Life on the fly

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thomas Drummey was 8-years-old when he started tying fly fishing flies.

"First I learned that my third cousin was Gary LaFontaine," Thomas, now 10, says one sunny January morning. He wheels a stuffed suitcase to the kitchen table in his West Halifax home and unpacks books and boxes and slim plastic bags filled with bright feathers, fluff and fur.

"My dad told me." LaFontaine turned out to be a legendary fly fisherman, and that sparkling bit of fact drew Thomas' curious mind to the idea of tying flies.

A few tools, some chicken feathers and several instructional YouTube videos later, Thomas was hooked. He received a full fly tying kit for Christmas that year and began to teach himself how to tie.

Wearing an L.L. Bean baseball cap, jeans and a neatly tucked-in red plaid shirt, Thomas sets a small wooden base on the table. It is about 12-inches-long and 6-inches-wide, and it has a 2-inch-high section along the back with holes to hold the small, precise tying tools. Little pocks and divots line the edges of the holes, signs of much use.

"So I'll go over the tools with you in a second," he says. He moves with an easy concentration, his sharp, smart features matched by his quick, sure hands.

Once he fills the base, he names each tool, enunciating carefully, and describes its function: the bobbin, the bobbin threader, the bodkin, the hackle pliers, the rotary hackle pliers, the half-hitch tool, the whip finish.

"And these," he says, gesturing to a row of four small scissors, "are scissors."

He turns to a pile of plastic boxes on his right and pulls out some wire and a thin sparkly yarn called antron. With brisk and kind efficiency, he threads the bobbin with the wire and points to the hook clasped in the rotary vise.

"So I will tie another Sparkling Emergent Pupa." He points to a row of small flies tucked into a fly box his parents gave him this Christmas. "Like those."

He begins his demonstration. "First I'll take some lead wire -- well, I think this is lead-free -- some lead-free lead wire." A little grin slips over his mouth, then he is back to work.

"I'll take a few wraps on it, grab these scissors. Then you probably can't see it, but there's a tiiiiiny bit sticking down there? I'm just gonna fold that up.

"Now I'll hold the thread by the tip, like that, lay it on the hook, take a few wraps. This is called the jam knot, because it jams the knot into place. Well," he pauses, "at least I think that's why." And another serious, millisecond smile brightens the already warm and lovely room.

Thomas' father, Michael, and 5-year-old brother, Willie, come by the table, to check on his progress or, in Willie's case, eat a bowl of scrambled eggs with ketchup. All three move in a loving choreography borne of many hours in each other's company. Michael and his wife, Maureen, homeschool their two youngest children.

The flexibility and intensity of homeschooling have let Thomas become something of a master at making these delicate, intricate replicas of the bugs trout love. He's so good, and so easy and confident in himself, that he has begun to teach adults the arcane skill.

This past summer and fall, Thomas led tying clinics at several area festivals and outdoor stores, including the L.L. Bean Store in West Lebanon, N.H.

Michael sits next to Thomas for a moment, his profile matching his son's.

"I like watching Thomas when we're in a big store, when he's doing a clinic," Michael says. "Somebody will walk by, and Thomas'll say, ‘Excuse me, would you like to come tie a fly?' And they sort of hesitate, like, ‘Who is this little guy?' Then they sit down and discover, oh, he really can do it!"

Thomas nods. "And that's a Ginger Brown Sparkling Emergent Pupa." He removes the freshly made fly from the vise and slips it into the fly box. "Now I'll make an Orange Boss."

He starts wrapping a new hook. "I like being in the stores because I get to teach people things they didn't know before. I taught this kid Ben, Benjamin, how to tie a fly at L.L. Bean. He was about 8. And so I meet up with his grandmother a few months ago, maybe last month."

"Where was that, T?" Michael asks.

"At the crafts fair in Wilmington," Thomas remembers quickly. He reenacts the conversation. "She just said, ‘Are you Thomas Drummey?' Yeah. ‘Oh my grandson, Benjamin, you taught him, right?' Yeah, yeah. ‘Well, he asked for a fly tying kit for Christmas.'"

He nods with laconic flair. "Yup. So now he's down in his basement tying flies!" He thinks for a few seconds. "So that's a good feeling, to do something and inspire that person. I really am looking forward to teaching more."

He wraps and twirls the ostrich hurl and antelope fur, at the same time chatting about his pet chickens, about collecting more than $1,000 for flood relief after Tropical Storm Irene, about where he and his father fish.

They look at each other with identical half-grins at the last topic. "We might not want to tell that," Thomas says. "But it's beautiful."

He finishes the Orange Boss and flips the pages of a fly catalog to choose his next work of miniature art.

"I've tied the Gray Ghost, Black Ghost, Spruce, Royal Coachman Bucktail, Mickey Finn," he says. "And this is the ..." he giggles. "Well, maybe I shouldn't say this one."

Embarrassed but amused, he reports faithfully, "It's called the Green Weenie."

"It is not!" Michael says.

"It is, too," Thomas avers. "Look."

Michael stands to see the page. "It is called the Green Weenie," he says, and they look at each other and laugh.

Thomas turns to his tools, and another fly spools from his small fingers. Each is precise, each a little celebration of talent and skill, and Thomas makes them because he really, really likes tying flies.

But these flies are also part of the larger experience of a bright boy's young and vibrant life. A good fly means you've learned, and can teach, a neat, hard thing. A good fly might catch you a silvery trout. And a whole box of flies -- well, a whole box means a timeless dusk or dawn on a secret lake, casting out and out again, as your father carefully watches you, knowing you had a hand in making this quiet magic happen, this precious happiness glinting in the threads of the well-tied fly.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at


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