The first time I talked with Bob Mead was sometime during the Spring of 2006, while I still lived in northern Michigan. It was basically a short series of emails from a young tier trying to pick the brain of a veteran. Coincidentally a few months later, I wound up living 15 minutes from him, in New York’s Capital District. Oddly enough, I didn’t meet Bob in person until the ’06 International Fly Tying Symposium- 3 hours from home- where I found out that Bob has made a lot of friends over the years in the form of fellow tiers and show goers. We didn’t get to talk much due to one of the longest lines at the show stretching out in front of his table.
A few months later I donated a fly I had tied to our local Trout Unlimited Chapter’s annual Spring banquet. I couldn’t make it to the banquet and was surprised to get an email from Bob a few days afterward saying that he had won it at auction, and wanted me to sign a business card to put with the framed fly.
We’ve been friends ever since, however, I’ve never had the chance to really get to know Bob. So when the opportunity arose to ask him a few questions, I was more than willing.
Bob, what got you into fly fishing?
Real fly fishing?…hmmm. Probably not until I took a winter course with the local T.U. Chapter about 30 years ago. It was a once a week, 6 week course in a high school gym with a final class in stream in May on the Battenkill. Before that I guess I would have given anyone watching me a good laugh. I guess sometimes I still do. I still learn something nearly every trip to a river.
When did you start tying your own flies?
I watched one of my older cousins (the now deceased well known knife maker Jim Schmidt) tie a single fly in 1949 when I was only 7 years old, and I was absolutely fascinated! Every feather I could find on my grandparents farm went into canning jars and cigar boxes. My father and uncles were all hunters and I was able to amass a fine collection of partridge and pheasant feathers, not to mention various pieces of fur. A year later a fly tying kit was under our Christmas tree. It wasn’t much by today’s standards but at the time it was about the only thing available. The little instruction booklet was worth its weight in gold. I had tried to learn more from cousin Jim but as he was old enough to drive a car and liked some girl, he was never home the few times we would visit.
The pot metal vise cracked a jaw the first time I tightened it on a large bass hook, and I went back to putting large hooks in my fathers bench vise. My first flies looked like feather dusters… like the feather covered treble hooks that came on the end of Pflueger spinners. Actual first flies were imitations of the large bass flies that used full tips of feathers for wings and usually had chenille bodies like I had seen on cards at the local combo bait shop/rowboat rental on Ballston Lake. It was a long, slow progress.
There were no shows, no fly tying magazines or videos, and the internet was still a long way off in the future. The hunting and fishing magazines we got back then rarely featured fly fishing articles, let alone fly tying instructions. An old Herter’s vise was used for a while until a red knobbed Thompson C-clamp cast iron, steel jawed sweetheart of a vise came my way. I still have it although it has been retired for a couple of decades now.
What tyers from the past inspired you? Are there any from today that you admire?
People occasionally ask who inspired my tying. If they mean simply ‘tying’, I say Elsie Darbee. My lack of exposure to anyone other than the few minutes I spent watching cousin Jim and the half hour with Elsie account for my sum total of instruction. I did not have access to books of the time, nor to other tyers. My realistic tying started spontaneously, an epiphany of sorts.
Through the 60’s I still knew only two people who tied flies. Years later I would learn of the work of Louis Rhead and Bill Blades. The first realistic flies I laid eyes on, other than my own, were those of Ted Niemeyer. When I began writing for the original Fly Tyer magazine I bought some back issues and saw his Hellgrammite and Dragon Fly nymph. Impressed? You bet I was! I never tried to tie Ted’s flies. I simply admired them.
Modern day realistic tyers who I admire, and I admire them for their originality, would include David Martin, Bill Logan, and Paul Whillock. Bill Blackstone, Bob Boyle, and Oliver Edwards have created some great patterns. Fabio Federighi ties a Mayfly that I consider the best, Fabrizio Gajardoni, Tim Wohland, and Harold Williams have come up with some amazing techniques, and, there is only one Nadica.
The reason I admire the work of those tyers I listed is because they have done some original work either with the way they use material, or their innovative tying techniques.
When did you tie your first Mantis? Was it the first realistic fly you tied, and what inspired you to create it?
The mantis was born in the ‘winter of 1972-73′. The only reason I know that is because while rummaging through boxes of paperwork, I found some of my original drawings and notes of the materials I experimented with to create the various parts, and one of the drawings was so noted. The Praying Mantis was not my first realistic fly. The Walking Stick bug was. That was first created in August of 1966, the year before I married my wife Grace.
