REMEMBERING JOHN WARREN DUNCAN (1948-2007)
"Dunc" as his close friends used to call him, was born in Cambelton, New Brunswick, Canada, on June 24, 1948. You will not find out much about him if you search for his name on the internet. And even if you do, you will never know him the way I did. His face was slightly rounded, with slight puffed cheeks and a perpetual half-smile under his scruffy mustache. When he spoke, the first few words were coupled with an audible breath, like inhaling a puff of cigarette smoke and talking at the same time. He had an authoritative provincial accent and deliberate delivery that made you stop talking until he was through. His laugh was genuine and infectious and he would always look you straight in the eye. He was a high-speed thinker and believe me, you would not have stood a chance besting Warren in a disagreement on many subjects.
I met Warren Duncan approximately twenty-five years ago after moving from New York to eastern Massachusetts. I was on my way west, so how I got further east from where I started is a story that gives me dyspepsia (heartburn). I can not remember exactly who introduced us: it was either Bill Costello, one time dog breeder, salmon fly tier, hospital administrator of Massachusetts General - the man who introduced me to wild turkey manhattans, or it was that curmudgeon fly shop entrepreneur -Bill Hunter, who despite his grave attitude to mostly everyone else in the world, was most helpful to Dunc's fly tying genesis and to others, including Ron Alcott, Bob Veverka, Mike Radencich, and other excellent fly tying enthusiasts who have gone on to write their own books on fly tying. Our sport needs more Bill Hunters, and soon, if it is to survive.
I knew at our first meeting that Dunc had a remarkable talent for either commercial fly dressing or stand-up comedy. He was quite at ease and adept at either. When he tied at the vice, reciting Robert Service poetry or telling hysterical jokes in rapid secession, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, sipping four fingers of rye (neat) in one hand, and the bobbin moving simultaneously at light speed in the other, it reminded one more of an off-Broadway show than a fly-tying demonstration. Warren Duncan was the fastest and most orderly fly dresser I have ever seen in my life, and I would stake my reputation that he was probably the fastest fly tier that ever lived. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of being the judge at a speed fly tying match at the Miramichi Salmon Museum in Doaktown, New Brunswick, involving some of the best hair-wing fly dressers on the east coast, that is, those who dared to enter the competition. The fly was a Rusty Rat. Needless to say, Duncan won by an extraordinary time of 1 minute 13 seconds and the fly was perfection: I know, because as judge I appropriated the fly. Yes, the tiers were allowed to pre-prep.
One expects some precise tying in the commercial dry fly and wet fly market but to turn out tens-of-thousands of multiple stage hair-wing salmon flies that are not only perfect examples of neatness and order, but precise silhouettes of each other, is an astonishing example of accuracy on a super-human level. Taken into account that Dunc performed this achievement for over 25 years and that this was his hobby, in my judgment should earn him a place in recorded history.
When I first met Dunc on his home turf, he was brimming with uninhibited enthusiasm. His eat, drink and be merry approach to life was unrestrained and after a few years of witnessing personally his extremes I came to realize, that if anyone was going to give up the ghost due to their youthful indiscretions well, it was he. Nevertheless, if he gave you his word that he'd do something, you had better believe that he would keep it with the same natural eagerness.
Dunc was a man who had many "firsts" to his credit. For example, he was the first and probably only man in Canadian history to receive three formal speeding violations on the same day, on the same road, and by the same police officer. I know, because I was present for the last two tickets: One for speeding on the way to Newcastle to pick up groceries and one for speeding on the way back. The first ticket was issued earlier that day.
We fished together at least once a year during the summer (bright salmon), usually on the Miramichi, and occasionally on the St. John. Everyone wanted to fish with Warren, his personality was so appealing that anytime he showed up he attracted a crowd. I wonder if he really knew how much he was admired.
