Artistry on the Fly

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There’s just something about the way the water eddies around your knees, with a subtly insistent suggestion of adventure.

The line is cast. Then, the quiet of being one with the water takes hold alongside the hypnotic swish-swishing of the line as it arcs back and forth overhead… until, at last, that telltale tug pulls ever so slightly at the end.

Part meditation, part game; a lot more goes into fly fishing than meets the eye, and attention to detail rules the day. Each and every fly is hand tied in an innovative (and at times humorous) assortment of materials, with the intention of convincing specific breeds of fish to take a bite. Yet from the fly to the rod, each aspect is specially crafted by artisans dedicated to ensuring that the act of fishing is as enjoyable as possible.

“It looks easy until you put it in somebody’s hands,” says Joel La Follette, the owner of Royal Treatment Fly Fishing in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He is a prime example of a craftsman who lives and breathes his trade. From his precisely equipped workshop, where he hand ties each individual fly with care, to his well-curated store, to his thoughtfully planned guided fishing expeditions, Joel does his part to make fly fishing fun for everyone who expresses an interest. He is equally dedicated to improving his own skills—so much so, he takes to the store’s parking lot to practice his casting whenever he has a moment to spare.

“Fly casting is all about feeling what the rod is telling you,” says Joel, explaining why an expert fly fisherman can never stop improving. “You have to adjust your casting stroke accordingly to make the line do what you want it to do, and put the fly where you want it to be. Just the art of casting itself is fun.”

Fly fishing has been around since at least the days of ancient Egypt, and first gained popularity in the United States on the East Coast. Yet it would be further West where the sport would gain momentum, as naturalist pioneers ventured into the undeveloped wild, seeking the ultimate adventure and oneness with nature. Out in Oregon, salmon and trout hatcheries spurred later interest in fishing on the western side of the Cascade Mountains, inspiring adventurous authors to make the journey West to cast their lines—and putting the area on the fishing map. Today, the Pacific Northwest is home to some of the world’s most epic fly fishing destinations. This is, fittingly, where Joel would establish his business.

“[Our] steelhead trout are prized game fish, because they will take a fly readily and they pull hard and jump… and they’re beautiful, and all that stuff,” Joel says.

Joel has been fly fishing for 52 years now, and the sport has been a common thread throughout every pivotal moment of his life. Even his introduction to the sport came during one of those life moments that define us—in Joel’s case, when he was sent to live with his grandparents at the age of seven, following his mother’s death.

“My grandfather was not used to having kids around. There was a little stool [in his fly room], and I could come down and sit on that stool while he tied flies and drank cheap wine—if I kept quiet,” Joel says. “I sat and watched him tie flies for six weeks, every night, and finally, he turned to me and says, ‘Would you like to try this?’ I said sure. And I tied—I remember, it was a bucktail Royal Coachman, from start to finish, without any instruction.”

For the uninitiated, the Royal Coachman is the most recognizable fly in the world, one that every fly fisherman has cast—and an integral building block for a newly inspired fly tyer. From the moment he executed that first tie, Joel was hooked. But it wasn’t until years later, after a long career as a professional photographer, that he made it his business, literally. He started small, and the business—and the fly-fishing community—grew around him. As he delved deeper into the craft and sport of fly fishing, he eventually realized with pride that it had become his life’s work. Fittingly, he has now created a unique space where art, sport, and travel combine over the topic he most enjoys, and with the people he enjoys most.

“Fly fishing is more about the experience, and really appreciating everything that’s involved in it,” says Joel. “Even if you don’t tie flies, you appreciate the fact that someone was able to create this fly with, you know, chicken and peacock feathers.”

Joel’s primary goal is to make fly fishing accessible to as many people as possible, so they can share in the sense of grounding he feels each time he steps into the water. For Joel, fishing is about having fun, but even more than that, it’s a means of achieving total serenity.

“To me, it’s not about the fish. It was when I was a kid, and it was when I was a young man. But at this stage of my life, it’s not about the fish,” says Joel. “Fly fishing is an excuse to go places that are just beautiful. It’s a place to just kind of put things in perspective.”

This sense of inspiration and longtime love of the sport drives every interaction that takes place within his shop. From around the world, expert and novice fishermen gather at Royal Treatment Fly Fishing to discuss technique, rods, fishing adventures, and flies. Since each individual ties a fly differently, with his own signature embellishments, these become great talking points for comparison. But they also provide a sense of continuity throughout the community—something to be shared and collected. They become artifacts of friendships and memories alike.

An old bamboo rod that his grandfather handed down to him when Joel was eight years old is carefully hung above the door of Royal Treatment Fly Fishing. It’s an inheritance of sorts that he’ll pass down to a young customer who is a regular at the shop, thanks to frequent fishing trips with his dad. Joel and his young fisherman friend have a firm deal: when the boy graduates college, he’ll get the rod. Since Joel and his wife have no children of their own, this is his way of passing down his love and legacy for the sport to the next generation. But his pioneering influence extends far beyond.

“We fly tyers and fly fishermen—it boils down to what we believe in,” says Joel. “You’ve got to have faith in what you’re doing. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be standing out there in the rain and cold doing this.”

Who could argue with that?

We met Joel, his wife Kellie, and their incredible community at Royal Treatment Fly Fishing during our own adventures in the Pacific Northwest with the 2016 Navigator. Learn more here.

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