There’s a room in the arts building at Cal State Northridge that is laden with bugs. Tiny bugs, no bigger than the lead tip on a pencil. And giant bugs. Fat, hairy things with legs and wings and lips. The kind of hideous crawling bugs you encounter in cheap motel rooms, bugs so big you figure they could change the channel on your TV set.
Each day through April 14, dozens of people will converge on the bug-infested room. They will come not to spray or stomp or gas the creatures. Remarkably, they will come to gawk at and admire the bugs. The people responsible for the bugs will visit the room too. But instead of being lambasted for their apparent total disregard for state health codes, they will be congratulated and envied.
The bugs, you see, are not real. They are the creations of 14 of the finest fly-tyers in the world, marvelous blends of fur and feather and plastic and metal designed to entice the wily trout or salmon into mistaking one for a snack.
Hundreds of artificial flies make up an art exhibit entitled “Fly-Tyers of California” in the Main Gallery at CSUN. The fact that the flies on display are able to fool even the most cunning fish into inhaling them makes you admire the skill of the fly-tyers. The subtle reminder that fish relish the opportunity to chow down on a four-inch hairy bug might make you think twice before eating a fish again. Indirectly, you see, you are ingesting that crawling creature, antennae and feet and wings and all--preferably with a glass of white wine.
And if you never eat another trout or salmon, that’s just fine with these folks. The sport of fly-fishing--a very expensive sport that often involves an angler meticulously building his or her own rod and very often involves the painstaking procedure of tying the fly--also includes the firmly held belief that all fish should be admired briefly and then returned to the stream to live and fight another day.
“It is the stalk, the pursuit of the fish, that matters,” said Judith Dunham, curator of the exhibit at CSUN and author of “The Art of the Trout Fly.”
And what a pursuit it is.
A single fly can take several hours to create, from the careful selection of materials to the securing of the fur or feather in intricate combinations onto the steel hook with fine threads. The selection of flies on display is stunning.
From the fly-tying vise of Eric Otzinger in Glendora came the tiniest dry flies, flies that imitate the adult stage of many insects as they emerge from the stream bed and float on the surface of the water, drying their wings in preparation for flight. These flies--the Hendrickson, Red Quill, Light Cahill, Quill Gordon, Pale Morning Dun, Adams Irresistible and many others--are a prime food source for trout, which suck them off the surface, in the process making a fly fisherman’s heart rate jump to the level of a hummingbird’s.
And from the workbench of John van Derhoof of Irvine came the eight-inch-long Streaker, a massive concoction of brightly colored feathers designed for use in saltwater, a combination of bird plumage that when pulled through the water imitates a fleeing mackerel or sardine in hopes of bringing a 250-pound marlin crashing down upon it.
There are other non-bug creations, such as the Supervisor, a flashy bait-fish imitation designed to catch steelhead trout. This three-inch-long blue and green fly is propped up majestically in its case, gazing down upon other artificial flies, seemingly content to just sit back and criticize them. It is, after all, the Supervisor.
But most of the flies (a generic term that covers all artificial baits used by the fly fisherman) are indeed replicas of bugs.
Darwin Atkin of Porterville checks in with stunningly lifelike grasshoppers and crickets, tied from deer hair with wispy antennae and legs. Their living counterparts are a main source of food for many trout in Western streams, falling from the grassy banks into the water and quickly being pounced upon by rainbow trout and brown trout.
Wayne Luallen of Visalia exhibits his perfectly tied bugs of hair and feathers, bugs that simulate real bugs in their early development stage and bounce along the bottom of a stream where they are picked off by trout in the frigid water.
But perhaps the most stunningly real creations are those of Bill Blackstone, a master fly-tyer from Orange who displays his craneflies, damselflies and stoneflies against a backdrop of scattered leaves and sticks. They have proven to be very effective, said Blackstone, who has taken many trout with them. But they are so realistic that they also fool people. During the first night of the exhibit, people crowded in front of Blackstone’s glass case and made ugly-looking faces, the surest sign that a big bug appears to be real.
Blackstone’s stoneflies are done in incredible detail, with the thin veins showing through the wafer-thin wings. In his cranefly imitations, the antennae, thorax and spidery legs are tied with such perfection that only the protruding hook onto which it is tied gives any indication that it is not a real, living bug.
Yes, the onlookers appear to be saying, they would without any hesitation slam a rolled-up Newsweek magazine onto the heads of any of these artificial flies if Blackstone should in a burst of humor place one on their kitchen floor.
“Occasionally a bug would die in my garden and wind up on my fly-tying bench,” Blackstone said, explaining how he would haul dead bugs into his workroom and study them in his effort to create a perfect replica.
“The first realistic fly I tied was a grasshopper. It was really something.”
Blackstone’s bugs are not the real showstopper. That award must go to the collection of Robert Ransom of Culver City, a man who appears to be treading lightly on that fine line between master fly-tyer and a guy who has slipped and fallen into one too many icy mountain streams.
Among Ransom’s bizarre collection is a fly he has named “The Joker at the Other End of the Line.” It is a shocking piece, a lifelike face of a clown complete with three-pronged hat, bright blue eyes, eyebrows and a mouth filled with gleaming white teeth. It is made entirely from deer hair and in the world of stoneflies and caddisflies and gray mayflies it is a BellJet Ranger helicopter roaring low over the jungle to the deafening strains of rock music.
“Fishing is a game to me,” Ransom said. “I have played the match-the-hatch game in trout fishing, where you meticulously determine what a trout is eating at a particular hour in a particular stream and then try to match that with an artificial bug. And now I have played a ridiculous game with my ‘Joker.’ But they’re both just games. The whole process of trout fishing must remain interesting for me. This just helps me maintain my interest.”
What more would you expect from a guy who admits publicly that he tied his first flies from the hair of his own cat.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “I just combed the hair out of him. I didn’t jerk a clump out as he walked by or anything like that.”