Warren operated a spring salmon fishing camp for a number of years and successfully entertained many with great food, laughter, and good fishing. His lobster feed dinners were an orgy of epicurean wonder that started by filling the bed of a half- ton pick-up truck more then half way with these spiny crustaceans. I attended more than a few dinners that provided at least 15 lobsters per person. We never ate the claws; they were saved for the finest lobster stew and lobster bisque you ever dreamed about later in the week. If you think anyone attended his camp only to fish, you would be mistaken. There were times that I just visited his camp for dinner and left with the sides of my mouth hurting so much from laughter, I thanked heaven I was staying elsewhere. The craziest Marx Brothers film was timid by comparison to a night at Dunc's
Warren ranked the magnitude of his friends and acquaintances by placing their photograph or flies in specific locations in his shop in St John. I believe my photograph hung proudly in the bathroom above and behind the toilet, somewhere between Justice John Turnbull and Father Walter Lynch.
One of the things I looked forward to was a bi-monthly phone call from Warren. He regularly called to reorder Journals and we always got side-tracked telling new jokes the filthier the better. Ingrid, my better half, would often go joke for joke with Dunc, holding her own. Regular conversations usually lasted for over an hour with the occasional call lasting over two hours. I can never remember either of us at a loss for words, or for that matter in over 20 years, ever repeating a joke or topic of conversation.
Where jokes and stories were often repeated was at the infamous Costello guides and fly tiers dinner held at leat twice a year at his residence on Cape Cod. In attendance were some of the best fly fishing guides on the Cape including several celebrity angling writers and fresh and saltwater fly tiers of the day. Other than Mary Costello's lobster newburg, aged to perfection sirloin angus steaks, crab cakes, meat pies, strawberry short cake and home-made apple pie, the main attraction at these affairs was you guessed it Warren Duncan. Dunc often timed his appearance at Costello's to coincide with his standing-room-only tying demonstrations and lessons at Hunters Fly Shop in N.H. as well as his personal fly-order deliveries to LL Bean in Maine and I'll bet that the tight-fisted, penny-pinching accounts payable department at Bean still owe Dunc money. There were just as many occasions when Warren showed up at the Costello's with no ulterior destination, only to return a day later to St. John, N.B. Costello would introduce Dunc to the group and then encourage him to recite Robert Service poems and tell jokes. Each year maybe there would be one or two new people so the rest of us had to endure some of the same material, but there would always be a few new poems and funny stories. After 30 minutes of reciting prose without missing a verse and to the amusement of the crowd, Costello would egg-on Warren to tie a few flies in the basement tying room. The man was a saint to put up with Costello. But that was Dunc. There was no "no" in his vocabulary, when it came to pleasing his friends.
For several years Warren teamed up with the late great Alan Bramley, one time professional rugby player and owner of the Partridge Hook Company, in Reddtich, England. Warren and Alan, supported by Partridge, selected an international representation of anglers and tiers to tour the continent and demonstrate the best of our sport. While a few of the representatives only demonstrated reprehensible behavior, Warren achieved the awe and respect in every European country visited. He was indeed the toast of the fly-tying world, a genuine up-and-coming international angling and tying celebrity. Dunc started appearing frequently on Canadian television and radio he was on his way.
At the trade shows I often watched Warren sit patiently and courteously listening to everyone and anyone who had a question or idea, no matter how correct or outrageous, whether you were a professional athlete or you washed dishes. He would always offer a helpful word of encouragement and his views were usually right-on.
In the last few years, Dunc went on a diet, lost 75 lbs, quit smoking, reduced his drinking and retired in 2004 from his job as an Occupational Supervisor at the Irving Oil Company after 32 years. He was found Saturday, February 10, 2007 by a customer, slumped over his fly tying table, in his fly shop, bobbin still in hand, unfinished fly still in the vice, the fresh scent of tying varnish in the air they said it was a massive heart attack.
We will never be able to measure the loss of his genius at the vice except through the flies he left us and through the memories of friends and family. He is survived by his wife of 36 years Anne, his son John and daughters Catherine and Christine, his sister Joan and grandson Duncan.
I have heard rumors of perhaps his friends and family teaming up to write a book about Dunc I hope they do.
-- Paul Schmookler
NOTE: Art of Angling Journal published a profile on Warren Duncan in 2004, just prior to his retirement. It is located in Volume 2 Issue 4, pages 130-152.
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