Fly-Tying Young Guns
User Rating: / 24

The future of our craft is assured in the hands of tiers such as these.

Fly fishing has always appealed to young people. There’s a magical quality to fooling a fish and feeling it at the end of a tight line, and no one embraces this magic more warmly than the young. Eventually, those youngsters begin tying flies, and their enthusiasm and curiosity spark advances and innovation, and fuel the sport from one generation to the next.

Whether it’s a youthful trout fisher with the audacity to tinker with Theodore Gordon’s masterpiece, a 30-something chef who blends Spey flytying techniques into his striped bass flies, or a teenager winning ribbons at one of the world’s premier tying contests, fly-tying’s new young guns are keeping our craft fresh and alive. Meet three maestros of the vise whose work reflects the perspective of youth.

Tradition Be Damned

There was a time when Dan Caruso fly fished for almost everything except trout. He grew up spin-fishing for bass and pike in New York’s Mohawk Valley, and when he took up the fly rod in his mid-teens, he went after the same species. He tried trout fishing now and again, but just never got the hang of it.

But then Danny started hanging around the Rising Trout Outfitters fly shop in Utica, and soaked up the trout lore that flowed through the place like the waters of Sauquoit Creek, which was across the street. Today, at age 30, the guy who used to smile demurely and say, “I’m not a trout fisherman,” is monkeying around with one of American’s most famous trout flies, the Quill Gordon. He says that his pattern, the Hatch Gordon, is an all-purpose version of the fly Theodore Gordon developed sometime around 1900, apparently to imitate the Epeorous pleuralis mayflies that hatch in the Catskills in the early spring.

Caruso thought the stripped peacock quill used to tie the body of the original Quill Gordon did a decent job of matching the abdomen of the real insect, but wished the material came in yellowish cream, pinkish tan, and olive. While hackle feather stems and turkey and goose biots have been dyed for years, peacock quills have seldom gotten the same treatment except when colored brightly for tying full-dress salmon flies. Caruso began experimenting with bleach, and hit upon a treatment that fades the color of a peacock quill enough so that it can be dyed without compromising the strength or flexibility of the quill. He then began experimenting with dyes to create stripped peacock quills in colors to tie flies that match the most important hatches.

Caruso worked under the tutelage of Frank Audino, of Illion, New York, a master tier of trout and salmon flies. Caruso also got occasional advice from Del Mazza, of Utica; Del is considered one of the best Catskill dry-fly tiers of all time. Along with coloring the quills, Danny also changed the feathers used to tie the wings, tail, and hackle of the Quill Gordon.

“Wood duck is getting expensive, and it’s getting hard to find,” he said. “I wanted to come up with something that’s more readily available and easier to manipulate. If you try to bleach wood duck, you’ll destroy it.”

The wings of the Hatch Gordon are teal—bleached for pale flies like the Light Cahill, and bleached and dyed dun for smoky-winged patterns such as the Hendrickson. The Quill Gordon’s signature blue-dun hackle and tail are also gone, replaced with grizzly; again, bleached for light-colored flies or dyed dun for darker ones.

You can tie the Hatch Gordon in colors to match the whole seasonal parade of mayflies, but you still have the genius of the original fly’s construction. It’s a significant departure from the original, and yet the pedigree is immediately obvious. And Danny’s fly has won approval from some of the staunchest defenders of the Catskill tradition.

“I wanted my own pattern. So, I kept trying to think of something that I could do that would put my mark on fly tying. I studied different dry flies, but my eye kept getting drawn back to the Quill Gordon. That peacock quill is just the perfect body material, as far as I’m concerned. The Quill Gordon hasn’t changed in all this time because it hasn’t needed to. That fly still catches fish.”

Caruso, a scientist for a pharmaceutical research company called Prevalere Life Sciences, plans to market his dyed peacock quills.

These days, Danny has the hang of trout fishing and does quite well with the Hatch Gordon, even on the Delaware River’s famously fussy trout. He also ties at fly-fishing shows, including at the table manned by the Catskill Fly Tyers’ Guild. But he’s no slave to trout. The same impulse that moves him to deviate from established patterns also governs his fishing appetites. Refreshingly, the guy is no purist.

“I’ve always been into everything,” he says. “I still do the spin stuff. I do bass tournaments. I have a bass boat, and I’ll never give up my flippin’ stick. But there’s nothing like taking a trout on a dry fly.”

A Boy Wunderkind

As much as we enjoy the warm and fuzzy notion that our sport is passed down though the generations, the fact is that many anglers find fly fishing on their own, with no influence from their elders. So it was for 17-year-old Caleb Boyle of Bessemer City, North Carolina.

“I didn’t have anyone in my family who was into fly fishing or fly tying,” he says with some amusement. “I don’t know what happened with me. When my dad was younger, he had been into bass fishing, so he had some rods and stuff. There’s a guy in my church [Roger Simonds, an adult friend] who grew up bait fishing, but then he got into fly fishing for trout. He got me into fly tying.”

That was five years ago, when Caleb was just 12. Since then, all he’s done is tear up the junior category at the Mustad Scandinavian Open, the world’s preeminent fly-tying competition. In 2006, he took ninth, eighth, seventh, and sixth places in the junior category; his entries were the Caleb’s Bee, Hendrickson, Martin’s Realistic Spider, and Evening Sunset, respectively. The year before, he came in ninth and tenth. This year, Caleb expects to compete in the senior division. In 2004, Caleb won Fly Tier of the Year in competition with hundreds of entries by youth and adults alike in the annual competition hosted by the Web site,

Like many fly fishers before him, Caleb took up fly tying partly because he thought it would be cheaper to make his own flies than buy them. “I thought maybe I could save some money,” he said. He knows better now. But he also had other reasons to tie flies. “I guess I’m kind of creative, and I like inventing and building things. So that had a part in it. And I do like the challenge. I enter a lot of contests and competitions. I’m a real competitive person. I’m also into bow hunting, and that’s a real challenging sport, too, possibly even more than fly fishing. If I wanted to catch fish, I could just go to a trout farm, but I’m in it for the challenge.”

