In San Francisco during the early fifties fly fishing was an important part of the Beat scene. Widespread interest in Buddhism and nature naturally led to Zen Flies. It was admittedly a passing phenomenon—as one angler-poet later explained in City Lights Review: “It got to where ‘the perfect cast’ meant ‘no cast.’ Eventually we just went swimming.” Influences from the Zen Fly period can be traced on into the sixties. For example, the lyric “Fly Jefferson Airplane” was taken from a fishing poem by Richard Brautigan. Then there is the lettering carved deeply into a cliff above Muir Beach: “First there was a fish, then there was no fish, then there was.” But of course the primary and most eloquent record is the remarkable flies (we have included four examples here) that have made their way into the hands of collectors over the years.
zenflies1ZEN BUG

I found this one-of-a-kind fly in a
Salvation Army shop in Hollister in
the early seventies. It was glued into a
little wooden box with the following
words hand-lettered on the inside
of the lid:
     zen bug sits
     go fish


This fly has taken many a patient
angler off the deep end. The Hookless
Hook was meant to catch a “spirit fish.”
As an anonymous twelth-century
Chinese poet wrote: “A fish that can be
caught with the hookless hook can
likely guide us through the gateless
gate. And then who is caught—the
fisherman or the fish?”


This Beat fly is made simply of squirrel
hair embedded in asphalt. It floats
about six inches under the water and
looks like a dead caddis nymph. A
journal entry suggests it was created
from a gob of Interstate 5 on an
over-hot July day near Redding by
poet Lew Welch, who was stranded
while hitchhiking to Mount Shasta.


Although it was tied in San Francisco
in 1955, this legendary fly has been kept
in a monastery in Japan since 1963. It
consists of a single strand of Buddha’s
hair wound around a hook. The black,
seven-inch hair was noticed by poet
Gary Snyder on the back of a dog that
wandered into Vesuvio’s, the North
Beach coffee house. 

Dickson Schneider was born in Texas. At the age of six he hooked his first fish—a six-foot sturgeon—but lost it when big kids dropped boulders on it from the pier. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches art at two local colleges. 

From the forthcoming Every Angler’s Guide to Amazing Lures and Flies: Rare and Forgotten Masterpieces of Fishing by Dickson Schneider. Copyright Dickson Schneider, 1997, reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.