Angler of the Year

Angler of the Year

John Betts

  • By: Darrel Martin
  • Photography by: Stephen Collector
Contemporary fly tiers are now so completely accustomed to working with a vast array of synthetic dressings that many of us have all but forgotten the not-so-distant days when few man-made materials had yet been incorporated into our ever-evolving art. It took creativity and a number of long leaps of the imagination on the part of some late 20th Century fly-tying innovators to move us out of the relatively black-and-white world of all-natural tying materials and into the Technicolor universe of synthetic options.(Of course, many tiers still claim that natural materials are superior for a number of reasons, but that is a debate for another day…) Of those early innovators, none was more influential than a fly-fishing renaissance man named John Betts. Not only did Betts introduce a number of still-popular synthetic tying materials in the 1970's, but his 1980 book, Synthetic Flies, served to open the eyes of fly tiers around the globe. FR&R's Darrel Martin caught up with Betts, one of the fly-fishing world's most unique personalities, at the Colorado home from which he continues to fish, tinker and dream… John Betts continues to be a curiosity, a person in search of himself. Born in 1937 in Short Hills, New Jersey, he began his angling, at age nine, with a $20 Montague rod, an Avon reel, a William Mills silk line, gut leaders and a dozen flies. His first casts were at an old Cape Cod fishing club, and his first fish was a 10-inch brook trout caught on a black gnat. He quickly lost that gnat, so he took a Pflueger bait hook, mounted it in his father's bench vise and wrapped a pattern with feathers molted from his mother's pet, a bobwhite quail that lived in the front room. After attending private schools, John entered Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He took with him a 25-cent fly-tying kit, which included The Noll Guide to Trout Flies and How to Tie Them, a stamped aluminum F-vise, hooks and materials. The vise screw stripped out immediately, but he solved the problem with a clamped hemostat. From then on, tying traveled with John wherever he went. At the university, John desperately wanted his name on the front page of The New York Times sports section. He wanted people to know his name and he wanted to excel in swimming as his father had done at Yale. He broke into the swimming pool at night and swam countless laps to make the swim team. About the time he finally made the front page of the sports section, he flunked out of college; as he said, "You cannot swim at that level and study at the same time." John then enlisted in the Air Force. Part of his Air Force duties included medical research for the Mercury and Apollo programs. He met the first astronauts, Werner von Braun and other notables. In flight medicine, John worked on white-out research, the Mercury capsules' artificial horizon system and protective lenses for radiation and atomic flash. Part of his training included parachute qualification. John recalls, "There's nowhere anybody who had flunked out of college in his first semester would ever have a job like that in civilian life. It was a wonderful opportunity and I loved every moment." After the Air Force, John briefly returned to college; but again, it wasn't a good fit. The only thing left now was finding employment. He subsequently worked at a variety of jobs-making concrete pipe in Wyoming, working briefly for the Bromley Mountain Ski Corporation in Vermont, and as a loan collector in Denver repossessing cars, clothes and televisions. As John recalls: "The worst job I ever had…God, it was just awful…the dumbest damn job!" Soon his father would offer a solution. John's father was a director of Cheeseborough Ponds, the cosmetics company, and the president of International Pipe and Ceramics (Interpace). While traveling around the world to visit various Interpace branches, the elder Betts visited the Wildfowl Trust in Gloucestershire, England. Impressed by the experience, he thought of John and encouraged him to be part of it. John quickly quit his summer job making concrete pipe, drove from Cheyenne to New Jersey nonstop, sold his car and bought a ticket to England. He worked at the Wildfowl Trust for room and board plus 4-pounds-10 a week. With his car money, he bought a season's rod on the Coln, a lovely chalk stream at Fairford, outside of Cirencester. James Ogden, sometimes regarded as the best angler of the 19th Century, had frequented these waters. John saw Ogden's name in the game book, many pages before his own, but never realized until later who Ogden was. (Ogden wrote the 1879 book Ogden on Fly Tying, and was instrumental in the development and promulgation of the dry fly.) Nearly every night at "Ogden's Bar" in the Bull Inn, John watched the old tiers sip their pints and wrap fly patterns. Some of the old men, perhaps in their 80's, may even have known Ogden. Though John did not realize the opportunity before him, he would later make up for it. For him, fishing an English chalk stream was a new world of angling and history. After his return to the States, John worked at Orvis in the early 1960's in Manchester, Vermont. He ran errands, did line splices, worked in sales and rod making. John and Orvis soon parted company. "Getting fired in Manchester in the winter is no fun," he says. But Dick Finley, his good friend at Orvis, had done him a favor: His dismissal became the best thing that ever happened to him because it forced him to return to his education. John drove to the University of Vermont. When college admissions asked him what he wanted to study, he replied, "I don't know. What is there?" They went down through the list until John spied forestry. It was then that he decided he had found his future. He finished the program with a forestry degree in three and a half years and never missed a class. There isn't a day that goes by that John is not aware of the education he was given, not necessarily about trees, but about how to learn. After graduating, he opened his own business as a landscape designer, and it was then that he began to tie flies in earnest. He took advantage of some savings and a long seasonal layoff-November through May-in order to retreat to his cellar and do nothing but tie for the entire winter. The word went out, and the phone rang; he soon had an