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He Deftly Ties the World's Fanciest Flies

If it were possible to cross a Henry David Thoreau with an H. L. Mencken, the result probably would be someone very much like Harry Darbee (right) of Roscoe, N.Y. To the informed public, Darbee is known for the conservation battle he is waging to prevent two Catskill trout streams, the Willowemoc and the Beaver Kill, from being destroyed by the New York State Department of Public Works. To fishermen, Darbee is celebrated, even venerated, for any number of other reasons as well.

For one, Darbee is a superb flytier. Darbee's tying, done in partnership with his wife, Elsie, is unusually imaginative, and his work has been hailed in more than 30 books, ranging from James Leisenring's The Art of Tying the Wet Fly to Roderick Haig-Brown's Fisherman's Summer. Among Darbee's creations are Darbee's Green Egg Sac, Darbee's Spate and a large imitation of a mayfly that is a cross between a bass bug and a trout fly and is thus known as the Beaver Kill Bastard. With the late Percy Jennings, an amateur tier, Darbee created a trout fly that is not an imitation of anything and is called, for no reason other than the fact that a girl just happened to name it so, the Rat-Faced MacDougall. He has established a unique fan club. Among the users of Darbee flies are or have been Vannevar Bush, the scientist, who used to try to get a discount on new flies by trading in old ones he found hanging from trees; C. R. Smith, the chairman of the board of American Airlines and an ardent salmon fisherman; Lord Portal, a friend of Smith's who tried some Darbee flies and pronounced them wizard; Sparse Grey Hackle, the angling writer; C. Otto v. Kienbusch, the angling book collector who discovered the volume proving that Izaak Walton was a plagiarist; John J. McCloy, the banker; and the late Edward Ringwood Hewitt, a marvelously dotty soul who occasionally used to make believe that he himself was a trout.

The Darbee home, a cozy seven-room house that is cluttered with feathers, fur, hair, hooks and other appurtenances of the trade, is only a long cast from the Willowemoc. It serves as a gathering point, in or out of season, for anglers, local characters, fishery biologists, curious tourists and wandering oddballs who come to hear Darbee hold forth on all sorts of subjects, often until dawn. The atmosphere is Cannery Row out of Abercrombie & Fitch.

Darbee's conversational range takes in the entire field of natural history. He is a first-rate entomologist with, as befits a flytier, a deep interest in aquatic insects. He has done a great deal of stream-improvement work and has a fund of information about the changes caused in streams by fluctuations of flow and variations in temperature. Indeed, his limnological knowledge is so impressive that he has appeared as an expert witness at more than 200 hearings before the New York State Riparian Commission.

Darbee is interested in the genetics of fowl. He has raised his own crossbred blue chickens for hackle, and his preoccupation with chicken breeding has been so sufficiently rare and successful as to have excited inquiries from European poultrymen. He is also a botanist with a marked fondness for edible nettles, and, as a practicing mycologist, he has eaten his way through 35 species of mushrooms lurking in local forests. In his years as a trapper—and he was one of the most successful in the Catskills, taking as many as 100 foxes a winter in the days when a good pelt fetched $25—he used to dine on such gamy fare as infant porcupine, parboiled raccoon, fried muskrat, boiled crayfish and sautéed gray squirrel.

Intellectually alert, Darbee is one of the lay members of the Resources Board of the American Fisheries Society. He possesses a well-chosen library of ichthyological studies and general literature. His favorite author is Mencken, and he has a great stack of old American Mercurys to which he repairs for laughs when no visitors are about. Once when Darbee was in Baltimore, Mencken's home town, and down to his last five dollars, he did as the master would have done and blew the fin on a good feed and a gallery ticket to Lysistrata. The next morning, dead broke, Darbee went to work as a door-to-door magazine salesman, one of the few square jobs he ever had. "Harry," says his wife, "is very unpredictable."

Darbee is trim and of medium height. He has a snub nose, a high forehead and a white pompadour that gives him the look of a prosperous Russian playwright, circa 1903. On both sides, he is Connecticut Yankee stock. Now 58, he was born in Roscoe, the eldest of five children. He passed the formative years of his childhood near West Park on the Hudson, where his father worked for the West Shore Railroad. When he was 10 years old the family moved back to Roscoe, and except for a year spent in Wisconsin laying track and fishing and a hitch in the Navy as a hospital corpsman in World War II, Darbee always has lived in the Catskills. He originally derived his approach to nature (which may be best summed up as leaving it the hell alone) from John Burroughs, the bearded sage who was a neighbor in West Park. Burroughs was then in his 70s, and young Darbee used to accompany him through the woods in search of bird nests.

A chronic truant from school, Darbee started fishing seriously when he was 10 years old. By 12, he was tying his own flies and guiding anglers. Upon leaving high school, he immersed himself in the outdoors. He spent an entire summer hunting ginseng root. "After I came out, I had, oh, cleared about $10," he says, "but I had lived in the woods all summer."

