Mike Valla of Ballston Spa may well be the country’s top historian of fly-tying.
The retired dentist’s first book, “Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies” in 2009, was a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable account of the Golden Age of dry-fly fishing, by someone who knew it well: Valla spent a big part of his youth as a personal friend of the legendary Walt Dette, a fly-fishing and tying hall of famer.
Valla followed that up with “The Classic Dry Fly Box” in 2010. His latest and most ambitious book is due out this week: “The Founding Flies: 43 American Masters, Their Patterns and Influences.”
Valla invested extensive time in travel, research and photography to produce what will no doubt be considered a definitive history of the flies of the 20th century. He’s dug out stories never before heard, interviewed tiers or people who knew them and photographed the places where all-time classic patterns were created.
For example: The story of the Adams, perhaps the most famous trout fly, is reasonably well known. A man named Len Halladay invented it in Michigan as a caddis fly imitation in 1922, and named it after a man Halladay used to guide, a lawyer named Charles Adams.
Valla not only dug up a little scandal about the splendid little gray-and-brown dry fly (you’ll have to read to see what it is,) he even found the site of the hotel where Halladay first tied it.
All that’s left of the structure is a low stone wall of what used to be the porch. Valla sat down there with a vise and tied an Adams on the spot.
“I tried to get my hands on original flies tied by the masters, from museums and private collections,” Valla said. “The best flies are in private collections.”
Survivors of the tiers were generous; the family of former Outdoor Life editor Ray Bergman turned over their whole Nyack home to Valla for a full day so he could photograph Bergman’s flies.
One of the flies Valla thought worthy of mention in the book was Bergman’s Firehole No. 1, so naturally, a trip to Yellowstone National Park was required.
He went to Maine to document Carrie Stevens’ Rangeley streamers. He went to the West Coast to interview people who knew Polly Rosborough and Andre Puyans. And he made a pilgrimage to the Midwest, the home of the Thunder Creek Minnow, designed by Keith Fulsher, who today lives in the lower Hudson Valley.
“There’s three Thunder Creeks in Wisconsin. I didn’t know which one is his,” Valla said. “I was driving around with my laptop, communicating with Keith, asking him where it was.”
Fly tiers with Capital Region connections in the book include Lew Oatman of Shushan, Washington County, and, of course, the inimitable Fran Betters of the Adirondacks.
The book consists of 40 chapters, per Valla’s original plan, but he ended up with 43 tiers, who lived between the late 1800s and 1970. Lots of great flies have obviously been designed since then, but history hasn’t yet sorted out the classics from the masses.
The flies of the first half of the 20th century, on the other hand, can easily be identified as the ancestors of the patterns we use today.
For another example: There were plenty of simple bucktail flies in use along the eastern seaboard in the 1940s, catching everything from tarpon to striped bass. But it was Joe Brooks who organized them, with a simple, effective bucktail called the Blonde. The Blonde begat the Lefty’s Deceiver and the Clouser Minnow, and today, their descendants swim in freshwater and saltwater around the world, catching pretty much every kind of fish there is.
“These flies, the founding flies, were archetypes for everything that came since,” Valla said. “A lot of contemporary guys don’t understand there’s history in the flies we have now.”
And in case you’d like to tie some classics yourself, the book contains 300 patterns.
“The Founding Flies” is published by Stackpole Books and retails for $39.95.
With first endless rain and now withering heat all but ruining the streams for the time being, this might be just the time to sit back near an air conditioner and learn the histories of the flies we so enjoy.