When it comes to fly fishing, there’s much more to the ages-old activity than simply hooking a fish. Some seek a wild pescatarian meal, others zen out and toss a line to practice escapism. Crafty casters like Darell Hensley take it a step—or several for that matter—further and transform angling into an art form.
Hensley has been chasing fish in one way or another since he can remember. From picking up his dad’s fly rod as a young boy to tying flies and hand-crafting custom decorative rods, Hensley has earned his stripes as a Mountain State master angler.
As owner of Tory Mountain Outfitters in Davis from 1997 to 2003, Hensley cut his teeth as a fly-fishing guide taking clients out on the region’s wealth of trout streams. “Just like you have to know how to read the water to guide a kayak or raft, you have to know how to read the water to fish,” Hensley says.
Hensley has been creating custom fly rods for nearly 30 years, and it shows in the intricacy of his designs and the consistency of the finish. He begins with a blank rod and dreams up a theme or color concept. He recently completed a rod wrapped in threads matching the polychromatic pattern of a native brook trout.
After choosing his color palette and measuring out the design concept, Hensley painstakingly hand-wraps each piece of thread around the rod, using a burnishing tool to tighten up the wraps. Hensley often uses a classic chevron wrap—an inverted V-pattern where sides meet without interruption—to decorate the butt section of the rod. He also uses decorative thread to wrap the line guides and lays out markings on the rod to help measure a catch on the fly. “It’s purely decorative, you don’t see decor on fly rods hardly ever,” Hensley says. “It’s typically seen on saltwater rods which are much larger and wrapped using big, heavy thread. The wraps are harder to do and to keep tighter on the smaller-diameter fly rods.”
Hensley then coats the rod in epoxy and places it in a power wrapper machine where the speed can be adjusted to keep the rod turning as it dries to prevent the epoxy from pooling or dripping. While a custom rod can be as expensive as one wishes to make it—Hensley says some reel seats alone can cost several hundred bucks—his average custom rod costs around $250.
So, why throw down extra cash for a fancy rod? For Hensley, it’s all about the angler’s connection with their equipment while communing with nature. “There’s nothing like going out fishing with a rod you built and flies you tied and leaders you made. You’re totally doing it all on your own.”
A fancy rod ain’t squat if you can’t get a bite. To increase the chances of doing so, fly fisherfolk often have a dizzying array of lures from which to entice a picky fish. Hensley, naturally, ties his own flies, drawing from his vast knowledge of West Virginia’s rivers, their inhabitants, and seasonal changes to create his lures.
Starting off with a hook—which can be as small as 1/16th of an inch—Hensley wraps the barb with various threads, metals, hairs, and other visually striking materials. Feathers are a common natural material and come from a bevy of birds like chickens, peacocks, ducks, and the golden pheasant, a bird bred specifically for its technicolor dream pelt.
Flies can be tied in myriad shapes, colors, and sizes, imitating bugs throughout all stages of their creepy-crawly lives from eggs to larvae and beyond. Hensley even has a fly that mimics the harbinger and unofficial predictor of winter weather, the wooly bear caterpillar. “It’s all about the properties of the fly,” he says. “There’s an imitation for about everything that’s out there. Some flies are realistic and have simple patterns, but sometimes simple is best.”
Observant anglers peruse an aquatic tableau to see what bugs are buzzing and, in turn, what the trout are likely gobbling up. But sometimes, there’s not much to see. Calm water and a lack of riparian hors d’oeuvres simply don’t provide visual clues. Cue the attractor pattern, an abstract version of something natural that can draw a bite out of sheer novelty. With flashy colors, shiny metal wraps, and bizarre silhouettes, attractor flies are merely suggestive forms. Think of it like a bowl of neon gummy worms being presented to a child—it’s virtually guaranteed to at least draw interest. “They don’t necessarily represent anything, it’s the artistry of what’s tied into them,” Hensley says. “The colors and the parts are just fantastic looking.”
Hook, Line & Thinker
Even with a shiny lure, a bite is never guaranteed. A successful fly-fishing outing, unlike lazily tossing a bobber into a tepid pond, requires more than patience or sheer luck. “There’s the art of the rod, and then there’s the art of the angling,” Hensley says.
West Virginia has an abundance of rivers and streams that vary in elevation, flow rate, temperature, and acidity. All these factors combine with staggered insect hatches throughout the season to make each waterway unique. When he ran his fly shop, Hensley maintained a hatch chart on the shop’s website that showed which bugs were hatching when and at what elevations as the seasons made their way up and down West Virginia’s mountains.
Speaking of hatches, fish lay eggs, but also love to eat ‘em. Rainbow, brown, and brook trout all love an egg-celent meal and follow each other around during their respective spawning and hatchling seasons. To fawn over a spawn or match a hatch, Hensley has lure cases filled to the gills with various fish and amphibian egg cluster patterns. “They swoop right in to eat the carnage and whatever they can find,” he says.
On the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, a high-quality, low-elevation trout river where the famed Tuscarora quartzite cliffs often meet the river’s edge, beetles and other insects fall in the drink throughout the day. When Hensley can see the surface being disrupted, he knows the fish are hungry and presents his fly by casting directly against the rock so it bounces off and makes a splash.
In faster waters on steep creeks in the mountains, the goal is to present a fly that won’t sink quickly and get caught in the shallow bottom. Flies tied with natural hairs like deer and elk, which have air cells in the follicles, float better than feathers or synthetic materials. Hensley tends to fish a wide range of flies and materials in a single outing, typically starting with imitation flies before moving to flamboyant attractors. “As the trout are fished for harder, you’ll see them come up, take a look, and then just swim away,” he says. “The chartreuse and blue tones and shiny sparkles seem to give them something else to look at and avoid the refusal.”
But sometimes, try hard you might, the fish just won’t bite. Hensley says on clear-water days, the fish might be enticed by the fly you’re presenting but end up seeing the line. Instead of swapping flies, he changes down his tippet—the last section of line attached to the leader. Some tippets are as thin as 1/3000th of an inch, or about the width of a human hair. “It has intentions of eating, so it’s a hungry fish,” he says. “They really enjoy making you extremely frustrated.”
So, what keeps Hensley coming back for another bite? Beyond the human desire to emerge victorious and defeat frustration, he points to the level of environmental cleanliness trout require. West Virginia’s native brook trout, and especially the insects they devour, don’t tolerate pollution and reside in cold-water streams flowing through heavily forested areas. “Wherever trout live, it’s beautiful, pristine water,” he says. “If you’re pursuing wild trout, they’re gonna take you some pretty spectacular spots.”
Dylan Jones can’t make you a custom fly rod. However, Darell can. If you’re interested in swapping fish tales or inquiring about a fancy rod of your own, send him a message: firstname.lastname@example.org.