A Brief History of Vise

When I first started doing it I did it every chance I got. My father saw me doing it and warned me that if I kept it up I’d go blind.

We’re talking, of course, about tying flies.

Fly-tyers have been around for a long, long time. Forget about the revered Isaak Walton, the 17th century’s Compleat Angler — he was a lousy bait fisherman. But his pal Joseph Cotton angled with flies and so did John Dennys, an alleged fishing buddy of Shakespeare, who wrote about casting a fly in The Secrets of Angling. [A digression: The fact that Shakespeare is known to have gone fishing, no doubt in the fabled Avon, makes me doubly certain that the guy from Stratford named Shakespeare did not write all the stuff attributed to him. If he was indeed an angler he would have written angling into his plays and sonnets. Fishermen are congenitally disposed to write about fishing — they have to, it’s in their genes. Tell me an angler could have set a play in Scotland without setting Macbeth down on the banks of the River Spey for a wee bit of salmon fishing. Not credible.]

The Dame’s Treatyse
(Bodleian Library)

Almost two centuries earlier, while Columbus was still sailing under the delusion that he had discovered a new route to India, the possibly apocryphal Dame Juliana Berners possibly wrote The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle, offering recipes for the creation of various artificial flies with which to fool 15th century trout. But the Dame didn’t invent the craft. Back in the 2nd century the Roman writer Claudius Aelianus, who spoke fluent Greek, caught some Macedonians fishing with hooks decorated with wool and feathers. If those 2nd century Macedonians were doing it then we might reasonably speculate whether a few hundred years earlier the Macedonian, Alexander the Great, fly-fished his way through the mountains of Afghanistan, as I once failed to do, not for lack of trying.

The tying thread that runs though the Macedonian anglers, Dame Juliana, Shakespeare, Walton, and Sparse Grey Hackle led straight to my boyhood room in Thomaston where I first pried open the Universal Fly Tying Kit, “For nymphs, streamers, wet flies, dry flies. Complete with tools.”


The Kit

I don’t recall the details of the acquisition but I expect the kit was either a birthday present or a Christmas gift from the Old Man. He and my brother and I had initiated ourselves into the flyfishing fraternity a couple of years earlier, when I was 12, learning through trial and, mostly, error. In that nascent era we fished only dry flies, purchased perhaps from Ed Kern in Eustis or from Bud Wilcox in Rangeley, so that was what I wanted to tie. I anticipated the thrill that would come from catching a trout on a fly of my own creation.

The vise was simple, but so were my skills. Fortunately there were enough feathers, fur and thread for a universe of botched attempts to create a size 14 Adams dry fly. I quickly mastered the first steps — winding black thread around the hook shank, attaching a tail of grizzly hackle, forming a body with dubbing fur — but I found winding the hackles to be a bit daunting, and that’s where my early efforts foundered. So I took a step back and tied a classic streamer, the Mickey Finn. Easy-peasy. In later years when we expanded our fly boxes to include nymphs, I tied the Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear and other underwater imitations. I pretty much gave up on tying the dry fly, so my current tying kit holds untold riches of hackle feathers waiting for some action.

You are right, I did not tie this fly. A totally staged image.

The satisfaction of catching trout on flies that I tied myself was everything I had anticipated, and the feeling still arrives, every time.

I think the Old Man was joking, but after that first teenage burst of activity at the tying vise, I slacked off and some years I didn’t tie a single fly. Consequently I never got very good at it. But I didn’t go blind, either.






Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.