My Short Happy Career as a Commercial Fly Tyer
I was the Victim of Free Trade
by Dave Micus
t began, as so many of my fly fishing adventures and misadventures do, with a phone call from my good friend, Dick Brisbois, who lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
"There’s a new fly shop opening in town," Dick told me in the lowered voice that fly fishers affect on the phone in case it is tapped by someone trying to find their secret fishing holes. "I struck up conversation with the owner and he mentioned that he needs a salt water fly tyer. I told him about you and he’d love to see some of your flies."
Though right now I have a lot on my plate—a full time job, a part time job, and fishing every chance I get because it is striper season—the idea intrigued me. Inflated my ego probably says it better. When you start thinking of fly fishing more as an avocation than a hobby, it is only natural to try and figure out ways to make money at it. This could be my chance. "He’d like you to tie up a dozen deceivers and clousers," Dick continued and my interest waned.
There is a sign on the wall of the venerable Preservation Hall in New Orleans that reads:
- Traditional Requests: $ 2.00
- Others: $ 5.00
- "The Saints": $10.00
and this about sums up how I feel toward clousers and deceivers. Are they great salt water flies? Definitely. Productive? Most assuredly. But unfortunately their popularity has lowered them to the status of cliché, and no doubt a fly fishing expedition mounted by the National Geographic Society for the heretofore believed extinct coelacanth off the coast of Africa would list among their inventory of necessary supplies "six dozen white deceivers and chartreuse clousers." Just as serious jazz musicians prefer not to play The Saints for tourists, I prefer not to tie clousers and deceivers.
A second concern was his request for two dozen flies with no mention of money. Expecting me to fork over $100 worth of flies on the cuff seemed presumptuous to say the least. Instead I sent him two clousers, two deceivers, and two flies of my own design (called either "the Micus Minnow" or "Dave’s Deceiver"—the lawyers are still hashing it out).
I heard from Dick a few days latter telling me that the owner loved the flies and wanted me to contact him. I sent him an email, and received a response that was a bit disconcerting. He liked all the flies, especially the Micus Minnow (or Dave’s Deceiver—still haven’t heard from the lawyers), but wanted it weighted. This was like asking for clousers unweighted—it was not the intent of the design. And he again failed to mention financial remuneration.
I’ve come to realize that there are some jobs so good that your employer expects you to almost work for free, and fly fishing seems to have more than its fair share of these positions. In the past year I’ve published nearly 50 articles on fly fishing, many with photos, including articles in regional and national magazines. My total pay has been $350, hardly enough for my fishing camp in Patagonia. But the writing really isn’t work, more like a compulsion, so any reward, even a simple compliment (hint hint), suffices.
Fly tying is a different story, though.
While I enjoy tying flies I have never been a production tyer. I fish the salt, usually with large baitfish patterns, and it is rare to lose a fly—occasionally a blue fish will chomp one off, but for the most part I only replace flies when the ones I’m using get too ragged. Now I would have to sit down and do some serious time at the vise, and before doing so I wanted a firm financial commitment. I wrote again, a one liner that simply asked,
"What’s the pay?" and received the answer: "I pay $1 per fly for salt water flies."
Now I know that salt water flies sell for between $4 and $5, and I would be supplying the material as well as paying for shipping, so I was positive that his response contained a typo.
"I couldn’t tie salt water flies for $1 a fly," I wrote back, expecting him to respond, "$1???!!! I hit the wrong key!!! Hahaha. It should be $3!"
Once again I was being naive. "$1 is all I pay. I get all of my salt water flies for $1 and my freshwater flies for fifty cents."
"They must be tied in Africa," I blurted out, and this, inexplicably, touched a nerve. "I’m a serious fly shop, not one of those junk shops, and I don’t sell inferior products. My flies are tied in Tie-land," he responded curtly, insinuating that sweatshops in Tie-land are somehow better than sweatshops in Africa.
"I still can’t do it for the price," I answered. "Just keep the flies," I added magnanimously, grateful that I didn’t send two dozen and happy to end this relationship. But like many a fly shop owner, he felt compelled to deliver The Lecture. "I buy a lot of flies for the prices I told you," he wrote. "I don’t get any complaints. A lot of my tiers make a good living," which is probably true, but the cost of a good living in Tie-land is likely a helluvalot less than here in the U.S. of A. "You could tie flies faster. Get a fly drying wheel for those epoxy flies," then felt it necessary to add, "I’ve been fly fishing a long time" insinuating that I haven’t.
Now this shop is inland, and I would readily wager that I have caught more striped bass this season than my potential employer has in his entire life. And I wasn’t haggling about the price, or looking for a lecture, just turning down an incredibly low paying job. While I admired his business savvy—attempting to make 400% profit on the fruits of my labors—his recruitment methods left something to be desired. I let it drop.
But I know now that if I ever do get into commercial tying, I’ll start my own on-line store and reap 100% of the profits for my work. I even have the pricing structure figured out:
Dave Micus lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts where he was an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer, instructor and "star" of an episode of the outdoor show, Fly Fishing America. In 2006 he made the move from sea level to the Rocky Mountains of Montana where he has taken up fly rodding for trout, hunting and enjoying life in the "Big Country."
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