No fishing for these flies

Tyer's Atlantic salmon baits are in demand as art around the world

The Associated PressAugust 13, 2009 

— Clearly you don't need a fully dressed Atlantic salmon fly to catch a fish with a brain the size of a peanut any more than you need a vintage Bentley Continental to buzz down to the corner store for milk and eggs.

They're expensive and beautiful products of an exquisitely class-conscious culture. They make a certain statement.

Yet the undeniable beauty of traditional salmon flies - as well as the challenge of finding the exotic feathers they require - captivates fly tiers dedicated to keeping these classic patterns alive.

Mature salmon move from the ocean back up their native rivers to spawn. While they don't eat when they're in fresh water, they will snap at smaller fish apparently out of annoyance. The art of tying salmon flies involves shaping feathers and fur around a deadly hook - all to mimic a small fish.

By all accounts, Marvin Nolte is one of the best traditional salmon fly "dressers," as he puts it, in the world.

It takes Nolte, 61, four hours to tie one of his fully dressed Atlantic salmon flies. His finished flies are works of art that will never see a river or feel the teeth of a fish.

"Nobody's going to take a chance on throwing it in the water and snagging it on a tree," Nolte said of the flies he sells for $175 each.

Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg is a devoted fly fisherman who keeps two of Nolte's framed flies in his office.

"It's just a preservation of a lost art," Salzburg said.

Nolte works out of his basement in Bar Nunn, a suburb of Casper in arid central Wyoming - thousands of miles from the nearest saltwater. He ships his flies in shadowbox frames to collectors worldwide. He's also in demand on the fly-fishing lecture circuit around the world as a master salmon fly tier and as an authority on the history of classic fly patterns.

"I suppose it's a combination of the aesthetic, and the challenge, let's put it that way," Nolte said of what motivates him to tie these particularly demanding flies. "They have history - a brief history, but a glorious history."

To trace the origin of the many feathers on a traditional salmon fly is to read a faded map from the glory days of European colonialism. Back when the British were pleased to say that the sun never set on their sprawling empire, it was a cinch for them to round up feathers from the far corners of the earth for the sole purpose of tying salmon flies.

The wings of a fully dressed Atlantic salmon fly might include plumes from a golden pheasant from the mountains of western China. The fly's "horns" might be a few strands from the feathers of a South American scarlet macaw. The tail might require feathers from an Indian crow.

Such rare and precious fibers don't get slapped down on just any hook. Proper Atlantic salmon flies use handmade, "blind eye" hooks. Rather than the modern system of bending a loop at the end of the hook's shaft to hold the line, these hooks require tying a delicate loop of braided silk to the shaft to take the line.

And that's easier said than done: Nolte was forced to raise his own silkworms. He relied on a fellow fly tier in Texas to send him mulberry leaves to feed the caterpillars. Just before they began spinning cocoons, he killed them and harvested their silk-producing glands.

Nolte stretched out the silk himself, getting about 10 inches from each gland. Wrapping three thicknesses together gave him strands of silk thick enough for the loop on the end of a fly.

To Nolte, getting his flies right is worth the effort.

"I think most fishermen would tell you that there's not a prettier style of fly than a classic Atlantic salmon fly," Nolte said.

Nolte's résumé includes past careers as a bomb disposal officer in the U.S. Army and a stint at a now-defunct Wyoming uranium mine. He has been a full-time, professional fly tier since 1993.

Nolte said he struck a deal with his wife, Victoria, that allows him to devote his time to tying flies and fishing as long as he handles his duties as "house husband" - cooking and cleaning while she's at work. He said he's the only professional tier he knows who produces only salmon flies.

"There are people who sell the occasional fly, just like I did when I started just to subsidize the hobby," Nolte said. "But folks who don't have any other productive form of employment and tie these things? I don't know of any others."

Even with his dedication to detail, Nolte said some feathers specified for famous fly patterns are simply unavailable these days because the birds have become endangered. He said it's accepted practice to dye some feathers or substitute others to replicate traditional patterns.

Many of the exotic feathers that the British sent back from the colonies in the Victorian era went to sprawling estates. There, "ghillies," or full-time fishing guides, worked with a few renowned fly designers to devise increasingly ornate, exotic and colorful flies. If they caught a few fish, that was apparently fine, too.

Together, the work of these fly tiers and designers defined the golden age of the Atlantic salmon fly: from the second half of the 19th century until the beginning of World War I.

After World War I, which essentially cost Europe a generation of young men, salmon fly design again returned to simple, smaller, drab flies that simply caught fish. Nolte said that's about where practical salmon fly design remains today.

Nolte's work has been featured in books. He has published articles in magazines and made instructional tapes. In 1995, he received the Federation of Fly Fisher's Buz Buszek Memorial Fly Tying Award, a top national award.

Chris Helm, owner of a fly-tying supply company in Toledo, Ohio, also is a winner of the Buszek award and a longtime colleague of Nolte's.

Nolte is "probably the only person in the entire world who's ever done that, raised silk worm gut to tie salmon flies," Helm said. "He's very good at what he does."

Paul Morgan, owner of Coch-y-Bonddu Books in Machynlleth, Wales, is publishing a new book of works of George Mortimer Kelson, a renowned British fly designer and author from the golden age. Morgan has retained Nolte to tie one fly for each of the first 75 copies.

He reached halfway around the world to tap Nolte because he has known him for years.

"He just has an excellent reputation," Morgan said. "He's one of the few people in the world who's capable of doing it."

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