JOHNSON CITY - If you are a fly fisher and any good at it, chances are you had some expert instruction along the way.
Competent fly tyers are probably even less likely to be totally self-taught.
"I tried tying flies about 10 or 11 years ago and it was a dismal failure," said 64-year-old Perry Rindfleisch, a semiretired golf equipment entrepreneur who is one of four anglers taking introductory fly tying classes this winter at Fly Shop of Tennessee in Johnson City.
"I decided I needed some professional help ... to either learn how to do it or decide that it's not for me and buy flies for the rest of my life," he said.
Rindfleisch's classmates, all experienced fly fishermen to varying degrees, told similar stories. No matter how motivated they were, there was only so far they could get by merely following written instructions.
"You read the magazines and read the books and try to take it step by step. But there are so many things between those steps that you just aren't able to see," said Jabe Thomas, a 35-year-old DePuy medical sales rep with 12 years of fly fishing experience.
Ironically, class instructor Todd Boyer developed into a master fly tyer without the benefit of professional instruction. But he's not your average fly tyer.
The 33-year-old Boyer is one of the rising talents in the business. A fly of his own design - Todd's Wiggle Minnow - is a revolutionary multispecies pattern now being distributed worldwide through Umpqua Feather Merchants.
If anything, Boyer is the exception that proves the rule. He admits that while he figured out a lot of things on his own, he hardly developed his considerable fly tying chops in a vacuum. He's learned a great deal from others.
"I never read fly tying books. I never went to a class. But I can't really say I taught myself. I just watched people," said Boyer, a Pennsylvania native who has been fly fishing since his late teens. "When I worked for Tim Landis at his old Orvis shop in Piney Flats, I already knew how to tie flies. When I was working, I just looked over Tim's shoulder and watched him. I didn't ask questions. I just watched."
Boyer realizes that very few anglers will ever have that luxury. His beginners classes strive to condense the basics into a compact, structured yet relaxed format.
The five-week class meets at the fly shop each Thursday evening for a two-hour session. He teaches two different fly patterns each session. Among the patterns taught are Rick's Caddis, Wooly Bugger, Pheasant Tail, Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear, the Prince Nymph, the Thorax, Parachute and the Comparadun.
These flies are counted among the basic patterns most Northeast Tennessee fly fishermen keep on hand for local waters. But that's not the main reason Boyer teaches them.
"What this class does is teach the fundamentals of fly tying. It's about teaching techniques," Boyer noted. "There's thousands of patterns out there. The idea is that by learning how to tie these basic patterns, they'll have the ability to tie other patterns."
Earl Booze, a 58-year-old attorney, appreciates Boyer's approach to the subject matter.
"I like biology. I like the insects and such, and fly tying goes along with it perfectly," Booze said.
"Todd answers your questions and follows you to make sure you know what you're doing and why.
"When you go home to tie the fly," Booze added, "you remember the logic behind it."
Fly Shop of Tennessee provides all the tools and materials for the flies tied during the class. For 35-year-old Chris McKinney, the classes provide invaluable guidance for economically setting up his home fly tying bench.
"I started out with a vise and, slowly, after each class, buying materials to practice on the flies we learned," said McKinney, who owns a local smoothie franchise.
"The vise is more of an investment. But the materials aren't bad. You can get a lot of flies out of it, compared to what you'll pay for flies regularly."
For some fly tyers, accumulating and experimenting with diverse materials is destined to become a lifelong obsession. Even if one doesn't aspire to become a commercial fly designer like Boyer or Fly Shop of Tennessee proprietor Eddie Wyatt, the urge to innovate is hardly uncommon among individuals attracted to the craft.
"I think I want to be able to take flies and try to figure out how to modify them. Just tweak things here and there," Thomas said. "I want to kind of play with it and have fun with it."