Form or function?

niels_mainTo many, the classic feather-wing Atlantic salmon fly is a relic of the past, a reminder of a distant, bygone era. But for Niels Have, one of the world’s most talented fly tiers, they still represent the very pinnacle in modern fly tying. And, as Matt Kidd discovered, he puts them to very good use, too.

(Photography: Martin Joergensen)

Fly fishing, unlike game shooting and foxhunting, has changed irrevocably, almost beyond recognition, since the days of split-cane rods and greased lines. Few fishers, if any, wear tweed caps or silk ties. Wicker creels are now windowsill vessels for daffodils, and the classic feather-wing salmon fly in all its glory has been relegated to dusty, moth-eaten frames on pub and fishing hut walls. 

Which is understandable. Most classic salmon flies are comprised of more than 30 different materials (many from extinct or exotic birds), and have even more stages of preparation and creation than Heston Blumenthal’s nightmare Botrytis Cinerea dessert recipe (23 elements and 55 stages), each one taking hours to complete. So it is hardly surprising that the handful of craftsmen and women who still produce classic Atlantic salmon flies do so for display purposes only. The thought of such delicate and precious creations coming into contact with water, let alone the clasp of a salmon’s jaw, would understandably send their creators into apoplexy. 

niels_fourHowever, one Danish fly tier, Niels Have (42) is different. His works of art are designed and created to catch fish, not fishermen. “Before I tie a fly I consider how it should fish in the water, so my material selection and tying processes reflect that,” he says. “Rather than using feathers that look perfect, but are relatively weak, I will tie the feather in at the strongest point and then cut it to the desired length and shape. It may not be classically correct, but they do not fall apart and fish perfectly – I could fish a fly for a whole week with the hook point being the first thing to fail.”

To say that Niels takes his fly tying seriously would be an understatement. A big one. Not only does he tie every single day of the year, but when he’s not behind his vice – either fishing or working, for instance – he’s almost certainly thinking about his next creation. “So I’m not upset if I lose or damage one as I will only replace it with another,” he adds. Indeed, having studied, practised and perfected his tying techniques for so long now, he can produce a handful of feather-perfect creations in as many hours, and many of his fly-boxes are now overflowing with the most immaculate Jock Scotts, Green Highlanders, Silver Doctors and Durham Rangers you can imagine – the stuff of fly fishing dreams. 

niels_blueInstead of using extortionate, rare materials, like traditional Great Bustard feathers (a bird that has been extinct in Britain since 1837), he will use dyed turkey tail feathers for the wings as they are much stronger, robust and far more affordable – and they look just as impressive. Sourcing the best materials is difficult and Niels has three dedicated dealers to ensure he doesn’t miss out on any top-quality materials. “That said, I still spend roughly £500 per month on feathers alone. It is expensive, but it’s my life.” 

And after almost 30 years of tying, Niels has such a huge range of materials and tools that they can be found scattered throughout almost every room in his house. When he travels, he plans what he will tie in advance and only takes the necessary materials for that particular pattern. And when he visits his parents’ home, he takes near-completed flies for final touches such as lacquering. Vacation time, too, is spent tying flies – either at home or in his fishing house on the Danish coast where he keeps separate kit for sea trout fishing – his other great passion.  

So how did the obsession begin? “I was 12 when I first got into fishing,” he explains. “Initially, I fished for trout and grayling; like anyone else, I started with what I could afford. The first fly I tied was a simple Red Tag.” 

Niels taught himself how to tie and fish from books, picking up little tips along the way. And before he knew it, he found himself completely swept-up and knee-deep in a world of feathers, flies and fish. 

niels_selectionBut it was a few years later that he discovered the art and mystique of the classic feather-wing Atlantic salmon fly. “I was fishing a local river for salmon,” he continues, “when I came across this man who was using an old split-cane rod and beautiful, traditional flies. I was totally fascinated by this, so I went and spoke to him.” His name was Rikardt Laursen, and he and Niels immediately struck up a great friendship that lasted for more than 25 years. Sadly, Rikardt passed away last year, aged 92. 

