A.K. Best is a noted fly tyer and author. It would be easy to list certain factoids like his being a commercial fly tyer, one-time producer of high-quality tying tools, publications in a variety of flyfishing magazines, several books, a video series, as well as being a guy with a taste for bamboo rods and a preference for dry flies. In recent years, however, he has gained a certain amount of recognition and fame as the "fishing buddy" of angling author John Gierach (see Don't Know Who The Author Is, But Enjoy A Good Read - Get This One and/or the April 2005 issue of Fly Rod & Reel for a biographical-style article on the friendship between Gierach and Best).
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As such, it is probably fitting to let use some of Gierach's own prose to describe A.K. -
"I learned most of what I now know and use about fly tying from my old friend A.K. Best...I was - and still am...impressed by the downright prettiness of his flies, their uniformity, and his apparently effortless tying speed...By now, with his books, columns, videotapes, and workshops, A.K. has become a guru to a lot of tiers. I was just lucky enough to get in on that early and beat the rush...A.K. is a practical man. He believes flies exist to catch fish, that they should be quick and easy to make and as thoughtlessly expendable as shotgun shells are to a pheasant hunter..." - John Gierach, Good Flies: Favorite Trout Patterns And How They Got That Way (2000, pp. 6 - 7)
Parachutes and Quill Bodies...
Dry flies tied "parachute-style" have been around for approximately 75 years. The primary attribute that distinguishes (for lack of a better term) a standard from a parachute dry fly is that standard dry flies have hackle wound vertically around the hook shank; whereas a parachute-style has hackle wound horizontally on top of the hook shank. Most, but not all, parachute-style dries have a single wing generally made of calf tail or some type of feather. A few of the larger parachute flies do use deer or elk hair for the wing. (A.K.'s parachutes feature uses white or dun colored Turkey Flats - 3" - 8" feathers from the back of a turkey that have tips [that part used for tying] which are comparatively straight with a very slight curve.) The "wing" is posted (wound with tying thread to keep upright and add 'stiffness') at the base where the hackle is then wound horizontally.
The advantages of parachute flies are numerous. Those which are usually cited include: greater likelihood of landing upright; wing more clearly visible to both the fish and fisherman; rides lower in the water or more "naturally;" and, when imitating certain types of insects, has a light pattern more like the naturals. Yet another significant advantage is that hackle tied parachute-style is generally one size larger than would be normally used for a given hook size; e.g., a size 14 parachute has size 12 length hackle fibers. Not only does this increase the "parachute effect" of allowing the fly to land more gently on the water than a standard dry fly; but, while on the water, it gives the fly greater stability. All of these advantages combine to cause the parachute patterns to have a more "realistic" appearance/presentation; particularly on slower moving and still waters.
The disadvantages of a parachute-style fly are that they can be fragile; especially if the hackle and wing are not solidly tied and glued. They can be a little more difficult to tie for beginners; though not horribly so. Most parachutes do not ride well in heavy water; that's what all that heavy, vertical hackling on dries is partly about. Putting extra winds of hackle on a parachute can mitigate the problem and there are some who do prefer heavily hackled parachutes for all but the heaviest water for their above cited advantages. However, the commercial versions are not particularly suited to this type of use.
In his excellent book A.K.'s Fly Box, Mr. Best states the following about quill bodies:
"Quill-bodied flies float like corks, are very durable, and accurately represent the smooth-waxy appearance of the natural's segmented bodies; it's also easier to create a body of the right diameter and carrot shape with quills than it is with dubbing, which typically creates a bushy-looking, too-fat body. It's a simple matter to dye the stripped quills to any shade you want..." (p. 10)
I'm sorry to say that, as an inveterate tyer myself, I don't agree with all of these statements. I will say that this represents A.K.'s philosophy and should be taken as such rather than as an absolute or "objective" analysis of the materials discussed. How can I disagree with his expertise you ask?
Evidently, I'm not the only one who doesn't entirely agree. Even Gierach, in Good Flies: Favorite Trout Patterns And How They Got That Way, states:
"A.K. long ago convinced me of the importance of quill-bodied dry flies. They're realistically trim, and they have the hard, not-quite-shiny look of a real bug body along with a subtle, natural-looking segmentation. I like stripped quills, dyed or natural. They're easy to work with, durable on the fly, and they usually won't crack or split if you soak them in water for a few minutes before tying...Stripped, dyed quills and biots are available commercially, but sometimes the colors described in the catalogs aren't quite what you expected, and now and then you'll get a batch that was fried in the bleaching and dying process and is too brittle to use. Still, I'd rather buy the stuff than go through the laborious process of stripping and dying myself. I have done some of my own dying...but it's a pretty serious production and I'd rather spend that kind of time and effort tying or fishing." (p. 22)
See? It's not just me. Let's just say that both these guys are known to have their own "opinions." Let's just say that I will stipulate to the fact that quill bodies are very pretty, perceptually more realistic in terms of segmentation than any dubbed body I've ever seen, can be made relatively durable, and are just traditional as all get out. The pretty and traditional attributes being the ones that hit the ole' heart strings for me.
