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Tiny bits of help: Trout Unlimited members tie flies for veterans’ fishing trips

January 23, 2017 GMT

MISSOULA — Despite their reputation for never giving up secrets to success, a roomful of anglers spent Saturday giving away literally hundreds of them.

“We wanted to tie at least 1,000 flies today, and we’re going to easily exceed that,” said Trout Unlimited West Slope Chapter President Mark Kuipers. “We’ve really leveraged this whole experience.”

The beneficiaries will be America’s military combat veterans, who’ve been introduced to fly-fishing through the Bozeman-based Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation. The tiny artificial lures will outfit a series of fishing expeditions for veterans recovering from battlefield injuries and trauma.

“As a club, we wanted to do something to honor and respect our combat veterans, especially the post-9/11 ones,” Kuipers said. “So we asked what we can do, and they said, ‘We need flies.’”

An angler, especially a novice, can go through 20 or 30 flies a day if the brush is thick and the fishing’s good. Warriors and Quiet Waters plans to take at least 70 vets on fishing trips this summer. At an average $2 apiece retail, those little bits of barbed lint add up in a hurry.

That’s where the members of the West Slope Chapter came in. Just a few hundred feet from the frozen-solid Clark Fork River’s “Hollywood Hole,” about two-dozen anglers turned a conference room at the DoubleTree Hotel into a fly-tying factory. They brought elaborate portable workstations and jumbled cardboard boxes full of feathers and thread. Within minutes of clamping their vises to the tables, they were stitching together fake bugs like a Frankenstein’s entomology lab.

“A beginning tier can spend a lot of time doing this,” said chapter member Alec Underwood. “As you get more proficient, it takes just a couple of minutes per fly.”

Admitting he was two years out of practice, Underwood nevertheless completed a classic woolly bugger in about seven minutes. After clamping the hook in his vise, he wrapped it with almost invisible thread. Then he fluffed a bit of black downy marabou feather and tied it just above the hook’s curve. Next to that, he attached a black saddle hackle feather, which was left dangling. The body of the fly materialized in wraps of chenille yarn around the shank of the hook. Underwood then folded back the saddle hackle, and with the thread tied the feather to the yarn body so the fluff stuck out like hairy spikes. Underwater, the hackle would undulate like the body of a leech, while the marabou would wriggle like a swimming tail.

Elsewhere along the tables, anglers attached magnifying lenses to their eyeglasses to build imitation midges smaller than mosquitoes, or stripped iridescent feathers into piscatorial versions of disco drag queens.

All work stopped when member Rod Gilchrist arrived with a paper grocery sack. Inside were three compartmentalized boxes filled with nearly 300 different kinds of handmade flies.

“I’m too damn old to fish, so I just tie,” Gilchrist said. “I’m down to a cane and bobber now.”