The Renaissance Man
by Dave Micus
orth Eastern salt-water fly-fishing is experiencing a quiet renaissance. There, a small but growing group of anglers is eschewing fast rods and sinking lines, opting instead for the longer, softer rods and floating lines of days gone by. They forego the cast and strip method that has become the norm of striped bass fishing, returning to the controlled drift, wet fly swing, and greased line methods more familiar to traditional salmon angling. The techniques have been around for hundreds of years, but they are relatively new to the salt, and the faithful swear that it is not only a more challenging way to fish, but also more productive. Done correctly, it raises the level of striper fishing to near artistry.
Leading this renaissance is Rhode Island striper legend, J. Kenney Abrames. That Kenney is the foremost practitioner should come as no surprise, as he is something of a renaissance man himself. He is a painter and author and faultless tier of beautiful flies; a serious man who exudes a quiet dignity, and his expertise comes from fishing in saltwater for over 50 years. Ken owned a charter boat in the late 1960s, but quit when he saw "one too many dead fish," took to fishing from the shore with a fly rod, and has never looked back. He is also single-minded in his conviction that striped bass fishing shouldn’t be restricted to the monotony of repetitive casts and strips.
Ken brings a different perspective to the sport, as witnessed by his eclectic contribution to the fly-fishing literature, Striper Moon. At a time when instructional books about salt-water fly-fishing are as ponderous as calculus texts, Striper Moon provides a breath of salt air and exemplifies Ken’s style; part instructor, part artist, part philosopher. You don’t just learn how to fly fish for striped bass from reading Striper Moon; you learn how to love fly fishing for striped bass.
His web site, too, is a virtual example of his values www.stripermoon.com. Ken might be the high priest of this neo-salmon fishing, but the faithful are as committed as he. The goal is to expand the salt-water fishing horizons, and the mantra is ‘together, we can get there from here.’ Perhaps the most striking example of Ken’s commitment is Tuesday Night Fishing, where, in-season, fly fishers have the opportunity to fish, gratis, with Ken every Tuesday and learn from the master (which is a bit like hitting the links with Tiger Woods).
The fishing methods have been around since Dame Juliana, but were best articulated by A.H.E. Wood in his book Greased Line Fishing for Salmon published in 1931. This book, along with Striper Moon is the bible of the neo-salmon guild. While some of the methods are older than the split bamboo rod, Wood was really the first to master the mend. To do so, he coated his silk line with cerolene so it would float (hence the greased line in his books title), which allowed him to mend line in a way not possible with sinking lines. The new striped bass fishers have added old methods like the wet fly swing, the dead drift, and the greased line swing along with more modern methods like the Leisernring lift to their repertoire. The aim is to have the fly swim through the current as a natural baitfish would through mending, dead drifting and line manipulation. Practitioners swear it’s a more gratifying way to fish.
One glance at an Abrames fly and you can further see the influence of traditional salmon angling. Abrames’ flies are tied using the flat wing method, with long saddle hackles and sparse bucktail, and their blending of colors along with their traditional jungle cock eyes results in a remarkable fusion of impressionistic and kinetic art, as opposed to the dumb-bell-eyed and epoxy coated salt water flies that are the hallmark of today’s salt water tying style. The harshest critics, the linesiders, love them.
"I don’t know exactly when I started tying flatwings but I do remember the dissatisfaction I felt with the way streamers moved and looked in the water," Abrames says in his book on fly tying, A Perfect Fish. "I always wanted my flies to swim and look alive just like baitfish did." Abrames began experimenting with tying flatwinged flies, an obscure style briefly mentioned in Streamer Fly Tying & Fishing, the seminal work by Joseph D. Bates Jr., but relatively unknown to the fly fishing world. But as often happens with innovations, the idea was sound but the materials to articulate the idea were not available. Abrames worked with a producer of hackles to engineer the perfect plume for flatwings, long, fine hackles that would bring his creations to life. The result is RLS Hackles (Ken prefers to use the old Latin name, Roccus Leneatus Saxatilis when referring to striped bass in lieu of the current Morone Saxatilis, as he feels it ‘better reflects the spirit of the fish’). Now Abrames could communicate his ideas about fly tying through his flies. The result is a fly almost too beautiful to fish.
But all along the Eastern Seaboard these flies are being fished, utilizing methods that would be familiar to Theodore Gordon, and every day there are new converts who believe that salt water fly fishing is more than just catching fish. I’m sure that, up above, A.H.E. Wood is smiling.
(Note: All flies pictured in this article were tied and photographed by John Kelsey, a prodigious tyer of beautiful flies.)
Dave Micus lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts where he was an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer, instructor and "star" of an episode of the outdoor show, Fly Fishing America. In 2006 he made the move from sea level to the Rocky Mountains of Montana where he has taken up fly rodding for trout, hunting and enjoying life in the "Big Country."
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