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Fly tiers ignore the fish, spin tiny works of art

As national contests go, the annual Northeast Fly Tying Competition is about as exciting to watch as fly fishing.

A dozen devotees sitting at folding tables assemble shreds of felt, feather, fur, tinsel, and sequins into strange-looking lures with even stranger names.

But for those who see zonkers as something Zen, and governors and supervisors as artworks, not officials, competition doesn't get any better than what unfolds for 90 minutes each year in a quiet corner of the Shriners Auditorium at the end of Fordham Road in Wilmington.

''Oh, there is definitely some tension involved here," said fly tier Richard O'Donnell of Derry, N.H. ''You're going up against people who are just as good as you or better. This is the only time I get to see how my ability stacks up against other fly tiers from across the country."

Actually, the farthest anyone has come to compete in the contest is from Florida, according to event organizer Rick Southgate. But this year's competition drew fly tiers from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and from all over New England, and this 21-year-old event is one of the oldest in the country and most popular, Southgate said.

At a basic level, flies are fishing lures tied together with all manner of material to resemble fish food. Fly tying involves creating a colorful lure to attract fish. But the entrants at the competition take it to a new level. Among their creations are zonkers, which are hooks wrapped in silver string and tied with tufts of feather down to resemble minnows favored by saltwater fish, and governors, a type of dry fly so called because they resemble tiny pieces of pipe cleaner with a few feathers attached.

''Not everybody is going to win today," Southgate told the contestants and their families shortly before announcing the winners. ''But just by being here today, you've really accomplished something."

More than 50 entrants started signing up last fall for the chance to string together salt water, dry, wet, nymph, streamer, bass, and other flies.

Starting in September, contestants mail in flies they have tied in any or all of seven contest categories to the Woburn-based United Fly Tyers, which sponsors the event. Finalists selected from each category must then tie another fly in each of the categories they have entered. They bring those to the competition, where they must tie yet more flies, this time with the clock ticking and a small audience watching.

Three ''celebrity" judges -- perhaps better known inside the world of fly tying than out -- choose the winners from junior and senior divisions, based on the three flies submitted in each category by each contestant. There's $50 in prize money for the best fly in each category in each division and larger prizes for overall winners in each division.

The overall competition winner in the seniors division, Paul Thebeau of Maine, took home $450 in prize money. Newcomer Anton Rist, 14, from Claverack, N.Y., was the overall winner in the junior division, with $250 in prize money and a $1,000 college scholarship.

Another $300 in prize money was divvied up among 10 other contestants. The Grimm family of Meyersdale, Pa., drove 10 hours so their son 11-year-old son, Seth, could walk away with $50 for tying the best wet fly.

That left Seth ecstatic.

''When I found out I was a finalist, I had to come here or I knew some other kid would win it," he said. ''I love doing this. I'd go anywhere to do this."

It's definitely a labor of love. At most fishing stores, the average fly costs well under $5, yet even the simple ones can take 15 minutes or more to make by hand. Nobody does it to save money.

And it's not for the love of fishing. Most at the competition Saturday said they don't fish, and those who do, don't use the flies they tie.

These are works of art pieced together from a palette of exotic bird feathers, 30 shades of deer tail skins, and a variety of other animal body parts. The long-dead head of a golden pheasant sat at the base of the vise Grimm was using to tie his fly. One of the more difficult tasks in fly tying is deciding which materials to use.

''The flies have to be perfect to win the competition," said 15-year-old Billy Russo from Cranston, R.I. ''Flies don't have to be perfect to catch a fish."

''Yeah, fish aren't the brightest creatures in the world," said his brother Nicholas, 12.

Considering the work involved and the rewards, one might also wonder about fly tiers themselves. That is, until they produce the finished products.

Rist carried around framed samples of brightly colored salmon flies that he tied that will doubtless never see the wet side of a stream. But they earned him plenty of ohs and ahhs from the older folks at the competition.

''At that age, their fingers still do what their brains tell them to do," said Thomas Lally of North Reading. ''At my age, about the only advantage I have is I've got more dead things in my basement that I can tie flies with."

From the ages of the contestants at Saturday's competition, it was clear fly tying is a pursuit reserved mainly for retirees and those who have yet to choose a career. And it was just a clear from some parents at Saturday's competition that it's a demanding hobby they hope will not unduly influence that choice for their children.

''My son would love to be a professional fly tier," said Peter Bolye, who flew from North Carolina so his son Caleb could compete. ''But, I don't know how he'd make a living at it."

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