Take a deeper look at the art and science of tying flies for fly fishing.

Different fish eat different bugs, minnows, plants and berries. They eat clams and crayfish and sometimes other fish. Some eat frogs, and a few might even take a chunk out of a person if they get a hankering.

When a fish has lived in a river or pond or lake or ocean for a while, they get to know exactly what dinnertime looks like. Whether it be mulberries dropping from branches into the water, or mayflies, dragonflies or any of thousands of other flying insect nymphs in the area begin to hatch, fish know what all of them look like and exactly where to find them. They are savvy when it comes to mealtime and are discriminating diners.

Let’s say you bump into a seasoned fly fisherman out on a river somewhere in Montana or Maine. They’re going to have somewhere between 12 to 40 flies in their tackle box. A fly or an imitation of a real flying insect (or nymph, minnow or some kind of fish food) with a hook at the end of a line. Every different fly represents a different meal, season, location or time. Simply put, fly-fishing is more than just casting a hook and bobber into the water. It’s about getting to know the fish and respecting the environment that the fish live in.

So when you consider that a particular fish is looking for a particular meal during a particular season in a particular location at a particular time, the fly on the line needs to be convincing. That’s where the art and science of fly tying brings angler and fish closer than any other outdoor activity.

Va Fly Fish 006

Casting for Smallmouth Bass on the Huron River.

There’s a lot of specialized gear in fishing. Look around and you’ll see rods, reels and lines. You’ll find bobbers, hooks, lures, boots and even boats. A lot of this equipment is made from petroleum. Materials like plastic, rubber, silicone, PVC and fiberglass make getting out on the water and chasing down a fish possible. In fact, it’s hard to imagine going fishing at all without petroleum. But more than just the fact that equipment made from these materials works extremely well in wet conditions, petroleum also plays a huge role in fishing because of how versatile and flexible it is, making it more than just a rubber worm on the end of a hook.

Let’s go back to our fly fisherman buddy. His tackle box is full of nymphs and flies and streamers that were likely all tied by hand — maybe even tied by his hands. He used a combination of natural and synthetic materials — like rabbit fur and pheasant tail, nylon streamers and PVC foam, wax and epoxy and UV glue. All of this was carefully chosen and painstakingly crafted to create impersonations of specific bait.

Corey Haselhuhn of Schultz Outfitters could be that guy. Maybe he’s a little younger. Maybe he’s not wearing one of those beige fishing vests and maybe his beard is a lot less gray, but Corey’s been tying flies since he was 13. He’s probably somewhere out on the water right now, and he represents a whole new generation of fly anglers.

“You want to go trout fish? Cool. You don’t have to have a vest,” he says. “The only thing I want to preach to people across the line is ethics. Take care of the water.”

Va Fly Fish 002

Corey Haselhuhn of Schultz Outfitters.

On the banks of the Huron River in Ypsilanti, Michigan, sits the fly fishing shop, Schultz Outfitters. Through the concerted effort of local anglers working with the Watershed Council, this urban stretch of the Huron, about 35 miles outside of Detroit, has become a clear and clean, healthy stretch of beautiful river — one filled with plenty of fish.

Corey is a manager and guide there and says he tries to remind people that they don’t have to travel to the middle of nowhere to find good fly fishing.

“You can fly fish anywhere for anything, and there’s a great river right in our backyard,” he says. “I want kids to grow up and come to this same river and experience something similar to what I had. Something that altered the entire course of my life.”

Corey taught himself how to tie flies and cast when he was just a kid. He saved up to buy a starter kit and joined a bunch of online forums to get a little guidance. His enthusiasm was quickly replaced with frustration when bad gear and materials made the process cumbersome and confusing. He gave up and reached out to members of the forum to sell off his equipment, but someone on the forum took notice.

I want kids to grow up and come to this same river and experience something similar to what I had. Something that altered the entire course of my life.

A week later, Corey got a surprise package in the mail. It was filled with quality supplies — a far cry from the starter kit and a much different experience. Thanks to the support and guidance of other anglers in the community, he says he got over his initial frustration and never looked back.

“I wish I could talk to the guys from that forum today,” he says. “I pick up a fly rod every day of my life.”

Va Fly Fish 006

A close look at the intricate details of a fly.

Almost all fishing starts with a hook. For those who tie flies, that hook is put on a vice. From there, it’s all about creating an illusion of food for a fish. Anglers use color patterns, shape and movement — even sound — as considerations that go onto the hook.

