OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU faculty member writes 1st encyclopedia of fly tying

12/14/1998

CORVALLIS - An Oregon State University faculty member and avid fly fisherman has written the first comprehensive book on fly tying techniques that looks at the craftsmanship behind one of America's fastest growing pastimes.

Readers won't find a series of "recipes" for concocting specific flies in Ted Leeson's "The Fly Tier's Benchside Reference." What they will find in the 500-page encyclopedia are different techniques for doing all of the steps required to produce almost any fly imaginable.

Aimed especially at people who fly fish for trout, the "Benchside Reference" was published by Frank Amato of Portland. There are more than 3,300 photos in the book, most taken by Salem photographer Jim Schollmeyer.

The 14 chapters include sections on the tails, wings, heads, legs and eyes of the fly; on weighting hooks and tandem hooks; and on using different materials; and there are more than 50 different techniques for making the hackles of a fly.

"No one had ever done this before, or even attempted it, and now I now why," Leeson said with a laugh. "It took three years."

The book already is striking a chord with fly fishermen. The initial run of 5,000 books nearly sold out in the first three weeks and a second run has been ordered. Not bad for a book that costs $100 and has 440,000 words.

Leeson, who is a senior instructor in OSU's Department of English, works half-time on campus and spends many of the rest of his hours writing for fly fishing magazines, or casting on the Deschutes River and other favorite haunts. He is the author of "The Habit of Rivers," a series of essays about fishing in Oregon that received popular and critical acclaim.

His latest effort, however, is more of a how-to manual for learning different techniques of the various steps required to tie flies. Whether fly tiers are interested in producing hollow-hair capsules, bobbin loops, or feather-stem quill strips, the "Benchside Reference" can take them through the process with its descriptions and illustrations.

Leeson put an enormous amount of research into the book, attending fly tying exhibitions, trade shows, consumer shows and club meetings, and corresponding with hundreds of fly fishing enthusiasts from around the world.

His book includes techniques from some of America's best known fly tiers, including Dave Whitlock of Arkansas, Darrel Martin of Tacoma, Wash., and Al Beatty of Colorado, who specializes in hair-wing flies made from the hair of North American deer.

It also includes methods from fly tiers in Finland, Austria, Germany and Slovenia - "guys who could barely speak English, but provided phenomenally elaborate drawings to describe their work."

"There are differences between fly tying in America and in Europe," Leeson said. "American fly tiers are very talented and very inventive, but they tend to be provincial. The Europeans use some materials - like CDC, a kind of feather - which have really interesting properties and could lend a new perspective to tying flies."

Leeson said the use of synthetic materials has provided a wealth of new resources for fly tiers. But fly tying is not "rocket science," he added, and a beginning tier - or a frugal one - can use materials found around the household.

"It helps if you have a dog or a cat," he said. "That's a good place to start. But any yarns or threads can work, packing materials, even things you brush out of your carpet. With any of that, you can make a passable fly.

"Fish aren't that smart," Leeson said, chuckling. "At least, most of them."

Leeson began fly fishing about 30 years ago and his most memorable fish remains the first one he ever caught. He had never seen anyone fly fishing, but became fascinated by the idea after reading about it in magazines and books. So he taught himself.

"I tossed a fly out there and this trout came out of nowhere and took it," he said. "I was stunned. I simply couldn't believe that it happened."

Despite that early success, Leeson said he never saw another fly fisherman until he was 26 years old. Everything he knew he learned on his own. His book is an attempt to make sure others have more resources than he did.

"This is not a perfect book," he said. "But I think it makes a good companion piece to the work that others have done. Most of the books about fly tying are holistic, looking at the creation of specific flies. This book tries to take each step of the way and shrink it down.

"I think it gives a pretty good snapshot of the state of fly tying in the late 20th century," he added. "I wish this kind of book existed at the end of the 17th century. It would have been fun to look at the evolution of fly tying."