There was a time back in the day where I was almost a professional fly tier myself. My little brother, the guy who actually got me into fly fishing in the first place, had started selling his flies at the local fly shop and was getting behind on his orders. I almost joined him and even started drafting plans to make the venture an actual company, but then I remembered I’m not a very good tier. Oh yea. (Good enough to make a video though).
I admire really good tiers, the guys that crank out picture perfect flies every time. I especially respect the real artists, the tiers cranking out new patterns and spinning up pure creativity at the vise. With all the latest advancements in fly tying materials and new techniques coming out, it’s a very exciting time to be getting into the sport. One of those artists of fur and feathers that are pushing the envelope is Sam Looper, who’s innovative patterns have me chomping at the bit to get out on the water. (Looper is also The Postfly Signature Tyer for the month of August, pick up his flies here).
The Life Of A Fly Tier
Like many fly anglers that start tying, Looper says the switch to tying up his own patterns was a natural progression. “I was fly fishing first then I got a fly tying kit for Christmas,” he said. “The first time I got a trout on a fly I tied was pretty cool, but then I went to warmwater.” Now Looper’s patterns reflect that affinity for chasing those more aggressive warmwater species like bass and pike, especially his big streamer patterns and deer hair spook flies.
Influence from other tiers is present in Looper’s work, much like every other tier these days, since social media has made sharing ideas so much easier. “I found Rich Strolis’ musky patterns on YouTube, and my style of deer hair tying is inspired by Pat Cohen,” said Looper. Known around the industry as the master of deer hair, Cohen packs tighter and more creatively, but he’s also very good at helping other tiers develop ideas and new practices. “Cohen is my mentor, I call and talk to him twice a week,” said Looper. “He’s really influenced my style as a business too, because fly tying is really about understanding dealer and supplier relationships.”
That other side of tying and running your own fly business may be even harder than constantly innovating and coming up with new patterns. Even if you have created something new, there’s a chance that someone else in the tying world is going to being doing something similar. “It’s hard to tie professionally without stepping on someone’s toes or using someone’s ideas,” said Looper. “If you choose to tie some other people’s patterns get permission first.”
An Engineer At The Tying Vise
While some tiers like Pat Cohen spend every waking hour tying up new patterns, Looper splits his time as an engineer and a tier, but he considers both jobs full time gigs. “I spend 30-40 hours at the vice and another 40 hours as an engineer,” he said, “I’ll sleep when I die.” After taking his kids to school in the morning and working at his engineering job during the day, Looper spends as much time at night whipping up new flies as he can. “I try to balance the work and family time with the vise time as best as I can,” he said. “The job that pays me the least I love the most, but I have two incomes so I can’t complain.” Which brings up another point for most jobs in the fly fishing industry, it’s not about the money, it’s about the love of the game.
When Looper is thinking about spreading his brand and trying to increase his client list, it’s all about social media. “I spend a ton of time on social media, that’s so important in the fly tying world now,” said Looper. Fly anglers that are good at posting high quality photos to social media regularly often out-compete other tiers that are more social media-inept. Staying on top of your social following will make sure you’re too busy at the vise to fish. Almost. “More often than not I’ll have orders to fill so I cant fish,” said Looper, “but with the day job I travel a lot, so I get to fish while I’m traveling, usually once or twice a month. In the summer I also get to fish a couple times a week, so I maybe fish four to five times a month, on average.”
Once you get your flies into the hands of customers, the reward of creating a pattern that catches both angler and fish is what it’s all about. “It’s a huge reward to see people get excited about something you’ve created,” said Looper. “That’s the best, getting people excited about flies and fly fishing and seeing their reactions and excitement when I get photos of fish they’ve caught on my patterns.”
Like every job, there’s always something waiting to get you down. For many professional fly tiers, that’s the egos of other tiers. “Everyone’s got something to prove, there’s a lot of competition,” said Looper. Dealing with the negative criticism can also be tough. You’re not just putting out a product; you’re putting out a piece of yourself into the big, bad world. “Fly tying is a form of art, just like painting or sculpture; it’s a craft,” said Looper. “You put a lot of heart into it and that criticism is sometimes tough to swallow.” Regardless of the type of feedback you receive, learning to be patient is the key. “Patience is king,” Looper said, “and be humble.”
First Step To Get The Job: Go Legit, Go Fast
Being successful in the fly tying world is less about turning out good patterns and more about turning out patterns fast. “If you can’t do it efficiently and quickly, don’t bother,” said Looper. “You might as well work at McDonalds, because you wont be profitable.”
Looper had one key tip for tiers trying to get faster: don’t put down your scissors–ever. “Also, laying out everything you need, spending time getting materials ready to just pick up and put on the hook, that’ll make you faster and speed is the key,” he said. “You’ve got to calculate if a certain pattern is a worthwhile investment of your time, otherwise you’re losing cash. The key is to maintain profitability.”
If you imagine the world of fly tying as a bunch of bohemian artists trying to create works of art on a hook, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth, but they’re much more structured than that behind the scenes. Specifically, make sure the government knows you’re an actual business, not just some dude selling flies out of the back of a car. “Follow the rules, pay your taxes, set up your tax ID number, get a business license, and do it legit–that’s important,” said Looper.
One way to legitimize yourself as a tier, not to the government, but to the rest of the fly tying community, is to create your own patterns. “If you choose to tie some other people’s patterns get permission first, because sometimes you can make your own variation of the pattern and sell it, but only if they let you,” Looper said. “There are no copyright infringement laws in fly tying, but you have to give credit where credit is due.”
This is the final part in a series on the best jobs in fly fishing. Get an inside look of the best jobs anywhere and see if you have what it takes here.