Peter Smith: The Pro's Pro
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He carved out a unique market and ties flies for some of the best saltwater guides in the business.

This issue of Fly Tyer opens with an excellent article titled “Tying for dollars.” In that piece, Al and Gretchen Beatty give pointers about how to become a professional tier. They start with a few important legal and tax considerations, and then describe marketing, purchasing materials in bulk and at wholesale prices, and a number of other things that could make or break a full- or part-time fly-tying operation. As we learned, making money from tying requires more than sitting at a vise and cranking out our favorite patterns.

What they describe is how to do it right; they never tell us not to try. Some of the things we’re supposed to do may not sound fun (like calculating and paying federal excise taxes), but those are just the sort of details any conscientious business owner must confront. As the expression goes: It’s just business.

We’ll conclude this issue of Fly Tyer by meeting a successful professional tier. I didn’t know it at the time I interviewed him, but he would become a sort of case study. (You can damn sure bet he didn’t know we would put him under that microscope.) He supplies flies for a few shops, and is also a custom tier for some of the most demanding anglers in the world. He has carved out a very unique market, and seems to be successful and prosperous.

What a Surprise!
Interviewing someone is always a gamble. Will they be talkative? Will they have anything interesting to say? Will anyone want to read the interview when you’re done with it?

I dialed the number for Peter Smith, of S. S. Flies, in Denmark, Maine. Peter was expecting my call and answered the phone. We chatted for a few minutes, and I described how I conduct an interview. He was ready, so I turned on the tape recorder. After about 60 seconds, he said something that blew me away.
Where are you from, and how did you learn to tie flies?
“I was born on the same land where I now live in Maine, but I really grew up in Conway, New Hampshire.”
(I was a little slow on the uptake. If you’re a really longtime Fly Tyer reader, however, a little bell might be going off in the back of your brain.)
Eric continued: “That’s my connection with Dick Surette’s Fly Shop.”
(What? Dick Surette founded this very magazine in the mid 1970s!)
“I worked for Dick when I was a kid. We actually lived in North Conway about two hundred yards from the Saco River. Somehow I stumbled into fly fishing and found Dick Surette’s Fly Shop. I hung out there several times a week. He was a friendly guy and liked kids. One day he said, ‘You’re hanging around here all the time, so why don’t you work for me.’ I raked leaves, cleaned up, and packaged tying materials.”
(Sidebar: Peter’s story reminded me of a similar story told to me by famed bamboo rodmaker Sam Carlson. When he was a kid, Sam worked in the old Edwards Rod Company factory after school, sweeping out bamboo shavings and cork dust, and he eventually graduated to cleaning the glue off the bamboo rod blanks. Sam actually knew Eustis Edwards, the founder of that historic company. Life works in very mysterious ways.)
“I was trying to learn to tie on my own, but like any fourteen-year-old kid without proper instruction, it was kind of tough,” Peter said. “So, Dick sat me down and started teaching me. I remember the first fly was the Black Bear/Green Butt—just the body. I struggled in the back of his shop and tied bodies. He said, ‘Yea, thanks, but you’ve got to do them again.’ I eventually got them right. He was patient and taught me how to tie. By the time I was eighteen, I was mainly tying flies out of my house.”
As the present editor of Fly Tyer, I found it pretty exciting to talk with someone who might have been there at the founding of this magazine. But, Peter graduated from high school and went on to college in 1978, the same year Fly Tyer hit the newsstands.
“I got away from fly fishing for a while and did a lot of other things, but eventually found my way back to the sport and tying. But I was there when Surette put out his book, Trout and Salmon Fly Index. It was actually printed in the town where I now live. We’d get these boxes containing the individual pages. We’d lay them out on a table, stack them up, and place them in binders. It was pretty monotonous, but it was a job.”
How did you get into professional fly tying?
“I was teaching at the time, taking care of other peoples’ kids. I wanted to start a business and take care of my own, so I transitioned into doing this. I’ve been tying flies professionally ever since, about eight or nine years.”

