The Curious Case of the De-cluttered Fly box

My gut tightened every time I opened my river dry fly box. It was a shocker. Crammed too full with fur, yet with too few real ‘go-to’ patterns I could easily find. So this winter, I remembered the sage advice to re-organise my fly box in front of a warm fire.

Then I recalled I’d had exactly the same thought last year. I didn’t want to fit the definition of insanity by doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome, so I needed a circuitbreaker. It occurred to me that my recently adopted Japanese system of de-cluttering, which had spectacularly simplified and reduced my wardrobe and the book collection, was an enormous success. Could it be applied to de-cluttering fly boxes?

So rather than tidying up this one fly box as I had attempted last winter, I started a de-cluttering ‘mission impossible’ by fly type. I decided to begin with my nemesis: river dry flies. First, I began to pull out each fly from its foamy home and placed it in a temporary box. In the process, I noticed flies pass through my fingers with loose posts, or thread coming off, or bent hooks, or – perhaps most potentially disastrous of all – rust! Some flies even had each of these things combined. With the patience and focus of monk, I completed the work, and before I knew it, the box’s contents were transferred to the temporary box. I marveled at my empty river dry fly box. Just like my wardrobes and book-shelves before, this space was now beckoning me with so much potential, delighting me with so much space!

Taking all flies out of the box is laborious, but it saves a lot of time later.

But my job had only just begun, as this time I was tackling the fly type, not the fly box. So, I got up from the fire (a real torture, this was the coldest day on record in Central Victoria) and started gathering from various rooms, all my fly boxes that had dry flies in them. That’s right: all of them. To my surprise, the pile of boxes was quite staggering and, even worse, most of them contained row upon row upon row of… you got it: more dry flies. I started to remove all these flies as well, one by one, into the temporary box. Now I found more flies that I really love to fish. CDC mayflies, CDC caddis, CDC emergers. Was there perhaps a CDC theme going on here? I closely inspected some relics too. I mean, who fishes a Greenwell’s Glory these days? After another stack of flies and a wee dram had passed my fingers, that task was done too.

From my experience de-cluttering the house, I knew that the fun part was now about to start. You need to know what to keep. If you have a hoarding disorder, you have my deeply-felt sympathy. For you, this story ends here. You can stick the entire temporary box in your fishing bag, and you will probably add many more flies to it. I won’t change your mind. Enjoy your fishing. For anyone else, please read on.

The key, my fellow de-clutterers, is to discover what flies give you joy to fish. That’s right: joy. Even if we know that a fly needs to have utility to attract a fish, would we fish a mop-fly? I think at a certain age, life is just too short for that. You want to fish flies that currently give you joy. The operative word here is ‘currently’. We must start discarding that which no longer will, or never has, given us joy… (I know, it is deep. It is Japanese. It works)

For my river dry fly box, I decided that utility lay in the groups of naturals and their imitations: mayfly, caddis, stoneflies and true flies (two-winged flies like horseflies/midges). For my now roomy dry fly box to remain roomy, I decided to create a separate box for the trusty, but seasonally more specific, terrestrials: hoppers, ants, beetles, willow grubs, etc. I realised that these highly seasonal bugs ate up a lot of space in my bread & butter river dry fly box. (I made a note to look for the same efficiency-cut when de-cluttering the nymphs, wets and streamer boxes. But that was for later.)

Collecting all your flies in one spot shows the true gaps and redundancies of your collection.

In the process, I nuked my New Zealand fly box content. Now, I would never have done this previously. But here is a question for you: when you go on holiday, is your suitcase already pre-filled with clothes for the trip? No, it is not. Similarly, I will now fill a fly box with flies for an overseas trip as the occasion arises. And when I return, those flies will go back into the ‘business as usual’ boxes. No more half-full boxes for that illustrious ‘just in case I suddenly go to New Zealand’ occasion that never happens! (Note: this works unless you live in New Zealand.)

I placed another log on the fire, grabbed a pen and quickly wrote down for each of the four categories, a total of about a dozen or so flies I would always pick when I would be either on new water, or on rivers that I fish frequently. These are flies that work and yes, tied in a way that gives me joy. There were a lot of flies in the temporary box that simply didn’t meet these new criteria. They were like the forest hiding the trees, or something like that.

I started to refill the fly box with joyful, useful flies only. I slowly picked my way through the temporary box with long tweezers. Now, one of the reasons my previous fly box did not work, is fur was hiding other fur. Those ‘good’ fly-boxes store flies with much more space. Very Japanese without knowing it was Japanese? Thus you see each fly better, and therefore use them more often. Similarly, clothes should be folded and stacked back in the cupboard, rather than piled and junked on top of each other. Most of those piled up items you will never, ever see again.

I created a ‘1 for 3 rule’ by simply sliding each fly in a slot, and leaving the slots left and right of it open. Economic humbug! But it works in the long run, and so much better. If a fly has a loose thread, you see it. You see it, you ditch it. Or repair it. Or replace it with a new fly that you love fishing. It is that simple.

I had a very enjoyable time picking up and sorting all these great flies that I loved fishing, and giving them the space they deserved in my roomy fly box. Then I was ready to discard flies that I’d previously loved and needed in the past, but which had lost their mojo. With me anyway. For example, flies I tied when I was learning. Their posts were either too skinny or too fat. Or they did not float because they were tied on the wrong hook. I’d kept these flies ‘just in case’ or ‘for nostalgia’. But they crowded the box, and worse, clouded my fly-selection. Out they went.

But how do we discard flies appropriately? The Japanese have a beautiful word ‘arigato’, which means, ‘Thank-you.’ When you’ve mastered the art of discarding, you respectfully remove a fly, say ‘arigato!’ and bin it. Yes. Bin it or recycle it. So I thanked these flies for the pleasure they had given me, for teaching me how to tie flies. That had been their real purpose. Then I said ‘arigato’ and placed them in the recycle bin. What a great feeling.

Give each fly the space it needs, so that you can select the right one and spot damage early (and fix it).

Finally, I ended up with a nearly full box of river dry flies that will truly give me joy to fish, that are in great condition, totally useful and that I can easily pick out in the box. But what was this? One and a half rows of foamy emptiness remained! Economic blasphemy! Fly boxes interiors are like prime real-estate: empty rows are not an option.

After pooling all my dry flies from all my boxes, it turned out the row of small Stimulators only contained one of them! Ouch! This was the starting gun that fired me into action, and I raced to my fly-tying desk, frantically gathering the fur and feather for small Stimis, and I tied up half a dozen. They filled the foamy gap. Note my friends: I wasted no time tying flies I already had, hidden from view somewhere else in my fly box collection. Instead, a true need was filled.

So do yourself a favour, and de-clutter your fly boxes (and the rest of your place as you get good at it). Follow my steps and discover the magic of tidying up your fly boxes. Don’t be afraid to discard and most importantly, only keep the flies that give you true joy to fish.

What a cracker next season will be!