Catskill trout fly patterns are the stuff of legend. There are untold numbers of books, videos and DVDs on the subject. The classic Catskill fly remains a symbol of elegance, symmetry, design, history and technique. Some practitioners of the art create flies so precise as to convey an impression of reality that challenges what’s real and what’s not. At any moment they look like they might fly.But then if you go a very long way down that same road, around three or four hairpin turns, duck back into an alley or two, through the unlit back door of a restaurant in an Edward Hopper painting, past the kitchen and into the bar, over in a corner, contentedly sitting all alone you’ll find Mike Kimball. Sipping a cocktail and pondering the nature of trout, he’s spent many years looking for a solution to the aged question - What do great trout want to eat?
On the technical side, Mike’s flies look like a teddy bear that’s been shot with a 12-gauge and then run through an old hand crank meat grinder. The flies have no names. Details on materials or how they are made are sketchy at best. They’re not production items and each one is unique to Mike’s particular thought about what big trout want at any particular moment.
“In catch and release water the fish see pattern after pattern until sooner or later, they just get smart about certain silhouettes” he said. “You have to present something different in order to get truly grand and difficult fish to move. It MUST look alive. The classic patterns work, but not the way real food works. It’s got to look like real food—part of the fly needs to sink and part needs to float. It’s pretty simple. It’s got to not look perfect. Sometimes I add just a little bit of weight to a certain part so it will appear to be lower than the other part of the fly. Sometimes I’ll use powdered tungsten to cause part of the fly to sink. Movement creates the impression of life, and fish learn the difference between fake and real very quickly. A fly that’s pristine is likely not food and they know it. Even a fully spent spinner needs to look real in order to attract a real fish. Though dying, the spinners that consistently get eaten are still twitching, moving just that small bit. If you study the process, you notice the patterns. It’s not the stylized model. As opposed to a pattern, it’s more incapacitated life, which means it still moves a little. People continue to catch fish on regular spinner patterns—actually many fish. But we’re not talking about just fish here. We’re talking about exceptional, often unusually difficult fish. And these fish prefer to see life. In order to trick such a grand fish, your fly must appear vital. Is it clearly an insect? Is it alive?”
Mike seems to be working on the little keys or triggers that constitute this. And Mike is convinced the keys are not ones being depicted in any book or trade show. “The Quill Gordon was the best thinking of its day,” he said. “For truly great fish it’s a different day entirely.”You look at these flies and it’s like looking into another dimension. You never ever thought you’d see something quite like this. You’re just gonna have to believe me on this stuff when I tell you these flies are used to consistently catch trout over 20 inches in impossible to cast holding water within a 3.5hr drive from the center of Manhattan and twelve million people. The flies don’t have names. There is no manual on how to tie them, and you can’t buy them anywhere. These flies are a state of mind, because of course it’s not just the flies that catch the trout. For that you need to be someone like Mike Kimball, and so far, there’s only one.
A Buddhist might suggest selflessness is everything. Mike has that aura about him. His presence is a light breeze, a 1,000-watt smile. It’s always about you, never him. Sooner or later you begin noticing---through a movement or comment, a gesture or thought -- “This guy knows a helluva lot more than he’s showing.” In the words of a friend, “Mike’s the supreme fish hawk in a sky full of starlings.”In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that genius is really the sum of many many hours of hard work. The number he came up with is 10,000 dedicated hours of focused attention to detail. There are people who would suggest Kimball put in his10,000 hours of fly fishing for trout before he was 25. In the ’70s he cut his teeth on the LeTort River in Pennsylvania—four days a week for maybe seven years. The LeTort possesses some of the most difficult fly water in the world. Some fish he could not take unless he cast ahead of them when they were actually in the act of rising or they’d spook. Casting to a holding fish was simply impossible because they’d run. It had to be jumping for Kimball to get the fly out ahead of the trout. Most of the fishing was done on his knees. For seven years. Guerilla warfare.It’s the same now. He fishes the West and East Branch of the Delaware four days a week - for decades. Behind his house he designed a casting course, but this one is set up for impossible casts: around corners, under branches, against walls, into coffee cans set at unlikely distances. He’s been on that course for years and years and years. He’s spent hours on streams practicing casting under trees with a bit of yarn instead of a hook, so it won’t catch in the trees, and until it won't catch in the trees. Ten thousand hours.
“I study and I learn and I apply myself to the process,” he said. “If fish aren’t rising where I’m fishing, I literally pretend to find a fish in a terrible lie, and I practice casting over and over and over to that mythical fish. I miss a lot of fish. If I miss a fish, I will re-cast to the spot over and over again to try and understand why I missed it. A basketball player might shoot thousands and thousands of free throws before getting to the game. Fly fishermen don’t do that; I do. In business, I’ve got a thing about details—same thing with fly fishing.” Given this level of self imposed difficulty, most people will simply say, “Screw this, I’m gonna go where I can catch fish.” Mike Kimball stays, and works it out. Another very well respected fishing friend said, “I’ve seen him do things on a trout stream that were flat out impossible. Guides on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho would take him fishing on their days off, then literally diagram the trout he caught.”When asked to explain his approach, Mike said, “Honor your mistakes and learn from them. Refuse to let those mistakes alter your purpose. I could not find the solutions to many of my fishing-related issues in fly-fishing publications, so I had to find my own solutions. Everyone needs to find their own way.”Yet for all his mastery, this unassuming man shuns publicity and never speaks out of line. Uninterested in self-promotion (this interview, a gift to me, was uncomfortable for him), he vastly prefers to fish by himself. The master uses electrical tape to attach the baby Bogden reel to his rod. He's simply in another world. Just before the conversation ended, Mike said to me “There’s a fish I’m working on now. He’s been pushing water around for some time. I’ve never seen him, but I know he’s there. I glimpsed his tail tonight and I won’t forget it. He’s a truly grand fish. I know him.” Yes he does.