Time was, silk fly lines were made in Rangeley, Maine. In the wonderful Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum, in Oquossoc, there is a contraption that braided silk lines. I got a demonstration of the thing from the man who restored it to use. I stopped in the other day to ask Executive Director Bill Pierce the man’s name, which I had forgotten: Harry Cary. He was 90 when I met him. He’s 93 now, roughly the same age as the machine.
Weber’s fly-line dressing is hard to find nowadays. Modern lines don’t need to be dressed with petroleum products to stay afloat. When I started flyfishing, at the age of 12, I taught myself to cast, learning along the way how to not crack the line like a bullwhip, which usually snapped off the fly. But as I was getting the hang of the casting thing, I did not have a clue how to keep my line floating after a bit of use. The lines in those days absorbed water, and the stream where I began fishing was nothing but dry-fly water so a line that sank and dragged the fly under was, well, a drag. One day on that stream I encountered an angler who was fishing his way down while I was heading up. He looked like he knew what he was doing. When we came together he struck up a conversation. I asked him about the sinking line. He produced a little round can.
Red letters on the top announced the contents as Weber Silicone, The Perfect Dressing For All Fly Lines. When I slipped the lid off I found a circle of sheepskin, wool side down in a thick amber-colored grease.
I smelled the stuff. The combined smells of leather, wool and the silicone dressing remains to this day for me the aroma of flyfishing. The man showed me how to apply the dressing to the line, advising me to start out each day with a dry line. He gave me the can. Years later, when I wrote about that episode in my early flyfishing life, a man in Ohio sent me a can of Weber’s. I still use it occasionally, not to dress a fly line but to grease up a big dry fly. Or simply to smell it.
Which brings me back to silk.
Silk fly lines came into use late in the 19th century, replacing braided horsehair lines. The silk was strong, supple, and light. It had no memory. Coated with varnish and dressed with Weber’s or Mucilin the line would float for a while. Eventually water would seep in and the line became an intermediate, then full-sink line. The angler would often carry spare spools or reels with dry line, but at the end of the day the lines would have to be unwound from the reel and hung in the air to dry. A bit of a bother. But there seems to be a roots movement afoot, or a-stream. Significant numbers of modern anglers are fishing with silk lines, and a couple of companies, Phoenix, based in France; Cadnos, a mom-and-pop British operation; and Terenzio, in Italy, are manufacturing them. Cheap they ain’t. Prices start at around $200.
Why would an angler spend that kind of dough, and let him or herself in for the added effort of fishing with silk? I suppose it’s a way of reconnecting with the past, a search for the remembered purity of bamboo and silk and unsullied trout waters. To cast a hand-tied fly to a rising trout, with a silk line on a handmade Tonkin cane stick is to angle with G. E. M. Skues and Theodore Gordon, a sort of quest for flyfishing’s Grail. I, for one, would like to try it.