April 1 , 2008


Fishing craft extends beyond the stream

Anglers combine practical with creative in art of fly tying


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer  
Fisherman Mike Kniffin uses a vice stand to make a fly-fishing lure with materials like rabbit fur and feathers in his Cortlandville home Saturday.

Contributing Writer

Streams will fill with hopeful anglers today as another trout fishing season begins.
But for flytiers, fishing preparation doesn’t begin on the first day of April. It’s a hobby that can become a year-round pleasure.
Fly tying, the construction of fly-fishing lures that imitate the prey that fish feed on, is a hobby that many who are passionate about fly-fishing choose to do to fill their time away from the water after trout fishing season ends in October.
Using multicolored thread, feathers, beads and tinsel, the small objects are crafted into fishing lures with names like “woolly bugger,” and “royal coachman” in preparation of spring.
Joe Wegzyn, store manager at the Cortland Line Factory Store on Route 281, teaches fly-tying classes at Cortland Line.
“Trying to tell what it’s (fly tying) like is like trying to tell what it’s like to ride a bicycle,” Wegzyn said, explaining that the satisfaction gained from the hobby varies from person to person.
Some see fly tying as a social event, Wegzyn said, a chance for fly-fishing devotees to gather around a table and tell stories during the winter months. Others sell what they make for profit.
And still others see the hobby as an opportunity to pit their skill against fellow fishermen. Competitions are held, some with worldwide entrants, that judge flies on standards of symmetry and proper placement of materials.
For Mike Kniffin, a professor in the Physical Education Department at SUNY Cortland, fly tying was a way to increase his fishing skill.
“To be honest with you, when you start fly-fishing there’s this bewildering array of flies before you,” he said. “So I just felt if I took a course I’d learn more about the flies. And that’s what happened.”
A fly’s design can vary wildly depending on the type of fish being pursued, the type of prey being imitated and the personal preference of the flytier. Some flies imitate nothing in nature, designed only for the appeal they have to fish. Wegzyn estimates that for him a single fly takes between two and 10 minutes to complete depending on the difficulty involved. Kniffin said he takes about 20 minutes.
A basic fly, such as an egg fly, would be near the minimum while something as complicated as a traditional English fly would be closer to the maximum.
Fly tying requires a vise to keep   steady the fly and the hook used to catch fish.
The other materials used are left up to the flytier.
Although most popular during the winter, fly tying is not always an indoor activity, Wegzyn said.
Flies made during the season can be altered depending on current weather conditions, environment and habits of the fish, Wegzyn said.
As with any craft, part of the fun can be found in the creation. “A lot of flytiers are inventors,” Wegzyn said.
And the freedom a flytier has to stray from classic designs helps keep things fun. Traditional patterns that have been proven effective over time at catching fish are still used. But flytiers make use of nontraditional materials to create as many variations of flies as there are people tying.
“When I started, I followed the recipes religiously,” Kniffin said. “Once you’ve tied a few flies you find you can vary the fly. Try a new material and add something to make it distinctive. I’ve found I’m more of a traditionalist, because they produce.”
Buying premade flies is a possibility, Wegzyn said, but part of the appeal for flytiers is “the pride of ownership, of doing it themselves.” Mass-produced flies are also not designed with specific fishing regions in mind.
Kniffin agrees.
“It requires some precision. There’s creativity behind it and I like it. But the ultimate fun of it is actually using the flies that you tied to catch trout. ... After I tie a fly I’m anxious to see if it works …When I tie I’m focused on what I’m doing, and when I’m done I feel refreshed, and that’s a sign of a good hobby.”