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Chris Helm, Ultimate Fly Tyer

Excerpted from Autobiography for Fly Tyers Of The World

Photos by Chris Helm and Jim Stuard

A neighbor’s garage - his son, Lenny, Chris’ boyhood friend- a tackle box full of shiny, colorful, and fascinating lures - a young boy’s interest and curiosity captivated. As Chris Helm remembers, that’s how it all started about 59 years ago. This experience planted the seed for the journey through fishing experiences that eventually lead to his interest in fly fishing.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Chris wasn’t located within a bicycle ride of a good pond or river to fish. He doesn’t remember loads of fishing opportunities when he was a boy. His dad only fished or hunted on very rare occasions. His parents had emigrated from Germany in the early l900’s and survived The Great Depression. Money wasn’t abundant and travel was rarely done, except for the occasional Sunday car ride which was not too uncommon during the late l940’s and early l950’s. He remembers only taking two real vacations in his youth and they were limited to northern Michigan and The Great Smokey Mountains.

His parents had some friends who owned a cottage on Bear Lake in Hillsdale County, Michigan, about 70 miles from Toledo. When Chris was in the fourth or fifth grade he would accompany his parents to the cottage for a Saturday or Sunday visit. While his parents spent the day talking with their friends, Chris would use their rowboat to row a short distance out to some weed beds in fairly deep water and fish with worms for bluegill. This usually lasted all day, sometimes without even a break for lunch. The fish he caught were put into a large water filled bucket. After the fishing was over, he would bring the fish back in the bucket and show them to his parents, and then proceed to pour the water and fish back into the lake and watch them swim away. This experience really cemented his long term interest in fishing.

After reaching junior high school and through most of his high school years at DeVilbiss High School, he recalls little if any fishing opportunities. His high school years were focused more on school, playing drums in the high school concert and marching band along with the orchestra, and playing baseball. Interestingly, the music training would play an integral part in his fly fishing done in the years after college.

The early years of fishing were mostly confined to using a simple cane pole, followed by advancing to a spin cast and then a spinning rod by his freshman year in college at The University of Toledo. He really didn’t become aware of fly fishing until he was playing drums in a four piece combo during the summer at the big hotel on Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone Park his junior year of college. Traveling up to one of the other lodges at The Canyon numerous times he saw people fly fishing on the Yellowstone River at what he came to know as Buffalo Ford. It looked quite complicated at the time. He did fish in Yellowstone lake with a spinning rod with a Colorado spinner and worms catching a number of very nice cutthroat trout that were released.

During college one of his best friends was a summer employee at the YMCA Camp Storer on Stoney Lake very close to Napoleon, Michigan, about 60 miles from Toledo. This was a no public access lake, but because of his buddy was working there, he got to know the camp director quite well and was able to go there anytime to fish for bass and bluegill with a spinning rod. The camp even provided him with a boat so that he could row around to the different fishing spots. This lake was the eventual place he first learned to fly fish and develop modest casting skills without being given any formal instructions.

During his college years, he worked 25 hours per week at a local supermarket to pay his tuition, car insurance, and fuel for the car. Fishing happened during the summer, usually on Sundays or holidays, mostly at Stoney Lake. After all, gas was around 25 or 30 cents per gallon in those days. Driving the 60 miles to Stoney was not an issue.

After graduating from The University of Toledo with a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education, he taught junior high school history, geography, and business for four years. In between his first and second year of teaching he married his high school sweetheart, Judy, who was an elementary school teacher. She became well aware of his interest in fishing during their dating years which went back to their sophomore year in high school.

Graduate school took three years to complete while he was teaching at the junior high. In 1967, he earned his Masters’ Degree in Educational Administration.

In September of l968, he took a position at The University of Toledo as an Administrative Assistant in the Personnel Department. He took early retirement from the university in l991 and that provided him the opportunity to start his fly tying materials business.

It was shortly after his marriage that he bought his first fly rod, a Shakespeare Presidential fiberglass rod, a simple reel, and a level line along with a few poppers for bluegill and bass.

The next few years he focused on fly fishing primarily for bass and bluegill, while also still fishing with a spin cast rod and reel using plastic worms for bass. At that time, he knew no one who fly fished and did not see others fly fishing for pan fish and bass.

All during his college years and for over 40 years after that, he played in a combo to earn extra money, much of which went towards fishing equipment, lures, and eventually the start of his travels to distant and more exotic fishing locations in Canada and the Caribbean. His fishing trips to distance locations began in the late l960’s. He first used a fly rod in Canada in l973. One of the memorable fish he caught was 19 inch arctic grayling with a 13” girth. To date he has never caught or seen one with those dimensions. That very fish is in the mount shown in the photograph to the left.

His wife bought him a fly tying kit for Christmas in l973 because he wanted to tie some flies that duplicated the commercially tied fly on which he caught the trophy grayling. This started what turned out to be a passion. Not knowing any other fly tiers, he went to the library for books.  However, in those days, there only a few books available.