Tying Them Yourself...
If you want to tie these flies yourself, by all means, be my guest. They aren't that tough; remember, Gierach did say that part of A.K.'s philosophy was that flies should be quick and easy to tie. Whether using stripped and dyed rooster neck butt hackles (quills) or dyed turkey biots (from a split quill), the materials are readily obtainable and reasonably easy to use with a little practice. Finally, while these two "quills" can be used interchangeably, A.K.'s Parachutes use rooster quills and A.K.'s Para Quills use turkey biots.
Umpqua has three versions of A.K.'s Parachutes listed in their 2006 Wholesale Catalog:
Olive Quill - sizes 16 - 20
Red Quill - sizes 16 & 18
Trico - sizes 18 - 22
Additionally, the same catalog lists two versions of A.K.'s Para Quill:
Callibaetis - size 16
Western March Brown - 12 & 14 (I'm not sure what Umpqua's production version uses, but the "official" recipe calls for a dyed mallard flank wing.)
All are on standard dry fly hooks. All have turkey flat wings, parachute hackles, hackle tails, and either stripped rooster quill or turkey biot bodies appropriately colored. Once you've got the basic tying technique, the rest just involves the proper color/material combinations. However, given the permutations, I do not propose to present step-by-step instructions here. Suffice to say that, besides the above listed variations available from Umpqua, there also exists a plethora of A.K. "quill-bodied" flies, including the following, nearly identical A.K. parachute patterns:
Frying Pan PMD Quill, Standard PMD Quill, Light Cahill Quill, Frying Pan Biot Green Drake, Henry's Fork Green Drake, Biot Gordon/Hendrickson, Melon Quill, Pale Evening Dun Quill, Paraleptophlebia Quill
For beginning to advanced tyers interested in learning to tie A.K.'s flies, I strongly recommend the following book:
A.K.'s Fly Box - The hardback came out in 1996 and had a list price of $40 at the time. I get the sense that the hardback is now only readily available used since the paperback was released earlier this year (2006) and has a list price of $24.95.
Again, A.K.'s Fly Box is the one I'd recommend. There are others that are relevant, such as Dyeing and Bleaching, Second Edition: Natural Fly-Tying Materials ($24.95 hardback) and Production Fly Tying: A Collection of Ideas, Notions, Hints, & Variations on the Techniques of Fly Tying ($39.95 paperback). I'm not familiar with the other book released this year entitled A. K. Best's Advanced Fly Tying: The Proven Methods and Techniques of a Master Professional Fly Tyer (list price $40). I just haven't seen it so I don't know what it covers.
There are A.K.'s tying videos on VHS with the two most applicable being Tying Dry Flies ($29.95) and Tying Tiny Dry Flies; the latter covering Tricos. While well filmed with easy to follow instructions, I personally feel these are a bit overpriced for what you get. It pains me to say that, but it just rankles to have paid $19.95 several years ago for the 55 minute Tying Tiny Dry Flies and have four flies covered in terms of tying instructions. However, if you are a visual learner, these videos do have their advantages.
It also appears that A.K. has released a series of DVD's:
A.K. Best Ties Drakes and Large Duns ($29.95)
A.K.'s "Save the Day" Streamers ($34.95)
Parachutes, Spinners (and a Dun) Featuring A.K. Best, Shane Stalcup, and Brad Befus ($29.95)
All are roughly 100 minutes long. I have seen none of them. And, the last would be the most relevant to the flies of this review. You did notice it covered "parachutes?"
In some ways, it's unfortunate that quill-bodied flies aren't as popular as they once were. Most people either want the perceptually "tougher" dubbed bodies or tyers want the arguably less hassle of working with dubbing rather than quills. I can't say I blame 'em too much. But, it does make A.K.'s flies difficult to find in fly bins at times. Near as I can figure, they should retail for between $1.75 and $2.00 each. I just haven't noticed any in the shops recently and I tie all my own.
You see, I do have a couple waters squirreled away in my hip pocket where A.K.'s Trico, Red Quill, and PMD Quill flies work when other patterns won't. These are places which require 6X (3 lb.) and 7X (2 lb.) tippets; anything larger making for a day of practicing your casting rather than fishing. Most are slow moving waters, with resident trout that have earned double doctorates in flyfisherman perturbance, and are genetically predisposed to orneriness. Those places where the fish entertain themselves by not only rejecting naturals, but find it the height of slapstick comedy to rapidly swim toward the surface, slam on the brakes, hover interminably about half an inch beneath your fly, then sllllloowwwwwwllllyyy, almost languidly, remove themselves from your presence - often swimming in close as they exit the scene just so that they're sure you got the point and can almost hear them laughing.
Flyfishers refer to this as technical waters or technical fishing. It also happens to be where parachute flies excel. So, while they may not be the all-around "best" flies, they are A.K. Best's flies; and that says something. Well, it says something if you care to listen over the laughter of the fish regarding what else you've tried to entice them with...