Are commercially tied, foreign flies good quality? Or are you getting ripped-off at the bin?
- By: Zach Matthews
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
“DEAR SIRS,” the e-mail started, “My name is Reginald Kibugi, and I am seeking to sell you excellent-quality fishing flies.” My cursor hovered over the Spam button, but the next line made me hesitate: “My asking price is $3 per dozen.” That’s a quarter a fly. Was this a good deal? A bad deal? I didn’t know, and chances are, you’ve received similar e-mails, if not this very one, and you don’t know either.
In order to answer that question, you have to know a bit about the world of commercial fly-tying, and that means you need some history. Back in the 1970s, an American professional fly tier named Dennis Black was driving from shop to shop to peddle his wares. On one of his long road trips across the West, he had an epiphany: He might be better off supervising other tiers than doing all the work on his own.
However, Black recognized that in order to build a company around high-quality fishing flies, he needed a workforce willing to toil for lower wages (by American standards), with an aptitude for detail and a cultural pride in doing the same job well over and over again. He ultimately set up shop in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, and called his company Umpqua Feather Merchants. Umpqua’s operation was the first of its kind, and it has been successfully copied many times since.
Chiang Mai today is sort of like the Thai equivalent of Chicago; it’s a major city but without the caché or name recognition of, say, Bangkok. It has a broad manufacturing base for a lot of industries, but it is the unquestioned world epicenter of fly-tying. Most of the name-brand fly companies, such as Umpqua, Montana Fly Company and Rainy’s (which in turn supply many of the shops and catalog outfits you may have bought flies from) have some presence in Chiang Mai. Others, like Solitude, have copied the Chiang Mai model in other regions (in the case of Solitude, in mainland China).
Just like people, corporations tend to try a handful of different things and then go with whatever works best. As a result, most tying operations have hit on the same general model. Chances are good that most of the flies you have purchased in fly shops were tied by women, working for good wages by local standards, in factories in Chiang Mai, or perhaps in similar circumstances on the island of Sri Lanka or in China. “In many ways those factories are like sewing circles,” says Jesse Riding, of Rainy’s Flies & Supplies. “The ladies work hard, and they pride themselves on the quality of the flies they produce.”
Workers in fly-tying factories are compensated based on two factors: volume and quality. Eight dozen flies is considered a reasonable average day’s work for a tier making “standard” trout patterns like the Parachute Adams. (That’s about 36,000 flies a year!) But even if a commercial tier churns out twice that many, the business may fail if those flies fall apart. A good tier who hits her quota can become something of a local celebrity. She’ll also be compensated accordingly.
“We have one lady in Sri Lanka,” says Umpqua’s Bruce Olson with obvious pride, “who is the world expert on the Copper John. She is the best the world has ever known at tying that fly. John Barr [the inventor and namesake of the Copper John] isn’t even in her league.” Demand for that fly is high enough that this particular worker ties no other pattern. This is somewhat unusual. While most workers do specialize, they typically tie many different patterns over the course of their careers.
How good are these factory tiers? “The only people who can compete with them,” says Olson, “are American commercial fly tiers.” Remember, while there are many talented amateurs who can turn out a beautiful fly, these women make dozens upon dozens a day, every day. The typical American hobbyist tier is not likely to rack up 36,000 flies in a lifetime, much less in a single year.
You may have wondered, “How do flies get chosen for a catalog?” Ultimately, all fly patterns are user-generated by anglers in the field. But in order to make the catalog, a potential new pattern first has to survive the vetting process.
“A good commercial fly must have certain characteristics,” says Solitude’s Ray Chang. “First, it has to have bin appeal. It’s like a pretty lady who gets all the invitations: If an angler never picks it up and fishes with it, it isn’t going to catch any fish.” Second, the fly must be effective, in order to build word-of-mouth. “The typical lifespan for an unsuccessful fly is about three years,” says Chang. “Because in many ways we’re like a supermarket: There’s only so much shelf space.”
Obviously, price is another factor. Spun deerhair flies or flies with lots of expensive synthetic material must be very popular in order to justify the costs, because the profit margin on these flies is much lower. In some cases, shops even sell them for a loss. “Some bass bugs—if priced to make a profit—would have to cost almost $8 a fly,” says Chang.
Most fly-tying companies typically hear of new flies either through word-of-mouth or through their networks of contract tiers. According to Umpqua’s Olson, well-known and established fly tiers (such as John Barr, A.K. Best or Dave Whitlock) periodically generate new patterns, which become part of the tying industry’s royalties system. Typically, these patterns will be labeled with the tier’s name, indicating that the tier will receive about an 8% commission on the sale of the fly (taken when the fly is wholesaled to a dealer). This royalties system is a big reason the American contract fly tier still exists today—he or she is not only getting paid to tie flies in competition with cheap overseas labor, but is also being paid to invent new flies.
Other new flies come in from the general angling public. Tying-industry reps are asked to keep their eyes open for hot local patterns, which they submit for consideration as a commercial fly. Umpqua “holds a meeting, three or four times a year” to separate the wheat from the chaff. Umpqua’s regional sales reps and other key staff each tally up the next year’s crop of patterns on a vote card. Generally, it is left up to factory managers on site to determine which individual tier or tiers to assign the new fly to. (Obviously, some of these assignments are more desirable than others; Olson tells of one woman who broke down in tears when assigned a size 26 Parachute Adams. She was given another assignment.)
