Freestyle Fly Tying with Freethinking Ronn Lucas
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Whether designing unusual salmon patterns or making custom hooks, multitalented Lucas is pushing the envelope of what it means to tie flies.

In the magazine business, there's something known as "Pass along." Pass along means the number of magazines that are purchased by subscribers and off newsstands, and then shared with—passed along to—friends, relatives, and coworkers. Some magazines have a lot of pass along others do not. Fly Tyer has remarkably little pass along. Readers seem to buy and keep this magazine. They collect it. They store it in binders and on bookshelves. Fly Tyer becomes an important part of their fly-fishing libraries. Why? In large part, it’s because of the fly patterns that are packed into each issue.

Good patterns are timeless. Flies that caught fish 100 years ago will catch fish today, and will probably catch fish 100 years from now. And we like to learn about all the little changes we can make to flies that make them even better at catching fish. Oh boy, more patterns!

Fly Tyer is the first stop to read about new flies created by the most inventive tiers in the world. Most of us haven’t tied or fished these flies, but we will all want to try them on our home waters. Some of them are made entirely out of natural materials, but others feature synthetic ingredients. All the supplies are specified in the patterns.

And then there are the destination articles. Fly Tyer has always contained stories describing great places to fish, we just present them in a slightly different way than do most other flyangling magazines. We assume our audience is more advanced because you have taken the next step to tying your own flies; some of you had been fishing and dressing flies for many decades. You’re the hard core. You don’t need to be told how to cast, wade, or book a trip, you want to learn about new places to fish and the flies you’ll need once you get there. Ah, yes, more patterns. In fact, the where-to-go articles are one of the reasons Fly Tyer has such little pass along. Many readers say to me, “I’ve never been to some of those places, but I might go some day, and I’ll need those flies.”

Sometimes, however, I run across a tier working outside the lines—I mean way outside the lines. He knows no boundaries. Everything he ties is new and original, and he can supply me with no established patterns. And therein lies a problem: I expect to publish patterns, and you expect to read them. We need them. They tell us what to tie to our hooks. Hell, they even tell us what hooks to use. What are we supposed to do?

Ronn Lucas Sr., is one of those freespirited tiers. I had heard of Ronn, but didn’t know a lot about him. I saw some photos of his flies in a book or magazine, and remembered that they were quite fine. And then, for the spring 2007 issue of Fly Tyer, Lee Schechter and Mike Boyer submitted their great article titled “Classic Bass Flies: Legends in American Fly Tying.” In that piece, they discuss using classic blind-eye hooks, and say that Ronn Lucas is a good source of handmade hooks. They included the address for his Web site. I was intrigued and checked it out.

In addition to describing his hooks, his Web site contains many photos of his flies. It turned out that my first impression was correct: Lucas is a very good fly tier. But it’s not just that his flies are really nice; many of them are quite unusual. I called Ronn, a native of Portland, Oregon, to learn more about his style of tying. Maybe style isn’t the right word; I suppose philosophy is a more appropriate term.

Getting Started—
Coming Home

I live on the coast of Maine, and Ronn lives in Oregon. Fortunately, both of us have offices at home, so arranging a convenient time for an interview wasn’t a big problem. I called him late one afternoon—East Coast time—and we spent a pleasant hour talking about tying. It turns out that Ronn, like many of us, started tying flies we he was young.

“I tied when I was a kid in the early 1950s. There was a gal who tied flies in the sporting goods section of a department store here in downtown Portland. Her name was Audrey Joy. My mom would take me downtown and drop me off at Audrey’s table. I was mesmerized watching her tie flies. One day, Audrey gave me some materials to take home, and I tried to tie a fly. That was how it began. I didn’t it do for many years after that because Dad wasn’t a fly fisherman or outdoorsman; I did it only because I saw Audrey do it. But I still have some of those flies. They’re pretty crude, but they sure mean a lot to me. I got away from tying for quite a number years, but I eventually came back to it about twenty to twenty-five years ago.”

