At Clay Center, fly tying is both art and science

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette Mail
Outdoors writer John McCoy demonstrates how to tie a fly. He is a major contributor of artistic flies to the Clay Center’s current art exhibit, “Every Living Thing: A Closer Look at Nature.”
CHIP ELLIS | Gazette Mail
John McCoy made several artistic flies for the Clay Center’s current exhibit. He said that trout see color extremely well and can learn to spot a phony fly from real fly in three repetitions.
CHIP ELLIS | Gazette Mail
John McCoy created these flies for the Clay Center’s art exhibit. “They’re pretty. I don’t fish with them very often. The ones I fish with tend to be muted colors,” he said.
CHIP ELLIS | Gazette Mail
Jason Butcher, of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, checks out fingerling trout in the Clay Center art gallery. Visitors have been tracking their growth since the exhibit “Every Living Thing: A Closer Look at Nature” opened Feb. 15. Butcher created four larger-than-life flies replicating the four stages of the fly’s life cycle for the exhibit.

The question of whether fly tying is an art, a craft or a science has been pondered for centuries, and the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences has jumped into the debate by making a very public statement of “yes” — to all three — in its latest art exhibit, “Every Living Thing: A Closer Look at Nature.”

The curator of art at the Clay Center, Arif Khan, was so impressed with the colorful hand-tied flies, he made them the focal point of the exhibit.

“The colors of the flies were used in selecting other pieces of art — from the Clay Center’s Permanent Collection — that were complementary,” said Khan said as he gestured to the paintings, prints and drawings lining the walls.

To assist in making the exhibit interactive and to include the science aspect of the museum’s mission, live trout are being raised in the gallery — with the help of Jack Williams of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Visitors have had fun tracking their growth since the exhibit opened Feb. 15, Khan said. The exhibit is open through November.

The art curator also enlisted Jason Butcher of the club to design and make four extra-large — over 1 foot long — flies to replicate the four stages of the fly’s life cycle. Butcher said the project required very creative thinking and crafting on his part, although he was reluctant to describe himself as an artist.

Fly tying is an ancient artistic process of fastening different materials — feathers, fur, hair and other natural or synthetic materials — to a hook with thread to produce a “fly” — an imitation aquatic insect — to be used by anglers to catch fish by fly fishing — an angling method using a rod, reel and specialized weighted line.

Some fly tyers follow a “recipe” required to create the fly — what materials to use, what color to select, what hook size to use, with the sequence and method carefully described. Because of this, some have argued that it is only a craft not art, but the Clay Center would beg to differ.

So would John McCoy, outdoors writer for The Charleston Gazette. He is the primary contributor of flies for the exhibit.

“Actually, I believe it’s a bit of both. Most of the people who tie flies follow established patterns, so, from that standpoint, it’s a craft. The people who elevate it to art are those who combine colors and textures and proportions to create flies that might or might not catch fish, but catch the eye of everyone who sees them,” he said.

“Being a fly tyer is kind of like being a cook. On the basic level, a cook can follow a recipe and get a pleasing result. After the cook gains experience and learns more techniques, he or she can start with a basic recipe and, by introducing subtle variations, create a dish that rises above the flavor and flair of the basic recipe,” McCoy said.

Fishermen would be quick to point out that fly tying is also a science and McCoy and the Clay Center would be in hardy agreement.

“There certainly is a scientific component to it, because most flies used for fishing are supposed to imitate aquatic insects, crustaceans or small fish. Creating effective imitations requires a sense of knowing how those creatures act and how they appear to fish,” McCoy said.

To produce a fly, the fly tyer first carefully observes the fish they are aiming to catch and the prey the fish are attracted to, they then design and tie artificial flies to replicate that prey to provoke fish to strike.

Fly tying is considered a challenging and rewarding hobby for some and a money-saving strategy for others. For McCoy, it is both.

“I started tying flies almost as soon as I took up fly fishing, partly to save money, and partly because I love working with my hands,” he said.

He began the hobby at age 22, 36 years ago.

Within six months, he said, he was “a hard-core addict.”

However, he said, it took several years for him to appreciate the artistic side of the hobby.

“I didn’t get into the art of fly tying until I was 50. I really enjoyed it earlier, but my skills are at a level now that I can gussy up a recipe. I know the techniques and I know how to change the proportions, textures and colors to get a pleasing result. It’s all about pleasing your own eye,” McCoy said.

For fisherman, artists or crafters interested in the hobby, McCoy offered advice for beginners.

“Stay away from fly tying kits. They all too often have junk materials and inferior tools. It’s better to get a decent-quality vise, a few good-quality tools, and then acquire the materials you need to tie a few basic patterns. As you add patterns, you add the necessary material. Also, when you tie, pay particular attention to the fly’s proportions. Not only do they help balance the fly in or on the water, but they also act as ‘feeding triggers’ that get the fish to strike,” he said.

He also recommended fly and instructional videos on YouTube by his friend Davie McPhail to people interested in the art and craft of fly tying.

“Davie is one of the most skilled tiers on the planet, and his videos are free to anyone who wants to go online and look them up,” McCoy said.

McCoy became involved in the Clay Center exhibit through his membership in Trout Unlimited.

“When the museum’s preparatory, Mike Ramsey, started putting together the exhibit, he asked some folks from the Ernie Nester Chapter of Trout Unlimited who around here tied nice flies. I had done a couple of demonstrations for the chapter, and I guess they liked how my flies looked, because they suggested Mike get hold of me,” he said.

As far as how he feels about his fly tying being elevated to art, McCoy said, “It’s pleasing as well as flattering. Any longtime fly angler will tell you that there is an aesthetic side to the pastime. The places where we fish tend to be beautiful. The fish themselves are bright and colorful. The rhythm of casting a fly rod has a metronomic quality to it. Being able to share some of that with the public was an opportunity that was too good to resist.”

An added benefit to the hobby is its calming nature, he said.

“Fly tying as a pastime is soothing — or at least it is to me. No one has ever tied a ‘perfect’ fly, but it sure is gratifying to create something that is both functional and pleasing to the eye,” McCoy said.

Like many area fly anglers, he got his start in fly tying through an adult education class taught by members of the Kanawha Valley Chapter — now known as the Ernie Nester Chapter — of Trout Unlimited.

“Every year they hold angling art classes through Kanawha County Adult Education. Max Robertson taught a beginning fly tying class and it set me on the right path. I also took the class to build my own fly rod,” McCoy said, noting that it was “pretty cool” the first day he caught a fish on a fly he had tied with a rod he had built.

Jack Williams, former president and team leader of the local Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom projects, volunteers much of his spare time to educating people about the art, craft and science of fly fishing and fly tying. He has carefully set up the aquarium in the Clay Center for fingerling trout.

“We have to emulate a current in the tank and keep the temperature at 55 to 60 degrees. Here, you can see, the temperature is at 57 degrees. I do this because I’ve got to spend the most glorious days of my life trout fishing. It’s time for me to pay back,” Williams said.

For additional information about the Ernie Nester Chapter of Trout Unlimited, visit

West Virginia Trout Unlimited is offering a fly fishing school June 7 and 8 with a fly tying class as part of the offered courses. For additional information, visit

See related video at

Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, One Clay Square, Charleston;, 304-561-3570.

“Smart Pass” (includes galleries, film and planetarium) $14.50 adults and $12 children, teachers and senior citizens; Galleries only $7.50 adults and $6 children, teachers and seniors. Members get free unlimited access to galleries and planetarium shows, as well as discounts on films.

Reach Judy E. Hamilton at or 304-348-1230.

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