So how does a company ensure that its fly tiers are making a top-quality fly? It starts with training. Chang, of Solitude, explains that it can take up to six months to train a fully-qualified commercial tier. And Chang says that most of those tiers start out with the same pattern you likely learned first: the Woolly Bugger.
Once a tier is trained, she’s ready to start tying flies for sale. “We’re very precise,” says Umpqua’s Olson. Fly tiers each receive a pattern book, with the recipe and steps for tying a particular fly, just like you might see in this magazine. However, these commercial recipes are far more detailed: Each individual step is depicted and photographed, down to the precise number of turns of wire or wraps of hackle needed for each fly. Each worker is expected to tie exactly the same pattern every time, with identical proportions and materials used in each fly.
Those of you who tie flies know that precision depends on the quality of materials. “We order from Whiting and Wapsi and other American tying wholesalers,” says Rainy’s Riding. “Sometimes that means I have to box up the materials, fill out customs forms and ship them to our factories myself.” More often, commercial tying factories are able to source their materials directly from the materials manufacturers. One of the dark arts of running a tying factory is figuring out where your competitors are getting, say, their beads, and then going directly to the source yourself.
Hook quality is also very important. While hooks are easy to source, good hooks are not. Good hooks are also expensive. It all comes down to carbon. “When the hooks are made, if they use too much carbon in the steel, the hooks will be brittle and will break,” explains Riding. “And if they use too little, the hook will remain flexible and will open.” Top-quality hook manufacturers, like Tiemco, Gamakatsu, Owner and Daiichi, sell a lot of their wares to commercial tying outfits. The bottom line is that a fly tied by a name-brand manufacturer in one of its Thai or Chinese facilities is likely to be one of the best-made, highest-quality and most standardized patterns available.
But there’s a catch.
Grading the supply
Flies come from all over. Informally, fly suppliers grade fly-tying regions and sources. Grade “A” tying factories are in places like Thailand, Sri Lanka and the United States, and specific factories in China (such as Solitude’s). Most of these factories are actually owned by the name-brand tying companies and are administered by Americans either on site or working from the United States. “Those are superior or acceptable quality flies,” explains Riding.
Grade “B” tying factories are more diverse: They might be other Chinese makers, or factories in Mexico or Chile. Most companies in this category tend to have local management, of varying levels of quality. Factory conditions, likewise, may or may not be hospitable. Grade “B” flies vary; some are acceptable while others are below standard. Nevertheless, a lot of Grade “B” flies get into fly-shop bins as owners source their product from different places.
Then there’s the Grade “C” suppliers, whose flies can be, as one supplier put it: “Frankly? Terrible.” In order to make a high-quality fly, you need high-quality materials. For dry flies, hackle needs to be stiff enough to support the fly and dense enough to make a proper collar. On all flies, thread wraps should be tight and even and the heads glued. Hooks should be of decent quality; synthetic materials need to be sourced from reputable makers, and dyed feathers must be waterproof. The further down the scale you go, the more these features degrade. Grade “C” factories are from places like Kenya, Chad and even Sudan. These are typically the suppliers sending e-mails like the one I considered banishing to my spam filter. Ironically, even at $3 a dozen these flies are almost always overpriced, because the quality is so poor.
With the exception of Umpqua Feather Merchants, most fly companies aren’t household names even amongst fishermen. Nor are their owners as Bruce Olson, Umpqua’s sales manager, attests. “Dennis [Black] is one of the most interesting historical figures who no one has ever heard of,” he said. (Note: Black’s not gone entirely unrecognized for his innovation; he was named Fly Rod & Reel’s Angler of the Year in 1987.) But name recognition is increasingly important as marketing managers and owners try to relate the names of their companies to quality assurance in the minds of anglers and fly buyers. “We have a real interest in name-branding,” says Rainy’s Riding, “because we want people to know they are getting a quality product for the money.” Sure, a shop fly might cost $2 versus an Internet fly costing a quarter, “but as I ask people, do you want a 12-fish fly or a fly that’s going to fall apart after just one fish?”
Because some mixing of fly sources is almost inevitable, you should always exercise judgment, even when buying shop flies. Look closely: Are the heads tightly wound and glued? Are the hackles straight? Are eyes glued on properly? If so, buy with confidence. If not, check out the other flies in the same bin; some may be better, and if none of them are, you’ll know you’re dealing with a lower-quality supplier and you should walk away.
In the final analysis, name-brand shop flies remain a good deal, especially with prices currently hovering around late-1990s levels. Buying a shop fly gets you a pattern that was tied by a very experienced professional, which will have the right proportions and good-quality materials, and shouldn’t fall apart after a fish or two. While nothing beats the pleasure of catching a fish on a fly you tied yourself, when there’s no time to sit at the vise, you can head for those bins with confidence and a discerning eye.
Zach Matthews is a frequent contributor to many fly-fishing magazines, and the owner and editor of The Itinerant Angler Web site, www.itinerantangler.com.