BREWER, Maine — On a cold winter night, at the end of a dark gravel road, the parking lot is full. Inside, 32 students gather around tables with piles of fish hooks, feathers and other materials in front of them as Rob Dunnett walks them through the finer points of a woolly worm.
Yes, a woolly worm. Last week, “the spunky” took center stage, along with the “maple syrup.” Later this evening, he’ll talk about the “woolly bugger.”
This is fly tying class, Penobscot Fly Fishers-style. For years, the Bangor-area club has been teaching novices an important lesson: Yes, you can tie a fishing fly.
It doesn’t matter who you are. Before you know it, you might be pretty good at it.
Dunnett, a member of the PFF’s board of directors, is the lead instructor of this year’s introductory classes, which run for eight weeks. He also is a proud graduate of the same class.
“I took this class in 2008, so I’ve been tying for eight years,” Dunnett said, taking time away from the microphone after introducing the class to the first fly of the night. “I was thinking the other day, I’ve come a long way from a student to an instructor to the lead guy now.”
Dunnett thinks back to those early days of tying and laughs.
“I’ll do my best. I know this much more than the students,” he said, holding his fingers an inch apart.
Dunnett is lying: He’s much better than he’s willing to admit, and the thousands of flies he has tied over the past eight years prove it.
“It becomes kind of addictive once you start doing it. You don’t save a lot of money tying flies versus buying them, once you get all the equipment and stuff. But you’ve got a product you like in the end,” Dunnett said. “You get to a point when you’re tying by yourself that all of a sudden you have too many flies. So coming here and being able to show people what you’re doing and what you like to do is fun.”
This year, the club increased the class size from 24 to 32, buying additional tying vises to accommodate students. As always, students are provided all the necessary supplies at each class while they decide whether they want to pursue fly tying in the future.
Included in this year’s class: Men and women of all ages, including an 11-year-old boy who is eager to learn more about a new sport.
“I was doing a Maine Youth Fish and Game [Association] camp, and there was a short class, a tying lesson,” Noah Tibbetts of Brewer explained. “I had fun doing it, so I got my own fly tying kit, and I came here to learn more.”
One thing to consider: Noah, like several others in the class, is not taking up fly tying because of already being an avid fly fisher.
His mother, Julie Tibbetts, said her father and brother are fly anglers. Noah isn’t — yet.
“He made five flies [last week],” Julie Tibbetts said. “He says now he needs to get a fly fishing pole. We go to Nesowadnehunk Lake every summer, and now he wants to fish with flies up there.”
Dunnett said the goal of the class is simple and the results can be spectacular.
“The goal is to take people in a progressive way, to start with the basics and move on and add different steps each week so that they can get proficient,” Dunnett said. “Basically, when you’re done, if you paid attention and enjoyed what you’re doing, there aren’t very many flies that you wouldn’t be able to tie.”
Mike Curtis is one of this year’s PFF instructors. He’s also one who took up tying before he’d ever fly fished.
Curtis said that after sitting behind the same season ticket-holders for years at University of Maine hockey games, the man in front of him said something that intrigued him.
That man, John Lent, was going to be teaching a fly tying class for the PFF.
“I’d always been interested,” Curtis said. “I said, ‘I’m in.’ And that’s how it started.”
Now, 15 years later, Curtis also has likely tied more flies than he’ll ever be able to fish. But he loves helping out at classes, and tying has become a social activity for him.
“[My fly tying bench at home] sits in front of my recliner in the living room. My wife is very understanding,” Curtis said. “But I rarely tie there. I always tie when we’re hanging out in a group. That’s how I tie most of the time.”
Curtis seconds Dunnett’s opinion: Fly tying can quickly become a passion in one’s life.
“It just took off from [that first class], and became its own nightmare — um, animal,” Curtis said with a laugh.
Curtis said he misses meeting up with groups of PFF members during the summer months, when many are out fishing by themselves, and looks forward to classes the club hosts during the winter.
The classes are so popular, some past students sign up for the introductory-level class for a second or third time, then split their time between tying flies they already have perfected and socializing with their fishing buddies.
For Jeff Spaulding of Orono, the class is more than a learning experience. Instead, it’s a learning-to-teach experience.
Spaulding has been tying for a few years and enjoys the activity. Self-taught with an assist to YouTube, the Marine Corps veteran decided he would like to teach others at a Project Healing Waters class through the Bangor Veterans Affairs office.
“[Project Healing Waters] a different way for people with [post-traumatic stress disorder] or other disabilities to have some rehabilitation, to ease their way back into maybe being around people,” he said.
And that’s why he enrolled.
“I’ve tied on my own, but I wanted to get a better idea of how to teach people how to tie a little bit better,” Spaulding said. “It’s awesome. I’ve picked up something every single class. It’s just neat to learn from someone who’s actually a fly tier. You pick up stuff you wouldn’t have thought of.”