Chris bought his fly tying material mainly through mail order companies such as Herter’s. He tied flies for his bass and pan fishing as well as for some subsequent trips to Canada. Eventually he started tying flies commercially for The Netcraft Company which was only a mile from his home.

The first experience in saltwater fly fishing for Chris came in l977. Along with outdoor writer Nick Sisley, he traveled to Boca Paila Lodge in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This was a great learning experience, especially finding out how spooky bonefish can be. He caught his first permit of six pounds, but it was on a ultra light spinning rod with a wiggle jig. In those times bonefishing was still in its formative stages. As a result of this trip, he tied bonefish flies commercially for the lodge for several years. These bonefish flies consisted of a calf tail and a chenille body on a #6 jig hook. Since this initial trip he has taken about 20 trips to the Caribbean to fish for bonefish, permit, and barracuda. His largest bonefish has been nine pounds, and on May 29, 2008 he landed his first permit on a fly rod. The fish weighed in at 25 pounds. He feels that this was the fish of a lifetime, although he plans to try and beat that fish in future trips.

Because of his interest in bass flies, he developed an interest in deer hair. Unfortunately, mail order supply houses didn’t do a very good job of sending the correct hair to tie bass bugs in those early days. In the early 1980’s, he started processing his own hides to obtain the correct hair for those flies. This experience proved to a wonderful learning experience to really understand deer hair and its many nuances.

In l985 Chris, Judy and his sons, Brian and Brad, made their first trip to the western states primarily to attend The Federation of Fly Fisher’s Conclave in West Yellowstone, Montana. Upon arrival, he discovered that all of the classes were full except the Warm Water Class with Jimmy Nix. This was the opportunity that gave him the instruction to dramatically improve his skills by learning all of the little tricks of working with hair. Jimmy Nix, Billy Munn, and Mitch Whitney provided outstanding instruction during both the l985 and l986 Conclaves. By the early l990’s, Chris began teaching classes at the FFF Conclave primarily teaching deer hair bass bugs and hair trout flies.

There were a number of other people that helped him along the way including Wayne Luallen, Marvin Nolte, and Al Beatty. Certainly there were numerous other tiers that he observed at the Conclaves that helped him improve his knowledge base.  In the years to come Chris was a regular attendee at Conclaves. He chaired the fly tier’s one year and was in charge of programs two other years. He has taught many classes during the twenty years he participated in this event.

Designing flies is not a forte of Chris’. His philosophy is that there are already over 20,000 fly patterns and he doesn’t think it is necessary to reinvent the wheel. A great deal of enjoyment can be had by tying proven patterns, especially some of the classics that are feature in well known books.

Chris' signature fly is the deer hair mouse. This pattern was taught to him by Billy Munn from Bridgeport, Texas. Chris worked on this pattern for over twenty years to bring it to the current model. Requests from collectors and other tiers for this pattern far exceed any other fly that he ties.

After taking early retirement in l991 Chris began his company, Whitetail Fly Tying Supplies, specializing in fly tying materials. He features materials used for warm water, cold water, and saltwater flies. Deer, elk, moose, and other ungulate hair is his specialty for which he known both in the US and Europe. Writing numerous articles on this subject for fly fishing magazines in the US and overseas has been a goal of his to help educate tiers. In a major article in the 1995 March/April issue of American Angler called “Understanding Deer Hair”, Chris wrote in considerable detail on all types of hair used in fly tying.

Because of his expertise in the world of hair tying, he has done 11 DVDs on tying, of which six deal with hair. This recognized expertise has given him the opportunity to travel extensively in the US to do demonstrations and workshops. Additionally, he has traveled to eight European countries to do workshops and demonstrations. This is an aspect of his passion that has given him a great deal of satisfaction. Meeting so many other tiers and establishing friendships add to the total experience of tying flies.

Another topic of great interest to Chris is fly tying thread. During his many years of tying he always questioned the “aught” system used to rate thread size. It was very obvious to him that threads rated the same size, were in fact not the same size. He and Bill Merg of Sunnyvale, California, teamed up to do an extensive study on all types of fly tying thread.

This resulted in a comprehensive article on the thread in the summer 1996 issue of Fly Tyer magazine. The research proved that the aught system was not a reliable way to compare various brands of threads. Today most quality threads are defined in terms of denier, a unit of measurement of textile threads based on a mass of one gram per 9000 meters of material being 1 denier.  Our most commong fly tying threads are 70 and 140 denier, respectively.  Chris Helms' selection in his shop is simply astounding, as can be seen in the photo to the left.  If Chris doesn't have it, you don't need it!

Ask Chris what is his favorite place to fish and he will respond quickly, “Crooked Island in the Bahamas for bonefish and permit”. His bonefishing adventures have taken him more than 15 times to the Bahamas including fishing on Abaco Island, Acklins Island, Long Island, and Crooked Island. Next to the warm Caribbean, he enjoys fly fishing in northern Canada for pike, lake trout, grayling, and brook trout. Trips to Canada started in l968 and have continued to the present time. Fishing from the Yukon to Labrador and many of the provinces in between is a regular occurrence.

