American Fly Fishing

By Rockwell Hammond

As children, we all looked up to heroes. Mine were Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Chuck Yeager, and John Glenn. When I became an adult I continued to have heroes, but then they were associated with my passion for fly fishing. They emanated from books on steelhead fishing and included legendary figures Ken McLeod, Al Knudson, Syd Glasso, and others. In one of the books, I was captivated by a photograph of a gentleman with a collie. It was the perfect composition, everything in order: Spey rod, wading staff, and the man sitting with not a speck of dirt on him or the dog. That gentleman was Harry Lemire.
   I did not know Lemire, but knew of his important contributions to the sport of steelhead fly fishing. Here was a man who developed the first steelhead dry fly specifically designed to be waked, the Grease Liner. That was in 1962, and today it is still a standard and a model on which many floating patterns are based. Lemire continued to develop numerous steelhead patterns, such as the Thompson River Caddis and others that most of us carry in our fly boxes.
   His early adoption of the two-handed rod for steelheading was tremendously influential. Back in the 1980s he returned from a trip to the British Isles with a Grant Vibration rod. He showed the rod to his friend Jimmy Green, at Sage Manufacturing, and encouraged him to develop two-handers for steelhead. Lemire tested many early versions and became a major player in what has become a revolution in fly rods around the globe. He also provided considerable input into the early fly lines needed for two-handed rods and the diversity of casts they offered anglers. Even before Spey rods, he was customizing lines, primarily sinking-tip lines, and influencing new designs so badly needed by steelheaders.
   Maybe Lemire’s most recognized achievement was the elegant salmon flies he tied in-hand. One Christmas, his wife, Marlene, gave him a copy of T. E. Pryce-Tannatt’s classic tome, How to Dress Salmon Flies, starting him on a journey that may have been the most satisfying of his angling life. Beautifully tied feathered-wing salmon flies flowed from his fingers; they were so expertly rendered that few tiers can match them, even using a vise. Always generous, Lemire contributed many of these flies to worthy fundraisers, where they brought in more than $1,000 per fly, a lofty price tag that is more a statement about the quality of the man himself than about the perfection of his flies.
   Lemire was the consummate gentleman angler. He loved to fish, and whether on a steelhead river where he was easily recognized, on the ocean salt in pursuit of silver salmon, or on a British Columbia trout lake, he caught fish. He was a serious student of fly fishing, but there was a relaxed nature and approach to his fishing that made him the most enjoyable of company.
   Lemire became my idol, not just for his tremendous skills in angling and tying, but because of his very nature. I never thought I would meet him, but in early 2000 my fishing partner became ill and longed for something to get himself out of his funk. He told me he wanted to tie elegant steelhead flies. I cautioned him, “This could be dangerous—are you sure you want to make the commitment of time and money and possibly become immersed in an obsession?”
   He said yes, so we joined the Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild, based in Seattle. To my surprise, Lemire was an active member. At first, he seemed a little aloof, probably a result of too much overeager schmoozing on my part. I was simply overwhelmed by the beautiful flies he was tying in-hand, by his attention to detail and the planning he put into each pattern. I loved watching him tie. He just had a knack for dressing intricate feather-wing salmon flies. It appeared I would have to prove I was serious about tying salmon flies before he would be willing to spend time critiquing my flies and offering sage advice. I became determined to tie elegant salmon and steelhead flies and prove it to him. He willingly became my mentor.
   Just a few years ago, at a fly-tying show in Oregon, he tied 17 salmon flies in two days. I tied two. He challenged me to get better organized, one of the many bits of advice he offered that dramatically elevated the quality of my flies. I remember once sitting with him in the parking lot of Swede’s Fly Shop, then located in Woodinville, Washington. For two and a half hours we sat talking about salmon and steelhead flies and about how to tie elegant flies that will catch fish. I asked questions and Lemire humbly but convincingly provided answers. He motivated, taught, and challenged.
   When negotiating with him, one always seemed to come out on the short end of the deal. On one occasion the club photographed Marvin Nolte’s Grainger Fly series for its library. We spent an entire evening photographing Nolte’s 300-plus flies. Lemire said he would like a copy. I said, “Of course, I will make a copy for you.”
   It was just automatic for us to say yes when he asked for something. In this case, however, the $700 cost to produce the copies was too much and I told him so. He rethought his request and brought me a plastic box of steelhead flies. He knew he had me. In the box were a Black Diamond, two used prawn patterns, one used and one unused sculpin, a Golden Edge Orange, and a Thompson River Caddis with the shank bent at 90 degrees to the side.
   “What is this?” I asked, pointing at the bent hook. He smiled and answered, “Well, I landed a great fish on that fly with the shank bent just as you see it.”
   I realized that his gift was not the fly, but the story behind it. To this day it is my favorite fly,
a treasure. 
   Three years ago a few members of the Washington Steelhead Flyfishers and Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild convinced Lemire to return to the Kispiox, a river he had not fished for many years. We had a great time. I was fortunate to float him down the river while he taught me the nuances of the Kispiox. I treasure that day and the one-on-one time spent together. The following year we went north again. Unfortunately, I became ill, and it was Lemire who came to the rescue, unselfishly giving up his trip to drive me home to Washington. In September of 2011, we again fished together on what would be his last day on the river. I got a steelhead on his Thompson River Caddis, we enjoyed great conversation, and it was a wonderful day that turned out to be very meaningful for both of us.
   For all the respect and acclaim Lemire justifiably received as a fly tier and angler, it was the character of the man that set him apart and made him revered by so many. He was generous with his time and talents, an angler who gave back to the sport he loved; he was positive and upbeat, and humble in the face of his grand status in the sport. In the wonderful world of steelhead fly fishing, Harry Lemire was an idol
to many.


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