Book Review – Dressed for Dinner by Rick Keam

I have many memories involving Rick Keam’s flies, but two stand out. One was when he introduced me to his then unknown Chinese Dragon. “Got a mudeye pattern I’d like you to try,” offered Rick’s distinctive baritone over the phone (the old landline in those days). Not long after, we were out on one of Millbrook’s lakes, with me tying on Rick’s rather scruffy-looking dark thing which only vaguely resembled a mudeye. It wasn’t really mudeye weather (a grey and drizzly November afternoon) nor the right time of day, but being on the water, I felt obliged to at least give the Chinese Dragon a swim. You guessed it, 4 to 5 pound browns and rainbows lined up to smash the new fly.

A few years earlier, I was fishing the Delegate River near the Victorian border on a bright, breezy March day, trying to work out why my Muddler Hopper patterns weren’t performing – the Delegate’s banks were bouncing with grasshoppers. In desperation, I pulled out one of Rick’s Autumn Hoppers. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time, I thought the fly was too plastic-looking (foam-bodied flies were an unfamiliar concept to me back then). Half-heartedly, I flung the fly out into the middle of a large, still pool rather than some beguiling run – hardly a fair first test. It didn’t matter though: a 2 pound brown appeared out of the dark water and sucked it down.

That’s how it continued with Rick’s flies. He designed them to impress fish, not necessarily anglers, so I slowly learned to leave the judgement to the trout!

Aside from his fly-tying creativity, Rick was a talented writer and a meticulous editor, so he was well-placed to document his flies in print. Over the decades, the subject of writing a book came up regularly. I was convinced he should do it: Rick’s flies were clever, unique and – most of all – effective. But I recall Rick was conflicted. On the one hand, documenting his patterns in print would give him rightful credit for his intellectual property, but on the other hand, such a publication could open the way for his designs to be reproduced without protecting his interests. (Rick was well aware of the tortuous process involved in copyrighting fly design.)

Well, it’s happened. The book is out, and I’m half delighted for Rick’s sake that his legacy is assured; half sad that he didn’t quite live to see the finished product – although he would have at least had the reassurance it was imminent. (Publisher Mike Stevens’ note at the front of the book confirms this). Importantly, this 220 page book is a high quality production befitting the contents. Stevens Publishing has a history of doing justice to significant flyfishing books, so the impressive hardcover, binding, photographic reproduction and high quality paper, comes as no surprise. Having worked with Mike on previous books, Rick would have known this.

As for the contents… where to start? This is much more than a book of fly-tying instructions – as valuable as those are! The book opens with Rick’s philosophy (flyosophy) on flies, and a brief history of fly-tying, particularly with synthetic materials. Rick then goes into more depth, so to speak, about his own explorations with synthetics, including some frustrations as well as successes.

This paragraph is telling: “Most amateurs would benefit from a period of commercial tying, though few would enjoy themselves. It is a brutal taskmaster, and among its chief lessons is the importance of economy of design and materials. To anyone who has turned out flies in the tens of thousands, unnecessary complexity has long since ceased to be interesting and challenging. It is nothing but a burden. The real creative task is to cut through complexity wherever possible, always looking for the stripped-down essence of things.”

(No wonder I at first found the Chinese Dragon so disappointingly… basic. But no wonder it worked.)

Rick then provides a thorough insight into the (mainly) synthetic materials he considers important, including what to look for, what to avoid, and how to work with the materials. These sections come with colour photos by Trevor Foon, whose flawless images appear throughout the book.

Next, it’s on to flies in detail; some famous like Rick’s foam hoppers, some less so like his damsel nymph, but all intriguing. Those who’ve fished for sea-runners and smelters will be glued to the baitfish ties and accounts (including reports from Greg French), and there are even some genuine saltwater offerings as well.

Whatever your fancy, if you’ve wanted to tie a Rick Keam fly exactly as its creator intended, now you can – the instructions and pictures are unambiguous.

Mixed in amongst all this, are observations and information about buoyancy, density and how dry flies (and the insects they suggest) sit; also tools… in fact most things a fly tier either wants (or needs) to know.

However, Rick’s final word is, “Ultimately, the most important equipment available to all of us is the apparatus that lies between our ears: our brain. I wish you creativity and joy on your journey.”

Limited copies available from The Essential Flyfisher, Tasmania.