Fit to be tied: Start with the basics, then take it wherever you want

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010

The details of the first fly Brian Richards tied without a pattern are still vivid more than a decade later.

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Photo By Tony Lewis
Photo By Tony Lewis
Brian Richards ties a Black Wooly Bugger.

He was 13 at the time, living in Utah. An avid flyfisher, he had been tying his own flies for several years. On this particular day, he was honing his fishing skills by reading a book about insects.

With the information fresh in his head, Richards walked to a nearby trout stream, turned over some stones and discovered several rice-size insects crawling on the undersides.

"I had no idea what they were," Richards says, recalling the memory as he sits at a fly-tying bench, winding black feathers around a hook.

He plucked the insects off the rocks, dropped them in a jar and raced home to consult his entomology book. Caddis larva, favorite food of trout.

Fed by the excitement of youth and discovery, Richards retrieved his fly tying equipment. Using his jarred specimens as a guide, he tied some flies to match his find. Back to the creek he went, this time armed with a fly rod and his handmade version of trout food.

"Immediately I caught about three or four fish," Richards recounts.

Now 26 years old, catching fish on flies he makes with his own hands is still a thrill. A couple times a month, especially now that winter has set in, Richards sits in front of his vise to create the flies of future fish stories. Wet flies, dry flies, salmon flies, trout flies. Flies that are as humble as a streamside fish shack or as ostentatious as the Las Vegas Strip. He has fun creating them all.

"What's cool is when you can come up with your own color combination or unique design and go out and catch fish with it," he says.

Richards does not pretend to be an expert fly tier. Several of his friends are much better than him, he admits, especially when it comes to tying the small, delicate flies that float on top of the water. But that's one of the great things about tying flies as a hobby, he says. You don't need to be an expert to crank out flies that catch fish. And often the homemade versions can be more productive than the purchased ones.

Take the coho fly, the fly of choice for many red salmon anglers.

"That's just a bunch of bucktail tied to a hook," Richards says.

The problem with many of the commercially tied coho flies is that the hooks are often dull.

"Plus, if you tie them more sparse than the regular cohos you catch more fish," he promises.

Then there's the Richards Special, concocted by a 15-year-old Utah boy. It's a little more elaborate than the coho fly, but not by much. Take a hook, add some white hair for a tail, wrap the shank of the hook with black thread and gold wire and finish with a black feather, known as hackle, spun near the eye of the hook. That's it.

"I just caught a ton of brook trout and cutthroat trout with that fly," Richards says. "It's cool to come up with those real elaborate (patterns), but the basic ones often do just as well."

Even the most basic fly requires a small investment in equipment and supplies. A quick search of the Internet finds a Cabela's starter kit on sale for about $40. The kit comes complete with vise, scissors, bobbin, thread, hooks and other equipment and materials a beginner needs to tie an assortment of flies, including several that are commonly used on the Kenai Peninsula.

Like any hobby, fly tying has room for growth beyond the starter kit. A more serious tier can spend $250 or more on a vise alone. And the variety of materials available is almost endless. Many local stores that sell fishing gear also stock fly tying materials.

"Once you've got the basics, from there it's wherever you want to take it," says Richards.

Creative anglers are on the lookout for their own source of materials -- feathers collected on a duck hunt, hair from a moose hide, fur from the family dog, tinsel from the Christmas tree. In Utah, Richards had a neighbor who collected the locks of his daughter's hair and tied them on a hook.

"They were actually pretty effective," Richards remembers.

Plenty of books and Internet sites are available to guide fly tiers, introducing new patterns and illustrating production with step-by-step instruction. However, Richards recommends a fly tying class for beginners. He got a kit for his birthday when he was in fourth grade and tied flies for several years, not knowing how to properly do some of the basics, before finally taking a class.

"Just being able to sit down for an hour or two with someone really helps," he advises. "Once you learn the basics, you can essentially look at a fly and figure out how it's put together. After that, it's just a matter of practice."

"It doesn't take too much practice and you can crank out a bunch of wooly buggers and catch fish any day of the week," he says.

Fly tiers shouldn't expect to save money with their new hobby, especially when time is factored in, Richards says. When he's at his best and everything is set up, he can tie a simple fly in about five minutes. But some flies take significantly longer. He's not aware of anyone locally who ties flies commercially. As owner of Wilderness Way, Richards buys his flies from an out-of-state supplier. It's not even worth it to him to sell his own flies at the store.

After 16 years of making his own flies, fly tying is an integral part of fishing for Richards. He packs a portable fly vise and survivor's kit of fly-tying equipment and material on extended fishing trips. Sitting around a campfire, he likes to restock the party's fly box with his own hand, especially if a trip to the fly shop is not practical.

"If you find a fly that works and you've only got one of them, you don't want three guys fighting over it," he says.

Tony Lewis is a freelance writer and avid fisherman who lives in Kenai.

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Tight Lines appears on the third Thursday of the month through the winter, and will return with weekly reports in May.

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