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Making a hard sport harder – and more rewarding

John Fehnel, owner of Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth, wraps red floss onto his hook while making a Royal Wulff dry fly during class at the shop on Jan. 16. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com) 1 / 3
Duluth News Tribune reporter Brooks Johnson trims a wing as he creates a Royal Wulff dry fly during a fly tying class at Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth on Jan. 16. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)2 / 3
John Fehnel, owner of Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth, talks about the wings of the Royal Wulff dry fly during a class at the shop on Wednesday evening, Jan.16. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)3 / 3

If I were to write a book about this endeavor, I'd call it "This Is Extremely Frustrating And I Will Never Stop Trying."

It's a working title.

This month I decided to make a difficult and rewarding sport even more difficult and rewarding by learning how to tie flies.

I'm already a novice fly fisherman, having netted just a few baby brookies on North Shore streams in the past few years. Despite going to college in Missoula, Mont., I didn't manage to pick up a fly rod until I left — too busy picking up pint glasses, alas. Once I did, I fell hard for the analog approach to angling and the quiet waterways that are my namesake.

I always thought fly tying would be a great way to keep the fly fishing flame alive in the winter, so I eagerly signed up for three nights of lessons at Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth. Here was a chance to get intimately familiar with the trout-slayer's arsenal and level-up my burgeoning passion.

And good thing it is a passion. For a style of fishing often derided as elitist, it will humble you real quick.

On a cold Wednesday night in January, John Fehnel points to a well-loved chart with some hieroglyphic-like graphics, going over where on the hook we'll be starting and why. The owner of the longstanding Lakeside shop has taught a ton of these classes before, and said he especially loves teaching kids. That's good, because I feel like a kid with how inept I am sitting at the vise, trying to figure out what tool and material will be used together. Sort of like casting flies, this is going to take some practice before it catches some fish.

But John takes out all the guesswork as we tie on thread, hackle and hurl, and occasionally wire and hair, to create a total of six passable nymphs, streamers and dry flies. (Quick brag that my elk hair caddis did manage to float, retaining its position as my favorite fly.) He makes it look so easy, which make my bloated bodies, anemic wings and crowded eyes all the more frustrating. Again, just like fly fishing, fly tying takes a great deal of finesse using careful, repetitive motions. Unfortunately I work with my hands about as well as my newborn son wrapped in his swaddle — not great.

But when they're done, ugly as they might be in comparison to our (professional fly-tying) teacher's, it feels really good. All that work for something — which is, at last, a difference between fly tying and many fly fishing trips.

Fish think about food differently than we do. For example, they'll take about 2 seconds to evaluate whether they should put something in their mouths, whereas we'll take even less time to stuff some fast food down our craw. But really, this decision-making is key to fly-tying, and it comes down to three principles, which John has spelled out on the back of his tying chart:

Flash

Form

Movement

And then there's the all-encompassing mantra that should guide every twist of thread, length of hackle and whisp of dubbing: Proportion. Fish won't fall for some steroid-enhanced superbug or a wacky-shaped mutant.

I eat this stuff up as John talks about the history of certain flies, the reasons they're tied the way they are, why hackle is so expensive (supply and demand, as ever) and on and on.

I was initially drawn to fly fishing at an intellectual level, as many others likely were after reading "A River Runs Through It." I devoured Duluthian Michael Furtman's book, "Trout Country." I've practically memorized the Curtis Creek Manifesto, an illustrated guide to stalking trout. My father-in-law, who gifted me my first rod and the aforementioned book, can really hold forth on all things fly fishing, and I'm finally learning how to keep up.

That's all good and well, but theory without practice is just a rod in its case — untapped potential. So at John's direction I'm worrying less about perfection and precisely matching the hatch.

"If the trout in your local stream are eating little brown bugs about the size of your thumbnail, then tie on something that looks sort of like that — and have a great day out on the water," local guide Carl Haensel wrote in the recent Minnesota Trout Unlimited magazine, which includes a great hatch chart with illustrations of many of the real-live fish food out on the waterways of this great state.

I might never hoist a 'bow or a bass with the bugs I've built. But they're just the first. I'll keep on practicing.

If you want to learn more about fly tying or fly fishing, don't ask me. Classes are often available. Reach out to Great Lakes Fly Shop at 4426 Regent St. or Superior Fly Angler at 310 Belknap St. The Duluth Folk School also offers occasional fly tying classes, and Minnesota Trout Unlimited can point you in the right direction as well at mntu.org.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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