The craft of fly tying is an honored one among fishermen, regarded highly for its emphasis on skill, patience, and knowledge. It is also an ancient practice, tracing its roots back 5000 years to African fishermen who used handmade bone hooks camouflaged by pieces of wool to resemble insects. English fishermen advanced the art form considerably between the 15th and 19th centuries, and brought many of their fly-tying secrets with them when they colonized the New World. Flies were not specifically designed with American insects and fish in mind, however, until Theodore Gordon made his mark as the Father of American Fly Tying in the early 1900s.
The craft has grown steadily in popularity since that time, attracting fly casting fishermen who enjoy both the rewards of constructing their own flies and the success they find in the streams while using them. Newcomers to the sport, as well as those who are no longer interested in using more expensive store bought flies, are turning to their own creative imaginations to design and build their own flies, particularly during the long winter months. Today these craftsmen number more than 6,000 in the United States.
Local fishermen are gaining expertise in fly tying through a seven week course sponsored by the Saco River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national fishing organization dedicated to the preservation of cold water fishing and the prevention of the careless waste of natural resources. Among the instructors leading the course are Dick Surette, editor and publisher of Fly Tyer Quarterly, and Dick Stewart, author of the Universal Fly Tying Guide,said to be the best selling book on the subject in the country at the moment. Considered by many to be the leading experts on fly tying in the Northeast, both men are lifelong fishermen who have mastered the trick of combining their hobbies with their vocations -- Surette as editor of the fishing magazine headquartered in North Conway, and Stewart as the owner of the North Country Angler Shop, also in North Conway. Through the course - taught at the North Conway Community Center on Tuesday evenings - and their jobs, both men have substantially added to the knowledge of fly fishing held by fishermen throughout the country.
"You learn how to tie flies and fly fish one of two ways -- either from watching an expert, or by reading books," Surette replied when asked what methods are best for learning the craft. A former Bartlett schoolteacher, he noted that 75 to 80 percent of his own knowledge about the subject was acquired through reading various books over the past 25-30 years. Often, there aren't many experts around whom you can watch to learn, so reading is the only alternative. The important point, though, is to keep learning -- the more knowledge you have about such things as entomology, insect emergence patterns in local rivers, and fish behavior, the more successful a fly fisherman you'll be. A beginner can do well by accident, but it's like shooting golf -- you've got to develop your skills and practice to be consistently successful."
Stewart stressed that the emphasis on refining and expanding upon those skills constitutes a great deal of fly tying and fishing's appeal. "There's a saying that 10 percent of fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish ---Fly fishermen are among the elite 10 percent. They're what you could call the 'poets of the outdoors' in that the sport requires you to be sensitively aware of and in communion with the environment," Stewart stated, explaining that the fly tying process is in essence designed to produce an object which simulates nature. When used properly, he noted, the fishermen become part of nature itself, "It's very challenging and rewarding to both create the fly, and then have the knowledge and sensitivity once you're out there in the stream to be able to choose the appropriate fly for the almost invisible process taking place beneath the surface with the fish and river conditions. You've got to be thinking all the time, and learning as well."
Students participating in the course at the Community Center learn 95 percent of the basics of fly tying through books and on individual instruction. The remaining five percent is the most difficult aspect to acquire. "The toughest part is learned through experience -- using your creativity to devise successful fly patterns and to determine what fly is best suited for the fish you're going for and the conditions of the day. When you're successful in that respect, that's when you experience the real satisfaction and reward of fly tying and fishing," Surette commented, noting that those rewards are within reach of anyone with a genuine interest in learning. "If you can tie your shoes, you can learn to tie flies. Those who pick it up quickly rely on their skills and dexterity; others who need more practice, use patience. Both in time receive enjoyment and satisfaction, however, and there's not much more that you could ask for."
Aside from the rewards received from catching trout and salmon using your own handmade fly, the greatest reason for learning the craft is to save money. the homemade fly can be created from a variety of materials for a few cents in comparison to the 75 cents - $1.50 charged for commercially made models. A typical fisherman can be expected to go through 15 flies in one day of fishing, a process which can make a day's outing far too costly for a person using store-bought models. The alternative is to use imaginative everyday materials or more exotic items and make your own flies, a choice preferred by Surette.
Demonstrating his technique for tying a fly for the fishermen gathered at the workshop, Surette noted that there are two essential qualities which characterize a successful fly -- it should catch fish, and secondly, it should hold together and be durable. Other factors include neatness, tightness, and the fly's proportion in relation to its hook size, making sure that it is neither overdressed or under dressed. Flies may be made to be realistic imitations of actual insects, or designed with an impressionistic style. "Any fly will catch a given fish under the right circumstances -- there are thousands upon thousands of designs which at one time or another have been successful. There are standards, however, which have been found to be overwhelmingly successful in the past, so why not use them?" he stated while placing a fish hook into a table vice as the first step in the fly tying process.
According to Surette, the vice is the most important tool used by a fly tyer. A good vise holds a hook securely so that it won't move when it is being tied and transformed into the imitation fly, The hook - a most integral part of the fly itself since it forms the fly's backbone - is placed in the vice so that the hook eye and straight portion of the hook extend outward. A good pair of scissors with fine points for trimming and large finger holes is also high on the list of necessary fly tying equipment. Hackle pliers capable of grasping the small feathers which serve as the fluffy part of an imitation fly's front are third on the list of tools, followed by a small needle for applying glue to heads of flies and picking out fur-dubbed bodies. A bobbin holds the thread used to bind the fly together, serving as a third hand to apply tension while the fly is bound.
Fly tyers used an endless variety of materials for the flies, some extremely expensive while others are picked up at church bazaars, auctions, and through general house rummaging. Surette recommends that tyers even use the fur of animals which have been killed while crossing a highway. Imagination and creativity are the only limiting factors; whether one used natural goods or the increasingly popular synthetic materials, the possibilities are endless and constitute part of the fun of fly tying.
Surette and Stewart referred to the lfy tyng process as the wintertime activity of the summer season, the glorious period of the year that all fishermen long for. Clipping the wings and hackles of an Adams Fly - a versatile "dry" fly which floats on top of the water and resemles many basic Mayflies in contrast to "wet" lfies which are designed to sink - Surette commented that the winteritme hours spent studying entomology and tying new lies are just as enjoyable as those spent fishing knee-deep in the rivers of the North Country in spring and summer.
"It's just as rewarding and productive in many ways. The biggest kick I get out of it is knowing that it's a continual process of learning and discovery, as well as knowing that I can use just about any material for a fly and have it work if I do it right. It's self-satisfying to know that with a little creativity and thought, you'll never be stumped for colors, materials, and design. It goes hand-in-hand with the joy you experience when fishing."