Blane Chocklett truly eats, breathes, and sleeps fly fishing.
For those of us who fly fish, Blane is living the dream. One of the fly fishing industry's most forward-thinking and innovative anglers, Blane pioneered the Game Changer style of fly design, co-developing the Articulated Fish-Spine with Flymen Fishing Co., and has been a major catalyst behind the rise of big game fly fishing in the last decade.
We recently had the chance to interview Blane on the banks of the French Broad River in Western North Carolina. This resulted in an insightful look at fly fishing, community, and life from a man who continues to impress us all with his creativity and willingness to push the limits of fly tying and fishing.
1. Blane, you’ve made a big name for yourself in the fly fishing world and are widely regarded as one of the top fly angers and fly tyers. What is it about fly fishing that has driven you to become such a master of your craft and one of the most forward-thinking anglers who have helped to progress fly fishing?
The one thing I would say that really draws me to fly fishing is it's a one-on-one sport. You have to do it all. It's kind of like the hunter that takes the bow and the arrow, not the compound bow, but a traditional bow and arrow and they do it all on their own. They have to rely on all their skills and everything that they've learned to make it all happen.
For me, I've always just loved the technical aspect of it, me versus the fish and versus the elements. Really it's a puzzle; I'm always learning something every time I go and I make a point to learn every time I'm on the water, whether it's the home waters I've been fishing all my life, or fishing some new exotic place somewhere in the world.
2. It’s hard to imagine a time when you had never held a fly rod or fly tying bobbin in your hands. How and when did you first get started?
Photo by Jay Nichols.
This whole journey that I've been on started when I was nine years old. I had a background in art, you know, my parents would always pick me up at the ball fields, playing with my buddies and stuff and take me to art class and you know, about that same time I started fly fishing and I learned at that point that art was not my deal because the last thing I wanted to do was leave my buddy's playing football or basketball and then go to an art class. So the next step for me was getting a fly rod, I got it for Christmas, and I started fly fishing. My parents then got me a fly tying kit the next winter, so I took the art skills that I was given and put that towards flies and that's what I've been at my whole life.
So the next step for me then, I started guiding when I was 16 when I got my permit and learning at an early age through some really good mentors. That's kind of where it all really revolves is the mentors that I've had as a child and now as an adult.
Steve Hiner, who's an entomologist. and Harry Steeves, one of the best designers I've ever met, took me under their wing at an early age and taught me a lot about flies and how flies can make fish react adversely or aggressively towards your offering. And a great case study for me at 15 years old, I was on the Jackson River meeting Harry and Steve there on the river one particular Saturday and watching them catch fish, after fish, after fish, and me only catching five or six the whole day and watching them catch at least 50 or 60.
And at that point I realized that there was a lot to this sport. I was just cutting my teeth at that time. I'd been fly fishing for a little bit then, but I was still a kid at 15. By observing and watching what they were doing, I knew that I had a lot to learn.
It was fascinating to me because, of course being a kid, I went up to him, and was asked, "what are you using?"
They knew I was going to get a lot more out of figuring it out on my own then by being told, so they told me to take these vials and they gave me some samples from the university and told me to just pick up the rocks, figure out what's under these rocks, take them home and tie what you see.
I took the vials with me, picked up all the rocks, got all the different bugs that I could find and I noticed immediately that there was one prominent bug under every rock that I picked up and not just a few but hundreds and thousands of them. So I knew at that point that this has to be kind of like the popcorn versus the steak that these trout are feeding on. So I took these samples took them home, got my mom to take me to a craft store and I found a couple items to use. My parents were great about helping me get, and do, whatever I was passionate about.
Steve Hiner, who is the entomologist who taught me, showed me a book, and gave me the book that particular weekend he had it with him, called McCafferty's Aquatic Entomology, and he said, "Read this book, this will help you identify some of the bugs that you happen to find on these rocks."
So I was able to learn about how these insects throughout their whole life cycles, from the egg, to larva, pupa, and the adult stage. So I started learning about this particular bug, which is called a black fly, and learning how the different life cycles and where they are in the river and what their different life cycles look like. It taught me at a very young age that there's a lot to this bug deal and I definitely saw it by watching Harry and Steve catch all these fish that I wasn't catching.