“He had such a passion and love for the sport, its traditions and heritage,” adds Niels. “And, of course, this rubbed off on me. From the day I met him, I began to study the origins and history of salmon fishing, the tackle, the methods and, in particular, the flies. I read books like Laksefluer by Poul Jorgensen and Fine & Far Off by Jock Scott, in particular his section on Alexander Grant who is still my idol today.”

Within a year of meeting Rikardt, Niels had landed his first salmon on a Thunder and Lightning, and he had produced his first traditional pattern – a Green Highlander. “It was difficult at first, trying to work out how to do each individual process. Marrying feathers (splitting strands of coloured feathers and joining them to make a wing), spacing hackle turns for the throat, creating the correct profile and shape for the tailing and topping so the tips meet and so on, was tricky and extremely time consuming. But it was incredibly rewarding. And the more I tied, the easier it became. The key is to perfect each stage before progressing onto the next.” 

niels_boxBut the more Niels studied and tied different patterns, the more difficult and complex it became. Each technique differed from book to book, person to person. So, unsure of whose techniques were the best, and striving only to produce perfect flies, he developed chronic glaucoma due to a combination of intense stress and months of sleepless nights. In the end, he had to develop his own style of tying, or he would never be able to relax or sleep again! And it certainly worked.

Aside from his classics, Niels has now designed dozens of his own flies, inspired in part by traditional patterns, but incorporating his extensive knowledge of matching colours. “I also work full-time for a leading European paint and tools manufacturer,” he adds. “With them I have studied the art of matching colours and I am able to apply this knowledge to my fly designs. Before I start tying, I always lay all of my materials on the floor in my lounge and select the colour combinations that work best.” These new patterns range from beautifully subtle colour combinations to psychedelic collections which make the ’70s fashion movement look dull and dreary. 

niels_rodbreakerBut how do feather-wing patterns fair in the water compared to their modern, far cheaper and easier to tie hair-wing counterparts? “As with all forms of fishing, you must match the fly to the water conditions. That is crucial. Therefore, I use both feather-wings and hair-wing patterns,” he adds. “In deep rivers, when the water temperature is between 7–8ºC, I will use modern hair-wing flies and techniques, simply so that I can get down to where the fish are lying. However, in warmer (12–14ºC), shallow or fast-flowing water, feather-wings fish as they were intended, centuries ago, and work tremendously well. They sit perfectly upright in the water so salmon are able to see them from both sides. Therefore, all the vibrant colours of the wings work to their full potential.”

But it’s not all about looks and aesthetics; one must learn how you fish with them, too, says Niels. “When I fish traditional patterns, I always use tackle to match. I have a number of old Bruce & Walker rods, Hardy Perfect reels and double-tapered lines. For me, that is the reason why I tie them. Nothing can match the way they feel, cast, fish and bend into a salmon. I love the whole package.” 

As you might expect, Niels is inundated with requests from anglers all over the world for his flies, often for vast sums of money, but he has no intention of becoming a commercial fly tier. “I tie for my own pleasure and satisfaction,” he says. “Each fly is personal to me, so the thought of tying for strangers or for money goes very much against the grain.”

niels_ilyaHaving said that, Niels does have a very exclusive partnership with an old friend, Ponoi River Company-owner and Russian businessman Ilya Sherbovich. “I have designed over 30 patterns solely for Ilya to fish with,” explains Niels. “He is both a perfectionist and a great fly fisherman, especially when it comes to classical methods. When I show him the flies I’ve completed for him, he will be very critical and will take only the very best. I have immense pride in knowing that my flies will be used in some of the best salmon rivers in the world. The only thing I ask in return is pictures of the huge salmon he has caught on them!”

And the extensive photo collection of both Ilya and Niels’ catches, pinned to the walls in his tying room alone, is evidence enough that Atlantic salmon still succumb to the allure of a traditional fly – just as they did centuries ago in their heyday. Indeed, to a 21st-century fly fisher they might be seen as relics of the past, but, unlike the wicker creel, salmon still appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of a classic feather-wing when they see one. 

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