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Art on the Fly: Fly-tying brings fly-fishing full circle

Friday, 01 February 2013 00:00

feat_flytyingFish tales have been recorded for perpetuity since at least 200 A.D. when the Roman author Claudius Aelianus penned On the Nature of Animals.

In the book, Aelianus describes what he calls the Macedonian way of catching fish. It is, by most accounts, the first written record of fly tying and fly-fishing.

Aelianus describes how local fishermen catch fish from the river Astraeus, “These fish feed upon a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river.” He notes that the fishermen don’t catch this fly and use it for bait.

“They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax,” Aelianus writes. “Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”

This classic, or is that classical, example is what Gary Mann, owner of Waynesville Fly Shop in Waynesville, N.C., and the rest of today’s fly-tying fishermen call “matching the hatch.” Matching the hatch means tying and/or fishing the fly or flies that represent the aquatic insects or other prey species that would be available at a particular time. Mann said the timing of hatches have been well documented by fishermen over the years, so fly-tiers in the Smokies know that early spring is the time for quill gordons and March browns, and summer means sulphurs, yellow Sally and terrestrials like the green inchworm. Orange Palmers and stoneflies are good fall flies, and winter is the time for blue-winged olives.

Flies are generally lumped into two groups: imitators and attractors. The imitators mimic a particular food source like a caddis fly or a green inchworm. Attractors, on the other hand, don’t mimic a particular species but rather a type of prey. Mann noted that the Palmer is a renowned attractor created and fished primarily in the Smokies.

“The Palmer doesn’t imitate any one bug, rather, it is similar to a variety of bugs and by changing the color from yellow in the spring, to green in the summer and to orange in the fall, it’s a productive fly that can be fished year round,” Mann said.

Recreating nature accurately enough to attract nature is a combination of art and science. Reba Brinkman is program director and fly-fishing instructor at Hunter Banks Company, a full service fly-fishing retailer in Asheville, N.C., When she’s not teaching or lining up outstanding programs for the fly fishing community, she spends her time bio-monitoring area streams for water quality. Brinkman said the bio-monitoring has really turned her on to nymph tying.

“I spend a lot of time looking at bugs underwater, and sometimes I’ll turn a rock and see a bug and think ‘I’ve got to take this to the vise,” she said.

For many, the highest pinnacle of art is when beauty, form, and function come together in a single object. The well-tied fly embodies these attributes. When one takes an Adams fly out of the vise grip and its stiff hackles are the perfect color and positioned just so as to make the fly dance on the water, when one casts that creation a few feet upstream so it rides upright on the current and is inhaled with gusto by a feeding trout, one knows it’s a work of art.

Jeff Kennedy is an industrial designer and a fly fisher in Illinois with a studio near the shores of the Fox River. When Kennedy began tying flies, he saw connections between the designs he worked on for profit and the flies he worked on for pleasure. The key for Kennedy was proportion. He approached his newfound passion much in the same way a field guide illustrator would. He would study a fly and then produce a color drawing, focusing on capturing the fly’s details. Kennedy liked the creative stimulation and challenged himself to produce a print a day for 365 days, working in watercolor and gouache. That was in 2008, and in early 2009, he published Drawing Flies 365. American Angler magazine dubbed Jeff “Lord of the Flies.” Stonefly Vineyards—“founded on a passion for fly fishing and winemaking”—contracted Kennedy to provide labels for some of its wines. As of 2012, both the book and the labels are being reprinted. Kennedy creates the illustrations because he loves doing it, and he fishes for the same reason.

“It’s the coolest thing to tie a fly, toss it out there, and be hooked up,” he said.

Pat Cohen lives in upstate New York and has a degree in “fine art.” He said that when he was first introduced to fly-fishing he left a lot of flies hanging in trees and bushes. He thought, “I can make my own.”

Once he began to tie his own flies he found that his art training gave him a different perspective. Besides creating flies for fish—Cohen is a commercial tier—he could create works of art; flies that people would find interesting.

“When you’re creating art, you have a little more freedom, you don’t have to worry about how the fly is going to lie in the water or if it mimics some kind of prey, you’re trying to create something people will be drawn to,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that once he found the artistic outlet, he was determined to prove that deer-hair flies (the type he ties in upstate New York) could hold their own against traditional feather flies.

