Float High and Dry in High Mountain Country or Anywhere Else
When my friend and coworker, Mark Van Patten, gifted me with a made-to-order fly rod in honor of my retirement a couple of years ago, I was honored and a little intimidated. Mark comes from a long line of fly-fishers and began throwing dry flies not long after taking his first steps. He had his own television show, The Tying Bench, for years. Fly-casting is so deeply etched in his muscle memory, I suspect he could cast in a coma.
Naturally, I feel obliged to “do right” by this special present. I got the perfect opportunity earlier this summer when a friend invited me on a backpack trip to catch golden trout in the Beartooth Mountains of southwestern Montana. The fish were biting when I got there, and we proceeded to wear them out on dry flies. Unfortunately, I also was wearing out my flies with the many false casts necessary to keep them dry. Watching me tie on a third fly, one of my companions considerately asked if I had any “floatant.”
“Any what?” I asked, like the fly-fishing novice that I am. Chris made his way over to me and produced a tiny plastic bottle from which he dispensed a drop of clear fluid onto my fly. The mysterious potion rendered my fly unsinkable for the next half hour.
For those of you who already are initiated in the ways of the Elk-Hair Caddis and Parachute Adams, please feel free to have a good laugh at the expense of the newbie. For the rest of you, here’s a helpful bit of information about floatant. It’s a compound of two petroleum products designed to keep dry flies from absorbing water, thus becoming wet flies. The compound typically includes a waxy substance that coats the fly and a lighter component that is liquid at air temperature and serves as a carrier for waxy stuff, sort of like paint thinner is a carrier for the oil and pigment in house paint. Like paint thinner, the light, fluid component of floatant quickly evaporates, depositing the waxy part on the fly. I made a mental note to buy some of this goop for future trips.
When I got home, I fired up my computer, fully intending to send Amazon.com a bit more of my hard-earned green in exchange for floatant. Then my inner Scrooge McDuck asserted himself. There’s a YouTube video for everything else under the sun. Surely someone had posted one about how to make your own fly floatant. I googled it, and came up with dozens of hits. Visiting several of these pages made it clear that anyone can make fly floatant if they have access to two ingredients – white gas and paraffin. Since I own a Coleman camp stove – the old kind with a refillable tank – and since my wife uses paraffin for canning jelly, I had everything needed, and I proceeded to mix up a batch.
Here’s how I did it. I thoroughly dried an aluminum water bottle with a tight-fitting stopper and poured in about half a cup of white gas. Next, I used a kitchen grater to shave very fine curls of paraffin onto a piece of paper. I made a LOT of shavings – more than enough loose shavings to fill a measuring cup. Using the paper as a funnel, I poured half the shavings into the water bottle, shook it up, put the bottle inside a clear plastic bag and put the whole thing on a piece of black plastic in full sun on my deck. After an hour or so the bottle was almost too hot to hold. I took it out, shook it again and peered down into the bottle to see if all the paraffin was dissolved. It was, so I dumped the rest of the paraffin shavings into the bottle and repeated the process. The next check revealed kind of a slushy mixture, so I added more white gas, let it warm up one more time and came up with a thick, clear fluid.
I was reasonably confident that this would do the trick, but I needed some means of dispensing it. I remembered a bottle of eye drops in the medicine cabinet. I hadn’t used the stuff in years, so I pulled out the stopper, drained and dried the inside with tissue paper and poured some of my home-made floatant into it. After letting it come to room temperature, I squeezed a little onto a fly, worked it in with my fingers and after a few seconds dropped it into a glass of water. It floated like a cork.
I have since used the stuff in the field and it works great. I added a little more white gas after an early-morning trip when it was cool enough to turn my home-made floatant slushy again. I can’t emphasize enough the approximate nature of the measurements given above. I didn’t measure anything. If you try this, keep adjusting the mixture until all the paraffin is dissolved, then test its fluidity by putting it in the refrigerator. If it gets too thick to squeeze out of your chosen dispenser, add more white gas.
The DIY sites I visited recommended heating the gas-paraffin mixture in a hot water bath. I’m sure that works, too. I shouldn’t need to say this, but if you use a water bath please heat the water and remove it from your kitchen range, hot plate or whatever before bringing the gas-paraffin mixture anywhere near it. We don’t want anyone setting themselves on fire just to save a few bucks on floatant.
My cost for the project was zero. I had everything I needed to make enough for 10 lifetimes. Not counting time waiting for the sun to heat the bottle, I’d say I spent half an hour on the project. Compare that with $5 to $12 for a little bottle from commercial suppliers.