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The tie that binds: Beginners, experts gather to learn fly-tying throughout Minnesota

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Mike Richard (right) tightens his string with Dean Albertson at his side during one of the night fly tying classes at Front 20 Outfitters in Perham. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service2 / 7
The fish-skull deceiver is shown on the vice during a recent fly tying class in Perham. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service3 / 7
An assortment of fly-tying equipment covers the table in front of the students at Front 20 Outfitters in Perham. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service4 / 7
Mike Richard pulls apart the hairs from a white-tailed deer, also known as bucktail, for his next fly. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service5 / 7
Doug Harthan pulls material from a bag while leading the fly-tying class recently in Perham. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service6 / 7
Dean Albertson, Frazee, works on his next fly with a finished fly in the foreground. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service7 / 7

PERHAM, Minn. — In a crowded backroom of the Front 20 Outfitters Fly Shop in downtown Perham, the art of fly tying continues on cold nights throughout the winter.

"Some people go to Florida for fun in the winter," Rudy Butenas, a Pelican Rapids resident said at a recent fly tying class there. "Some people go to Perham."

He's one of a number of area residents that attend the regular tying workshops throughout the winter. It's a class open to everyone, even those, like Butenas who don't fly fish. Others in attendance are like 21-year-old Ben Bergen of Detroit Lakes, who had only been tying flies for about two weeks when he happened to stop in to learn a few tips from people like Doug Harthan, who runs the class and owns the shop with his wife Roxanne.

The age ranges from 12-year-old Heath Wothe of Frazee, to some ... significantly older. Wothe got into fly fishing about a year ago and even went to state with his 4-H project of flies that he tied.

"Once I started fly fishing I couldn't really stop," Wothe said.

The group started out with a fish-skull deceiver, a lovely little streamer capable of catching smallmouth bass in the nearby Otter Tail River. Starting with a bare hook, the class gradually wrapped on chunks of maribou (fancy name for colored chicken feathers), and flashabou (think Christmas tree tinsel). With each new material comes more thread tightly holding things in place.

As the class went to work, chunks of yellow and red chicken feathers could be seen floating about the room. Thread turning, scissors clipping and knot tying are rather silent, so the instructor spoke quietly as the group focused intently on each step.

Harthan was gracious with beginners and those that had been doing it for years, reminding newcomers that no one there was an expert. He noted that the technique of spinning the thread tightly but without breaking it is something that comes with time.

"This is what I like about Doug," Jim Robertson of Battle Lake said. "He's very down to earth. It's not a perfection game."

"It's easier to come in here and pick out flies that are already made and have Doug tell you what is working," said Mike Richard while working on his streamer. While it was easier to buy them, Richard was one of the regulars that enjoyed the class.

The group was surrounded by flies, fly rods, nets and fly-tying accessories all stocked year round at the fly shop. As they got into the groove of tying, conversations started flowing, some poking fun at each others flies, others just chatting about fishing adventures they hoped to pursue. For most in the room, this class was the only time they would see each other. It may be the only thing they had in common.

With a chunk of gill (red-colored rabbit fur) tied to the base, a metal fish head glued in place and some minor trimming, the class members each had a new fly to try. At the end of each finished pattern, there were clear differences in each fly. Some looked more like the intended fly than others, but as Doug said about all the flies rather perfect or not, "Will it catch fish? Absolutely."

There's always a new pattern, new material, and each fly brings the hope of another fooled fish.

"When you come up with a new pattern that works, it's pretty rewarding," Harthan said.

When asked how a beginner should go about getting into fly fishing, Dean Albertson, Frazee, was reminded of how he got started. He suggested finding a class to learn to cast and tie flies, both of which are things that Harthan teaches. He even has guided trips in the area to give newcomers the full experience from picking the right fly, to casting it in just the right place, catching and even eating the fruits of the labor, if fishing can be called laborious.

The Harthan's have been selling fly fishing products out of the Perham storefront for about six years. They both take great pleasure in fly fishing and sharing it with others.

The group talked about flies that work well for them. Some admitted to having hundreds of flies with them when fishing, though they usually stick to a select few depending on the species.

Within a couple hours, the group created a few new flies and learned more about each other in the process. As the flies were secured with thread so, too, were the relationships that drew closer as the candor flowed like a mountain stream.

Upon finishing his last fly, Richard joked about its appearance. "I think this one is going to go on the wall ... in the barn."

Next to him, Albertson was admiring his own. "No this one is going to catch a fish."

If you go

What: Fly-tying and fishing classes

Where and When: Fly-fishing clinics and classes are taking place all over the region including Perham, New York Mills, Frazee, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Park Rapids and Fargo. Some classes are part of community education, some are free and some cost money depending on the complexity of the class. Check out the Front 20 website for a complete schedule of classes at www.front20outfitters.com/flyfishingclasses

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