Getting a chance to fish can be challenging for some young people bitten by the fly-tying bug. With limited opportunities to test his flies, Lucas drifted away from tying. But that would change with time.

“I always like to fish, but that was once I was older and could get out and fish on my own. For years I used hardware, bait, and worms. And then, as I got more and more involved in the sport, I took up fly fishing. But this was years before I ever took up fly tying again. It just sort of evolved from there.

“Trout, salmon, and steelhead— that was my sort of thing. Mostly trout, though. But now I hardly ever get a chance to fish. I’ve always been selfemployed, and work has always been the dominant factor in my life, as it was in Dad’s life. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But I certainly do enjoy fly fishing, when I get the chance.”

This business about the apple not falling far from the tree has a double meaning. Yes, Ronn’s father worked hard—a characteristic his son emulates. But Ronn’s vocation—just like his tying— requires a high degree of precision.

“I’ve been a dental technician almost my entire adult life. I make crowns and bridges. It’s very detailed and exacting work. With all of the careful fitting involved in my line of work, you’d think I would come up with a hobby involving larger things. But I work out of my house now, and I have my tying room set up next to my office. I float between the two all day.”

Tying without Rules

Ronn practices a method called “freestyle tying.” Although many of his flies obviously spring from the world of classic Atlantic salmon flies, they follow no set patterns or rules. Yes, he uses feathers, flosses, tinsels, and furs the usual things you would expect to see on an Atlantic salmon fly—but he has no recipes. He lets his sense of color and artistic taste dictate what and how he ties. Sometimes, like with the huge salmon patterns in the accompanying photographs—the African Queen is eight inches long—he’ll even use large colorful beads to make the bodies.

“I would say that much of this is up to personal interpretation. It’s like the question, what is art? That one always gets a good argument from people. Art is in the eyes of the beholder. Freestyle flies are not the traditional, classic patterns. Anything that goes off the compound very far, at least in my mind, becomes a freestyle fly. It’s basically coming up with something of your own design. And it’s not just limited to the classic salmon type of fly. There are also free-style streamers; there are a lot of guys into tying those types of flies. Freestyle is really a generic term. For instance, there’s freestyle skiing and freestyle Rollerblading. You’re just not following the rules. The same holds true for free-style fly tying”

There are an awful lot of traditionalists in fly tying, especially when it comes to the classic Atlantic salmon patterns. How do people react to Ronn’s flies?

“The people that show the most emotion are those who really don’t know a lot about fly tying, especially about the full-dress salmon flies. They’re amazed, but they’re not just amazed about freestyle flies, they’re amazed about all of it—anything that gets into the artsy part of it. The flies are big and flashy, and we’re using really bright colors. These kinds of flies dazzle them. The tiers who create the classic salmon flies are a little more muted in their reaction to freestyle flies because they at least understand what goes into them, and a lot of them are doing it themselves.”

Ronn’s brand of freestyle tying will be very new to many readers, and I asked if other fly tiers are doing it. “Oh yes, there are. The Internet has opened up the whole world of fly tying, and the guys who are into tying freestyle are all in contact with one another. I’m in contact with people all over the world, in Chile, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland, France, Italy— even some of the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. It’s amazing, and it’s all because of the Internet.”

Ronn and I talked about the important international dimension to fly tying. We agreed that there seem to be excellent tiers in almost every country. I asked Ronn if there was any region that is producing an exceptional number of new tiers.

“There’s a big group of really good tiers coming out of Norway and Finland. I’m talking about classic salmon flies. But you’ve got remember, a lot of these guys are still fishing with classics salmon flies, so there’s a awful lot of interest in them in those countries. Some of them are even fishing with flies tied with gut-eye loops. It seems to be a hotbed of anglers still connected to the old ways. Of course, there are still guys in North America fishing with classic patterns.”

Does Ronn sell any of his flies?

