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How to Tie a Fly

Handcrafting fishing lures that look like real-life insects, birds, and small animals is hard, painstaking work. But Pat Cohen has made a career of taking deer hair and peacock feathers and turning them into fishing magic.

Made is a series of simple, gorgeous short films that demonstrate how everyday luxury objects are made, and honor the process and craftsmen behind them.

Ever jabbed a “four aught” hook into your thumb while trying to stack deer hair on a bass bug? Come now, be honest.

Super Fly’s Pat Cohen has, puncturing so deep he saw stars.

Nick Fouquet uses an electric sander to shape a felt hat.
“I always struggled with art as far as it not having a function,” says Cohen. “I wouldn’t make a painting and hang it up on my wall, because I always felt like it didn’t really serve a purpose.”
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

But out of pain came inspiration—a prototype for the Fugly Packer, an oversize steel contraption, powder-coated in bright green, now sold worldwide. True to name, it’s not elegant. But it gets the job done, allowing deer hair to be compressed tight and full, all in the name of the ultimate fly. It’s one of the many tools that Cohen sells to the scattered armies of professional and hobbyist fly tiers around the globe, who use them to handcraft fuzzy lures meant to hook bass, trout, salmon, and other fresh- and saltwater fish.

Nick Fouquet steams the felt hat to shape it.
Every material, whether synthetic or natural, has its own properties that make it attractive on a fly.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

Cohen, 39, is a rugged packer of sorts as well: bald, woolly bearded, and tatted-up, with ear piercings gauged to three-quarters of an inch. He’s of a newer, bluer-collar wave of fly fishermen, not bedecked in Barbour with $1,000 poles, but ready to wade in and rumble with any slippery fish with whatever they’ve got. And Cohen’s flies aren’t your standard woolly buggers, either. They’re functional art, both durable and effective, unlike most other warm-water bugs out there.

“There’s your raw, basic meat-and-potatoes fish-catching flies, there’s artistic flies, and then there’s a blend of those two where they can be artistic and catch fish. That’s where I try to be,” says Cohen from his home studio in Cobleskill, N.Y., upstate between the Catskills and Adirondacks. “I want somebody to look at this differently than they have ever looked at a bass bug before. I want people to pick them up and study them and say, ‘Holy cow, I didn’t know you could do that with deer hair.’ ”

Nick Fouquet's hats stacked together as they're being worked on.
Super Fly’s colorful coterie of creatures, including mice, dragonflies, shrimp, and salamanders.
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

Cohen is self-taught, with an art degree put to use in a former life as a tattoo artist, which may explain his rather punk attitude. Yet however cheeky the names of his flies—SF Shaggin’ Dragon, Carp-N-Crunch, Pimp Shrimp—or exquisite the detail, he starts just like everyone else: a hook gripped hard in a vice.

To the metal canvas of the hook, Cohen wraps thread and applies raw materials: bucktail and rabbit fur, exotic feathers like peacock and marabou, shiny synthetic flash, and, of course, belly hair collected from deer and dyed in Technicolor shades. He carves, snips, and arranges using bodkins and bobbins, leg pullers and razor blades, an array of scissors and various glues and cement. The permutations are endless. More complicated flies, essentially mini sculptures, can take upwards of three to four hours to complete and cost $85 and up.

And before all this comes research.

Nick Fouquet looks out over the Pacific Ocean from the beach in Venice, Calif.
Realism factors large in Cohen’s design process, where duck feathers and dyed deer hair can be packed, clipped, and carved into a baby bird. “It’s all about imitating nature.”
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg

“Fish are smart. Fish make their living by staying away from guys like me with pointy, sharp objects that want to yank them out of their living room, take a picture, and then put them back,” says Cohen. He studies biology to know what his fish eat and where they hang out and hunt in a river. If the fly doesn’t sit right on or in the water or move right—in other words, if it doesn’t correctly imitate nature—that bass, trout, or bonefish isn’t going to bite.

His more elaborate creations mimic frogs, mice, salamanders, and crayfish, down to floppy limbs made of an ultra-suede material he now sells. And, of course, eyes.

“There are all sorts of theories about eyes on flies, whether it is important or not,” he explains. “To me, it’s a confidence thing. When I open my fly box up and I grab a fly that looks good, with eyes, I get excited. If I’m excited, I’m going to excite those fish because I’m going to fish it confidently, and I’m going to fish it differently. All those little things to me are important.” 

To make his point, he snatches up a fly shaped like a baby bird, articulated head, beak, and all. “It’s got eyes, it’s got wings, it’s got realistic color. I grab this thing and go, ‘Oh man, this makes me want to eat chicken wings right now, I’m hungry!’ ”

Nick Fouquet uses an electric sander to shape a felt hat.
“If I take you out on the water," says Cohen of his love for fly fishing, "you’ll see river otters, you’ll see bald eagles, you’ll see ducks, you’ll see wildlife, you’ll see beautiful things happening all around you, and that’s a magnificent thing to be part of.”
Photographer: Zach Goldstein/Bloomberg