Finding His Niche
As the Beattys describe in their article, a successful tier must create a market for his work. They also point out that fly tying is a seasonal business. Peter Smith has developed a unique market for his flies, and in the process created a year-round business. After he delivers all of his trout flies, Peter ties custom patterns for guides in Florida and other tropical destinations.
How did a guy from Maine start tying for guides in Florida?
“It was a combination of a really bad idea and dumb luck. I was tying all this trout stuff for a few shops—and I still do that—and everyone needed delivery for April and May. So, I’d establish the orders and start tying like hell in November, get everything out, and then be dead until the next November. I had only about two months of income. So I said, ‘Oh, the Florida market: Everyone goes down there in the winter. Those shops will want to order in the summer for the winter. Why don’t I go down and market my flies in Florida?’ I went to every fly shop I could find in Florida, and it completely flopped; they all wanted to see my catalog and didn’t think I could produce all the flies they needed. It didn’t seem like there was the tradition down there of working this way. There’s been a tradition in the Northeast of having at least some of your flies produced locally, but even that’s almost gone now. The Florida shops were getting most of their flies from the importers, but they weren’t entirely happy with them. A couple of the shop owners tied some of their own patterns, but having someone do the work seemed a little different to them.”
How did you get your foot in the door?
“As it turned out, Saltwater Angler, in Key West, was getting some of their own patterns tied by a commercial company, but that company dropped those flies. Saltwater Angler asked if I could tie them, and we worked out the patterns. It was a small account, but it was the only thing I had down there. Then one day, Capt. Will Benson, who is now a good friend of mine, walked into their shop looking for some flies. He couldn’t keep up with all the tying he needed to do, and asked if they knew any tiers. They referred Will to me.
“Will called me, and he sent all kinds of samples of his flies. He described how he fished and what he needed, so I tied some flies based on his patterns. He was happy with my flies, and it worked out. Will then gave my name to other people, and pretty soon I was tying for half a dozen guides. That’s how it got started. The stupid idea was trying to market to all the shops in Florida; the dumb luck was stumbling into the Saltwater Angler and Will Benson.”
Florida seems so far away. Why don’t you just tie flies for fishing closer to home?
“I do some flies for the Northeast saltwater market, but the fishing season is pretty short. A lot of the guides up here have the time over the winter to tie the flies they need. A busy guide in my area does sixty to eighty trips a year; in the Keys, a good guide might fish two hundred to two hundred fifty days a year. They don’t have the time to tie. If a guide is single he might tie at night, but once he has kids he gives me a call.”
I don’t recall ever hearing of a “custom” fly tier. What is the process?
“When I started doing custom work for the Florida guides, it was kind of a slow process. A guide would send me some patterns, I’d tie copies, and send them back. He’d call and tell me what he liked and didn’t like, and what he wanted changed. I’d make a few more samples and send those. We’d work on it until they were right for his type of fishing. Now it’s a lot faster: I tie and photograph the samples using a digital camera, and e-mail the photos to the guide. He tells me what changes he wants, and I tie and photograph some more samples. Now we can work out the patterns in a day. The guides love working this way.”
In addition to guides, you also do custom tying for other clients. How many flies are we talking about?
“I recently tied twenty dozen flies for this big group going to Belize. They wanted the Bauer Crab, which is some new pattern. We went back and forth on this, that, and the other thing, but I got the pattern just the way they wanted it. They got the final photos and knew what they were going to get when the package arrived in the mail. I charge for my time for all this work, but customers who have the means and really like to fish get exactly what they want.”

