I have been an Umpqua Signature Tyer for almost 20 years now and to say I am happy with our arrangement would be an understatement. As a long time commercial tyer here in Colorado, I have been approached by several other fly manufacturers, but I held out for my chance with Umpqua because their hats fit my little round head really well. From a business perspective, Umpqua is also the biggest fly company in the world. The Southern Rockies territory in which I live, fish and design flies predominantly for, also happens to be the epicenter of fly sales. I may not have finished college, but I’m no dummy either.
I think the very idea of fly design is an enigma to most people. While I am certain that some folks (me occasionally included) have sat down at the vise and just randomly come up with an effective, saleable fly pattern, I believe most long standing patterns are purpose built. When I sit down to design a fly, it is almost always with a fishing conundrum in mind. I’m finally getting to be the kind of a cranky old guy I’ve always aspired to be and I am never happy with anything for very long. Flies that don’t do their job well have always irritated me, so I am always tinkering with fly design in one way or another. I look at fly patterns as solutions to fishing puzzles and while I am now becoming as well known for designing flies as I am for my pointedness, I’d say my most effective skill is recognizing liabilities and shortcomings in existing patterns and making design improvements.
In my opinion, to be truly new and unique, a fly pattern has to offer something more than what was previously available. It has to float better, or sink better, or skate better, or swim better, or cast better or suspend better, or be more imitative or durable or visible or...it has to go beyond what we all already have in existing patterns. News Flash: minor variations on a theme or a slight material or color changes do notmake a new pattern, but instead, an interchangeable pattern knock-off that really only exists for the tyer’s ego. Don’t waste your time copying someone else’s stuff. Honestly, the last thing I do when I am working on a new pattern is go to pattern books or on the internet to find inspiration or design ideas. That’s the quickest way to pollute your good idea and bastardize it into a dreaded knock-off. Stay pure.
Legacy fly patterns, to a one, are groundbreaking and innovative because they effectively solve problems encountered on the water in a new way. Flies like these become popular because they simply do the job they were intended to do better than what came before them. These flies make fishing easier, more enjoyable and productive, and deservedly, usually end up being good sellers as well. No matter how pretty a fly is, and I firmly believe all flies should be pretty as an inherent trait, if they don’t do what they are supposed to and catch fish consistently, they need to go back to the drawing board. No one wants to spend half their day with their dry fly in a bottle of Shimizaki Dry Shake fighting to keep the thing afloat, and no one has ever said to their buddy, “Ya know, Carl, I’d really like to spend the day casting about three more split shot to keep this fly down in the water column”. No one likes ripping their rotator cuff trying to cast a waterlogged sock streamer nor does anyone fully appreciate the whistling bonk in the back of the head from a bonefish fly that is tied way too heavy to cast in the wind. These are just a few of the issues I’ve encountered over the years and I’ve developed patterns to solve all of them, not because I’m so much smarter or better at tying flies than everyone else, but because I get frustrated easily and want flies that work better. My advice to any tyer with a desire to design flies either for commercial sale or simply their own use, is to learn to recognize liabilities and ask yourself; what could make the fly I am currently fishing better?
Once a fly pattern has been developed, I like to fish it as much as possible to work out any design flaws or durability issues. This sounds fantastic on paper and sometimes even works on my wife when I have to tell her, yes, I’m going fishing again. Fishing the fly often also forces me to tie more of them, which helps me streamline the tying process. Once I have a pattern to where I feel like I have it dialed in, I like to sit on it a while and leave it be, although this can be particularly hard to do with flies that are drastic improvements because I like to catch fish just as much as the next guy. This “away time” gives me a fresh perspective when I circle back around later and give it a second hard look. I often need to reconsider some piece of the pattern or tying technique to build a fly that fits the above criteria as well as I can manage. Only when I feel like I have all the elements of the pattern honed in, from the exact hook and size range, to the bead color and size, proportions, durability and tying process and even the precise shade of thread, do I even think about submitting the fly to my friends at Umpqua. For me, it’s sometimes hard to know when a fly design is really finished and I’ve always maintained that nearly all of my flies, regardless of popularity, are perpetually still in development. Once I am satisfied with the design, I will finally submit the fly and wait patiently to hear back. Yes, patiently. It’s hard for me too.
I have to be honest with you here because everyone seems to think I get every pattern that drops from my vise into the catalog. I send several patterns in to Umpqua each year, and not all of them get picked up. Can you believe that? Me either... but sometimes you just have to stick with it. My most successful flies have historically been the best problem solvers and in hindsight, many of the patterns that were rejected didn’t fill the timely niche that I was hoping for all that well. My Mole Fly had been submitted at least three or four times before I finally just gave up on it and figured I’d keep that delicious little hunk of fluff to myself. It was only after other guides began to talk the fly up to the guys at Umpqua did they finally approach meand ask why they “hadn’t seen this Mole Fly thing?”...and the rest is history. For every pattern you know me for, there is another that never made it through the development stage.
I think one of the key factors in my “success” as a fly designer is that I have the unique perspective of not only a fly tyer but a fly shop owner and angler as well. I honestly look at every new pattern presented each year with the same critical eye that I use to work over my own patterns. I know when a fly solves an issue, I know which ones are knock-offs and generally speaking, I know which ones will turn out to be big sellers. Admittedly, I may have a bit of an advantage over other tyers with this perspective, but if you just keep in mind the factors that all great patterns have in common, it becomes a lot easier. Great patterns must be durable, effective, problem solving fish catchers. They need to be backed up by a company that can keep up with production too. I’ve seen far too many great patterns appear only to be backordered throughout the season and be forgotten about in both the minds of the fly shops as well as the end users. There is a reason beyond hat sizing that I chose to both market my patterns with Umpqua as well as why I purchase the majority of my shop flies from them. The rigorous selection process coupled with the very best in hooks and materials make Umpqua the obvious choice for success both in design and sales. Yep, I’d say I’m pretty happy.