A fly for any occasion

Dale McKain's techniques for fly-tying are as varied as the insects his flies represent.

Dale McKain

Dale McKain Photo by Michael Lopez.


“Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers,” Patrick McManus wrote in “Never Sniff a Gift Fish.” “Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary.”

In Dale McKain’s case, it wasn’t lack of funds that drove him tying flies for fishing, it was a lack of access.

Like many Americans, McKain was first introduced to fishing by his grandparents. It was about 1956 in North Carolina. Almost two decades later McKain’s then-boss, Jerry Reed

(not the musician), introduced him to fly fishing.

“I went fishing with him six times before I caught a fish,” McKain recalls. “Once I caught one, I got hooked.”

At the time finding gear for fly fishing was not as easy as it is today, especially in the southeastern United States.

“When I started there were no fly shops around,” McKain said, adding that the only flies he could find in local stores came in kits, and most of them would fall apart in half a day. “That was part of the provocation of tying my own.”

As he became more enamored with fly fishing, his talents in tying flies improved, eventually leading him to teach classes and write papers on the subject.

Over the years, as McKain became more focused on fishing, he gradually moved westward. In addition to his “real job” as a circulation manager for Gannett newspapers, he also worked as a backcountry fishing guide.

“I came to Oregon one year, and I found a fish behind every rock,” McKain said. A couple years later he “made a decision to move out because life’s too short.”

When he moved to Oregon his fly-tying repertoire had to expand to include fish like salmon and steelhead, but the fundamentals remained fairly constant.

During his moves to the Pendleton area, then to Milton-Freewater, McKain has been a fishing guide, store owner, a founding member of the Walla Walla Fly Fishers and a fly-tying instructor.

“The basic part of a fly is the quality of the hook,” McKain said, adding that when he started the best hooks were made in Norway and Sweden. Now quality hooks are manufactured in Japan, said McKain, who prefers Tiemco brand. The rest of the fly material is as varied as the insects they represent.

“Purists will try to match the hatch,” McKain said, referring to the practice of identifying which insects are present in the environment, and then finding, or tying, a fly that resembles that bug.

It’s not a bad approach, McKain said, but added that fish may not necessarily be that picky.

“When you open a fish, you (sometimes) find sticks and stones in their belly,” he said. “How do you match that?”

While it doesn’t hurt to understand fish and insect biology, there are some basic fly patterns that every angler should know.

“There are probably a half-a-dozen flies that will keep an angler happy wherever he goes,” Mckain said.

For dry flies, an elk hair caddis in a variety of sizes is a mainstay, while for wet flies various sizes of nymphs are a must have, according to McKain.

But he doesn’t mind a bit of variety, and showed several boxes of different flies of different styles and sizes, from miniature bead-headed nymphs to a large steelhead fly of his own design named the Gold-n-Cock.

It is a large fly with a gold hook, tied with peacock and golden pheasant feathers that McKain designed when he owned Blue Mountain Anglers in Pendleton.

“The blue turns like an insect green when it gets wet,” McKain said.

Other flies listed in high regard by McKain include the Royal Coachman, Copper John and various incarnations of the venerable Woolly Bugger.

Despite the fanciful names, constructing flies follows a similar path for all varieties, a process McKain demonstrated by tying an Elkhorn Lake Special.

He threaded an orange bead onto a small hook, then placed the hook into a desktop vise.

“This is where a lot of novice have trouble: wrapping the hook,” McKain said as he used a bobbin to wrap orange thread around the hook. “For most flies, to tie sparse is better than to tie them big.”

McKain deftly added what looked like a miniature, glittery orange feather boa, then some orange feathers. With the elements in place, he took up what he called a whip-finish tool.

“It’s a frustrating tool to deal with until someone shows you how to use it,” McKain said, adding that some people resort to glue to hold the fly together. In all, it took McKain less than five minutes to finish the orange fly.

“It’s all practice and tricks of the trade,” he said.

There are many books with great instructions and many classes for tying flies, according to McKain, who added he would have liked to have YouTube when he began tying flies.

“When I first started, (instructions) were a black and white book, and it was all drawings,” he said.


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