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The fine art of fooling a fish

Tamie Meck
Staff Writer

Ryan McMahon gathers the ingredients for making an elk-hair caddis fly: brown dry fly hackle (rooster neck feather), elk hair (preferably light), dubbing (made from the under-body of muskrat, beaver, rabbit or other furry animal), thread and fine metal wire, and the main ingredient, a hook.

“It’s just how you put them together,” says McMahon as he twists wire around the end of the feathery brown hackle to secure it to a tiny fishhook.

In about two minutes, as he pauses to explain the process of making a caddis fly, he pulls from a tiny black vice an impressive replica of a caddis fly.

“There you go,” he says, offering a bottle of authentic caddis flies suspended in liquid for comparison, “an elk-hair caddis fly.”

This is no fly-by-night operation. McMahon sells his flies to some of the best fly fishermen and women in the valley. He can make just about any bug around that might tempt a trout. He’s also the manager and a fishing guide for Roaring Fork Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.

McMahon was about 8 when he first started tying flies. “I haven’t been doing it that long,” he said modestly. “I’m only 21 now.”

The son of a sportsman, he learned young how to fish and hunt in the areas surrounding his childhood home of Englewood. After earning a little money doing chores, he bought his first fly-tying kit.

“I don’t know why, I just wanted to try it,” he said. “I picked the kit up at a Wal-Mart, I think.”

He tied his first flies on a heavy bench vice, which was a bit awkward for holding a tiny hook.

After earning a little more money cleaning yards around the neighborhood, he bought a real fly-tying vice and began tying all of his own flies, which he used to fish creeks, ponds and reservoirs every night after school and during the summer.

Except for getting a little sidetracked in middle school, he’s been tying flies ever since.

There is definitely an art to tying a good fly, said McMahon, a former landscape oil painter. While the steps involved are basically the same from fly to fly, each bug has its own recipe. Dedicated fly tiers will, over time, develop their own style and find what recipes work best through experimentation and practice.

It’s amazing what people use to tie flies, he said. He has used tiny doll’s eyes, glass and metal beads, foam, plastic bags, dryer lint, dog hair, Christmas tree tinsel, knitting yarn, rubber bands, nylon rope and feathers from a Magic Feather Duster. Feathers are a key ingredient to fly tying, he said. Any feather off of any bird can be used in one type of fly or another.

Pulling a 1950 Herter’s Inc. fly-tying catalog from an exhibit of antique fly-fishing equipment at the shop, McMahon explained that at one time people could order all sorts of feathers and furs that aren’t available today.

Some are now endangered and protected species, while others are extinct. The catalog boasts items like jackal and arctic fox fur, polar bear, monkey and baboon skin, and jungle cock feathers, listed for $10 a clump.

“You would pay $1,000, maybe $2,000 for a bunch of jungle cock feathers today,” said McMahon. “But there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s better now than what you used to be able to order,” he added.

Knowing how to tie the fly is only part of the art.

It helps to know bugs, said McMahon, who is self-taught in entomology, specifically in the study of aquatic insects like the mayfly that emerges from the waters in this area by the thousands and that fish love to feed on.

From a row of bottles, he plucked out a small jar filled from top to bottom with one big bug.

“This is a salmon fly, or pteronarcys,” he said matter-of-factly, holding the insect to the light.

There is money to be made in tying tiny flies, he said. A quality fly, like the elk-hair caddis he tied, will sell for about $1.79.

While a small store like Roaring Fork Outfitters won’t produce a great deal of income for a fly tier, a good commercial tier, who can churn out 30-60 dozen flies a day, can make a good living, said McMahon. It takes a special person to do it, though, he said. “You tie flies eight hours a day, just like a normal job.”

McMahon estimated that fly tying is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Companies breed chickens and roosters specifically for their feathers, and catalog companies offer hundreds of fly tying tools and accessories.

Most of which doesn’t mean a lot to a guy like McMahon, who is content to keep it small and simple.

“It’s just a fun business to be in,” he said. “You don’t make a lot of money, but it’s so enjoyable that you kind of forget about it after a while.”

Tying one’s own flies is also a great way for an avid fly fisherman to save money in the long run, said McMahon.

It may cost a few bucks to buy all the tools – the vice, thread, bobbin, scissors, hair stacker, hackle pliers and all the ingredients to tie the flies.

But once all that’s purchased, it’s a relatively inexpensive and very enjoyable and relaxing hobby, he said. Once you learn the art, it’s very satisfying. Plenty of books offering instruction to get the novice started are available at local flyfishing shops and bookstores.

But tying the fly is only part of the satisfaction, said McMahon. “What’s real fun is to catch a fish on a fly that you tied.”


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