as a means of achieving his own self-motivated life goals.

i offered to take notes for him while he dictated, so that way he could concentrate on watching and using his hands to practice fly tying, and he agreed. this is the essence of what i wrote down, which, maybe not so oddly, seems to contain subtle bits of life advice:

tying a western coachman fly


the last thing you use is the first thing you tie in.

try to avoid cutting your thread, the joke being that “no one here has ever done it before so you don’t want to be the first.” (the one time we did snap our thread on the point of the hook, it was happening simultaneously to two others down the table from us.)

in case you cut your thread, it is best to throw in a few half hitches as you’re winding.

it’s not about perfection, a comment i heard several times was, “… but it’ll fish.”



golden pheasant feather to make the tail

gold tinsel to make the shiny stripes along the abdomen “so it’ll flash.”

peacock feather for iridescent abdomen

white deer hair for wings

brown hackle feather for around the head

some of the tools we used:

vise – holds the hook while you tie

bobbin- holds the thread used for tying/winding around fly

bobbin threader

small sharp scissors for trimming “whiskers” and clipping off ends of feathers

hackle pliers – for grabbing and twisting/winding the peacock and hackle feathers

deer hair stacker – small device into which you drop a small pinch of deer hair and tap on the table, for lining up individual deer hairs evenly so they can be tied in neatly

whip finisher – bendy piece of wire that is used to tie off the head of the fly using a whipping (end of thread is caught under a series of wraps) instead of a knot, that way the head stays smooth

bodkin – small pointy tool used for, among other things, getting the tiniest drop of head cement, the glue used to secure the whip finish, and applying it to the fly’s head. (quinn was gifted a homemade bodkin made by harry out of an old guitar string. i can see this first tool being the first among his prized fly tying tools for years to come.)

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unfortunately i didn’t bring my camera to fly tying night, a mistake i won’t make again. however, this soggy playing-in-the-rain boy seems fitting for this post

the teacher in me can’t help noticing how the left and right brain need to collaborate in this art, with the left hand holding onto a feather while the right hand winds the bobbin around to secure it. great for 6 year old brains and older gentlemen brains alike.

quinn was mesmerized and attentive and just plain happy. he ended up tying two western coachman flies, with help from john, and was given two more flies tied by harry, who also gave him a special fly holding tool (a cork) to take all four of them home on.

i will give you three guesses what quinn brought to our living school for show and tell on friday.

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3 comments to break out your deer hair stacker

  • Cel

    That sounds so great. Your boy is so lucky to have a mum willing to encourage his interests in these things. You’ve got a smart cookie there, dear lady 🙂
    Cel recently posted..Quiche Me Softly

  • mamaC

    I just wanted to go ahead and comment that I so loved this post when it landed in my email inbox a few months back. I was so glad you had this experience and singled it out to write about it; it sounded like so many beautiful moments, just some authentic and very sweet connections. And luminous moments in your transcribed note-taking, for sure. I felt kind of mesmerized and just plain happy myself, reading this! So sweet to come read it again. I love you.

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