An Inside Story: by Bill J. Sherer
I grew up a fly angler in the heart of Vilas County, WI. We lived on Lake Buckatabon, a well-known Walleye and musky fishery – but almost all lakes in Vilas County are. My difference from other kids in the area was I fly fished, not exclusively at that time, but most of the time. I did it because it was less expensive to catch all the fish I wanted to on flies I made myself than it was to buy baits which were in a very limited supply, we lived 6 miles from town and didn’t get there very often.
I did not catch a trout until I was 12 years old, but I had caught several muskies by the time I was 11! They were all smaller fish between 30 and 36 inches in length that had ate my bass flies while fishing shallower water early in the morning before I had to do chores. My parents owned and operated a Boys and Girls Summer Camp, there were chores to do every day before I could participate in the camp activities. By the way, my first trout was a beautiful wild brookie from Lower Buckatabon Creek, I’ll never forget the colors of that fish and how much it squirmed around while I tried to hold it! The colors were magical and the fact that it had no scales was strange but cool.
The Herters Catalog was my bible. I even got a “How to Make Lures and Flies” by George L. Herter, book for Christmas one year, I think I was 8 because I had taken such an interest in fly tying the summer before. My father was a teacher by profession and education was very important in my family, we were all encouraged to broaden our minds at every opportunity and we all read as much as possible – we also had no TV at camp until I was 10. There are 6 kids in my family, I’m the second oldest.
I became engrossed with everything fishing, especially fly fishing and tried to tie flies by imitating what I saw in magazines.
There were no “how-to’s”, videos, or classes I could take, I just had to figure it out for myself. Every now and then a parent of a camper would show me a thing or two about winding a hackle or putting on a tail, but I really did not have any professional training until much later in life. Many of my flies were crude representations of living organisms like frogs, mice, or larger bugs, they all were supposed to float, some did…mostly. I trapped or shot most of the animals my materials were tied with. I tied my own leaders and really had no idea what tippet was until I read about it, all I knew was that if the skinny part was too short the fly would splat down so hard on the water that it would sink and I had to tie on more line to keep it from doing that! Taper was way overrated as far as the bass and bluegills were concerned, but I did learn about leader design in my own crude way, and from reading.
About the time I went into 8th grade things started to get serious with my fishing and fly tying. Eventually the owner of the local sporting goods store, Mr. Denton, wanted me to bring in some flies. We traded for whatever I needed, hooks, baits, little stuff like that. I think I got about 25 cents per fly. Folks would offer suggestions on sizes and colors and I would make flies based on their requests.
In 1970 my folks sold the camp and we moved to Boulder Junction, everything changed.
Living in the legendary “Musky Capital of the World” was cool, but living on a lake with 3 old time “bonafide” musky legends was awesome! These guys were living encyclopedias of musky fishing, even though they didn’t fly fish, they had those fish pegged from sunup to sunset. They knew where they would be, what they would eat, and when they would eat it, and I was all ears listening to every word and taking mental notes! I put down my fly rod and tried to learn about the fish, I didn’t quit fly fishing, but I really wanted to catch a toothy monster on my own and I had some of the best teachers in the world helping me out, I had to go for it!
I managed to come up with some old gear that I bought used, the old classic 5’ broomstick rod, a level wind reel loaded with 60 pound test Dacron, some piano wire leaders, and a few baits. My first baits were a Daredevil about 4 inches long and a big old wooden thing with spinner blades on each end, man were those lures heavy, my Herter’s book came in handy and I started designing and whittling my own baits to imitate the forage fish I saw muskies eating and I ended up catching a few! I was out on the water every day that I could be and since I didn’t have nearly as many chores to do, I was able to concentrate on my fishing more and it paid off. When I was a senior in high school, I went to work at Alpine Lodge as the cabin boy and got more education in muskies from the head guide at the lodge, he really liked me and we became good friends. He taught me more about observing the fish and how they reacted to the bait than I ever could have on my own!
Once I got to college I was really into trout and during the school year I would ply the streams in the Driftless Area
at every opportunity but when I got back home I was right out on the lake looking for larger fish with teeth and that attitude they are famous for! After a while I began to understand how the fish reacted to a bait and even some flies, but I really did not have the fly tackle to take on a really big fish. I finally purchased a 9 1/2 foot 10 weight blank from St. Croix in 1978, got a heavy duty Pfleuger fly reel and a 10 weight Cortland floating line and got serious about getting a fish on the fly.
I had a bet I could catch a big one with one of the old timers that taught me.
I began the same way I think a lot of guys still do it today, they try to imitate what the gear guys are doing. I had some success and I did manage a 48 incher in the spring of 1978 that went just over 25 pounds. That was a gift from the fish gods. I won my bet and that beer sure tasted good! That fish took a half a muskrat. What I learned was, you could throw your arms off and never see a fish with fly tackle, I had to try a different approach and I was determined to make it work!
Just like making my own hard baits, I started to design my own flies that were easier to cast and still put out a big profile. Not huge, just adequate enough to get the attention of a musky. The old guides always told me that most of the time the fish ate small stuff and I should throw smaller baits until they quit eating them – that made sense. I concentrated on perch and sucker patterns in the 5 to 7 inch range because that’s what they ate and I could cast them fairly well. I tried all sorts of things to make my streamers move better in the water, I even tied a jointed fly somewhere around 1982, it had a wine bottle cork in the head with a 200 pound test solid wire through it and a streamer stuck out the back. It was okey but it was limited to the surface and by then I realized that most of the fish wanted to eat underwater. It took another decade of trial and error for me to finally design a fly that was just right for most situations, the Figure-8. It was not just the fly, it was also advancements in tackle, lines, leaders, and knowledge being shared by lots of us chasing big fish all over the world. There were guys catching tarpon, stripers, pike, and lots of other fish that set the stage for the pinnacle of freshwater fish to become the prize it is today on the fly. We were splicing lines together, using shooting heads and trying just about everything you could think of to keep fish on the line. Our hard work began to get the attention of sportsmen who wanted a shot at all those monsters, after another couple of decades of hard work and some success, it finally took off and here we are today.
I’m happy to say I was there when it all began, but I’m humbled by it also.
I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was taught to listen when someone with more experience had something to say. Then I took those lessons and fashioned them into something I could work with and expand on. Lets keep doing that, it looks to me like we still have a long way to go!
By Bill Sherer
We Tie It Fly Shop
Boulder Junction, WI