A day of fly-fishing doesn't start when you throw your line in the water, it begins days, months and sometimes years ahead of time. Fly-fishing is a sport of selection, from the right rod to the perfect fly, and even the most seasoned veterans never stop learning. Every river is filled with fish feeding on a different food supply, and an angler needs to know what they will eat before they will bite; that's when fly-tying comes into play.
A master fly tyer is like a great chef, a person who puts all the right ingredients together and serves up a meal too enticing to resist. Fly-fishing really comes down to the presentation; the angler's technique, equipment and fly must compel the fish to bite. Beginners often rely on flies tied by others, but as they become more advanced many will begin to take their fishing fate into their own hands.
"That's the natural progression of becoming a fly-fishing junkie, you start fly-fishing then tying your own flies," Chad Gage, fly-tying coordinator for the Alaska Fly Fishers said.
On the third Saturday of every month, the Alaska Fly Fishers, a nonprofit fly-fishing club, hosts a fly-tying clinic at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery. Both organizations are conservation-focused, and the partnership allows them to work toward their mission of education and awareness. The clinic is free and open to anyone interested in fly-tying.
"It's a very friendly and welcoming community," said Bill Huber, president of the Alaska Fly Fishers. "I would say that nobody here has forgotten where they started and are very open and anxious to grab a beginner and sit down with them."
The event caters to fly fishers of all levels, from the first time fly-tyer to the expert. The main focus is tying up flies that will catch fish. "Everybody wants to see everybody be successful," Bill Huber said.
Fly-fishing has a long-standing reputation for being a sport shrouded in secrecy, but this group welcomes newcomers. Members might not give away all their secret fishing spots, but they won't hold back much.
"The way we all learned is from somebody else," said Mark Huber, former Alaska Fly Fisher president and member of the International Federation of Fly Fishers. "Everybody learned tying flies, or casting, or learned where the fish are on a river from somebody else. I think what you see here is because we learned it from somebody else, we want to share that with other people."
The clinic is an opportunity to trade tips and flies. There is a table for beginners, where seasoned tyers like Gage sit and help out. First-timers often walk in the door empty-handed and leave with a box full of flies. "It's kind of fun to see. You teach them one month and then three months later they come in with their new shiny vise and they are tying their own flies," said Gage.
Anyone familiar with the sport knows it can be addictive. Fly fishers require multiple fly boxes for salmon, steelhead, rainbow trout etc., each with dozens of different flies (and don't forget about the bead boxes). Unlike cooking at home to save money, making flies yourself won't cut the bill.
"It's definitely a hobby, you're not tying flies to save money," Gage said.
Fish are downright finicky, and what works one day may not work the next; what's hot in the winter may be a total dud during the summer. The Alaska Fly Fishers are a resource for questions; "they've been through that trial and error, so they can give you feedback from their experience," Mark Huber said.
Picking the type of fish you want to target is the first step to tying. A good all-around fly to learn for beginners, according to Bill Huber, is the Wholly Bugger.
Wholly Buggers are wet flies, that is, flies that are used under the water, also known as streamers. They resemble several types of common prey, including large nymphs, leeches and drowning insects. Bill Huber says learning to tie a Wholly Bugger teaches basic skills for the majority of flies used in Alaska. Wholly Buggers have a furry body with a hackle and a flashy tail; the most popular colors are green, brown and black.
Flies are meant to mimic prey in the water, so there is a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out what works, down to the smallest detail. Colors, materials, weight, size and shape are all customized by the tyer. "If I'm buying a pattern, I'm getting what somebody else wants, if I'm making my own I can personalize it to what I want," said Mark Huber. Ultimately, it's about what the fish wants. Fly fishers will tell you the slightest variation in color can mean the difference between a 20-fish day and a zero-fish day.
It's all part of the progression of the sport for each fisher -- perfecting your cast, learning the knots, reading the river and finding the right fly. There is a special sense of satisfaction that comes with catching a fish on a fly you've created. "It gives you great bragging rights with your fishing partner when you catch a 32-inch rainbow on your own fly," Bill Huber said.
As the ice begins to melt and the temperatures rise, most fly fishers find themselves dreaming about the days on the water to come. Sitting at home thinking about big fish won't bring you any closer to landing them this summer, but tying flies might. And when you make your first catch with the fly you created, it won't just be the fish that's hooked.
Alaska Fly Fishers Fly Tying Clinic
-- When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. April 17, and the third Saturday of every month
-- William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery
-- -Free and open to everyone