This piece first appeared in "Southwest Fly Fishing" January/February 2007. Written by John Shewey.
Robert Williamson's fly patterns provide a rather obvious insight into their originator's fundamental beliefs about dressing and designing flies: art matters.
Hailing from Utah, Williamson has gained regional--and with the release of his first book, more wide-spread--recognition for his creative, artistic approach to fly design. In Creative Flies, Innovative Tying Techniques (Frank Amato Publications, 2002), he refreshingly admits, "I make no claims that these patterns catch more fish than any other patterns. ...Some of the techniques are considered tedious and unnecessary by some fly tiers and fly fishers. To a degree, I concur with this feeling. However, if you like a well-constructed fly, with a neat appearance and durability, you will enjoy these patterns; being able to tie these flies will give you great satisfaction."
Indeed, that satisfaction and a sense of artistic accomplishment are the elements that Williamson finds most appealing about not only tying flies, but also, perhaps more significantly, in designing new and different patterns. "The need to express myself in some type of creative arena began at an early age," Williamson explains. "I have always dabbled in drawing, painting and calligraphy. Fly tying has given me a satisfaction to those artistic cravings. I feel that if you spend enough time, energy, and talent on both the fishing and the tying, they can become an expression of yourself."
His unique surface patterns borrow ideas from a wide range of other flies and tiers, but the key components of their construction are uniquely his own. For example, almost 20 years ago, Williamson devised a method of overhand knot weaving that allowed him to use this little-known tying technique to make extended bodies. His method relies on a series of hand and finger movements that are clearly described and graphically outlined in Creative Flies, and which is most spectacularly displayed on his Woven Stonefly Adult and Woven Hopper. Both patterns are dressed by weaving two different colors of polypropylene yarn over an extended underbody of corkboard trimmed to the appropriate shape. The result is not only artistic (and downright perplexing until you understand the tying techniques and materials involved), but also just about as buoyant as any large dry fly can hope to be. To further boost the buoyancy of these patterns, Williamson adds elk hair wings and bullet-style heads of deer hair. Rubber legs complement the design perfectly, and these are simply strapped in under the thread wraps used to tie down the bullet-head.
Williamson readily acknowledges his influences and appreciates the angling and tying history that has spawned many of his ideas. In Creative Flies,for example, he summarizes the history of the overhand knot weaving method, ultimately reporting, "It can be assumed that the weaving technique Hank's (Hank Roberts) wife came up with is the same one that Dan Vercelino came up with. Both are given credit for this technique."
Williamson uses this technique sans extended body--to dress stonefly nymphs patterns and his Woven Cicada. Imitating a terrestrial insect unfamiliar to many trout anglers--but certainly not those residing in the Rocky Mountain states--this fly also has an underbody of corkboard. Williamson dresses another cicada pattern using a twisted strip of black closed-cell foam for the body. Sometimes called "furling" (which usually involves polypropylene yarn or similar materials), this twisting method is very simple and widely applicable. Williamson writes that the technique "is nothing more than twisting strips of thin foam until it (the strips twisted together) doubles back on itself."
The Looped Foam Cicada displays a simple and logical construction: black twisted-foam body tied in only at the front and extending back over the hook shank, elk hair wing, red hi-vis foam formed like a bullet head over the front by simply poking the eye of the hook through the middle of the foam strip and then tying the strip down a bit back on the shank, rubber legs like a Madam X. The same basic construction, with a slight variation in materials and proportions, produces Williamson's Twisted Hopper, Twisted Stonefly Adult, Twisted Yellow Sally, and Twisted Adult Damsel.
Weaving and twisting are but two of numerous intriguing techniques put to good use by Williamson. He also ties "chain-stitched" patterns and flies featuring air-filled bodies. He says his creative urges cause him to see fly-tying potential in all kinds of materials, no matter whether those materials are intended for dressing flies. "Any material natural or synthetic is fair game for making a fly, in my opinion," he says. "I spend a lot of time experimenting with ideas and materials. Some ideas end up as fly patterns, while others end up as a pile of failed experiments in creativity."
Williamson began fly angling at age 13; his inaugural foray into fly tying occurred 13 years later when his father's favorite flies--the Franz Potts hair flies--were becoming scarce. Not willing to part with the hair flies, such as the Fizzle and Rock Worm, that he and his brother grew up fishing with, Williamson disassembled a few ti see how they were tied and thus launched his tying career. Combining his artistic bent with a fascination for the non-traditional methods of Western tiers like Potts, Norman Means, and George Grant, Williamson was soon "trying to realistically duplicate the size, shape, and color of the natural insects I was trying to imitate." Increasingly he did so, with unique methods and materials.
In addition to compiling many of his innovative patterns and techniques in Creative Flies, Williamson has also written for Utah Fishing, Utah Outdoors, Fly Fishing, and Fly fishing and Tying Journal. And though he admits that he originally wrote his book to seek some recognition for his innovative methods, he has since decided that such motivations are "quite selfish." That self-assessment, however, is too harsh because not only did writing the book provide yet another venue for Williamson to "quench creative urges," but doing so also resulted in a very useful guide for like-minded creative tiers who relish learning and advancing intriquing techniques.
In addition to bespeaking its author's insistence that art matters as much as function in fly patterns, Creative Flies also reveals Williamson's deep respect for the ability of the sport of fly angling to add meaning and mystery to life. He scatters short angling tales throughout the book, and "The Crossing" demonstrates his love of small, unheralded waters and wild trout. In fact, Williamson's favorite fisheries are pristine Utah streams populated by native Bonneville cutthroats.
"For me," he reflects, "the places where these natives are found are like the fountain of youth. They give me a sense that amid all the changes in life and in the world, some things can remain the same. I feel a sense of connection with the past and a hope that it can be passed down to those I love. In a way, I guess I am a romantic when it comes to fly fishing, I am very idealistic. Fly fishing and fly tying are passions that stretch my imagination and my emotions."
John Shewy is the managing editor of Northwest Fly Fishing, Southwest Fly Fishing and Eastern Fly Fishing magazines.