The reason I remember when the Walking Stick bug was first created was because in 1966, the year before I married my wife, she had given me an ultimatum of sorts that if I wanted to marry her I would have to get a real job. I was at the Saratoga flat track sitting on one of their green benches mulling over how I could keep my current life style and still make her happy. I noticed a twig caught in the fold of my pants near my knee and went to brush it off – when it moved. It was a walking stick bug. I have no idea why this inspired me as it did, as this insect has nothing to do with a trout’s food supply, but I suddenly wanted to tie flies again only this time make them look more like the actual insects they ate. I captured the bug, rushed out of the track, and drove home. I dug out my tying stuff which I hadn’t used in a couple of years and duplicated the stick bug as close as I could with what I had: porcupine quills, hackle stems, turkey and condor biots.
As with the Stick bug, the Mantis was done just to see if it could be done. My water scorpion was tied for the first time during that same winter.
Were you already a well known tyer at that time, or did the Mantis lead to yourself being “discovered”?
Well known? Hell no. I didn’t even think of anyone being ‘well known’ in this tying stuff until I met Elsie Darbee sometime in the mid 1950’s. A friend of my grandfather named Oscar took me down to watch her tie a fly. She gave me the fly. It was beautiful. Not what I had expected at all. I was a cocky kid, barely a teenager, who tied a pretty mean Mickey Finn and had never heard of the Darbees or anyone else who tied flies other than my cousin, and I remember thinking on the ride down “who the heck is this lady who is going to show me how to tie a fly.” Needless to say, I was darn glad I hadn’t voiced my prejudice out loud. So neat, so clean, so trim in hackle and tail, so…so, not lumpy!I think the first fly tying book I bought was one by Helen Shaw. Helen passed away at age 97 this past December. She and her Husband Hermann were members of our TU chapter and I got to meet them both, and we became good friends.
When I tied the Mantis I was not yet in Trout Unlimited. I took the fly down to the local sporting goods shop to show it off. Rudy Romania ran the fly fishing department (or at least he acted like he did) and he was the first person I showed it to outside of family. He took a long look at it, then commented that the legs were the wrong color. But that was Rudy. What ever brand of gear you wanted when you came in, he’d talk you out of it and onto something else. There was always something wrong with what you originally wanted. But this time he was speechless for a good 30 seconds! When I joined TU (via the casting/fly fishing course) I started going to their meetings. There was always a ‘fly’ raffle. You brought in a fly, traded it for a ticket, and the winner won all the flies. A couple of meetings later I brought in a fly, a hopper, and threw it in the box with the rest of them. I doubt I knew more than a half dozen people at the meeting, three guys who had taught the class, and a couple of the others who had taken instruction with me. Well, somebody pulled my fly out of the box and asked out loud, “Who the hell tied this?” Thinking there was something wrong with it I was hesitant to raise my hand. He then asked if I tied all my flies this way, then, would I tie a couple for the banquet auction that was coming up. Of course I said I would.
My step grandmother ran a jewelry store and I had seen watches and clocks in glass domes and I thought if I put a piece of stick in one of those domes with a couple of flies stuck in it, it would look pretty nice. So I bought one and set it up with a pair of Mayflies, and to my amazement it drew a final bid of $110, the highest price of the night. Guys there from other Chapters were at our banquet and before the night was over they were asking if I would donate something for their auctions. I guess that is where the seeds of “becoming known” were first sown.
In the early-mid 80’s I saw my first copy of Fly Tyer Magazine and thought how nice it would be to have a fly on the cover. I sent then editor, Dick Surrette, four flies and a few days later got a phone call asking me to write a column on realistic fly tying. Other than the three unusual flies I tied as larks, the ‘ realistic looking’ flies I had been tying were being tied just for that very reason: they looked much more like the actual insect they were meant to imitate.
In 1988 the book “The Art of the Trout Fly” was being compiled. I was lucky enough to be included. There was an accident with the fly that was supposed to be in the book and, not wanting to miss out on being included, I sent in the second mantis that I had ever tied not knowing they were going to blow it up so big you could see every miss-wrap of thread I had made. Perhaps because it was so very different from anything else that had been created in the past, people overlooked my poor craftsmanship.
How was your Mantis received by the fly fishing community at the time?
Well, to my face anyway, people liked it- or at least thought it was a curiosity.
How does it make you feel having so many respected fly tyers give you the credit for most influencing their tying?
OLD! Seriously though, it is a great compliment.
Do you sell your flies, and if so, how should someone go about contacting you to purchase one of your flies?
In the beginning and for a long time I did not sell my flies. I donated them, gave some away, and traded them. After a while I was inundated with requests. Now I am regretfully selective on all fronts. Yes, a few are sold to cover expenses. They run from $45 for a Lady Bug, to $145 for a Mosquito (2 week to a month wait), to $900 for either the Mantis or the Walking Stick(a year wait ). I’ll sell a Crane Fly, a Damsel. or a Water Scorpion to those who have bought other flies. They run $200 to $250. Others are only occasionally available. (email@example.com)
Have you ever fished with any of the realistic flies you tie?
