Dr David Burns Flies
Dr. Burns has won numerous fly tying awards and competitions over the years and received coverage in many magazine articles and books. At the Federation Quebecoise Pour le Saumon Atlantique World Championship in Quebec, Canada, 1999, he was elected Master Tyer & retired from competition. Other competitions include the Mustad Scandinavian Open 1994, Elverum, Norway (Gold Medal Wet Fly); The Partridge, 1999 Contest of the Century (First Place CS10/G & Second Place HE2, Salmon Fly Hooks); Patent Patterns [Flyfishing, Western, & Tying Journal, etc.], Portland Oregon (Award of special recognition for steelhead flies 1996; five time winner & 7 time runner up 1992 to 2000). He has received coverage in Wild Steelhead & Salmon magazine, Flytyer magazine, Fish and Fly magazine, Western Flyfishing, Flyfishing magazine, and Northwest Fly Fishing magazine, and some of his patterns can be seen in Steelhead Fly Tying Guide by Kent Helvie, Idaho Blue-ribbon Fly Fishing Guide by John Shewey, Spey Flies & Dee Flies; Their History & Construction by John Shewey, and Patent Patterns by J. Schollmeyer.
Despite all of those accolades, Dr. Burns is very humble about his accomplishments. He would not let me list all of them, but pointed out that he would be more than happy to share any information that could help other fly tiers. Read closely what he has to say:
I really can't recall exactly when my interest in classic flies got started so let's start at the beginning of my tying anything. I learned to tie at about the age of 10 or 12 by reading William Bayard Sturgis book, Fly-tying. My mother, who was teaching some high school home economics courses & such, tried to introduce fly tying at school but gave up & gave me the book; she knew that I loved to fish. I tied her a Silver Ranger at the age of about 13 as a broach pin; it was a very sad affair as I recall, but she still has it. Thus, I started at a very early age a desire to tie beautiful salmon flies. With Sturgis' book I learned that two turns and a half hitch would hold anything (almost) to a hook and make a neat fly; this lesson became the basis for my tying methods in later years.
Sometime about then I obtained a tattered copy of T. E. Pryce-Tannatt's classic book. That original copy of Pryce-Tannatt has long since worn out & been thrown away. By the mid-1970's I had given up on the idea of ever finding materials for salmon flies because those materials had become nearly impossible to find.
My interest in steelhead stayed with me through college; in 1974, I published my first technical paper on feeding by adult steelhead in the spawning stream, because nobody at the University of Idaho believed they fed, but I had data! In 1975, I moved to the state of Washington to work for the Department of Game, that managed steelhead at the time. Having just completed my Ph.D. Early on, in Washington I was heavily involved with shutting down all steelhead fisheries to protect them from the Indian nets among other assaults. The activity earned me a lot of invitations to speak at gatherings of the "sporties" as we called the various fishing clubs. At an early meeting in Seattle, I met Syd Glasso, and saw his "Spey" flies at a raffle/auction. Unfortunately, our interaction was not totally positive because he insisted, as did others, that sport fisheries could not possibly hurt steelhead. I was impressed with his flies though, but I still couldn't put that much effort into tying a fly that was likely to end up on a rock. Mr. Glasso and I never had anything but a strained relationship because of my insistence on closing down all kill fisheries for steelhead.
While in Washington, I gained a respect for Bernie Gobin of the Tulalip tribe, and met his son Steve, who was still very young. I was impressed that these Tulalip people respected the fish far more than some "sporties" and that memory stuck with me until years later.
In 1978, I moved to Idaho to "get away from it all" and work as a fish biologist for the USDA-Forest Service. Here, I ran into other problems and other issues. Disappearing steelhead caught my attention, and I began to work with Idaho Fish and Game to catch steelhead and collect data on the South Fork Salmon River. The large wild B-run fish fascinated me and I began to develop flies that I thought would show proper respect for the fish by the early 1980's; all fish were released then & I didn't care much about losing flies on the small substrate of the South Fork. Somewhere along the line, I ran into a picture of a fly by Steve Gobin & thought, "Wow, that kid must know something about respect from his father to put such effort into fishing flies!" I began to study Glasso's flies, Gobin's and others from books like Combs' and Bates'. The more I studied, the more I was captured by the Scottishness of Spey & Dee flies; I thought that I should "return to my roots" with these flies. I got a reprint of Pryce-Tannatt's book and studied it too. All this studying led to a proliferation of fly patterns that were Spey-like, and Dee-like. Generally, I couldn't put most of them in a real authentic style class so I started calling them Spey flies because people would nod their heads like they understood what I was talking about.
I was never impressed at all with gut eyes, despite Pryce-Tannatt's views, so I start all my fishing flies...well almost all... with steel-eyed irons. I only tie on gut eyed hooks for display, otherwise there is no difference among my display and fishing flies; except, perhaps, I apply even more anal attention to neatness on the display versions. I usually use Alec Jackson's hooks for fishing, because they are sharp, readily available, and pretty. I also tie on Partridge model "N" hooks if I need heavier iron to get down in "heavier" water. If I need even more weight, I go to Partridge's Carrie Steven's streamer hooks, though the color (bronze) of the latter is all wrong for real Spey or Dee flies.
All my "newer" flies start in front of the hook point for three reasons:
With respect to the latter, starting in front of the hook point exposes the tying material to the fish's teeth less. I prefer drab colors of most classic Spey flies over the bright colors like those of the Orange Heron. Somewhere, I read that any color will work for steelhead as long as it's black or purple & I judiciously apply that rule even though it isn't really true. I believe that drab flies usually fish better. However, I do like a bit of "on-off" color like in the ribs of my South Fork Salmon River Spey; I believe that the contrast allows the fly to work against a wider variety of background colors and light conditions.
I use any hackle that I can get but I believe that cock-tail is superior in faster water, and heron is superior in slower water. I always strip half off the cock-tail, but with heron the number of fibers and density lead me to vary whether I strip part of the feather based on the fly I want. Usually, I follow the rule, "If in doubt, thin it out!" I don't like pheasant hackle very much because it is not very durable, but I use it when I can't get legal heron; pheasant doesn't "stand away" from the hook as well in the current either. The latter is also true of marabou, but the action of those feathers in slow water is sometimes worth the tradeoffs.
Action is my only "rule" about function since the fish are not as critical as most fisher persons. To get action, you have to apply the rule that, "Thin is in!" Too much hackle spoils action. Wings also cause action to suffer, but wings on my Spey flies and Dee flies are a concession to tradition; besides, flies with wings still catch fish. Wooly worms would do as well, but that is the difference among levels of respect or aesthetic appreciation. The decision is personal & I certainly would not be critical of anybody who even chose real worms, or gill nets. The only thing I'd add is that if you want to dead drift flies you should choose something that takes less time to tie. Breaking off a Spey or Dee fly on a rock during a dead drift seems like a terrible waste to me. Dead drift wooly worms!
Dr. David Burns, Master Fly Tyer, conservationist, and fly fisherman, is currently enjoying his time in retirement after serving a distinguished career as an educator, a 3 year stint with the Washington Department of Game, and 30 years as a fisheries biologist with the USDA-Forest Service. During that time he has written, published, or presented many professional reports and papers dealing with fisheries science and conservation and has been an active member of several professional organizations.