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Thoughts of spring emerge as anglers learn to tie flies

Phil Johnson, right, shows Doug Anderson how to attach feathers to a fly during a class at Superior Fly Angler in Superior, Minnesota.
Phil Johnson, right, shows Doug Anderson how to attach feathers to a fly during a class at Superior Fly Angler in Superior, Minnesota.

(MCT) — SUPERIOR, Wis. — Doug Anderson leans in to watch as Phil Johnson wraps the auburn feather from a rooster’s breast around a long-shanked fishing hook. It’s a Saturday morning in January at the Superior Fly Angler shop in Superior, and Anderson is at his second fly-tying class.

In a quiet alcove away from the fly rods and waders, Johnson is teaching Anderson, of Superior, how to tie a pheasant-tail nymph. The fly shop is offering fly-tying classes for beginners every Saturday morning for the next several weeks. On this particular Saturday, Anderson was the only student. Two others had to cancel at the last minute, Johnson said.

Anderson, 43, had graduated from the previous week’s class on tying the simpler Wooly Bugger pattern.

“This one definitely has a few more steps than last week’s,” says Anderson, who sells computer networking equipment.

“This is graduate school,” says Johnson, a retired English teacher who works part-time at the fly shop.

Johnson, a longtime fly-fisher who also builds bamboo fly rods, seems the ideal fly-tying instructor — low-key, thorough, patient, non-judgmental.

In this Internet age, a budding fly-fisher can go online and watch videos of fly-tying, but the video wouldn’t give Anderson a slow-motion replay of how to use a whip-finishing tool. And a video can’t look at the dubbing of synthetic fur on Anderson’s pheasant-tail nymph and say, as Johnson does, “That looks good. I’d maybe put even a little more dubbing in there.”

So, Anderson twists a bit more of the fur onto the gossamer thread, until the body of his nymph looks just right.

Later in the process, Anderson learns how to wrap fibers from a pheasant wing onto the shaft of his hook to resemble the wing casing of a nymph, which is the stage of a mayfly’s life when it is still under water, before it has emerged to the surface to dry its wings, fly away and mate.

Anderson makes the three wraps with his thread to anchor and finish off the wing case.

“Now, I’m just going to trim this off,” he says.

“Then you’ll have a pheasant-tail nymph,” Johnson says.

Anderson leans back and inspects his first pheasant-tail nymph, clamped in his fly-tying vise. The fly looks good, almost identical to the one Johnson has tied in his own vise.

One can see, through the eyes of a trout, that the delicate fly would look good enough to eat. Which is the idea. Fly-tiers, using thread and feathers and fur, create the illusion of life. It might be the illusion of a nymph swimming in the water column of a stream or lake, or a mayfly emerging from the stream bottom and swimming to the surface, or a caddis fly resting on the surface, drying its wings.

“I’ve been fishing for years,” Anderson says, “mostly throwing hardware (metallic lures). I have fly-fished. I was throwing flies last year when we were brook-trout fishing. I thought, ‘Why am I not tying flies?’ “

So, he began showing up for the Superior Fly Angler’s classes.

Catching a fish on a fly you have tied yourself is akin to shooting grouse over a dog you’ve trained, or catching a Brule River steelhead on a graphite rod you’ve built.

“It adds to the experience,” Johnson says.

Having a diverse arsenal of flies allows fly fishers to “match the hatch,” offering the fish a pattern similar to the insects they’re feeding on.

“Once you get to know the river or lake, and you pay attention to the bugs and observe the fish, you can tweak these patterns and catch fish on your own creations,” Johnson says. “That’s satisfying.”

Nathan Johnson, Phil’s son, who has stopped by the shop to watch his dad teach, recalls trips the two have made to fabled western trout streams. Some days, the standard patterns just don’t work, he says.

“So, Dad will sit down and whip out some flies right there,” Nathan Johnson says.

“The trout can get pretty picky,” Phil Johnson says.

But, having been humbled by trout enough times, Johnson keeps fly-tying in perspective.

“There are some guys who just fish two patterns all year,” he says. “Sometimes I think they’re smarter than us.”

Then he and Anderson put new hooks in their fly vises. It’s time for Anderson to learn how to tie the Prince Nymph.

“There’s nothing in the water that looks like this,” Johnson says. “But it works.”

For many, fly-tying becomes more than a matter of saving a few bucks on flies. It becomes a creative endeavor, a way to extend one’s passion for fly-fishing year-round. Johnson might tie hundreds of flies over the winter, preparing for his next season on the water.

“It’s a great way to spend cold winter evenings,” he says.

Fly anglers are welcome to stop by the shop any time, he says, to sit down and learn to tie flies. Someone, either an employee or another fly angler who has stopped in, will be happy to help someone learn to tie a specific pattern.

In winter months, especially, the shop has become a gathering place for fly anglers. While Johnson is giving Anderson pointers on the pheasant-tail nymph, Nick Seres of Superior sits at a table in the shop’s main room, tying his own flies and chatting with fly-fishing guide Damian Wilmot of South Range. A plate of chocolate-chip cookies made by Johnson’s wife, Teri, sits between them.

Cars and trucks roll by in the snow on Belknap Street outside. Inside, surrounded by fly-fishing gear and photos of enviable trout, a fly-fisher or fly-tier is free to imagine moving water and the promise of another season.

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