These days, only my beetles and ants.
You’ve been a very active member of your TU chapter. What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve been a part of with TU?
Many years ago my late father-in-law (at the time a disabled vet) told me he wished he could trout fish again, or at least fish again, but that there were not any places nearby he could do that from his wheel chair. I brought up a handicap access project at a board meeting. Three different times we tried to accomplish it over a dozen years and ran into roadblocks each time, usually concerning liability.
A dozen years later when I was serving as our Chapter president I made it my number one priority, and we finally found the right place and the right guy, my friend and fellow TUer Bart Chabot, to get it done. It was the one thing I wanted to see accomplished during my tenure. And it was done. Too late for my father-in-law, but others are enjoying it.
Aside from fly fishing stuff, what does Bob mead do for fun?
I enjoy visiting my son and daughters and my little grandson Noe. He is only 2.5 years old, but I suspect my son and I will have him on the water before too many years. I also enjoy writing and have several projects going on presently. I am also a fishing buddy for Reel Recovery, a fishing 3 day program for men with cancer. You see, a few years ago, I was a participant.
What fly tying/fishing shows do you normally attend?
Danbury, CT, The International in Somerset NJ, Marlborough MA, Big Somerset NJ, The Isaac Walton League Show in Canada, Hartford CT, The Wisconsin Icebreaker, Goldstocks Cabin Fever Weekend, Orvis Days, The Two Fly on the Ausable. I have also done Chicago a few times, Charlotte NC, Maryland, Grand Rapids, Ramsey Outdoors, FFF at Penn State, Seven Springs PA, tied at half a dozen fly shops…. Holy Cow, and I was going to cut back!
Aren’t you supposed to relax when you’re retired! While tying at all of those shows, do you see more younger or older people getting into our sport?
One thing I’ve found to be true is this- The average age of people I’ve spoken to who are just getting into our sport, is about 68.
Why do you think that is?
I think because the shows are all located in, or near, big cities and people close enough to attend them are so into the rat race that they don’t have time to join us…until they retire.
And where are the young? Too busy, I would suppose, with electronic toys, the internet, X-Boxes, and YouTube…
How often do you have time to fish, and what do you consider your homewaters?
How many days I go fishing and how many days I actually fish can be greatly different figures. Often I spend way more time visiting friends and shops along the rivers than I do fishing them. I also look for unique pieces of driftwood, and I’ll spend a few hours poking through a freshly plowed field, especially after a little rain, looking for arrowheads. So, I GO fishing probably a hundred days a year but I may only fish 3 or 4 days out of a week long trip.
My homewaters used to be the Kaydeross, a local stream, but the last dozen years I would probably have to give the nod to the Ausable, with the Beaverkill running a close second.
If you had to choose one fly to get you through an entire season, what would it be?
The Klinkhamer, in several sizes and colors.
Bob, one of the things you’re respected for is using natural materials for your flies instead of synthetics, how come?
I have always preferred to work with as much natural material as possible. I certainly appreciate what others do with synthetics and even see merit in some of the epoxy used in salt water lures. Synthetics are much easier to work with so I can understand why so many love to use them, and of how craft stores have become their fly tying material shops.
I find it a bit amusing though when someone carves, paints, epoxies, grinds, molds and glues a cute little model together, then takes a little thread and ties a few wraps on some part of the fly to make it look tied! Just remember, they call it fly tying for a reason, and not fly gluing.
What are your thoughts concerning computers and the internet and their impact on fly fishing and tying?
The Internet has created the opportunity to connect with like-minded people around the world. It has helped new tyers shave huge amounts of time off their learning curve. It has also created a wonderful practice ground for those who wish to be published writers. Anything one writes can be posted on the internet. The writer should strive to produce just as professionally written articles and stories as those that would be submitted to a magazine. Every writer should have a copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” on their desk.
What a wonderful tool the computer is. Any technique you want to learn, or fly you want to tie, is out there somewhere – just pull it up and copy it. Wait… wait a minute… isn’t experimenting and discovery the fun part of this game? I remember the long nights sitting at my basement tying desk trying to find a natural material that best matched the shiny leg of a cricket, the translucent wing of a Mayfly spinner, the smooth or textured back of a beetle. The twisting, trimming, and bending of various feathers and quills. The soaking, the heating, drying and shaping, until finally I found what I was looking for- and I remember too, the euphoria that came over me. And it wasn’t until that moment that I noticed the predawn light creeping through the cellar window spilling onto the floor, and the chirping of the first birds of the morn.
Bob and fellow realistic fly tying pioneer, David Martin, recently created a fly fishing auction site- www.bobanddavesauctions.com. There, you can find an assortment of fly fishing and fly tying items to bid on.