MORGANTOWN — Every time Joe Messinger Jr. ties one of his trademark deer-hair frogs, he’s carrying on a family legacy that dates back almost a century.
His father, Joe Messinger Sr., invented the Messinger Bucktail Frog for one overarching purpose — to catch bass. The pattern proved so effective, and so durable, that the lures sometimes lasted for decades.
“Dad came up with the pattern sometime around 1920, and he tied it until he passed away in 1966,” Joe Jr. said. “Some of his frogs are still circulating around, mainly among collectors.”
They’re prized because they’re made using techniques few fly tiers have ever mastered.
“A handful of people have learned to tie the frog,” Joe Jr. said, “but, as far as I know, only Dad and I, and my son Jody, have ever tied them extensively.”
Fly tying is usually a two-handed exercise, but tying a true-blue Messinger Frog requires three. Not having been so endowed at birth, Joe Jr. follows his father’s example and holds one strand of thread in his teeth while he knots two other strands with his hands.
Essentially, tying the frog involves tying bunches of deer hair to a hook with three lengths of plain white sewing thread, using a series of overhand knots and square knots. Joe Jr. said his father came up with the technique because he wanted to tie a realistic-looking frog that had a light-colored belly and a darker-colored back.
“By spinning deer hair, which is what most people do, you can separate colors radially but not laterally,” he explained. “Dad came up with a very unorthodox method for separating colors laterally. His technique also makes an extremely sturdy fly.”
The elder Messinger didn’t just use the technique for the frog. He also used it to create the Irresistible, a deer-hair trout fly still used around the world.
“Nowadays, guys tie that fly with spun deer hair and a solid-colored body,” said Joe Jr. “Dad tied it with a white belly and a dun [gray-brown] back. His Irresistible also used a claret-colored hackle, instead of the brown you see in today’s version.”
As widespread as the Irresistible has become, the Bucktail Frog still garners the most attention at fly tying conclaves and symposiums.
“People just seem fascinated by the pattern,” Joe Jr. said. “I’ve had guys stand and watch me go through the entire tying process, which can take up to 3 hours.”
Because the frogs take so long to fashion, Joe Jr. has never attempted to produce them in great numbers. Still, he estimates that he has tied thousands of them in the 53 years since his father’s passing.
“I’ve licensed the name, ‘Messinger Frog,’ to Umpqua Feather Merchants, which has them tied commercially in Sri Lanka using the conventional spun deer-hair method,” he said. “They’re sold at some of the better fly-fishing shops. In an average year, Umpqua might produce 100 dozen of them.”
Now, at age 77, Joe Jr. doesn’t tie nearly as many frogs as he used to.
“Mainly, I tie for collectors who want to put them in shadowboxes or under glass domes,” he said.
Perhaps because of their rarity, they can command fancy prices.
“Recently, I mounted one of Dad’s frogs in a shadow box alongside a picture of Dad at his tying desk in the 1930s,” he said. “It went for $1,000 at a Trout Unlimited auction.”
He also doesn’t attend as many fly tying conclaves as he once did.
“At my age, driving long distances and staying in motel rooms isn’t much fun,” he said.
Still, he’s managed to get the word out in other ways.
“I’ve written magazine articles about them, and other people have written about them in newspapers, magazines and books,” he added. “I’ve even produced a DVD that walks viewers through the process of tying the frog.”
A color photo of a dozen green-and-yellow frogs even graces the cover of a book, “Flies for Bass & Panfish,” by Dick Stewart and Farrow Allen. “The main thing I remember about that is that it took me quite a while to tie a dozen identical frogs for the photo,” he said with a laugh.
Curiously, Joe Jr. might never have learned to tie the frog if it hadn’t been for a pretty blonde coed at West Virginia University.
“I took her fishing with me,” Joe Jr. recalled. “She saw a couple of Dad’s frogs in my fly box and thought they were cute. Of course, I told her I had tied them.
“I knew that Dad had tied frogs on safety pins for women to wear as brooches, and I offered to tie one for her. Then I ran home to Dad and asked him to teach me how to tie them. My first effort was awful, and he ended up tying the frog on the pin I gave her.
“But after that, I had him sit down with me and tie another one, and I really watched him through the process. Dad died not long afterward, and I became determined to keep his techniques alive.”
Joe Jr. has since passed along the skill to his son, Jody.
“Jody was tying frogs from the time he was 10 years old, and doing a pretty good job of it,” he said. “When I took him to conclaves, he attracted more attention than I did.”
As much as he’d like to see other tiers tie the frog and the Irresistible using his family’s methods, Joe Jr. doubts it will ever happen.
“They take so long, and there are too many other ways to entertain oneself today,” he said.
He has no doubts, however, that the patterns themselves will live on.
“If you would take one of Dad’s frogs and show it to someone who was a fly tier, but was unfamiliar with the pattern, and tell them you just came up with this today, it would be believable,” he said.
“The frog, in particular, seems to be pretty timeless. They didn’t become popular because they were unique or pretty. They caught fish, and they still do.”