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The art of the fly

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Lee Clark fly fishes the Metolius River near Sisters.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Lee Clark holds a Clark's Stone Fly on the Metolius River.

CAMP SHERMAN — Lee Clark walked the banks of Central Oregon’s famed Metolius River five decades ago with a pocket full of opportunity.

Clark regularly gave away his newly minted Clark’s Stone Fly in hopes that the concoction of deer hair, tinsel and macrame would take hold among the fly-fishing community.

“All I asked was for them to take a picture of the fish they caught with a Clark’s Stone Fly,” he says.

Then one day Clark asked a fellow fly-fisher what he should do with this ground-breaking imitation of a golden stonefly.

“I told him, ‘I have a fly pattern that really catches fish’, and I asked him, ‘Should I share it, or keep it to myself?’”

The crotchety fly-fisher’s advice was to keep it a secret, but Clark, a life-long art teacher, rejected the idea, and the angling world is much better for it.

Clark has shared his now-famous stonefly pattern with the world, and it’s helping everyone from novice anglers to persnickety partisans catch more wild trout on rivers such as the Metolius, one of the toughest rivers in the West to fish.

The fly is a staple on the Metolius, which is home to a hatch of golden stoneflies that runs into the fall. It is also a standard for the Deschutes River, the upper Rogue River and other Western streams that sport hatches of this largest of aquatic bugs.

Clark’s Stone Flies are in every serious fly-fisher’s box, and the Internet is awash with recipes for tying this particular fly.

“I walked away from that guy thinking his advice was not right,” says Clark, now 82 years old and still fishing the Metolius on forays from his St. Helens home with his son, Gerry.

“I’m an educator,” he says. “I love to share what I know. So I didn’t follow his instructions.”

Clark still ties his own stoneflies for himself and friends, while the pattern is tied professionally by Umpqua Feather Merchants under an agreement with Clark.

The fly is one of many to imitate golden stoneflies, or salmonflies, while they are mating and laying eggs in cold Western streams like the Metolius.

Many stonefly imitations are tied with foam bodies, and thus are tough to cast. The Clark’s Stone Fly, however, is a mix of tinsel, deer hair and hackle that cuts through the air for easy casting.

It also rides low in the water, and its body seems to pulsate like a real bug.

The trick, Clark says, is in the body material — used in many art classes of the 1970s — macrame. That poly-yarn was used to make some of the worst pot-holders and plant hangars of that generation, but Clark saw how his students combed out the artificial fibers and thought they would make a perfect stonefly body when dyed with an orange hue.

He tried out his fly on the finicky Metolius and found it was a real winner.

Clark regularly talked up his fly to anglers, often giving away dozens a day in hopes that it would catch on.

“I set out to tie a fly that would become famous,” he says.

Clark eventually sold his pattern to a company for commercial tying, thinking his days of teaching art in St. Helens along the shores of the Columbia River would quickly be over.

“I thought I was going to make a million bucks,” Clark laughs. “I thought thousands of people were going to buy this fly. I had it in my mind that I was going to get rich. Then I got the first royalty check.”

It was a whopping 67 cents. Not even worth the paper on which is was printed.

“And that was for a three- or four-month period,” he says.

Clark and Gerry, who also ties a version of the famous fly, still fish the Metolius regularly, wading the crystal-clear water in search of rising redband trout, rainbow trout and the occasional brown trout.

“This fly catches a lot of trout,” Clark says. “It also catches a lot of fly-fishers. It’s given me the opportunity to meet a lot of people on the river. Some lifelong friends. People like the Clark’s Stone Fly. And they remember it.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.