By John O’ Bryan
I used to be a normal person, doing normal person things and going about life like all the other normal people. I went to work, I enjoyed weekends with family and friends and did normal things like washing the car, going on walks and playing with the grandkids. But then I started tying flies as a “hobby” and a switch was flipped somewhere deep within me and a different version of myself was released. I found myself looking at life through a different set of lenses… a set that certainly wasn’t rose colored.
Dream Crusher is used to it now, but when this all started, I immediately began rummaging through the deepest recesses of her she-shed looking for fly tying material. She wasn’t so sure that I hadn’t completely lost my mind. When she found me unravelling one of her best sweaters with the feather duster tucked under one arm and a fur lined hat under the other, she was sure I had. She took them gently from me and spoke in quiet, reassuring tones as she led me out of the room locking the door behind her. It’s been three years and she still won’t let me in unsupervised.
Some might call me a hoarder, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I just look at things differently than I used to. Now everything seems like it would look good tied to a hook and so I find a place for it in my tying room. It’s really more collecting than hoarding and all those people who think I have enough fly-tying material have no idea what they’re talking about. I mean how is that even possible?
Every new fly recipe I try requires some odd material and when I can get it on-line, I do, but there are just some things that are no longer sold. In the 50’s Herter’s Inc. sold Sacred African Monkey skins, but since I can’t find a single Sacred Monkey skin anywhere on the Internet, I have to find something else that will work for the SMS fly that I ‘ve been told Steelhead can’t resist. So, I’ve turned to something far more nefarious, but perfectly legal. I now stop for all roadkill.
Don’t judge me. Idaho is one of 20 states in the union that allows legal harvesting of roadkill. If the animal is found right away it can be cut up and put in someone’s freezer or given to the local food bank. It’s not unusual to see a fresh, but dead animal surrounded by a group of people with knives in their hands. It may seem a bit odd that the food bank is handing out roadkill to the locals in need, but don’t pass judgement until you’ve eaten a nicely cooked elk steak. Some say it’s better than Wagyu.
I, however, have never processed anything bigger than a goose, and I wouldn’t know a backstrap from a tenderloin if someone slapped me in the face with it. You won’t see me huddled around a dead animal in the middle of the night with a knife in my hand. However, when I do see a dead animal on the road I do slow down to see if there is anything I might want, and by “anything” I mean pieces of fur or feather that will work to make really cool fishing flies.
How can I not stop? I mean, the next animal I see lying on the side of the road might have the perfect textured fur that will mimic the Sacred Monkey skin exactly. It turns out that this is exactly what happened, and it changed my life forever
I would never rob the National Wildlife Property Repository (look it up) and I have memorized the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so I never pick up anything illegal, but there is just so much potentially amazing fly-tying material on every lifeless animal that I pass on the road, that I have to stop. And it’s all free! And I really like free!
This obsession with fly tying material is not a sickness in the strictest sense, but trying to find the perfect fur or feather to make the perfect fly forces me walk a very fine line between what is perceived as normal and what is just plain weird. I think I crossed the line recently and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Dream Crusher has gotten used to me stopping for dead things, but on this day as I slowed down, she moved her foot onto the gas pedal and pressed it hard. “What are you doing?” I screamed as the car rushed by the carcass. “You can’t be serious about stopping for that thing!” she said. I turned the key to kill the engine, being careful not to lock the steering wheel, looked over at her and smiled my most innocent smile as we rolled to a stop some 20 yards past the animal. “I am serious.” I removed the keys and pocketed them as I got out. I have walked home with my free material on more than one occasion and wasn’t taking any chances. “It’s a tiny Sacred Monkey!” I screamed over my shoulder as I ran back to the animal.
As I knelt beside my newfound “treasure” I immediately realized what a huge miscalculation I had made. I looked up when I heard the door to Oma slam and watched through tears as DC stopped about 15 yards shy of me and began pointed her phone at me. She would share this with her friends later over a glass of wine.
Ignoring her, I held my breath and quickly snipped the “Sacred Monkey” tail. I needed to get in and get out quickly with my prize, but instead of snipping just the tail, in my haste, I accidentally sliced directly down the middle of the scent gland. Glandular stink juice shot all over my hands and arms and I stumbled to my feet and blindly ran to get away from the smell, but it followed me like a green specter and in my blinded state I fell headfirst into the ditch. I laid there dry heaving, a black and white tail in one hand and a pair of soiled scissors in the other.
As I lay helpless in the ditch, I heard DC walk up. I could tell from her silence that she was questioning her decision to marry me. I felt her fish the keys out of my pocket. “You’re riding in the back of the truck,” she said in an even, measured voice. At least that’s what it sounded like. It was so hard to tell with her face pressed into her elbow. “Now get in!”
I rolled into the bed and lifted myself up to a seated position. As I leaned against the cab, tears rolling down my face, my chest heaving and my arm dangling the tail of the skunk over the edge of the truck bed, I wondered if this was nothing more than a subconscious cry for help and maybe deep down, I really wanted someone to step in and stop me. I pondered this for a moment, looked at the “Sacred Monkey” tail I held in my hand and imagined all the cool flies I was going to tie with it. “Nah, I don’t need help,” I thought, then I promptly threw up.
As I was tying Steelhead flies a few weeks later with the black and white fur, it struck me that I was one of only a handful of men who have walked into the abyss, harvested their own black and white stinky butt Sacred Monkey tail and lived to tell about it. I felt a moment of intense pride.
You might ask if all the pain and suffering and indignation from Dream Crusher was worth it? You tell me… I mean – just look at that fish!!!
Bio: I am a husband, father, grandfather, photographer, and fisherman… in that order. I grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska, and Fall River Mills, California which is arguably two of the fishiest places in the world. I currently live in Northern, Idaho where I chase steelhead on the Clearwater and the Snake and trout on St. Joe and Kelly Creek.