It’s a deep breath shy of 7:35 p.m. on a Thursday at Schroeder’s Bar & Grill in St. Paul, and Andy Fiskness has already settled in behind his fly-tying vise in the establishment’s dimly lit upstairs banquet room.
He takes a sip from his amber-colored beer, wipes his lips and stares intently at the tiny, naked hook that rests snugly in the vise’s jaw and that’s illuminated by a standing square-shaped light.
“On a typical night, I’ll tie six flies and drink two beers,” said a smiling Fiskness, 39, of Maplewood, president of the St. Paul Fly Tiers and Fishermen’s Club, as he wraps the hook’s shank with some red vinyl material that’s on a spool and looks like thread. “It all depends on the night. Sometimes we get sidetracked in ‘deep’ conversation — about politics, sports, you name it. At our core, however, we’re a social club that revolves around tying and fly-fishing. But sometimes we try to solve the ills of Western civilization. You just never know.”
One of the oldest groups of its kind in the Midwest, the St. Paul Fly Tiers and Fishermen’s Club was established in 1952 by a fellow named Ben Egger, who taught fly-tying classes at Harding High School. By the late 1960s, the group boasted more than 100 members, in an era in which fly-tying materials and methodology were sparse.
Today, fly-tying is inextricably linked to fly-fishing, and both pastimes have become increasingly popular. Fly tiers are as likely today to purchase their raw materials from local fly shops as they are from craft stores like Jo-Ann Fabrics and Michaels. How-to videos and books, as well as websites devoted to the craft, abound.
Diversifying the ranks
Even during the winter, the St. Paul Fly Tiers meet every Thursday night at Schroeder’s.
“Right now we have about 50 paying members, and that’s been pretty consistent over the last several years,” Fiskness said. “That said, our mission really hasn’t changed much since the group began. We’re here to promote fly-fishing, and for many of us, tying our own flies is an extraordinarily important part of the fabric and culture of the sport. If you want to learn, we’re here to help; we’re another resource, and class is always in session. We don’t discriminate.”
A minute later, 3 other members, all carrying wooden briefcase-like boxes of fly-tying materials and assorted tools and equipment, trickle in and sit down at two white circular tables as Fiskness lashes some badger fur onto the small hook. He’s tying one of his favorite trout imitations: a midge “pattern” called the Bloody Badger.
“It’s a killer fly for early and late in the season when the water’s cold,” Fiskness said.
In some quarters, fly-fishing and, by extension, fly-tying are stereotyped as exclusionary pastimes for society’s upper crust. But Fiskness and other members say times have changed.
“It used to be that way for some, but that elitism tag has largely faded as the sport has broadened out from the guy wearing all L.L. Bean attire and fishing exclusively for trout with dry flies,” Fiskness said. “We have members from all walks of life. They’re doctors and factory workers and teachers, and they tie flies as much for carp and smallmouth bass as for trout.
“When you’re tying, class distinctions are meaningless,” added Vice President Bob Feiker, 47, of Roseville, one of the club’s most ardent anglers and tiers. “Fly-tying is a lot like golf. It takes a little work, but after a while you get into it and get better and better. Then, slowly but surely, it starts to consume you. It’s about the effort you put into it. For some, tying is therapy. For others, it turns into an addiction.”
While the vast majority begins tying flies after they’ve learned to fly-fish, Feiker is an exception to the rule. He tied his first fly as an 8-year-old after attending a tying seminar at the old Burger Brothers in Minnetonka. “The guy who was giving the presentation gave me a salmon fly and that really caused me to want to tie, so I did,” he said. “I didn’t start to fly-fish until years later, but I used my flies with spinning gear at a creek near my house. It made quite an impression on me.”
Carefully crafted flies
On this frosty night, a dozen members are tying flies, and most are replenishing their fly boxes for the upcoming season.
Each fly has its own unique look and purpose. Most are made with colorful synthetic materials and/or fur and feathers from critters trapped or hunted.
“Tying flies is every bit as much an art form as painting,” Feiker said. “You start with a blank canvas and create something. But there’s also a practical reason for tying. You want to catch fish. Guys will literally come to a meeting from the stream and bring insects with them. Then they’ll try to replicate them.”
And the better you can “match the hatch,” the more likely you’ll catch fish, club members say.
“There is something very satisfying about catching a fish — any fish — with a fly you painstakingly created,” Fiskness said. “It goes to our hunter-gather instincts, I guess. It goes to fooling something in the wild. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very, very rewarding.”
By 9 p.m., most members are packed up and ready to leave. Some muse about winter trout fishing in the coming days, while others have saltwater destinations in mind. Fiskness’ first beer is nearly empty and he’s ready for his second, his self-imposed limit.
“It’s time for our debrief,” he said, pointing downstairs to the bar.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.