order for four dozen flies. Within the hour, another order arrived for over a hundred dozen. He filled the orders, and for three years John laid bricks in the summer and tied flies in the winter. He also began to write about fly-tying, and experimenting with unconventional materials. John first introduced a synthetic tailing fiber, later known as Microfibetts, in 1976. Other synthetics followed: Organza (a wing material) and then in 1985, Zelon (a tail, wing and body material). Of the latter John comments, "God, I don't know how many units of that I sold, perhaps three- or four-hundred thousand, I guess." In the mid-1980's John, now know as "Mr. Synthetics," did a series of six magazine articles on manmade materials. From 1995 to 1999 John published another series of 15 articles called "Traditions," a history of fly-tying. By then his privately printed books on fly-fishing included: Synthetic Flies (1980); Flies with an Edited Hackle (1981); Catch the Hatch (with hand-painted mayflies, 1984); and Catch the Hatch (second edition, 2000). All were illustrated by John himself. Currently, John Betts publishes regularly in The American Fly Fisher, a quarterly put out by the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and he continues to be a creative craftsman. For instance, after learning that the six-strip fly rod was fully established by 1850 and that four-strip, solid-wood fly rods once were made, he began to wonder how a six-strip, solid-wood rod would work. So he set about making them. Creating many of his own unique tools for the job, John began to produce solid-wood rods, making his own brass ferrules, guides, reel seats and slip rings. John also makes his own tapered fly lines by pulling various lengths of nylon through a 40-pound braided line. The taper is created by staggering four-pound-test monofilament within the braid. The resulting fly line has the same weight and properties as silk line and, when impregnated with flotant, John finds them to be remarkably durable and pleasant to cast. In 1987, John also began to handcraft his own fly reels: brass single-action and aluminum anti-reverse. His most recent reel has a dogwood spool and the brass back-plate design is the dogwood flower. The crank handle is mountain laurel: dogwood and laurel live together on the reel as they do in nature. These reels are made the old-fashioned way, with hacks saws, files and hand drills. When John showed me pictures of his dogwood reel, he also shared the myth of the dogwood. In the beginning the dogwood was tall. Mankind used the dogwood for the tree of crucifixion. God decided then that this would never happen again and made the dogwood a small tree. The flower petals have a reddish-brown stain at each tip to signify the wounds of Christ. The blood-red center is the crown of thorns. This is vintage Betts-everything connects to everything else. Betsy, John's gracious wife, has a doctorate in clinical psychology. She puts things into perspective. She once asked John, "How many fish have to die before you become famous?" To John this is a question that all anglers must face. Part of John's answer is his Tag hook, made by Partridge of Redditch. The Tag ("touch-and-go") hook has a ring or eye in place of the point. The object of the game now is the strike itself, like counting coup, rather than the taking of the fish. According to one commentator, "This changes the whole point of fishing." John received the Hans de Groot Award from the Dutch Fly Fair for contributions to international fly-tying. In 1998, he garnered The Austen-Hogan Award for writing from the American Museum of Fly-Fishing. And he was a featured artist of flies and reels in the American Craft Museum. His watercolor, "The Bubble," was chosen by the museum for their 30th-anniversary print. It also won fourth place in the prestigious printing competition, the International Gold Ink Awards. Let John take you into his basement, his sanctum sanctorum of old books, piled rods, stacks of papers and publications-the tools that create his rich angling life. Then take one of his solid-wood rods out to the front street and make a cast-a smooth, responsive cast. John's discourse on books, rods, and reels will enchant. He loves to share his knowledge, his experience, and himself. John, a cancer survivor, also participates in the Reel Recovery Program, a national non-profit organization that conducts fly-fishing retreats for men recovering from life-threatening cancer. John's gift is sharing. Kathleen Achor, editor of The American Fly Fisher, notes that John is a living reminder that learning is as much play as work. She adds that "John studies how one thing leads to another-how advances in thought and technology in any field might ultimately set the stage for change, however subtle or grand, in our sport." And she recognizes that, "Fly-fishing is lucky to have the likes of John Betts paying attention." Gordon Wickstrom, author of Notes from an Old Fly Book and Late in an Angler's Life, knows John well: "He frightens the insecure and offends the self-assured." And he adds that, "if you are not teachable, stay away from him." I would add that John is just as tough on himself: He recognizes his own limitations. Wickstrom continues, "John has never played the bourgeois citizen. I think he has rarely, and not for long, been gainfully employed in the conventional sense. He is utterly independent… John has enabled me to see how lying at the core of fly-fishing is what I want to call 'the principle of contingency.' That is, in its every aspect, fly-fishing is the expression and scion of some greater and abiding factor in human culture. And that this is the richest thing about our sport and its legacy…" Wickstrom admires John's respect for the past. "He refuses ever to think that the ancients were in any way inferior in their angling technologies. He strongly holds for the efficiency and elegance of their solutions." In Japan, there are people regarded as national treasures-artisans who devote themselves to perfection. John Betts is such a treasure. His mark on American angling is at once subtle and pervasive. John not only glories in angling history, but he enjoys sharing that knowledge and the peripheral minutia of our sport. A tribute then to John Betts-historian, craftsman, conversationalist, author, artisan and angler. It is an honor to call John Betts a friend and Angler of the Year.