Son Tao has been tying for only a couple of years, but you wouldn’t think it by looking at his flies.
[by Seth Fields]
The first time I saw one of Son Tao’s flies, it hit me… I’ve got to step my game up. At that point, I had only been tying flies for around 5 years, and I knew I was looking at the creations of someone who had been tying diligently for decades. But, as it turns out, that’s not true. Son is a relative newbie on the fly tying scene. His experience in years is now only a third of my own, but it’s clear when I look at his flies that we are not in the same league.
So how did a guy who’s been tying for only a couple of years get to be a household name, an award winning tyer, and social media phenom? I recently reached out to Son to talk fly tying, fishing, and some of his influences.
We first met at the 2017 Fly Tying Symposium in Lancaster, Pennsylvannia. I had seen pictures of your stimulators online before and was sure that they took you hours to create, with each wire and hackle wrap looking precise and perfectly proportioned, but you tied one in 18 minutes. Do you just pay closer attention to detail than most, or are you naturally a perfectionist?
In addition to the practicality of tying your own flies for fishing, I also see fly tying as a form of art. Decades ago, I was an avid artist in elementary through high school. I loved sketching, painting and pastels. Every artist is extremely critical of their work. I’m no different with the flies I tie. I try to perfect every technical aspect of tying a fly. After all, what I tie is an expression of my work and I can’t be satisfied unless I put forth my best effort.
At the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to the fish and the tyer if they’re happy with the creation. In my opinion, a well tied fly will lead to more confidence from the fisherman which ultimately will lead to better presentation and more tight lines.
It’s obvious that you have a great deal of classical influence and some modern. Who would you say are some of your biggest influences?
Mike Valla is probably my biggest influence from an immediate point of view. When I got started 2.5 years ago, all I had were a few books. It just so happened the first book I opened up was The Founding Flies: 43 American Masters Their Patterns and Influences by Mine Valla. I have always been a history nerd, and reading about the original creator and story behind each fly got me “hooked.”
Other influences were Peder Wigdell (Sweden). His realistic patterns and dry flies are works of art. Plus he’s just an overall great guy that loves to help others. Robert Strahl (New Zealand). Robert is an all around great tyer and fishermen. I love his use of peccary. Dave Brandt and Bob Mead (USA). I met both at my first International Fly Tying Symposium. Both are renowned tyers and have immense experience with Catskills patterns. When they saw my creations and provided glowing compliments, it meant a lot and really upped my confidence. From a historical perspective, Theodore Gordon has the largest impact on me. I was intrigued by the history of dry flies and fell in love with the Quill Gordon.
One of the things that best separates your flies from others is your photography. Could you talk a little bit about your set up and any tips you might have for aspiring photogs?
I was an avid amateur photographer long before I got into fly tying. Photography is also another form of art. So combining the two was inevitable. Capturing every single detail of a fly isn’t easy without the proper equipment. When using a macro lens, every aspect of the fly is shown. That includes every mistake! Haha
With the advancement in mobile technology, a tyer can capture small flies with their cell phones. While the quality will never surpass a good SLR and macro lens, tyers can capture a decent shot with a bit of practice. The key is lighting, background and a steady platform. The best purchase they could make is a light box. Light boxes are readily available for under $30.
If a tyer wants to step into the DSLR platform, they need to be prepared to spend a lot more. They’ll need an SLR body, macro lens, and tripod at a minimum. To get the absolute best shot, good daylight lamps, ring flash and remote shutter releases are a must.
You’re originally from central Pennsylvania’s trout country, and you obviously tie a lot of trout flies, but what a species you’ve never fished or tied for but that’s high on your bucket list?
I would love to go on a tarpon trip someday. The largest fish I’ve caught to date are steelheads and salmons. I just think it would be an unforgettable experience to see a monster tarpon jumping while hooked to a fly.
Another species I’d love to target some day are giant trevally. It’s funny that I was stationed in Hawaii for a combined 9 years but didn’t pick up a fly rod until I got to Indiana.
You hold the title of Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army. With a busy job that no doubt has its stressful moments, when do you find time to tie flies, and what does tying mean to you?
Tying flies actually help me deal with day-to-day life. I find time to tie 2-4 flies a day. The amount of focus required helps my brain forget everything else going on. I’ve had some traumatic experiences from the military and on bad days, I suffer from bad migraines and sleepless nights. The tying really helps me cope with those issues.
Through the help of Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation and Project Healing Waters, I found out that I’m not alone as a veteran dealing with those issues.
So with the support of those great foundations and that of my wife, I started posting my flies and fishing adventures on social media. The results in the past 2.5 years have been overwhelming!
Son Tao, US Army Master Sergeant (Active), is on the Whiting Farms, Semperfli, Regal Vise, Solarez and Moonlit pro teams. He’s also an ambassador for Simms Fishing. Son has been tying for 2.5 years and was originally from Pennsylvania but has bounced around the USA for the past 18 years due to military service. Check out some of Son’s creations and keep up with him at https://www.facebook.com/sontaoflies/