Fly-Tying As Therapy
Kenosha, Wis. — The coffee was brewed, the materials were arranged, the stage was set.
Richie Santiago of Kenosha and I headed to his basement for a preseason workout.
Destination: The fly-tying bench.
Objective: Replenish the fly boxes and share some stories.
Along the way, if creativity gets sparked, dreams get stoked and stress gets relieved, that’s just fine, too.
In fact, that’s the way it normally goes as fly tiers and lure makers and rod builders work through the winter to get ready for the fishing to come.
“This helps build the anticipation,” Santiago said, pulling up a chair at the bench. “As much as I love fishing, I don’t think it would be as satisfying if I didn’t make my own flies.”
Anyone who has caught a fish on a self-made lure or rod can attest — it’s a highlight in the life of an angler.
With the early trout season approaching, Santiago and I met on a wintry weekend morning to make some flies designed to tempt March trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.
Santiago, 29, works full-time, is married and has two young children. He tries to tie for a couple hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings in winter.
“I tie over coffee,” Santiago said as he tightened a size 16 hook in his vise.
The top of his tying table was covered with various tools and materials, including a bobbin, spools of thread and wire, scissors, hooks, pheasant and partridge feathers and synthetic dubbing.
Fly tying can be a solitary endeavor or a social event with friends around a table.
These days, the friends don’t even have to be in the same room — the Internet makes it possible to share the activity across the globe.
Helen Shaw, a Wisconsin native who was recognized as a pre-eminent American fly tier in the middle to late 20th century, said “Fly tying is a simple process of binding various materials to a hook with thread.”
If you’ve seen her work, you also know fly tying can be a high art form.
For most, it’s an attractive blend of the practical, productive, creative and therapeutic.
I learned to tie flies at the age of 7 after my mother obliged my wishes and purchased a mail-order tying kit from Herter’s. My uncle Ludwig Holz gave me some pointers at the kitchen table, and I had enough basic skills to launch a lifetime of tying.
My first fly was a piece of red marabou wrapped clumsily with thick black thread on a No. 6 streamer hook.
I remember watching it breathe and pulsate in the water on my first cast. Seconds later an 8-inch trout darted across the pool and inhaled it.
The bright color and natural action of the marabou had far more to do with catching that fish than my tying ability. But I was hooked more deeply than the trout.
In the early days I tied flies from anything I could get my hands on — hair from the family dog, feathers found in the yard, wool from old sweaters.
These days I keep every feather from every turkey, grouse and woodcock I bring home from hunting trips as well as select ones from Canada geese and ducks.
I happen to like making use of every fiber from game I take. But the last couple of decades have seen an explosion in the number and variety of artificial materials, many of which are excellent and easy to use.
Tying skills can be learned from books but are enhanced more quickly by seeing a good tier work. I happen to prefer taking a class from an expert such as Pat Ehlers at The Fly Fishers in West Allis. Others like to watch videos.
In any case, it takes some time to learn the concepts of thread tension and proportion.
One of the best things about fly tying — there is no single right way to do it.
If you like the look of the fly, that’s enough. If it catches fish, that’s more than enough.
Santiago has been tying for a dozen years. He picked up the craft from his older brother, Clayton, as the two fished near their college in northern Georgia.
Santiago had a break from tying while he was deployed to various places while serving in the U.S. Army. Then, while stationed in Iraq, his father sent him a vise.
Fishing was just a dream at that time and place. But Santiago whipped up as many flies as time and materials would allow.
“It’s always been an activity that gives you more than something to fish with,” Santiago said.
Project Healing Waters uses fly tying as a means of physical and emotional therapy for military veterans. The benefits of the activity extend to all tiers.
These days, Santiago often starts out his tying sessions assisted by Kinley, his 2 ½-year-old daughter.
“Tie bug, daddy?” Kinley said.
Santiago spread out an assortment of materials. Kinley pointed to the ones she liked best. Santiago used them to craft a fly called the “K-Special.”
With pink ice dubbing and a soft, webby hackle, it’s destined to be a trout magnet.
The morning’s session drained two cups of coffee apiece and produced more than a dozen K-Specials in various sizes, filling gaps in our fly boxes and cementing plans for March.
I can’t wait to see the fly come to life in the water of the Driftless Area.