Craft is close to heart of fishing’s allure for Steamboat outdoorsmen |

Craft is close to heart of fishing’s allure for Steamboat outdoorsmen

Caitie Milligan ties a worm Thursday as Straightline Sports' Brian Jarrell offers advice. Jarrell said catching a fish fly-fishing is great, but even that excitement pales in comparison to doing it with your own fly.
Joel Reichenberger

Brian Jarrell's hands whip around tying a fly Thursday night at Straightline Sports in Steamboat Springs.Joel Reichenberger

— Fly tying is not a trend, local fishermen surmised. The fly-tying classes that recently have been ushered in to various fly-fishing shops across Steamboat Springs and the extra steps shops have taken to stock supplies would seem to suggest otherwise, but fly-fishing, thus fly tying, is as old as the pyramids. How can that be a trend?

No, they insisted, fly tying is the nearly inevitable result of fly-fishing and a do-it-yourself approach that seems as vital to the sport's soul as babbling water or a love for the outdoors.

"You catch your first fish on a fly rod and you think, 'That was fun. Maybe I could make that fly, too,'" said Brian Jarrell, pausing while leading a small class of rookie fly tyers on Thursday night at Straightline Sports. "You think, 'I could make the fly, or I could make the rod.' I've been down that road. I've made the rods, made the nets. I built all my equipment. Making the flies, it's just so much fun."

Caitie Milligan, who's worked at the shop since moving to Steamboat late last year, didn't look up from the worm she carefully was crafting on a fly vise.

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Native to Alaska, where she said the fish will eat anything, she was working as a recruiter for big-name tech companies in northern California until life and the call of the wild brought her to Steamboat Springs and Straightline.

Worms are the first fly Jarrell teaches, and Milligan, who was new to the craft, had the twisting, turning and tying down after just one run-through.

She finally glanced up from her work, another worm finished, a hook baited.

"It's an innate thing in them," she said. "Everyone in the shop has a college degree. Do you see any of us working behind a desk? It's a spirit, something inside them that drives them to do this."

Tie 1 on

Fly tying may not be new, but opportunities to do it yourself are popping up all across Steamboat.

Jarrell's class runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursdays at Straightline, and another is from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. A free one-hour tying demonstration starts at 10:45 a.m. Saturdays.

Steamboat Flyfisher, meanwhile, has a class from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays for $25 and a free one-hour demo at 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays.

More people may fish in the summer, but now's the time to prepare.

"I just enjoy doing it, tying them on my own," Steamboat Flyfisher's Keith Hale said. "It's a great way to pass a winter day."

Results to remember

Fly tying is intricate business. Jarrell swirled his hands around his hook and vice like a wizard commanding a crystal ball, but his breathing nearly stopped as he worked through the more delicate aspects of certain patterns.

He said he hasn't hunted ducks for years but saved enough feathers from his past trip that he might never run out. A half-dozen colorful pheasant tail feathers stick out of his box of supplies, but he said he can't claim any of those.

"When friends find out you do this, they always bring back feathers and anything else," he said.

He clipped fur off a rabbit hide for one fly, showed off a Hungarian partridge skin, has been a regular in sewing shops and smiled while recounting how a friend had one-by-one snipped the streamers off a child's bike — one already destined for the dump — for supplies. His tools include a broken set of tweezers augmented with a patch of Velcro, a wine cork with a sewing needle stuck in it and several pieces of an air compressor nozzle screwed together and fitted with a section of wire.

Fly tying, all aspects of the art, is about innovation.

"Just about everything's been done," Hale said, pointing out at a sea of commercially made flies on the Flyfisher showroom floor.

Large stacks of books and mountains of feathers, threads, wires and furs awaited behind him in the shop's fly tying den.

"But just by adding something different," Hale continued, "you can add a different flash to it or a different dullness depending on what you're going for."

It's when that innovation pays off that two things happen: It all instantly seems worth it, and the fire to do it again is lit.

"Where'd you catch your first with your own fly rod?" Jarrell asked, looking up from his work to quiz passing co-worker Daren Mangiaracina.

Mangiaracina didn't hesitate: "A black woolly bugger, Lake Saratoga," he said.

Neither did Jarrell, recalling in an instant one of the first of thousands of fishing trips, an adventure nearly a decade ago in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area.

"Elk hair caddis," he said.

The ease and joy of that catch is only part of the formula that makes fly-fishing and fly tying so special, he said.

"There are a lot of things you could spend your entire life trying to be better at, but to me, fly-fishing and tying is something where I could never learn everything, and that's a challenge," Jarrell said.

"It's a disease, and there's only one cure."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email

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