Retired teacher makes fly-tying his hobby habit
Mike Burns' workshop serves a couple purposes. Neatly stacked banjos and fiddles, in various stages of repair, occupy one area of the upstairs room of his family's Browns Creek home. On the other side of the room sits a workbench with neatly stacked plastic organizers full of supplies he uses to tie flies to feed his fly fishing habit.
It's easy to get distracted in there.
"I'll play some old music and I'll be sitting here tying flies, and I'll hear a tune and I'll go over and get one of my fiddles and start playin'," laughed Burns. "I do that for awhile, then I'll set it down and come back over and tie some more flies."
To anyone unfamiliar with fly fishing, it can seem daunting. Fly fishing is almost more a therapeutic art form than a hobby or sport. And it has a language all its own, with alien terms, but Burns explains the more technical aspects of his hobby with ease. Most likely it's because he has taught fly fishing classes to area students and worked as a guide at the Elk River Inn and Touring Center for around eight years now.
"I taught a wildlife class," he said. "Before we did anything... was we went down to the stream and took these nets with us. We shook loose all the little creatures on the rocks and stuff and we took a sample of the insects in the stream. The whole time, I'm trying to teach them about the water and water quality. You have to have good water quality to have insects. Then with the insects, you have fish."
A friend of Burns', Gene Rexrode, who taught Burns how to tie flies, would bring his experience to the class.
"We'd get all the kids tying flies," said Burns. "Then I'd take them down to the Boy Scout camp there at the lake. We got a bunch of rods that people brought in, and I taught 'em how to cast with fly rods. We went down there to see if they could catch fish with their own flies. We had a good time with it."
Burns said he hasn't always been a fly fisherman, but once he tried it, he was well, hooked.
"I didn't fly fish until I moved here," he said. "A guy up at the high school told me, 'if you want to try fishin' around here, you need to fly fish, it's fun.' So I went out and bought a fly rod and got started. One thing led to another. Now, I've only used a fly rod for the past 15 years. Exclusively fly rod."
After his introduction to fly fishing, the hobby snowballed to the point that, now, Burns makes everything he fishes with.
"He told me, 'you need to learn how to tie flies.' Then it was, 'you need to learn how to make some rods.' So I started making fly rods after that. I make every rod that I fish with. I've had some guys that I'd guide, they liked my rods so much they had me make them rods."
Burns explained the idea behind fly fishing.
"I tie the flies to simulate the insects that are in the stream. So you have to be sort of a entomologist, you need to know a little bit about stream entomology. You have your egg stage. Then you'll have your nymph stage. Then they emerge, and as they come up off the bottom of the stream, they emerge into an adult fly. That's the only way they can mate, they can't mate underwater. So the flies come out of the water for a three or four day period. The males die after they mate. The females hang out long enough to lay the eggs, then they die."
The flies tied by Burns simulate different insects at different points in their development. Burns always uses two flies, the dry fly floats on top of the water and the wet fly is underwater in the surface film, the top inch or so, according to Burns.
"Sometimes the fish will eat this one, sometimes they'll eat that one. Sometimes, if you're lucky enough you'll catch two fish at once, and I have. Not on purpose. Normally something breaks, they're jumping around, something snaps off," he said.
Burns said it's easy to go through flies quickly.
"I don't ever fall in love with a fly because I know I'm going to lose it somewhere. I have a favorite pattern, but never a favorite fly," he said. "You're gonna lose 'em. You'll snag 'em in a tree or on a rock, the fish is gonna snap it off, anything can happen."
Even though he might lose a few, the fly tying is easy for Burns because he doesn't sell them, they're just for his personal use. He said if he has everything laid out, he can tie a fly in about three or four minutes.
"Some people are really fast at it," he said. "I'm not, I'm slow. I don't try to tie for production, I just tie for myself. Some people would have three or four vices set up and they would do one step at a time, so they're doing batches. They just move right on down the line."
Burns constantly comes up with new patterns for his flies, and said they're kind of like recipes.
"There's so many different sizes and varieties, and you have to kind of be in line with the season," he said. "In March, April and May you get a lot of different insects coming out at different times. In late summer you get the bigger grasshoppers and crickets and things like that. If you've ever been out in the late evening in the summer, and you see all the wee little specks of insects, and you're afraid to
breathe there's so many of them, those are midges. That's about as small as I go. I experiment all the time, I've come up with some flies that are really good, at least one year. The next year it might be something else, it's really weird."
Burns explained the different components of a fly fishing line before he showed me how he ties a fly.
"The line that you have on the rod, the big thick stuff, is the shooting line. You have to have something with weight, all that does is allow you to throw it out there. Then you have a leader, it goes out for about eight feet or so. Then the tippet is tied on the leader and the flies are tied to the tippet."
Safety is always a concern for Burns. The first thing he does is crimp off the barbs on the hook before he begins. He does it for two reasons.
"One, it's so much easier to get out of the fish's mouth. You can buy them barbless, but they cost so much more. So I buy 'em with the barbs and just smash 'em down. The other thing, I don't know how many times I've hooked myself. They're so much easier to get out of me, too, so it's dual purpose. You always wear eye protection. You never know when one is gonna get you in the eye. I'd do the same with the kids, I wouldn't let 'em fish unless they had glasses or sunglasses."
Burns explained how the different materials he uses simulate different parts of a bug. The dubbing is what makes up the body of the fly. Hackles are the fine feathers off a bird that are used to wrap around the dubbing, to fluff the fly out and allow it to float.
"You put on your tail, you put on your body material, then you put on your wing, then you finish it with the hackle," said Burns. "All this comes off either ducks or chickens. I used to turkey hunt all the time and I'd use feathers off them."
Of all things, the latest teen fashion trends are having an impact on fly fishing. The hackles are becoming harder to come by.
"Now, girls are taking these and putting them in their hair!" Burns said in dismay. "And we can hardly get any hackle feathers! They're wearing these things!"
When Burns gets ready for a fly tying session, he first determines what pattern he is going to tie. He then sets out all the necessary materials. Burns gets most of his supplies through a catalogue from Orvis.
"Orvis is the big name for fishing. Like what Burton is to snowboards, Orvis is to fly fishing," explained Burns. "I'm an Orvis endorsed guide. I get a discount on some of this, because I use it when I'm guiding people. It's promotion for them."
Burns, who taught forestry and wildlife management, has been retired for a couple years now, but he still works part time with at-risk kids for the school system.
"What I do, I look at the week's schedule, and pick out the best days. Then I schedule my school schedule around it," laughed Burns. "I go fishing on the best days. The warmest, sunniest days."
Burns is a catch-and-release fisherman, and he clips a little waterproof camera to his fishing vest to document his success. Burns is always very careful of the way he handles the fish when he catches one.
"I don't touch 'em. Any time you touch them with your hands, you wipe the slime off them. The slime that's on them protects them from viruses and bacteria and stuff in the water. It's their protection, you don't want to take it off. So I'm real gentle with them. I get them in that net, it's got a special rubber that won't take the slime off, and I take a photo. So I don't even touch them."
For Burns, fly fishing is the perfect way to spend his off-time.
"If you're retired, it's a good hobby to have," he said, "Some guys like to go out and play golf, not me man, I'd rather go right down there to the river. One thing evolves into something else. I never really had the intention of getting into it like I did, but that's just how it happened."