This Mainer hasn’t fished in 30 years, but his fishing flies are legendary

11 months ago

STACYVILLE, Maine — Surrounded by more than 50,000 fly fishing flies, legendary flytier Alvin Theriault said there are really only two anyone needs, the Maple Syrup Nymph and the Black Ghost Marabou. 

Theriault’s fishing tales are colored by decades of experience as a fisherman, flytier and game warden. And after a few hours with the owner of Theriault Flies on Lapidary Lane in Stacyville, the mysteries of the Katahdin-region’s waters, fish and the requisite fly make more sense. 

Maine has many noted flytiers and fly inventors who sell their flies. And some like Theriault and Joseph S. Stickney, the Maine game warden supervisor who invented the Supervisor, a streamer fly, are among a legendary few who stand out in the fly-tying community because they elevated their craft to an art form.  

“We tie for fishermen, not for fish,” Theriault said, smiling. 

As he explains it, fish are like pigs with gills and they eat all the time. So, it isn’t that the fish are not biting, they’re just not biting in that location. Things like matching the hatch, water temperature and fishing depth make a difference. If fish will take a cigarette butt, they’re going to try most anything, he said. 

Legendary flytier Alvin Theriault helps a young customer in his Stacyville studio. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

Still, everyone has a favorite fly. 

One day out on Sourdnahunk Lake Theriault, a retired game warden, decided to check boats. 

“So I get to the first boat and I know the fish are biting because everybody is catching fish like crazy. I said, ‘you having a good day?’” he said, smiling. 

“Yep yep. But you can only catch them on a yellow grasshopper,” they told Theriault.

About 150 feet away, two men in the next boat were also catching a lot of fish, but insist it is the Hornberg fly.  He checked 20 boats in a row and everybody had a favorite fly, no two were alike, and they were all catching fish, he said. 

On Thursday morning, in what seemed like seconds, Theriault, 68, made the red body and calf’s tail hair wings of the Red Wulff fly that imitates mayflies and drakes. There’s a meditative rhythm to his tying and before long the pile of Red Wulffs grows. 

He usually makes 100 at a time, unless it’s the simple Maple Syrup. He’ll make 200 of those, he said.

The Red Wulff’s red body is made with rug yarn and antron, a floating material, he said.

Created by Lee Wulff in the 1930s, the Red Wulff is a big fly and the best time to use it is about an hour before dark. The light-colored wings of the fly are for the fisherman to see, and the fish are hitting on a silhouette, he said. 

Flies imitate a variety of bugs and other bait. There are dry flies, wet flies and nymphs. Dry flies float on the surface, wet flies are fished underwater and nymphs are on the bottom.  

Fly tying is like baking a cake, he said. If someone invents a fly, there’s a recipe that goes with it and flytiers follow that recipe the same as cooking. 

Theriault got his start when he was 11 and bought a $4 Boy Scout fly-tying kit. He was immediately hooked. He’d rather tie flies than fish, he said, admitting that he hasn’t fished in 30 years. 

The famed Maple Syrup fly is made with rayon chenille. (Courtes of Theriault Flies)

His favorite flies are the Maple Syrup and the Black Ghost Marabou. The Maple Syrup is easy to use, easy to tie and it catches any type of fish anytime, he said. He grew up with the Black Ghost Marabou, but when he invented the Maple Syrup, that became the hottest fly, he said.

Theriault’s daughter Holly was tying flies at age 4, and he and his wife Connie, who also ties, wanted to create something for Holly to tie commercially. It became the Maple Syrup, he said. 

Legendary Maine guides Wiggy and Jay Robinson tested Theriault’s patterns.

“When we got to the Maple Syrup, Wiggy called me right up and he said, ‘you got a hit,’” he said, adding that the Robinsons were the only two who had the Maple Syrup for two years. 

But when the late Tom Hennessey, a Bangor Daily News outdoors writer and artist, wrote about the Maple Syrup after Jay Robinson took him fishing with it, Theriault had to put it out commercially. He was getting calls about it from writers all over the country, he said.

Fish get difficult, Theriault said, pointing to what’s called matching the hatch, when a fisherman tries to match a fly to a bug hatch.

The bug starts hatching from the bottom, and when it starts coming up, fish start grabbing. After they’ve grabbed about 20, they know it’s food and zero in on it. Trying to match the hatch with a fly can be very difficult, Theriault said, recommending that fishermen move from where a hatch is going on to another part of the pond if fish aren’t biting.

Legendary flytier Alvin Theriault in his Stacyville studio. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

Theriault carries about 50,000 flies in his shop. Up until about three years ago, his business supplied 26 different stores, but they couldn’t keep pace and now have their Stacyville shop and a mail-order business, plus a new rock and gem shop in Lubec. 

The Stacyville shop also carries a huge selection of fly-tying materials, most of which he has processed himself, often dyeing the furs and feathers with acid protein dyes that work well in the water.

While he sold many of his farm animals, he still raises goats and chickens, often using their hair and feathers in the flies.

Several years ago, he realized that when someone came in to buy fly-tying material, their partner had zero interest and would just sit out in the car. Theriault and his wife wanted to offer something to interest the partner in the shop, as well, so they came up with rocks and gems, now the biggest part of their business.

Just this month, they opened another rock and gem shop in Lubec. Connie, who loves the coast, is taking care of the Lubec business. Theriault said he likes the coast, but he’s staying right where he is, about 10 miles from Baxter State Park.

“This is what I like to do,” he said. “I’m never leaving.”