So I tied all these different flies and took them to the river the next weekend. I met them there and lo and behold, I started catching fish. And I wasn't catching quite as many as they were, but I was catching fish and it went from catching five or six to catching 25 to 30 and it was fun. They wanted to see my fly box and I opened it up and they said, "you're on the right track." That particular week I noticed by reading McCafferty's book that black flies will hatch and pupate underwater in a cocoon or pupal shuck and they'll pupate under the water and when they're ready to hatch to the surface, they'll cut out of that pupal shuck and rise in an air bubble. So that to me signaled, use a glass bead.
This was long before glass beads were ever popularized in the states or anywhere in the fly community. So I got my mom to get me all kinds of clear glass, silver glass, there was all kinds of little glass beads at the craft store for doing necklaces and earrings and all kinds of stuff like that. So I applied those to a hook. It was kind of rudimentary, but I was able to latch these different beads to a hook and use that as a pupal stage and then I had a larva stage in front of it and I was doing a tandem rig and I noticed that Harry and Steve were doing something like that, but they would never show me what they were doing.
The next weekend I went up there and I was catching almost as many fish as they were and they said, "I want to see what you're doing because obviously you've figured something out."
So I showed them my fly box and the next thing you know, they start dying laughing and they open up theirs, it's almost identical to what they were doing. That in itself really taught me at a very early age how important fly design is and how fish react to what you tie and it can make all the difference in the world from catching a few fish to catching all the fish. So for me, I've always went from that point knowing that flies make a difference.
"Matching the hatch" with a Game Changer.
You know, we spend all this money on rods and reels and lines and waders and all the different stuff that get us to the fish, but really the most important thing to catching these fish is what you present to those fish and what they're actually eating. You can have a $5,000 fly rod, but that's not going to catch you any more fish. The fly that you're using on that fly rod is what's going to make it happen.
Becoming a guide at an early age and now making my living on the success of how well my guided trips go, fly design became even more important to me. So that in itself is one reason that it's very important for me to make flies that actually work, but not only that, I'm passionate about what I do and I love it. It's something that I've loved ever since I first picked up a fly rod 30 years ago.
3. Many people know you for targeting giant musky on the fly, but there are plenty of pictures out there of you catching bass and exotic species. How would you describe your angling focus and how has that focus influenced your fly tying?
Photo by Paul Bourq.
Anytime I'm on the water, I really want to do the best I can whether it's fishing for bluegill or fishing for tarpon, or fishing for peacock bass in the Amazon, or fishing for the fish of 10,000 casts, musky. I want to know as much as I can about this fish species that I'm fishing for because I truly believe just by being on the water and observing fish behavior that every fish has a biologic makeup that causes that fish to eat certain, what I call, triggers.
What I've learned from people like Larry Dahlberg, these triggers that are innate and that are made up in these fish biologically can take your lure design or fly design to the next level. And for me, every fish I fished for as a guide, not only as a guide, but as a fly designer, I want to maximize the most that I can out of that because it's going to directly result in my success rate as a guide.
As a fly designer, I've learned how to catch a lot of fish species. Especially like muskies and other fish, but muskies being probably the toughest by not catching them. And by not catching them, I learn what doesn't work and usually you kind of go from there and you start figuring out, all right, you get these little hints here and there. They don't give you a lot of feedback, but the little feedback that you do get, you kind of take that and put it away and by the end of the day, after six months or a year, you've kind of got this, you've got something to work on that you can work with and you say, alright, these fish have teeth and long faces and long cylindrical shapes for short bursts of speed and to grab and hold and maim. So knowing that having flies that will show profile is a big trigger in those types of fish because that's giving them the best opportunity to grab and hold on or to grab and cut in half.
Those kinds of triggers put into a fly, that's a totally different type of spin than what I'm going to put on a striper fly or a tarpon fly because those types of fish inhale their foods so I don't need to have back hooks or whatnot, I want to have a big front hook. It's just going to come up from underneath because that's why they had their eyes on the top of their head, that bucket mouth, so they just come up and then suck everything in just like a big largemouth or striper. So you know, getting back to that whole thing with the fly design and all the different species. I want to know as much as I can about all of them, but it also helps me as a guide, but not only that but as a fly designer, because the more I know about all these different species out there, it's going to make me a more rounded person, angler, tyer, you name it.