As artists, it’s easy to get lost working with a beautiful object, adapting it to the particular medium at hand and becoming less concerned about whether or not it will catch a fish but more about whether or not it showcases the intricacies and beauty of the piece.

Cohen already knows his flies catch fish, but Katheryn Napier’s creations aren’t designed for the rod and reel. Napier, who is a hypnotherapist in Florida, never got formal lessons but she watched her grandpa in Harlan, Ky., tie flies and carve lures from wood, and her father also carved lures from wood. Napier spends each April through October in a cabin in the woods near Murphy, N.C., tying flies that are nearly a foot in length and bedecked with exotic, molted feathers she gets from a zoo in Sanford, Fla. It takes her about three hours just to sculpt the hook for one of the giant flies.

Napier models a lot of salmon streamers because they are big and colorful, but she also has a number of trout fly sculptures. Though she works in other mediums, her flies were always attention getters during art shows, often leading to commissions for particular patterns.

While the art of the fly entices creators and collectors, not all fly fishers are fly-tiers.

“One of my top guides doesn’t tie at all,” Mann said. “He’s all about being in the water, catching fish.”

There is little doubt that reading the water, choosing the right fly, learning to cast and learning how to present the fly is an art in itself. But for many fly fishers the art of tying is what brings the sport full circle.

“I’ve always been good with my hands and I find that catching fish on something I made just brings me one step closer to a total fishing experience,” Mann said.

— By Don Hendershot

Types of flies:

Flies are loosely categorized under two headings:

Imitators – Imitators mimic a particular prey, like a caddis fly or a crayfish or an inchworm.
Attractors – Attractors don’t imitate a particular species but rather a type of prey like insects, or baitfish or nymphs.

Kinds of flies:

Dry flies – designed to sit on top of the water, usually designed with stiff hackles

Wet flies – designed to land and sink below the water, perhaps mimicking an insect that lays its eggs underwater

Nymph - a wet fly that mimics the underwater life stage of certain insects

Streamers – designed to mimic underwater prey, usually baitfish but also crayfish, leeches, etc.

Terrestrials - mimic land-based prey that might accidentally wind up in the water like green inchworms

Tying an olive wooly bugger


Tying vise – tool that holds the hook steady so tying materials can be placed on it.

Thread bobbin – holds thread for wrapping material on hook.

Fly tying scissors – small, sharp, sturdy scissors for trimming fly tying materials.


Hook – size 6 to 8, size 6 used for demonstration

Bead – for the head


Hackle – generally neck feathers of domestic fowl, saddle color used for demonstration

Marabou – soft feathers (generally from the posterior of a turkey) often dyed, olive color used for demonstration

Chenille – used for the body

Wire – copper wire to hold the hackle in place


Put the bead on the hook and place hook in vise.

Wrap the shank of the hook with thread, just enough for a base to tie the materials on.

Clip a length of marabou equal to the length of hook shaft. Place it along the hook – the tip of the feather pointing away from the eye of the hook. Tie it down with a few wraps of thread.

Tie-in a length of gold wire along the shaft of the hook, leave a couple of inches for wrapping the hackle. You can trim it later.

Measure a piece of hackle the length of the shaft. Attach it like the marabou with feather tip pointing away from eye of the hook.

Strip the chenille and tie-in a length equal to the shaft of the hook.

Material is on the hook ready to be tied. Materials are tied in a reverse order from how they were put on the hook.

Tie the chenille along the shank of the hook for body. Use the thread bobbin and tie the chenille from back to the front (eye of hook). After the chenille is tied, wrap a few wraps of thread back along the shank of the hook to allow for subsequent tying from the rear towards the eye of the hook.

After the chenille is tied, “Palmer” the hackle around the chenille and shank of the hook. “Palmering” is wrapping the feather around the shaft. Always wrap and/or Palmer away from yourself. 

Next wrap the copper wire around the hackle, working it through the feather being sure not to mat the hackle down.

Next tie everything securely in place with the thread, once again being careful not to mat the hackle. At the end, make a couple of loops or half hitches behind the bead to knot everything. The final product is an olive wooly bugger.

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