Beyond The Bug | Fly Tyer Profile: Keith Westra

It was 1993 and I was a freshman at Humboldt State in Northern California. I lived in a dorm nestled beneath towering redwoods with a view of the Pacific. I learned the art of fly fishing – instead of attending freshman orientation – from Matt, another guy that lived in my dorm. We fished Coffee Creek near the Trinity River and needless to say a spark was ignited.

In that same year, I received a fly tying kit for Christmas. Like most generic fly tying kits, it lacked the appropriate materials and had really low end tools, but heck, it meant the world to me. I still remember my first fly. I tied a #14 Light Cahill, and I remember how frustrating it was trying to follow along with the book and its poorly taken black and white photos. But it was a start, a start that fueled a passion just as big and great as fly fishing itself.

Now, in 2008, I can look back and see how far I've come and how I still learn more and more each time a sit down at a vise and make the first wrap. For me tying is such a huge part of the sport and it sometimes occupies more of my time than fly fishing itself. Whether I'm tying up some Charlies for my next bonefishing trip or spinning some sweet deer hair poppers for a trip to the Sacramento River Delta, the tying drives me to become better – I don’t want to simply perfect my flies, but I want to become more imaginative and creative in my designs.

I often lie in bed, assembling materials and the elements of a new fly in my head. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m trying to solve the next problem or puzzle in fly tying. How do I make it float better? What can I use to make it swim better? Is this new material a more durable choice than what has been used in the past? Take more time looking in the craft store... Maybe that glue I saw in the hardware store would be better than the last stuff I tested! Piecing the puzzle together is rewarding, and probably what keeps me coming back for more time at the vise.

As a fly tyer I pride myself in continuing to hone my outside-the-box thinking. I don’t want to just add or take something away from an existing pattern, I want to make it completely different. With my own fly designs, I want to re-imagine the craft.

I've spent the last 3 years developing a new series of tube flies for steelhead. Umpqua Feather Merchants has picked them up and they'll be marketed for 2009. These tube flies are unique, something I considered getting a patent on, not just a variation on a variation of any existing pattern. Ultimately, this is what fly tying means to me, taking it to the extreme, coming up with something new, getting out a set of Prismacolor markers and sketching out the idea before I ever sit down at my vise. It means giving away patterns I spent long hard hours developing and tying. Often I'll hand off my creations just to see if they work for pike and muskie for a Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters customer in Norway. Recently I tied up some sweet crabs that helped a Yucatan-bound buddy catch his first permit on fly tackle. These are the rewards of my work and what pushes me to be a better tyer and fly designer.

Keith Westra is a regular contributor under the name "on the fly" to beyondthebug.blogspot.com

photos in this post by Ian McNemar, a regular contributor to beyondthebug.blogspot.com