Why bonefish and permit over trout, bass, and other fresh water species? This fly fishing includes hunting, requires good casting skills, especially in the wind, as well as being able to approach the bonefish, and make a cast without spooking them.

His wife, Judy, regularly accompanies him on most of these trips. He also has fly fished numerous time with his sons, Brian and Brad, who both spin and fly fish depending on the species. These are trips he remembers most because he wanted his sons to have experiences his parents couldn’t provide him when he was in his young years. Many of the trips involve friends and customers of his materials business.

One of the tools that Chris uses frequently in his tying is the Brassie Hair Packer. This tool was invented by Dr. Nick Wetzel of Chicago and modified by the late George Cik.  George gave a prototype to Chris at a fly tying competition in Mt.Horeb, Wisconsin in l989. After using the tool for a short time, Chris agreed that this was the most effective tool he had found for packing deer hair. Because of their time in life, both Nick and George had no interest in marketing this tool. Chris received permission from these two men to develop the tooling and market the tool.

As simple and inexpensive as this tool was, the total cost of bringing the tool to market was around $4,000. The tool first became available in l993. It was slow going trying to convince fly shops to carry the tool. Over a period of three years the Brassie finally started to catch on. As of 2008, over 30,000 different size Brassies have been sold. To date, no one has invented a more effective, practical, and inexpensive hair packer.

In 2007 Mike Zalewski of The Shelbyville Rod Company in Hastings, Michigan contacted Chris to see if he wanted to have his own signature series line of fly rods. He agreed to this proposal provided that he liked the way the rods cast, and that he could specify the type of action, guides, handle and other esthetic aspects of the rod, along with it being in a moderate price level. He was accustomed to casting rods such as the Redington, Loomis, and Templefork. To his delight, the rods exceeded his expectations. The rod series includes nine foot, four piece rods in size 5-10 weight.

For his fly tying, Chris has been a Dyna-King vise user for at least 20 years. In his early days of tying, the only vise available was either a Sunrise AA or a Thompson A. Trying to tie bass bugs on these early vises was frustrating because of their inability to handle large hooks and heavy thread pressure. The first Dyna-King vise he bought was a revelation since the hook didn’t move regardless of the thread pressure applied. Today he uses a Dyna-King Saltwater model to tie all of his flies except bass bugs, because this model offers the most ergonomic way of tying. For bass bugs, he uses a Dyna-King Indexer model because the in-line feature allows for easy trimming of the bug while it is still in the vise.

One of the aspects of tying that Chris tries to maximize is efficiency and limited waste of motion. This striving caused him to invent The Comb Holder to hold a deer hair comb.

The use of this tying aid eliminates having to repeatedly pick up and lay down the deer hair comb to remove the under fur from the hair. The comb is held in a vertical position in a c-clamp that allows the tier to quickly reach over and swipe the clump of deer hair through the comb a couple of times. When a tier ties extensively with deer hair, this is a time and energy saver.

Teaching fly tying has been an interest of Chris’ for well over 25 years. His first venture into fly tying instruction occurred at The University of Toledo in the l980’s through The Division of Adult Education. After teaching at the university for a couple of years he moved the classes to his home.

In his shop Chris has a 12”x 4” table set up for teaching fly tying complete with a camera and TV for easy viewing by the students. Classes are held for both beginner and intermediate tiers. Two of his former students, Glenn Weisner and Wayne Samson assist him by also teaching some of these classes. Every year he also brings in a name tier to do one or two days of workshops. He has had such notable tiers Lefty Kreh, Dick Talleur, Oliver Edwards, Paul Little, Wayne Luallen, Davy Wotton, Jeff Andrews, Don Bastian, Dennis Potter, Tom Baltz, Peter Smith, Mike Martinek, Chris Watson, and Chuck Eckert.

What makes him the proudest are the numerous students he has either taught directly or through his videos that have developed their skills to a very high level. Some of those students included Glenn Weisner, Wayne Samson, Derek LeRoy, Tim Thomas, Jim Reed, Gabriel Zawadsky, Steve Potter, and many others.

In August of 2004, Chris was honored by receiving The Buz Buszak Memorial Award from The Federation of Fly Fishers’ which represents the highest honor in fly tying. The award represents not only tying ability, but service to others through teaching, the tier’s achievement and contributions that promotes the advancement of the art, and involvement in The Federation of Fly Fishers’.

It is Chris’s hope to write a book on hair at some time in the future. His objective is to write a comprehensive book on all types of hair used in fly tying, including successful patterns, tools, techniques, etc.

The enjoyment of fly fishing has given him opportunities he would have never experienced had it not been for the tackle box he viewed so many years ago with his childhood friend.

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