No cheap imitations here: the one-eyed fly tying master
Greatness, in its modest form, sits hunched over a vice in a cluttered room off Dollar Hill. Donated Altoids boxes are stacked every where, along with various pelts, rooster hackles, threads of every imaginable color along with pliers, scissors, wing cutters and other necessary utensils. On the walls are pictures of silvery fish happily displayed by successful anglers, testaments to a man who makes what some might consider to be cheap imitations. But he is far from an epigone himself.
This is the studio of an artist working in a medium that is functional, situational and by all accounts exceptional. This is where Tahoe City’s flytier extraordinaire Ned Long ties his deadly flies.
What makes the work of this 77-year-old former co-owner of Long and Corkery Insurance Brokerage in Tahoe City even more impressive is that he does his tying with only one eye. Long lost his right eye to melanoma 15 years ago and has made the adjustment to tying and fishing without the depth perception afforded by two functional eyes.
“My rock hopping days are over,” Long said. “You ought to see me pour wine.”
And when Long, who started fishing when he was 10-years-old, is not tying flies, as he has been for 55 years, he is thinking about them, how to make them more realistic, more deceptive and more effective.
“I tie whenever I feel like it,” Long said, but, as it turns out, this seems to be most of the time. “I still tie quite a bit. It keeps me going. Flytying keeps me awake at night – how to solve a certain problem.”
Bruce Ajari, a local fishing columnist and former president of the Tahoe Truckee Fly Fishers, the area’s fishing club, knows Long to be a man consumed by the passion for his sport.
“He’s always thinking about fly-fishing. He is quite an inspiration for those of us who tie, and he does it with one eye,” said Ajari. “He has an exceptional talent. But he’s a humble man. He’s always downplaying his talent. To think what he could do with two eyes. Ned is one of my heroes.”
One of Ajari’s favorite Long anecdotes, which current TTFF president Jon Twichell shares, is a time Long was in the hospital a few years back. With tying on the brain, Long noticed a particular fiber tubing employed by the dialysis machine he was hooked up to and thought it would make a perfect tail for a fly.
“Ned announced to me ‘I found this new material,'” Twichell said. “He was really excited, even though it didn’t work. Ned has the ability to look at a natural and dream up in his own mind what materials are needed to copy it and what techniques he should use to tie it.”
In Ajari’s opinion, it is Long’s attention to detail and the quality of fly that makes him a superb tier. What makes him an expert is his innovation.
“Ned ties his own flies that work really well. His extended body and pullover series flies are very unique patterns that are very productive,” Ajari said. “He’s always trying new things, looking for better ways, new material.”
When in his brother’s medical office about 20 years ago, Long noticed a roll of pre-wrap, a non-sticking gauzy material used to prevent pulling of body hair when wrapping limbs. Long incorporated this into his mass of materials and this wrap is now packaged commercially for flytiers.
Twichell said, “Ned can look an any material and ask himself, ‘what can I make out of it?'”
According to Long, everything has potential for fly material.
“Oh yeah, we use all kinds of crap,” Long said.
A recipient of the 1996 Buzz Buszek Award, the Heisman trophy of flytiers in the United States, an honor conferred by the Federation of Fly Fishers, an international organization of fly-fishers, Long is one of the top flytiers in North America and has been for years. But it is not only Long’s adeptness as a flytier that makes him special. It is also his ability to share and teach his passion with the aspiring and seasoned angler alike. Long travels around the western United States, teaching flytying at different sportsman shows and fly-fishing conclaves, like the one recently held in Kings Beach.
“If you show an interest in fly-fishing and tying, Ned returns that interest six-fold in you. With his sense of humor, he proves to you that he listens and he cares,” Twichell said. That interest extends to conservation of area waters and getting others involved.
“He’s very persuasive,” Ajari and Twichell agree. “Ned has a way of asking you to do something that you don’t say no. He is constantly, in a positive way, surprising you.”
Long, who along with his wife Betty, the librarian at the Tahoe City library, moved to Tahoe in 1960 after living in San Merino in Southern California for most of his life. He used to tie commercially, but gave it up.
“I tied for a shop in Sacramento. It took all the fun out of it, tying the same fly over and over for hours. Now I tie for friends and take enough money to buy more supplies,” Long said.
Long retired in 1977 from the insurance business and dabbled in real estate. Since then, his attention has been focused on flytying, his three children and his six grandkids. With his advancing age and lack of depth perception, Long has moved to mostly lake angling after years of exploring Sierra streams and rivers along with waters throughout the west, Canada and Alaska, both in the back country and roadside.
However, whether Long lands a fish or not is not what matters to him after almost 70 years of casting. Long has taken the patience he has developed at the flytying vice (although he admits he has “turned the air blue a few times” in his office) and applied to fishing over the years.
“I can have a good time and never catch a fish. A lot of big ones get away. We all have to pay our dues. More fish have been caught on the vice than on the stream. One thing about flytying – you’ll never learn it all.”
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As seniors from North Tahoe collected diplomas this week, a group of Lakers continued another local tradition — capturing first place at the boys’ regional golf championship.