Atop Brita Fordice’s desk lays a bag of eyeballs. Next to the eyeballs are a variety of feathers – some that look real, some that are real, and some that look like they might have been picked up on the floor of a costume closet. Next to the feathers are resins to hold things together and tools to pull things apart. It looks a bit like a kindergarten art class, save for the cauterizer.
All jokes aside, Brita’s job is actually quite serious. She’s a fly designer with RIO Products. (She’s also a guide in her off hours). When I first asked Brita about her work, she told me she had the best job in the industry. I met up with Brita at her office on Bainbridge Island to learn why.
Let’s start at the start. How did you begin tying flies?
My dad and grandpa taught me to fly fish at age 8, and I taught myself to tie at 10. I’m so ADHD and tying flies was the only thing I could hyper focus on. I got my mind set on it and I was like, I’m going to do this. I learned based on old books that we had at our family’s place on the Stillaguamish River. So I sat there and I learned how to tie flies on my own.
And you’ve been tying since?
I got more serious when I was about 16. I volunteered at the Seattle Aquarium as a naturalist and I met a boy who was also into fly fishing that I thought was pretty cute. I tied constantly. After high school, I went to Washington State and did the sorority thing. It became a joke that no one would want to ride with me because I would veer off the road if I saw a pheasant or something I could use for fly tying material. That was always entertaining.
I suppose efforts to procure materials have changed a bit since then.
Oh, dead animals? It sort of never goes away. I got a text yesterday from another fly tier that said ‘The highway didn’t disappoint today.’ (Brita shows me the photo her friend sent of a squirrel tail with an interesting haircut.) Actually, access to materials is one of the coolest things about working with RIO. We have virtually every material I’ve ever thought about making a pattern with. I can get an idea in my head and 2 seconds later, I will have every single piece of that recipe I would need.
It seems the bugs and bait fish haven’t changed, why are we still designing new flies?
The materials are the only things changing. New materials can improve on an original design- make it lighter, make it shed water quicker, make it cheaper. Sometimes materials come from animals and the regulations around those animals can change so a synthetic option is introduced to replace it. Anytime there’s a new material, I can see 20 different ways I can use it in a fly.
So how do you begin designing a new fly?
The initial ideas come from my colleague Patrick and I, but truly everyone in the office assists with finalizing it. I can’t follow a recipe to save my soul, both in cooking and in fly tying. I want to see the fly at the end state and figure out how to get there. I love matching things. So I’ll google photos of fish for days. It’s super nerdy, but I guess it could be worse.
And how do you know when it’s finished?
Once I come up with a pattern that I think it looks good, I’ll put it in the swim tank and see how it looks. Usually I need to do some physics work to correct weight, proportions, and silhouette. I’m tying flies over and over again. Eventually I get it to ride correctly in the water. The beauty of working here is our people have fished all over the world. So I’ll walk laps with the fly and get feedback. ‘This would work for this or that, or try this color or that color.’ Then I go back and tie up a few more based on what they say. Then I do the lap again and once we’re good to go, I name it.
Flies often have some creative names, how do you come up with the names?
I love picking names. First, we come up with something that has some reference to the fly or the fish. For example, Make it Rainbow for trout, Shrimp Tease for saltwater fish, or The Banana Stand for bonefish, because there’s always money in the banana stand.
From your view, what’s the most exciting thing in fly tying right now?
The UV activated resins have changed fly tying more than anything. Instagram has also changed fly tying significantly. All of these insanely talented tiers have come out of the woodwork. When Instagram became popular the guys who had been coming into the shop for years started saying, ‘I didn’t know you tied flies.’ I worked in a fly shop, of course I tied flies. But none of them had seen it. It’s brought a lot of attention to tying.
What is it like to have a full time job doing what most people do to unwind?
When I tell anyone in the fly fishing industry or anyone who fly fishes what I do, they look at me and say, ‘Wait, you get paid to do that? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s awesome. It’s the best job in the industry in my opinion. I get to bring my dog with me, and sit down and tie flies. It’s kind of a dream scenario.