4. When you developed the Game Changer style of flies, it had a major impact on fly fishing and continues to grow in popularity today. Can you elaborate on how this concept came to be?
The Articulated Fish-Spine shank system brings Game Changer flies to life.
The whole Game Changer concept and platform really came to be based on years of fishing for smallmouth bass. I guess I'm a little more well known for the musky side of things, but the smallmouth bass is probably one of the best teachers that you could ever ask for as far as an angler and fly designer because a smallmouth bass has a lot of different trigger factors that will cause them to eat and cause them not to eat.
Guiding all these years and having fly anglers in the boat, they'd always bring people with them that didn't fly fish and I would always bring spinning or bait casting rods that would have soft plastics or lures, hard baits, swim baits, different things like that and seeing how those things work in the water taught me early on that I need to have something in the fly realm that matches some of these soft plastics because having somebody in the front of the boat or the back of the boat with a spinning rod and a soft plastic, my day was done, I didn't have to worry about them. All I was doing was taking fish off all day long and worrying about the person in front or back of the boat that was fly fishing.
Just seeing how fish react, like I said, there are triggers in different species of fish and smallmouth bass were the perfect test subject for this because they're pretty hardy fish, they're very aggressive, but they also can be very tough in certain conditions. And taking what I saw and how they reacted to these soft plastics made me think, "I need to come up with a fly that will swim like a fish, will have these erratic movements, have these serpentine movements, kick off and up and down and just kind of suspend like a fluke or some of these new swim baits that we have. You can take that idea with a smallmouth bass and then start working and building on that and move on into muskies, predatory brown trout, saltwater species such as snook. That's a perfect correlation between smallmouth bass and snook. I think they're very similar type fish even though they don't live anywhere near the same areas, but they are both ambush feeders and they feed very similarly. So knowing these things and that they both inhale their foods, by having lures and flies that will kind of kick and act wounded and hover, then you can have it pause and kind of stay in their face, and then kick it off real quick, that's a trigger for them to grab and suck it in. All different types of predators, you never run from a predator whether it's a lion or a bear or fish. So there's a lot of these triggers that we know about just reading in our schoolbooks. It really helps you kind of get more, for me, more intimate with the fish species and I'm targeting.
Photo by Jay Nichols.
The Game Changer concept was all built on what I see fish feed on and I failed miserably for years trying to get a fly that would swim and act like a fish. Finally, after all these failures, I finally came back to what truly makes a fish swim, and it's really their vertebrae.
You can simulate fins by adding feathers or synthetics and you can make it look just like the real fins, but that's not going to help it swim much. You may have a little bit more diversion of water creating turbulence, but not necessarily going to make that fly act erratic and have that serpentine swimming action. The other thing the muscle, which is very important to a fish attached to the vertebrae and all that kind of stuff, which it will help enable them to swim. But we can't create muscle other than by manipulating the fly through the water by using the fly line the way we strip it. So you can add all kinds of materials that where you're going to get flow and you know, like hair and feathers where you're going to get movement, but you're not going to get that swimming action and you can get vertical jigging like, Bob Clouser's awesome fly that he designed years ago and having that vertical fall and you could add foam in flies using sinking lines where you'll have it dive like a perfect example is Dallburg's Diver, which is one of the best flies ever made. But you're getting that diving action and having that upward lift or hover, depending on if it's a floating or sinking line and the Clousers are going to be falling, but the Dahlberg Divers going to be falling and then rising.
So both of those are different, they're rising and falling, but there's different species of fish that love that so you can get somewhat of different actions but you're not getting that true swimming action.
Finally, after figuring out that these traditional ways of tying just didn't work, I reached out to Martin Bawden, the owner of Flymen Fishing Co. about the idea. After playing with different wire bending tools and playing around with shank ideas, I figured out by creating a bunch of series of vertebrae or a bunch of small shanks and adding materials to that, I was starting to get that swimming action. And then like I said, I reached out to Martin, he got it done with the Articulated Fish-Spine, and you know, the rest is history.
5. You’ve released several fly tying materials in collaboration with Flymen Fishing Co. such as the Articulated Fish-Spine, Chocklett’s Big Game Shank, and Chocklett’s Body Tubing. How would you describe your relationship with Flymen and how you worked together to bring these innovative materials to market for fly tyers worldwide?