Ever since 1928 Darbee has been tying flies professionally. He and Elsie, whom he married in 1933 after she came to work as an assistant, weathered the Depression easily since the Big Rich tightened their budgets by fishing instead of larking off to Europe for vacations. Still, there were some customers who wondered how the Darbees could manage. One of them, the late J. P. Knapp, chairman of the board of Publication Corp., felt such pity that he gave Darbee a standing order to tie flies whenever he hit a slack period. At one time Knapp had some 250,000 flies in the house. "Knapp," explains Darbee, "used to say, 'When I get a good fly, I like to keep it around.' "

The Darbees do their tying at adjoining desks in the front parlor. It is generally impossible to tell their work apart—they have even argued between themselves as to who tied what—but there are some purists who say that, while Harry is the better talker, Elsie is the better tier. Such remarks do not in the least bother Darbee, who is only too glad to show anyone how to tie. "I have no jealousy," he recently told a budding tier. "If you could beat me to hell tying flies, I'd swell up with pride."

Considering the cost of materials and the work, knowledge and skill involved, Darbee flies are inexpensive enough. Regular dry flies, for instance, are $7.20 a dozen, and fancy salmon streamers, which take up to half an hour to tie, $1 to $3 each. The flies most in demand are Light Cahills (named after a 19th century Dublin flytier who used to hold the fly up to a customer's ear and inquire if he heard it buzz); Hairwing Royal Coachmans (so called because the first was tied by Tom Bosworth, coachman to Queen Victoria); Quill Gordons (tied by Theodore Gordon, the father of American dry-fly fishing, to imitate any number of early-season mayflies that are a pale blue-gray); Irresistibles (invented by Joe Messinger, and imitating nothing at all in nature); and Rat-Faced MacDougalls (which one Darbee customer absentmindedly referred to as "the fly with the horrible name, the Scar-Face McCarthy, I believe").

The materials used are varied: maribou, peacock, golden pheasant, Impeyean pheasant, toucan and mallard feathers, Greenland baby seal, Australian oppossum, hares' ears, and pelts of deer, mink, fisher, polar bear, brown bear and other exotica. The prescribed dressings for one salmon fly, the Jock Scott, for instance, call for dressings from 12 different parts of the world.

Annoying red tape

Nowadays Darbee sometimes must make do with substitutes, since he is hampered by what he calls "the great horse-feathers law," an act of Congress prohibiting or restricting the importation of certain rare plumages. Although Darbee is an avowed "forever wilder," he can never forgive the Audubon Society for backing the law. "The law hasn't prevented birds from being shot," he says. "Hell, they're food to some people, and the feathers are just a byproduct. I don't know any flytier who isn't a conservationist. Now I have to have a license, and write to the Government telling how many jungle cock or mandarin I want and where I'm going to buy them. Sometimes I have to wait three, four or five years for an order."

Despite having to use substitutes, Darbee remains a finicky tier. He concocts his own wax, which is used to make the silk tying thread tacky, from bleached beeswax, resin and castor oil, and at work he sets his own pace. Once, when pressed for an extraordinarily large order of trout flies, he tied eight dozen a day for 30 days straight, a feat he vows he will never repeat. The effort left him completely worn out. One friend, who has been waiting more than two years for two dozen special-pattern flies, says, "It's a good thing Harry doesn't run a restaurant. If you ordered a fried-egg sandwich, he'd go out to tell the hen to lay a few eggs, then he'd start grinding his own flour."

The idea that he is an artist makes Darbee choleric. "The flytier is an artisan 98% of the time and perhaps an artist the other 2%," he once wrote. "When creating a pattern or inventing a style or type of fly not heretofore known or maybe in adapting new techniques to old fly-tying problems, a tier could be called, temporarily at least, an artist. But to place an artistic label on the humdrum process of repeating a pattern day after day, as any professional tier must to earn his dinner, is stretching the word artist beyond its meaning."

Still, if Darbee does not consider a tier an artist, "I can," he says, "certainly proclaim him an individualist in the full sense of the term. To me, fly tying represents a way of life quite as much as a means of livelihood. Tying flies along the banks of a beloved stream, away from the bustle and stench of a city, is my idea of the ultimate in occupations. Tying flies for a living has enabled me to enjoy a certain independence of action and thought not easily come by in these days of mass production and time-clock-dominated lives."

In recent years Darbee has given much of his time toward trying to save the Willowemoc and Beaver Kill from the ravages of a proposed superhighway. For his efforts, the Theodore Gordon Fly-Fishers gave him the Salmo Award last spring. The award was nice to get, but it did not make Darbee any happier about the future. "I'm far from complacent about America's natural resources," he says. "I think we're balanced on a fine line, and it's just possible we can lose our resources faster than anyone thought. But when you say that, people think you're a nut. I'm not. I was, I think, brought up with some ideals."