In a short span of time for a tier of any age, Caleb has become marvelously skilled at most tying styles from realistic patterns to classic wet flies. Have a look at his work in the accompanying photograph and at his Web site, His flies display perfect proportion, a beautiful sense of color, and exacting neatness. He is also honing his skills tying for a local shop; Caleb is the only commercial source for a regional pattern called Wally’s Yellah Sally, a foam-bodied dry fly carried by Wilson Creek Outfitters in Morganton, North Carolina. Tying flies by the dozens is instilling good habits. “It’s helped me become more efficient,” Caleb said. “For quantities, I’ve got to tie fast, and learning to tie fast has helped me become more proficient with my tying technique. But I really don’t tie flies for the money.”

Caleb fishes his local trout streams, notably the Davidson River. “The farther west you go into the Appalachian Mountains, the better fishing you find,” he said. A home-schooled 11th grader, he is considering studying biology or engineering in college—or maybe air traffic control. His dad, Scott Boyle, is an airline pilot. What do Caleb’s peers think of his hobby? “I really don’t have a lot of friends who share my interest,” he said. “But I don’t think my friends look down on it. They think it’s something kind of different; not weird, but kind of interesting.”

What do Caleb’s peers think of his hobby? “I really don’t have a lot of friends who share my interest,” he said. “But I don’t think my friends look down on it. They think it’s something kind of different; not weird, but kind of interesting.”

Montauk Meets the Spey River

David Nelson combines a reverence for tradition with a free, funky approach to saltwater fly tying. He has carefully studied salmon and Spey fly-tying techniques, and uses a variety of rather exotic materials to create his brand of striped bass flies. Some of his patterns demand a lot of time and skill, yet he doesn’t even bother giving them names. If you want to buy a fly that you’ve seen on his Web site (, simply point it out to him and he’ll make a few for you. Better yet, tell him where you’re research and create custom flies for your trip.

“They don’t have any names, man,” he says with an easy laugh. “The Compleat Angler, in Darien, Connecticut, carries some of my flies, and I’ve had to go back to the shop a couple times to look at them when I couldn’t reconstruct the patterns from the pictures.”

A 36-year-old restaurant manager who has been tying flies for about six years, David calls himself a “total trout bum” and never misses a chance to fish for wild brown and rainbow trout on the Delaware River, not far from his home in White Plains, New York. But it is his saltwater flies that turn heads and draw crowds at the big fly-fishing shows—and catch striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish in Long Island Sound and nearby waters.

He calls them, collectively, squimpish flies, as in squid, shrimp, and fish. Many of his patterns have elements of all three baits, but others are more specific imitations of one of them. There’s a wide variety in his tying, but if he has a hallmark, it’s a marriage of two specific styles: flatwing and Spey. Spey flies, which are native to Scotland, are mostly used in the United States for steelhead fishing in the Pacific Northwest and are characterized by long, limp, palmered hackles. going fishing, and he’ll do some Flat-wings, a style developed by Rhode Island tying guru Kenny Abrames, feature tails of long, slender hackle feathers tied flat along the shanks rather than vertical like most traditional featherwing streamers. Nelson blends the two schools of tying to create remarkably graceful and effective flies that are anywhere from two inches to a foot or more in length. Like Flat-wings, even his large flies cast easily due to their sparse construction, but Nelson believes his squimpish flies have a bulkier appearance that is helpful when stripping them through the swift estuary currents where game fish feed on large herrings, menhaden, and squids.

Squimpish flies also work well on freshwater bass, and David enjoys recounting how he once hooked (but didn’t land) an enormous brown trout on a squimpish pattern on the Bard Parker Pool at the junction of the east and west branches of the Delaware River.

An observer might be skeptical, but Nelson says his flies aren’t hard to make. “Can you tie a Flat-wing? Can you tie a Woolly Bugger? If you can do those two things—and maybe I’ll throw in a Bob Popovics’s Hollow Fleye—you can tie my flies,” he says. “I’ve just chosen different materials and use them in different ways. I use polar bear instead of bucktail for the tuft at the back of the fly, and sometimes I use eight to fifteen fibers of albino peacock or ostrich instead of hackle feathers for the tail. Then maybe I’ll tie in the tip of a rhea feather or a webby hackle, then put on the body material and palmer the feather up. Maybe I’ll have a collar of polar bear or bucktail at the front, or a collar of rhea or tie on clumps of ostrich for an overwing and throat.”

Are you getting the picture? This is not a man who cranks out five dozen of this pattern or 10 dozen of that, each fly identical to the others. But don’t think his lack of regimentation makes him a slacker. David Nelson is a serious fly tier.

“What I love most about fly fishing is the canon of literature,” he says, speaking quickly, as though his words can barely keep up with his thoughts. “You don’t find other pastimes in modern culture that have such a history. I take it fairly philosophically. I don’t play golf and tennis. I love to fish, and I like to fish with pretty flies.”

Morgan Lyle is a regular contributor to our magazine. His contributions to “First Wraps” have generated a lot of conversation and controversy over the years.
Morgan lives and fishes on Long Island.
Tag it:
Furl it!