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LaFontaine’s Legacy, The Last Flies From An American Master

A Review by Joe Cornwall

 

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Fly Tyer magazine has teamed with Lyons Press to release a series of fly tying books. By all accounts the partnership is destined for success.  It is the opinion of this author that Fly Tyer magazine is one of the most focused and best presented periodicals in the angling industry.  It consistently delivers a wealth of information covering nearly every aspect of fly tying and fly fishing.  Trout-centric, as are most fly fishing publications, Fly Tyer none-the-less makes every effort to address the interests of both warm water and salt water anglers and fly tiers in every issue.  I was quite excited to review this, the first book I’ve handled that’s explicitly connected with the magazine.

 

Gary LaFontaine was a giant of the fly fishing world.  Sadly, he passed away of Lou Gehrig’s disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis aka ALS),  in 2002 at the very young age of fifty-six.  He left a rich trove of trout lore, adept observations on the cold water condition and a great influence on the trout fishing world.  Perhaps his best known work is Caddisflies (ISBN-10  0876913508), a 1981 opus that forever changed the way trout anglers think about aquatic insects. His name appears on more than three dozen other books and a nearly countless array of well-written and important articles.

 

Al and Gretchen Beatty need no introduction other than to say they are the authors of this book.  There are few people walking this planet better qualified to present to the angling community the final works of Gary LaFontaine.  In LaFontaine’s Legacy, The Last Flies From An American Master the couple presents twenty-six fly patterns, some new and different but most adaptations of existing forms and styles.  From the book’s jacket: “Many of the flies in this posthumous collection of trout-fly patterns are likely to become enduring standards.  Authors Al and Gretchen Beatty were working with LaFontaine and tiers Paul and Char Stimpson on an instructional film in the months before the fly tier died.  These are the flies that LaFontaine spoke of during filming.  These are the flies showcased in LaFontaine’s Legacy.

 

This is a difficult book to properly review.  As a reader it’s hard to avoid the expectation that this book will put the flies into a historical perspective, that it will be a discreet volume in a body of work that might eventually be viewed as part of a biography of the great master.  Yet this book is explicitly presented as a fly tying volume, only marginally associated with the time, place and conditions of the creation of the patterns contained within.  And it is this latter tack that the book solidly takes.  There are remembrances and stories, certainly, but the book is more of a hard-core “how to” with the Beatty’s and Fly Tyer magazines expected superb macro photography and step-by-step tying instruction.

 

Viewed as a “how to”, LaFontaine’s Legacy is a successful book.  The construction of each pattern is explicitly illustrated in a manner that makes its duplication as easy as following the steps.  This isn’t a book created for the first time fly tier, though.  There is an expectation that the reader has the requisite skills to properly mount a hook in the vise, lay down a thread base and properly whip finish the fly.  Materials preparation and selection are assumed to be an integral part of the tier’s skill set.  There is no discussion of tools, hooks or materials other than identifying the particular products used to create the pattern.  All of this is welcome as not all fly tying books are, or should be, created for the rank beginner.  None of the patterns shown are difficult to tie, and the superb instructions make even tricky steps very clear.  If you’ve learned the basics, this is a book you can comfortably add to your library and one that will help you refine your skills by demonstrating some interesting and unusual techniques. 

 

A more difficult question to answer is “are there any patterns here that are truly unique – are there any patterns that fulfill a void in the angler’s kit?”  Unfortunately the answer, at least from me, is “not really.”  There are a couple very interesting ideas that I’ll pursue as a direct result of reading this book.  There are several new or modified techniques that will help me to improve some of the standard patterns I’ve been carrying for years.  But there are only a couple “new” flies that will find a way into my fly boxes from this book.

 

In particular I am intrigued by the Bead Head Marabou Worm.  This pattern, very much a bugger variant, uses a section of foam cylinder to both hold the tail together and to cause it to float.  The instructions for tying this pattern are accompanied by a short tale of how Al Beatty learned about this fly from Paul Stimpson.  What isn’t shared is how the idea came to be, what conditions this fly addressed and what puzzle the pattern solved.  Nothing is written about how it might be fished or how the size of the foam piece relates to the hook and bead size.  Unlike many of the other patterns in the book, this one is obvious though.  I can imagine this fly tumbling along the bottom, nose-down and tail-up, looking for all the world like a hellgrammite trying to get under a rock.  You can bet your last dollar that I’ll have a few of these in my fly box next time I hit the water!

 

Another creative and original idea presented in this book includes the concept of “touch dubbing” a layer of Antron over a base of peacock, a method called “double magic.”  In this technique a very slight veil of antron is placed on the tying thread and wrapped into the body to provide subtle highlights.  The best example of its use is the Bead Head Peacock Twist Nymph.  Once again we have a marabou-tailed fly that is really a simple micro-bugger variant.  The technique is valuable and may improve the effectiveness of many fly patterns, but it is only a technique and not a new fly.  And that’s the problem with many of the twenty-six patterns in the book.  They’re not all that new or radically different.  The patterns explore a unique take on fly design and expose a sharp analytic bent in LaFontaine’s thinking, but don’t expect an unknown and hither-to unseen Sparkle Pupa that will revolutionize your fly selection.

 

I like LaFontaine’s Legacy, but I don’t love it.  It’s a beautifully constructed book and, as a preview of what Fly Tyer magazine and Lyons Press can do together, it is the harbinger of what I hope will be a fabulous series of fly tying books.  Taken on its own, however, Lafontaine’s Legacy may have made a better series of articles than a hard-cover book.  There just isn’t a lot of depth to this work.  Three or four interesting ideas that propel the evolution of fly design (certainly not a small thing) are simply not enough to justify 130 pages and twenty-six flies, even if they are magnificently photographed and expertly edited.    Had this book included more of LaFontaine and less of the flies perhaps I’d be more excited.  As it stands I’m happy to have access to this material, but I wouldn’t place this book at the top of my “most wanted” list.  I recommend this book, but with the caveat that it will be best appreciated by experienced fly tiers and trout aficionados who have a passion and a desire to explore the subtle variations and minutia the sport can deliver.

 

LaFontaine’s Legacy, The Last Flies From An American Master (ISBN 978-1-59921-275-3) is available from The Lyons Press for $27.95. 

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