Thursday, November 03, 2005
Legendary Redding fly tier shows his artistry step-by-step in living color
By DAN BARNETT
I've caught a cold, but never a trout. That separates me big time from master fly tier and angler Mike Mercer of Redding.
The son of Wes and Sandy Mercer of Chico, Mike has been associated with the Fly Shop in Redding for decades, and today, in addition to fly tying, he arranges international fishing expeditions. I bumped into a fly fisherman the other evening and he used the word "legendary" to describe Mercer's flies. That seemed to confirm the sense I was getting reading Mercer's new book, "Creative Fly Tying" ($39.95 in hardback, spiral bound, from Wild River Press). Mercer writes with humility (he learns most about his flies when the fish don't bite) but his careful work at the vise is evident on every colorful page. The book will open flat for those who want to follow along and try some of Mercer's techniques.
Fly tying is a world unto itself, and a good many fly tiers don't actually fish much. Mercer does, though, and the beautiful step-by-step close-up photographs of how to tie a dozen flies are surrounded by fishing tales of Hat Creek and beyond. The publisher calls Mercer's book one of a series of "technical fly-fishing books written by today's cutting-edge experts," and that description is apt indeed.
The first chapter details the tying of a poxyback green drake mymph, and Mercer acknowledges that he has the reputation as the guy who uses epoxy -- Devcon 5-Minute Epoxy, to be exact -- in part to mimic the shiny features of the nymph. A list of materials is prominently displayed for each fly; for the green drake nymph Mercer uses pheasant tail fibers, copper wire, a turkey tail feather and a gold metal bead.
One key to Mercer's fly tying success is his belief "that fish often respond more specifically to the contrast of varying colors on a fly than they do to the colors themselves"; his color dubbing technique reflects this insight.
Mercer's focus is on how the fish sees the fly; in fact, he includes an introductory section on reading the fish -- and the water. He's convinced that presentation is more important than the choice of fly (a poor fly with just the right wiggles can catch a fish) but more important yet, he says, is "reading the water" -- figuring out where the fish are likely to be.
"Case in point: Probing the deep jade runs and riffle drops of California's McCloud River one crisp autumn day, I was surprised by a lack of bigger fish. This time of year, the resident rainbows always feed aggressively, putting on the feed bag before the cold weather sets in. In addition, huge, lake-run browns have left Shasta Lake and are scattered everywhere, ascending to their natal spawning grounds. Wading to my thighs, I had fished all of my favorite slots, using nymphal imitations of the giant orange caddisflies that were helicoptering clumsily around me. All I caught were a bunch of small fish, though, and I was beginning to lose confidence."
After lunch Mercer tries again, wading out and casually dropping his nymph "into the shallows between the bank and me. Trying to pick (it) up again, I discovered I'd hung the bottom. Berating myself for this annoying lapse of diligence, I waded up to the shallows where it was hung and commenced yanking the rod in different directions. The water explosion was so violent and unexpected it actually frightened me." The "snag" turned out to be a large rainbow trout. But why the shallows? That's where the caddisflies were "as they migrated there to emerge. A classic case of finding the fish by finding the food, despite a total lack of traditional deeper holding water."
Eventually, says Mercer, one's eye becomes trained to "register the slight nuances of hydraulics and streambed -- you unerringly see where the fish will lie. No longer do you search out only those specific water types you understand -- now you see nearly all water as holding promise. You fish with confidence and a delicious sense of anticipation."
Mercer celebrates God's grandeur with every fishing foray, even if his breakfast is "cold Pop-Tarts and Gatorade," and with each of his carefully wrought creations. "Creative Fly Tying" is the work of a master, full of expertise and good humor, from a man in love with his art.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.