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.
Visit Bob at the Maryland Fly Fishing Show
Excerpts written for Hatches Magazine by ALEX CERVENIAK