Take a look at one of the more well known fly patterns, the Pheasant Tail Nymph. This is a popular fly used primarily for trout. This little fella typically starts with a size 16 hook. That’s pretty small, about the size of your fingertip. Brown thread and copper wire are wrapped around the hook, and dyed pheasant tail is then meticulously looped with the thread. That’s just the abdomen section. Then there are precisely-measured lengths of tail for the legs. More wire and more thread are looped in specific patterns, and peacock herl is added for the thorax and wound with even more thread. This is followed with precise arranging and positioning of the herl and tail for the wings. Then the whole tiny little thing is secured with head cement.

This explanation doesn’t do justice to the artistry that goes into it. It’s complicated and beautiful, and one can see how a fish could easily take it for a snack. This is also one of the more common and “easy to tie” patterns out there.

Va Fly Fish 005 Underwater

Schultz Outfitters Signature Streamer: "The Swinging D."

What Corey and Schultz Outfitters specialize in are streamers, also known as sub-surface flies. These are larger and extremely complex flies that are meant to replicate the look and movement of a minnow or frog. And just like minnows and frogs, they can vary pretty wildly in size, shape and color.

“Big fish eat big flies,” says Corey. “I’ve seen a 10-inch streamer catch a 30-inch brown trout.”

Streamer fishing represents a new wave of fly fishing. These are big flashy flies in multiple sections that are tied with intelligently selected natural and synthetic materials. Rattles vibrate the water and signal to a fish that the dinner bell is ringing. Streamers are bold and bright and eye-catching to a fish. Schultz’ signature fly is something called the “Swinging D” — a 4-inch white, gold and red two-section fly with two hooks and a PVC foam head. It’s tied with natural feathers and fur, synthetic flash, beads and a rattle. It’s a completely tantalizing representation of food for a fish — the side-to-side and up-and-down movements deliver a pretty authentic impersonation of a wounded baitfish. But the complexity of inventing, tying and tuning something like the “Swinging D” could require its own short novel. Every material chosen in the design allows for a more active kind of angling — one that has the angler working as a puppeteer, controlling the movement of the fly in the water.

Catching the fish and landing it isn’t my main objective. It’s a much bigger experience for me.

While this is a radical departure from targeting an area with a dry fly and letting it float, the principles are the same. Every fish has a different dynamic, so whether there’s a nymph or a “Swinging D” at the end of the line, the angler needs to be keenly aware of the conditions.

“85 percent of the time, I’m watching; learning what they’re doing,” Corey says. “15 percent of the time, I’m making a presentation to the fish. Then, hopefully, 5 percent of that time I’m actually hooking the fish.”

All the watching and learning informs every decision, both in and out of the water. Tying a good fly requires a lot of trial and error, but as the complexity of the fly goes up, so does the fine-tuning.

“We start by tying the fly, fishing it and seeing where adjustments need to be made,” Corey says. “Then we go back down to the vise and do it all over again. Sometimes it takes 10 to 15 tries to get a fly perfectly tuned.”

Va Fly Tie 004

Corey at his vise, tying the "Swinging D" by hand.

Everyone gets into fly tying for their own reasons. For some, it’s a fun and creative aspect to the sport. Some claim that it’s a money thing. But for others, it’s a way to connect to the fish on a deeper level.

If you ask most anglers, both conventional and fly, they won’t say that it’s person versus fish. It’s not an adversarial thing. They’ll tell you that it’s more of a relationship. Good fishing is not a trap — the gear that’s used is meant to create a natural meal for the fish. So in fly fishing, where there’s window of getting a specific fly in the right spot at just the right time, the care and effort put into tying a fly strengthens that relationship.

Tying a fly, and then fishing that fly, means getting to know all the particulars of the fish — the biology and physiology of how it behaves. With every wrap of thread or wire or pheasant tail, with every cast of line, we develop an appreciation for the fish we have the honor and privilege to chase. And, in turn, getting to know the fish gives a much greater perspective and respect to the environment as a whole.

“Catching the fish and landing it isn’t my main objective. It’s a much bigger experience for me,” Corey says. “To sit down with a raw hook, nothing on it, and create something. To catch a fish with something I made. To be able to convince that fish to eat, and I now get to have it in my hands. To feel the life come back into that fish and that big tail kick of it going back out into the water. Pretty damn cool for me.”

Pretty damn cool indeed.

Take a closer look at more of these amazing creations, or get out and grab a reel yourself.

Visit www.schultzoutfitters.com