In the Beginning

Similar to many other great endeavors, Fly Tyer magazine’s early days were spent in a basement.

[by Gerald N. Allen]

I’M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHEN I MET DICK SURETTE; some memories get fuzzy with the passing of time, but it was only a few years before the birth of Fly Tyer. I lived about an hour north of his North Conway, New Hampshire, fly-fishing shop, and I stopped in every time I traveled to that part of the state. To a young fly fisherman, the little shop, cluttered with gear and flies, seemed overwhelming. My mind can still bring up the scent of pipe tobacco, pine tar, and whatever else it was that gave his place such a heavenly aroma.

One night I received a call from Dick, which was an unusual event because we really weren’t friends at that point—just a customer and a shop owner. Dick explained to me that one of his employees named Red Peckham had tied a new stonefly nymph that looked great, so they ran an ad in Fly Fisherman magazine to see if they could sell some by mail order. Back then I think Fly Fisherman had a circulation of well over 100,000 readers. If Dick had done his math, he would have seen that if one half of 1 percent of the subscribers ordered this new fly, his fly tying capacity would be buried.

So, Dick explained that he was calling every fly tier he knew to see if anyone might be interested in tying flies for money. At that time, I was a logger for the now defunct Brown Paper Company, and I jumped at the chance. Dick sold me the materials cheap, and then bought the flies from me for $7.50 per dozen. Back then, in the mid’70s, I could sit at my fly-tying desk in the evenings and average $10 an hour.

Dick certainly wasn’t a fool. I would walk into his shop with $100 worth of flies, and he would offer me anything in the shop at 20 percent off, so I’d walk out of the shop with a new reel or a stack of fly tying materials or whatever, and still owed him $20. I’d rush back to my fly-tying bench and start the cycle over. Extra money spends easily, so I bought all sorts of things that I might not have otherwise, such as Hardy reels and Orvis cane rods.

One day, as I waited in Dick’s shop with a box full of flies, I could hear him conversing with a man about illustrations. Obviously Dick was buying the drawings the man had brought in, and I caught enough glimpses to know the pictures were of fly tying. When the man left, Dick explained that he was going to publish a magazine about fly tying and wanted to know what I thought of the idea. I asked to see the illustrations, and Dick showed me a series of step-by-step drawings the guy had done. There were some quirks because the artist wasn’t a fly tier, but Dick bought the drawings anyway for $25 apiece.

Being a brash young man and not particularly adept at accumulating wealth, I said, “Dick , I can draw like that and I’ll do it for half as much.” Oh, how I wished afterward that I’ d said 25 percent less or even a third less—I still would have gotten the job.

Dick asked me to bring in some sample drawings, so I went home and started to work. He liked what he saw, and beginning with the second issue of Fly Tyer and for quite some time thereafter, I provided most of the step-by-step drawings.

The magazine was a real shoestring affair back then, and I don’t think there ever was much money in the checking account. In fact, the first issue took some time to get out the door. A good deal of time passed from the time the first ads were placed until the first issue came out because Dick had to accumulate enough money ahead to pay for the first printing and then postage. The early subscribers literally funded the start of the magazine, but Dick was a natural wheeler and dealer, and he was a heck of a salesman, blessed with the gift of gab and the ability to make everyone feel important and welcome. I know he made me feel that way, and he was able to keep the magazine afloat.

Those early days were great fun. I loved getting to read the original manuscripts that famous fly tiers and fishermen of the day submitted. Some articles came in handwritten with atrocious spelling, but Dick would smooth the rough edges an d get them into print. He set up a tiny editorial office in the basement of his home, which was barely big enough for both of us to stand at once.

Soon I was doing the layout for the magazine, trying desperately to clean up the look. Dick always said he wanted the magazine to be a workingman’s magazine, nothing fancy but jammed full of useful information. But looking at other magazines, I could see what we lacked in visual appeal, so I slowly tried to change things. At my own home, I set up a darkroom in the cellar and studio in a spare bedroom. A local print shop in Berlin, New Hampshire, set the type for us, and soon I was laying out the whole magazine at home.

Before long, I started doing illustrations for fly-fishing catalogs and ads, even putting together catalogs for a couple of fly-fi shing shops. The print shop that set our type came up for sale one day, and I jumped at the chance to buy it, and soon we were printing the magazine for Dick.  I remember working late into the nights, munching on pizza with the shop’s entire staff of six and collating the magazine until well after midnight. The print shop was one of the most fun things that I have ever done, but it as a financial disaster.

Dick Surette always made me feel appreciated. When Ernie Schwiebert’s two-volume Trout came out, Dick surprised me with a copy that still sits on a shelf over my desk. We went to trade shows together and dreamt of moving the whole operation to Montana. He sometimes would drive north through Pinkham Notch in his little Toyota pickup truck with a camper on the back, and we’d fish the Androscoggin River together. Dick was a big man and that camper was tiny, so it always felt cramped when we took a break in it, but inside he had a vise and materials for streamside tying, and we’d mess around with ideas for flies and smoke our pipes.

I remember he could cast a line far enough to fish the opposite bank, which isn’t something that many can do on the Androscoggin. Others may have caught more fish than Dick, but I don’t think any had more fun than he. To Dick, fishing and fly tying were like a religion.

My life changed with a divorce, and then the struggling print shop brought an end to my close working relationship with Dick. I moved away to run a family business and replenish my savings account, but I still tried to do his illustrations and keep in touch. The magazine always struggled to stay afloat, and I knew things were tight for Dick. My life got busier with the business, and I started doing less and less for Fly Tyer. Along the way, he sold his fly shop to raise a little money and concentrate on the magazine.

Things went on for a few more years, but eventually he sold the magazine. Much younger than it should have happened, Dick was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s and was no longer able to work. The last time I saw him, he and his wife, Pat, lived in a condo in Conway. We talked of fishing and the good old days, and he told me about his new float tube and the fun he’d been having. In the corner of the room, he had a fly-tying bench set up, and he showed me some of the patterns he had been experimenting with. Only once, when he told me the same joke twice within a 10-minute span, did I get an indication that he wasn’t the same old Dick. He always had a joke to tell, and knowing Dick, maybe telling that same joke twice was a joke in itself. Before I left, he insisted that I take another copy of his Fly Tyer Pattern Bible, which he autographed for me. It also sits above my desk.

Dick Surrette passed away a few years ago. I often wonder how things might have worked out if I had not bought that print shop and had stayed a freelance graphic artist. Maybe Dick and I would have had a longer run together, and maybe I would still be doing illustrations. Dick always chased his dreams, managing to squeak a living out of the thing he loved, which is something not many people can do, and I admired him for that.