Peter’s Flies
No, that’s not quite right. These aren’t exactly “Peter’s flies.”
Peter Smith is in a unique position. As a custom tier, he gets the inside skinny from expert guides on what does and does not work. They share things with Peter that they might never tell one another. He isn’t their confessor, but he hears about the secret flies and methods that catch tarpon, bonefish, and permit.
“That’s what’s so neat about working the way I do. The guides send me their super-secret patterns and tell me why they tie them the way they do. You get this really cool perspective. I’ll talk with ten guides in Key West who are all fishing the same water, but they’re all fishing slightly different flies for different reasons. At first you’d say they’re being silly, and you’d think that any similar pattern would work, but it’s not like that. This guide will fish a little differently from that guide, so he needs a fly to act a little different. You get into the nuance of pattern construction that’s very cool.
“Tarpon flies are interesting. If you show up in the Keys with the usual storebought flies, the guide will say, ‘Oh no, you’ve got that crap.’ If you show up in Key West with a size 4/0 Stu Apte Tarpon Fly, the guide won’t be too happy; it’s just not going to work for him.”
What size tarpon flies do most of the guides prefer? What’s the best hook?
“Gamakatsu SC 15, size 2/0. That’s pretty much it. Occasionally a guide will want me to use an Owner hook, but that’s because it’s a little heavier and changes the sink rate just a bit.”
Tell me a little about your flies. The S. S. Merkin is really nice.
“Those Cree feathers in the tail are very important. No offshore commercial fly company can produce that because those feathers are so hard to find. But when you’re talking crabs, that’s the color. The guys who use that fly do real well. Sometimes I add a little orange wool on the top of the body, but the one I sent to you has a little olive. Scott Irvine, a guide down there, got a slam on one of those flies; when you catch a tarpon in the right mood, even it will eat that pattern.”
In addition to using Cree, Peter also does unusual things like using ostrich herl for the tails on tarpon flies.
“I developed the S. S. T-poon with ostrich herl because it has such good movement in the water. The body is a fairly traditional Toad setup, but the herl gives it an unusual movement.”
Isn’t ostrich herl a little fragile for this sort of application?
“Ostrich herl isn’t the strongest material, but most guides change the fly once you catch a tarpon—one fish, and it’s done—so the herl isn’t a problem. There are also some Northeast striper flies tied with ostrich herl, and it works just fine.”
As he works with guides and sees their patterns, Peter can sometimes see areas where he can make immediate improvements.
“The I. P. Bonefish Fly is another of my own patterns, but it’s kind of a ripoff. One of the captains sent a fly that was similar to it, but it was tied with regular marabou for the collar. It was just huge, and I thought, ‘what are you thinking?’ It had that Kwan body, but I starting working it up a little differently. The collar is now chicken marabou instead of turkey. This guide has been using it for a couple of years now, and it’s been pretty successful. I’ve sold a lot of them through my Web site. It’s a larger fly for the bigger bonefish, and it’s got a lot of movement; I don’t think you’d want to use it in Belize on their little bonefish.
“The tan marabou I use actually comes from my own chickens. I don’t know what it is—probably the breed of chickens—but their marabou feathers are a little bit bigger and a little bit fuzzier than some of the stuff I’ve seen in the fly shops, and it holds up a little bit nicer.”
What does “I. P.” stand for?
“Idiot Proof.”
The Laid-up Tarpon Bug is a smaller, sparser tarpon pattern; it’s certainly not as large as many commercially tied flies. Is this typical of what your clients use?
“The Laid-up Tarpon Bug is a general Key West type pattern. There’s one guide down there I know of who uses bigger flies, and he’s kind of new at it. He doesn’t like my flies because he says they’re too sparse. I tie flies for another guide, and I can’t make them sparse enough. There’s still another guide named Capt. John O’Hearn. Every guide down there has at least one O’Hearn fly in his box. He ties really sparse flies.
“I think it all depends on how the guide sets up the shot at the fish. The top guides fish with good anglers who can drop a fly within two feet of the tarpon. It’s right there in front of the fish, and it takes just a couple of little strips to get the tarpon’s attention. I think the bigger flies are better for lesser anglers—I might be wrong on this—who can cast only within five feet of the fish; they need larger flies to catch the tarpon’s attention. I do know the top guides are fishing with a lot of very sparse patterns.”
You also sent the Woolly Mullet. Do you tie this for catching striped bass and bluefish?
“The Woolly Mullet is a general baitfish pattern. A lot of guides in the Keys ask for this type of pattern, but it’s turned into a great Northeast fly.”
You certainly offer a very unusual service. Where do you see your market growing in the future?
“There’s a real demand for high-quality flats patterns. And the guides I deal with refer other customers to me. This past year, I started a Web site and began pushing the retail business. My Web site contains all my flats flies—the Key West stuff—but I’m starting to add some of my Bahamas patterns.”
Peter Smith is definitely taking a different approach to the fly-tying profession. He has a few regular customers for standard trout flies but has found a market far from home for his custom patterns. He is an inventive tier, and an ingenious businessman.


David Klausmeyer is the editor of this magazine and the author of several flyfishing and tying books.
If you’d like to learn more about Peter Smith and his patterns, check out www.ssflies.com.
 
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