Chris Helm, Ultimate
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.