The artistic side of tying flies

GAC class to delve into history, evolution of practice

Will Shoemaker

Times Editor


A lifelong artist, Merne Judson has produced paintings of mule deer and elk that reveal reverence for the outdoors and acute attention to detail. Away from the paint, Judson is a former fishing guide who seven years ago started his own fly-tying enterprise, Judson Fishing and Magic Fly Co.

“I’ve been an artist and a fly tyer my whole life,” he proclaims.

It was probably only a matter of time before Judson’s two passions collided in a class titled “The Art of Fly Tying” that he’s teaching at the Gunnison Arts Center this spring. The educational experience promises much more than teaching how to tie a fly that will catch a fish.

Rather, Judson plans to delve into the history of the practice, its evolution, improved tactics and changes to materials over time. The written history of tying flies dates back to the 1700s, and Judson loves to read about it.

But much has changed over the last few centuries. For example, feathers first used to in fly tying were obtained from hat makers.

“If you look at some of your old Scottish or salmon patterns, dating way back, those are from feathers made for ladies’ fancy hats,” he explains. “That was the source for the best feather.”

Nowadays, genetic engineers — such as Tom Whiting of Delta-based Whiting Farms — specialize in breeding chickens that produce a wide and wild array of feathers specifically for fly tying.

In Judson’s own lifetime, he’s seen vast improvements in the quality of the feathers and other materials — resulting in both better performance and greater durability.

“Just the way they look in the water, the colors and the texture, is so much more realistic than what they had to work with in the past — burlaps, hair and silk,” he says. “Things like wraps used to be real copper. You had to put a varnish on it or it would fingerprint or discolor. Now it’s all plastics and synthetics.”

Judson is past president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. He’s also been published in outdoor magazines and appeared on fishing television shows.

“It’s been part of my life since I was very young — fishing with my dad and grandpa and tying flies,” says Judson, who was born and raised on the Front Range. “Part of the reason I moved here was for the fishing.”

Despite the practical application of fly tying — from which Judson makes his livelihood — there are still flies he has tied that he refuses to use in the water “because of their beauty.”

It’s that ethic that led the artist in Judson to develop a class for the practice — and the GAC seemed the perfect venue.

“It allowed me to take it beyond just a bunch of guys drinking coffee in a fly shop,” he explains.

Shaunacee Wilkinson, visual arts program manager at GAC, agrees that the arts center offers a great fit.  

“It reaches a different part of the community,” she says of Judson’s class. “We’re hoping it will bring in men, and gentlemen who wouldn’t think of themselves as artists, but it’s true to our mission of reaching all sectors of the art community.”

What: The Art of Fly Tying class
When: Beginners: Wednesdays, March 29-May 3; intermediate/advanced: Thursdays, March 30-May 4
Where: GAC Adult Art Studio
What else: In each two-hour class, students will start and finish tied flies to take home and use — and take home enough supplies to tie many more. For more information, visit or call 970.641.4029.


(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or


Gunnison Country Times

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Phone: 970-641-1414