Juneau man turns fly-tieing into art form

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Trevor Gong takes a few snips of exotic peacock feathers and golden pheasant crest, silver tinsel and bright silk floss and goes to work on a vintage Atlantic salmon fly pattern.

Eight hours later, he's still bent over his vise, getting the wings right.

Gong ties flies that catch trout, salmon and steelhead, but has come to enjoy the meticulous process of display tieing -- making flies he frames as works of art.

''When I'm actually tieing fishing flies, if it takes more than one minute I get bored,'' he said. ''I'll sit down and whip out a whole bunch of production flies and go fishing. And then sit down for eight hours to tie one fly.''

Gong, 33, is also a carpenter and does his own matte cutting and framing. His artwork sells for $100 to $200, depending on how many and what kind of flies are framed.

Brad Elfers knows dozens of accomplished fly-tiers and owns Juneau Flyfishing Goods, where Gong's artwork is available. Elfers is also a member of the Rain Country Fly Fishers, whose members meet twice a month in the winter to tie flies. All but one or two put their efforts into flies destined for fish.

''He's probably the best fly-tier in Southeast Alaska, possibly the whole state,'' Elfers said.

He said Atlantic salmon patterns were introduced to the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century by Eastern fishermen stalking Northwest steelhead. The original patterns go back even further.

Fly fishing for Atlantic salmon became a gentleman's sport among the upper class in Scotland in the mid-1800s, and some of Gong's patterns date back 140 years. Black Doctor, Green Highlander and Jock Scott are classic vintage patterns.

To tie some of these, Gong carefully separates the individual strands, or barbs, in a feather and re-aligns them with strands from other birds, creating striped feathers he then incorporates into the salmon fly. Other feathers are naturally striped, spotted or iridescent.

Gong has paid more than $100 for a palm-size patch of dried chicken skin covered with top quality, No. 1 grade hackle feathers.

''Some are a lot more than that,'' he said, pulling out plastic bags of fur and feathers. ''For me, collecting feathers is almost as much what I do as tieing,'' he said. ''Most are endangered birds that have been raised domestically. Because they take such hand care to raise, they're fairly expensive.''

With some, breeders don't kill and skin the birds but carefully collect the molted feathers. Many of these formerly endangered species no longer are in trouble but still are protected. They include jungle cocks, argus and golden pheasants, which are among the more than 100 different kinds of pheasant, and varieties of peacocks, which Gong said are also a type of pheasant.

Many of the feathers are sold in matched pairs, by the inch, and a pair of perfect feathers may run $300 or $400. He also works with feathers from common birds, turkey feathers and hackles from different breeds of chickens.

Gong said high-priced exotic feathers aren't used often in the common popular fly patterns. Polar bear hair is used for tieing steelhead flies and only polar bear harvested prior to 1972 is legal.

''There's a lot of polar bear hair around, but much is from old bear rugs that laid around on someone's floor for years,'' he said. ''There's businesses out there where they track down old rugs and buy them, cut them up and sell them. It's actually sold by the square inch.''

Now synthetic materials also are available, and Gong says if the Scottish fly-tiers 100 years ago had those they'd have used them in their flies, too.

''There's such a range of fly-tiers, from guys who tie dry flies to take fishing to guys like me that do display tieing,'' Gong said. ''A lot of people are real traditionalists, they want to tie the flies the same way they were 100 years ago.''

Gong grew up in Seattle and managed a fly-fishing and fly-tieing shop for four years in Ballard, Wash. He moved to Juneau in 1997.

Like most fly-tiers, he started tieing to supply himself with fishing lures. As his work became more esoteric, he began meeting with other specialty fly-tiers in Washington to prepare and share materials and to dye feathers and fur.

''There's hours of fussing,'' he said. ''We'd buy a big bag of turkey feathers and sort through it for the best one. Or go through necks and pluck the best feathers out, high grade them, then soak them and straighten them to get them just right.''

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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