The function and art of fly tying

It was one of those perfectly still, fog-draped mornings on Trout Lake, so tranquil its surface looked as though it might shatter if I put paddle to water. My buddy Jim and I, as we had so many mornings, angled the canoe toward a favorite weed bed and glided to a stop, each of us quickly playing out about 30 feet of fly line.


We were sure it wouldn’t be long. It was a spot we knew well, an exceptionally fishy spot. Yet when my line went tight, there was no holding back, no restraining myself, the excitement too much to bear.

“I can’t believe it,” I cried out.

Jim immediately gave me a sidelong glance. We’d caught many fish here, most of which would dwarf this little rainbow.

“You’re pretty pumped up this morning,” he mused, as I worked the small specimen alongside and adoringly held it up.

“Yeah, but he took my fly,” I exclaimed. Still seeing the look of bewilderment sreading over my friend’s face I figured some clarification was in order.

“I tied this one,” I announced. Though it was a simple concoction, a basic lake leech, it was my first fish on a fly I actually tied myself, and the pride was evident. I knew Jim understood. An avid tyer, he knew the satisfaction of catching something on his own handiwork.

After this, I was hooked. I began seeking out like-minded individuals and spending time with the “Wooly Buggers,” a loose-knit affiliation of both experienced and newly obsessed tyers. I became more adept at the craft and began catching more fish, but knew I’d finally arrived as a “real tyer” a couple years later. It was early spring on the Kenai River and fishing had been quite slow. You could not help but notice, however, that as it warmed up there was some insect life, in this case a few green stone fly nymphs beginning to stir within the river. I didn’t see any fish feeding on them, but if there were some trout around, this was likely what they’d be after.

Promptly upon returning home, I sat at my vise and concocted the best rendition of this small green nymph that my memory could muster.

Unfortunately, when I returned a couple days later, there was no obvious sign of this or any other insect. Not yet completely confident in my tying abilities, I plied the water with all kinds of other flies. No luck.

With nothing left to lose, I decided to at least give my new creation a chance. With no expectations whatsoever I laid this fly into the current and it barely had a chance to sink before something big had snatched it up. And so it went for the next several hours. Not only were very large trout attacking my fly, but with a frenzy I’d only witnessed at the height of the egg-bite in August, when they are voraciously feeding on salmon eggs.

And not only was this on something I had tied, but on something I had specifically created to “match the hatch.” There was no turning back now.

Lee Kuepper, who is a guide with Alaska’s Angling Addiction and a board member of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, began his life as a fly tier much earlier than I did. He was lucky enough to attend a camp when he was still in grade school that focused on fly fishing and included some tying. His first fish on a fly he tied, a bluegill, was at that camp.

“I’ve loved creating my own flies ever since,” he says, although the way he ties and what he looks for has changed drastically over the years.

“It’s really been an evolution of sorts,” he says. “At first all my flies had to look extremely realistic or beautiful. Now it’s more about design, the dynamics of how they look, how they behave, in the water.”

To accomplish this, he even uses a “swim tank” to experiment with different materials.

“A lot of my designs have been extremely simplified. Today the art form for me is in finding the movement and how to make it look a certain way, make it more realistic in the water. It’s like looking at aerodynamics,” he says, comparing his fly tying to designing a high tech car or airplane. “I’m always experimenting, learning,” he says.

“That’s what makes it so much fun and such a challenge, and why I keep at it”


Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas,” will be published later this year.


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