Learning the fine art of fly tying

BSU students use various materials to imitate live bait

A stream running through a thick forest churns quietly. Small waves hit large rocks and burst into a mist. It's a sunny day and the water is clear, revealing all the trout hunting for food. Then, something catches one fish's attention – an insect on the surface – and it moves toward it. The bug dances back and forth on the water, and in a swift motion the trout darts up for the kill.

What the fish doesn't know is the insect isn't real at all. It's an artificial lure hooked to the line of a fly fisherman's reel. Making, or tying, a fly is something Jeff Farber calls "the angler's art." Farber is an art teacher at North side Middle School in Muncie, and is co-teaching a tying class with former Ball State University provost Warren Vanderhill in Worthen Arena on Monday nights.

"There's a link between art and fly tying," he said.

A fly fisherman for 13 years, Farber became interested in the sport in 1996 while attending Ball State University's fly casting class, offered each spring. He's also been tying his own flies since that time.

"After losing a lot of flies – getting them stuck in trees – I decided to buy the tools to make my own."

Farber also cited the cost of buying bait, as opposed to making your own as a main reason for the switch. 

Fly fishing is different from the spinning reel method in a number of waves. The most common difference is the technique. Using a fly rod and reel involves whipping the line back and forth to imitate an insect or other type of fish food on or below the surface. In the class, Farber says he'll talk about fly fishing in general in addition to tying.

He also said the sport was seen as more of a minor technique in the country until "A River Runs Through It", directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt, was released in 1992 and sparked more interest all over. Following the movie, TV coverage from ESPN Outdoors also helped to attract more fishermen.

The classroom, WR 216, doesn't seem like a typical fishing classroom. But Farber is seated at a long conference table, surrounded by the eight students in the class, watching him unravel a spool of thread around a hook clamped in a vice. These students include a retired high school physics teacher, a lawyer and a young married couple, among a few others. The range of fly fishing experience ranges from none to 50 plus years.

The materials used include feathers (rooster or turkey are popular), synthetic hair, or even squirrel's tail fur. Farber uses these fabrics to help not only attract the fish, but to give a certain realness to the fly. By mixing, or dubbing, certain colors of material together, an insect's body can be better imitated. He explained that any living thing isn't just made of one color, so dubbing helps to recreate that.

Imitating insects is the primary focus of fly fishing. Certain flies call for certain locations or species of fish, too. 

"This is called ‘matching the hatch,'" said Farber. "Matching a fly to a fish."

For instance, to imitate a surface bug, a dry fly would be used. For an area where small fish are usually preyed upon, a streamer or Wooley Bugger fly can be used. The Wooley Bugger is a jack-of-all-trades for fishermen, able to be used in many locations. Most of the names of the tackle are just as creative, including the Hare's Ear Nymph or Parachute Adams. They are commonly named after the material used or the appearance. Farber even has his own specialty fly, the Farber's Crawdad.

"The simplest flies are the best ones to use," he said.

The process of making a fly, with practice, can take less than 10 minutes. Such tools as a vice, bobbin, bodkin and a pair of scissors are essential. Farber started the process with wrapping a lead-free weighted thread around the shank, the longer part of the hook, toward the eye. From there, various fabrics or feathers can be added to give the hook color and life. The earlier-mentioned Wooley Bugger looks fuzzy with  strands of hair sticking out near the eye and has a thick tail.

Fly fishing doesn't have to be done in just cold water streams in Montana or Colorado, either. 

"You can fly fish anywhere," he said. "Ponds, lakes, big rivers ... anywhere that has water, and there are fish, you'll find fly fisherman." 

Stephanie Reinhart, assistant director for Outdoor Pursuits, is taking the class alongside her husband, Kegan.

"I've really been enjoying it," she said. "This is just an area that I've never really had an opportunity to learn."

She also moved to Montana after high school, calling it "the Mecca for fly fishing," and her interest grew from there, though she has no previous fly fishing experience.

"My husband and I have a little competition of who can make the best looking fly," she said.
Reinhart added that she hopes to offer a fishing trip to the White River, maybe even Montana or other popular fishing locations. Through the Outdoor Pursuits department more classes like backpacking, back country cooking and knot tying will be offered soon.

"We're getting the community members of Muncie involved," she said. "Not just Ball State students, faculty or staff. I'm glad we're able to offer this."


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