“No, I don’t tie any flies for money. And I rarely give flies to people. When I do, I prefer it to be a complete surprise. You see, I do all that production work with my job, and I really don’t want to carry it over into my fly tying. Some of my flies these days might take one or two weeks to complete. I have absolutely no desire to conserve time when I tie. Time is meaningless for me when I tie. And I rarely tie a fly more than once.”

Maker of Fine Hooks

Within the past couple of years, Ronn has expanded his interest from tying flies to making hooks. And, like his flies, his hooks are quite exceptional.

“I purchased my hook-making business from a gentleman in Michigan named Ron Reinhold. Today, I’m selling custom hooks all over the world. Ron developed a little under 150 different shapes and sizes of hooks, mostly for tying classic salmon patterns and streamers. It’s almost overwhelming. I haven’t known anyone who has achieved anything like that except perhaps a large hook manufacturer like Mustad. But these hooks are all made one at a time; there is absolutely no production machinery involved. There’s a lot of time and energy in each hook. They’re really pretty special. They’re not so much fishing hooks, although you could certainly fish with them if you wanted to. All the hooks are tempered and compare to commercial hooks in that regard. But, they’re really made for presentation flies.”

What’s the basic process for making one of Ronn’s hooks?

“I start with a big, nasty-looking coil of wire. It’s very special wire, but it has to be cut, straightened, tapered,and bent. I also have to make the points and barbs, and of course temper the hooks. It’s all a very labor-intensive, amazing process. I would equate these hook-making methods with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. There’s no waterwheel powering the machinery, of course, but everything is done by hand with the aid of a few machines such as shapers and grinders. I think if someone from a large hook company came to see what I do, they simply wouldn’t recognize it. They’d see the finished hook and say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ but they wouldn’t understand how I made it.”

You also japan the hooks yourself, right?

“Ron developed a method of japanning hooks which in itself was remarkable, but I’ve changed that a little bit. I’ve come up a finish that I think is better and more consistent. I’ve also been able to lower prices a little bit for the most expensive hooks.”

How many hooks does a person have to buy? Can a tier buy just one hook?

“They can buy one hook. I sell a lot of single hooks, especially to people who have never tried custom, handmade hooks. They want to tie on one and see if they like the results. I don’t mind that, but it takes as much time for me to process an order for one hook as it does to fill an order for several hooks. Everything is made to order; I don’t have shelves stocked with hooks. With so many styles and sizes of handmade hooks, it would be impractical to try to make the entire inventory.”

Are you still looking for new shapes of hooks to add to the collection?

“Absolutely, but those are becoming very, very hard to find. Antique hooks that go back one hundred years or more are extremely rare. But people do send unusual hooks, and I sometimes trade hooks.”

In addition to the traditional black japanned hooks, you also offer hooks in several bright colors: red, green blue, orange, yellow, and a few other colors. What’s this all about?

“Colored hooks are not a new thing, even though it may seem a little off the wall. They actually did that a long time ago. They’ve never been common, but it’s been done for the last couple of hundred years. And I’ve always been an out-of-the-box fly tier; I don’t like following the established patterns, and I’m always bending the rules. Playing with color seems to be a natural thing for me to do. I also received a few requests for colored hooks, so I discovered a way to do it and there you have them.”

Near the end of the interview, we returned to the topic of the Internet and today’s generation of fly tiers.

What Ronn sees gives him great optimism for the future of our craft.

“There are some great young tiers out there. I think it all has to do with the immediacy of the Internet. All the information is out there, so anyone can learn to tie flies. The learning curve for young tiers today is phenomenally short. What took us old timers years to learn—muddling through, and by trial and error—a young tier can learn in a few months or maybe a couple of years. These young people become world-class tiers in a very short time. That means that fly tying is in good hands for the future.

David Klausmeyer is the editor and photographer of this magazine. David is also the author of several fly-fishing and tying books. His newest book, Striped Bass Flies: Patterns of the Pros, will be available later this year.

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