From the Bohemians to the Damsel Flies, local fishers wade into fly fishing culture.
Story by Anna Smith
Photos by Alex Stoltze
You need more than an address to find Mark Sorenson’s house. Just thirty minutes southeast of Springfield, Oregon, where the industrial confines of city life gradually give way to green, grassy spaces, the houses are few and far between. Without Google Maps as a guide, several neighbors help point out the hill where Sorenson’s storybook log cabin can be found overlooking the hilly vales of Fall Creek.
Sorenson is a fly fisherman. He belongs to the Bohemians, a group of fly fishers who take trips for the purpose of “roughing it” in the environment—not that Sorenson has anything to prove. He and his wife built the two-story log cabin they currently live in. Numerous handcrafted creations are scattered around the house: an antler chandelier, stone fireplace, and the massive log ceiling beams reaching above his head. Sorenson’s voice easily fills the house, echoed by the sounds of an eager Shih Tzu named Chester and a massive chocolate Lab named Duke.
First used as a fishing technique in AD 400, fly fishing is a sport that has lasted through the centuries. Considered as much an art as it is a sport, the technique began as an imitation of life. The very first fly fishers supposedly originated from Macedonia, where fishermen noticed that fish would eat the flies that hovered over the water. They began creating their own “flies” using red wool and feathers to attract the fish. The method and tools of fly fishing have come a long way since then, and there are now hundreds of different fly-tying techniques and even more materials with which to make them.
The Caddis Fly Angling Shop is a local Eugene favorite for such materials. The social atmosphere and expertise of Caddis Fly creates an open community for both professionals and amateurs.
“The friends whom I met just welcomed me right in, and I felt at home,” Sorenson says. “I kept going back almost every day. It was a hangout, and that’s where I learned about everything. They taught me the foundation of what I do today.”
Soon after he started dabbling in the sport, Sorenson went to Caddis Fly for equipment, and it was there that he found the group of friends he calls the Bohemians.
Men, however, aren’t the only ones fly fishing on local waters. The Damsel Flies are a group of women who, like the Bohemians, go out to share the camaraderie of fly fishing.
Long-time member Kathy McCartney is a grey-haired, sure-spoken woman who spends part of her time working at Caddis Fly and the rest fishing with her husband. McCartney’s house is chock-full of fish décor, most of which she made herself. It is her common practice to release almost all the fish she catches, even her biggest catch to date: a 100-pound tarpon.
“I started fishing in 1989,” McCartney says. “I sat and watched my husband fish, and finally I thought, ‘This is stupid; I can do this.’” Like many serious fly fishers, McCartney ties her own flies and uses a variety of feather colors, dubbing, and thread.
“All the flies are modeled after different stages of bugs,” says McCartney, slipping on her reading glasses to tie a fly. “You have to learn these things. Otherwise, you’re not going to know what to fish.”
According to McCartney, entomology—the study of insects—is vital to understanding how fish see flies. Mayflies and damselflies both go through a nymph stage where they swim underwater. As the early fly fishermen observed, other insects such as caddis flies and midges go from larvae to pupae and never swim underwater, but stay near the surface.
McCartney walks down a dirt path dotted with the pinks and blues of bleeding hearts and bluebells. Ashes, alders, and cottonwoods sway above the dense foliage as she passes, finally arriving on the bank of the McKenzie River. Dirt gives way beneath her feet as McCartney looks for a spot to position herself, critically eyeing every eddy and swirl of the river. The McKenzie moves quickly, still swollen from spring rains.
With a Native Fish Society hat firmly on her head and waterproof waders up to her torso, McCartney treads in. The river pushes and pulls against her as McCartney draws out her line for slack and brings back the pole. With audible swishing, she whips the line back and forth, finally casting out in an arc into the air. Cars can still be heard nearby, mingling with the calls of the birds.
The McKenzie holds a number of fish varieties, including wild rainbow trout and mostly hatchery fish.
“I don’t like those. They’re stupid and have no fight,” McCartney says.
According to McCartney, fly fishers refer to hatchery fish as “pellet-heads” because they lunge at anything that touches the surface of the water, thinking that it’s food.
Although McCartney’s trip is short, fly fishers can easily spend an entire day out on the water. “Wake up at 4 a.m., fish ‘til dusk,” McCartney says with a smile. “We take a break for lunch, sometimes.” On the way back, she points out a March brown mayfly fluttering up and away.
Fly fishers are renowned for the passion that they have for their sport, much like any other kind of sportsmen.
“It’s where it brings you, where it takes you to beautiful places,” says Chris Daughters, owner of Caddis Fly. “It’s your surroundings and the intimacy you get from being outside or in the water.”
For McCartney, it’s about the personal knowledge and skill involved.
“I think it’s about being out in the water without somebody telling you what to fish,” she says. “Maybe this is the feminist part of something. I don’t like people telling me that I have to fish this or that. I don’t know if I could go on an actual trip to Paris or something because there might not be fishing there.”
Community also plays a strong component in the lives of fly fishers. Mention the name of a local fly fisher to another and it’s not uncommon for them to know the person. It’s this sense of culture and community that draws people in and keeps them coming back.
“My favorite group is the Bohemians,” Sorenson says. “You take a van and some food, and you just rough it.”
Fly fishing preferences range from “roughing it” like the Bohemians to being more comfortable like the Orvites (a group named after the top-end gear company Orvis), but the bottom line is the same. As Sorenson says, “It’s more fun when everyone is catching fish.”
After thirty-four years of fly fishing, Sorenson is still devoted to his sport; even his wedding ring has a swimming salmon engraved on the band. Back at home the eager Shih Tzu prances around while Duke stands solidly at Mark’s side. On his forearm, Mark’s salmon tattoo flashes in and out of sight as he waves goodbye, still chuckling about the difficulty it took to find him out in the wilderness.