Photo by Paul Bourq.
I've been designing flies for 20 years and I've known Martin now for 10 plus of those years since when he first started getting into it with Flymen. We would run into each other here and there at some of the shows and fly tying symposiums, and I always admired the out of the box thinking that he had with his Nymph-Head beads and all the different concepts that he had going. We'd always kind of talk shop when we'd hang out. For me I've always been that type of thinker too, who doesn't want to kind of reinvent the wheel over and over.
I learned a long time ago from my good friend, mentor, and in my mind the best fly designer ever, Bob Popovics, that a great fly design usually evolves from a problem. I don't want to create something that's already been created just in a different way. Because at that point you're not really moving, you're not going up the ladder at all as far as design and you're definitely not moving the gauge.
A mutual friend of Martin and mine named Mike Smith got us together at the Charlotte, North Carolina show.
I asked Martin, "I've got some ideas, can we maybe sit together and talk?"
Flymen already had the Articulated Shanks out and this is when I was already had been working on the Game Changer concept for a while and didn't want to get into the manufacturing process of making these shanks myself. I was fortunate enough to create some materials early on with the Silly Skin and the Gummy Minnows and I also learned that manufacturing and the business side is not my brain. I'm creative but I'm definitely not organized enough to be able to run a company well enough to make it work and be successful.
So Martin and I, we sat down with Mike, we had some dinner and a couple drinks talking about different concepts and it kind of went from there and it's been a great relationship. We've got a lot of things on the horizon that I think are really going to be very important leading into the future.
6. It seems like you’re always catching new species, landing bigger fish, and developing improved fly designs with no sign of slowing down. What is it that motivates you for your remarkable constant innovation and progression?
Photo by Paul Bourq.
I definitely have this passion and this drive, especially like what I was saying about my beginnings and seeing how much a fly is going to change your fishing success, there's always going to be the fly that's going to make your day so much more memorable. From what I learned at 15 years old to now, creating something that is the fly has always been a goal of mine and ever since the beginning and I've always been into figuring out new species.
It may not be a new species to someone, but it might be a new species to me, or what I would call a forgotten species, like gar for example, or bowfin, that is to me is our exotic fish that we have in the States. Another one is paddlefish. I'd never seen a paddlefish in real life until this past spring. I was fishing a striper river, and next thing you know, we hook up with something that's huge. It jumps and it's a five-foot-long paddlefish. So that gets me thinking. I start doing research and talking to biologists, and paddlefish are supposed to be filter feeders. What I found that there are certain times when they will eat small baits, and this happened to be during a spawning time for striped bass, but it also happened to be a spawning time for paddlefish.
So I learned where paddlefish like to spawn, they like to spawn in gravel bars. Well, the areas that we're picking these paddlefish up, we happen to hook 18 paddlefish and landed like eight or nine of them in a five-day period.
Another thing is milkfish in the Seychelles. For a long time no one thought they'd be able to catch them on the fly. 20 years ago I was approached by Frontiers that they had this new fishery in the Seychelles that they're trying to figure out how to catch milkfish and they asked me to help with the fly. They knew that milkfish were algae eaters, so they asked me to help them with a fly and now there's this fly called the milky dream that I had a little bit of a part of that a lot of people don't know about. I don't want to take credit for it, but it was a process there that can get you thinking and realize there are a lot of fish out there that are still considered to be not catchable consistently on fly.
Muskies ten years ago, people didn't even really think about muskies on fly. There was a small group of people that knew you could catch them, but it was not mainstream and now it is, and that kind of stuff really drives me.
The other thing is I want to protect the species that we have here locally. When I say locally, it's in the United States, like sturgeon, bowfin, gar of all different species: alligator gar, longnose gar. And like I said, these paddlefish, which a lot of people call trash fish, but to me, they've been here longer than anybody and they are native species and people are traveling to South America trying to catch wolffish on a fly and all wolffish is, is a North American bowfin and they're amazing. They do everything that you would ever want a game fish to do. They jump, they tear your tackle up, they're awesome fish. Paddlefish, I mean they get up over 100 pounds and they jump! We landed a paddlefish over a hundred pounds on a nine weight rod fishing for stripers. I wasn't targeting them but it happened. And that kind of stuff, that's amazing.
It's cool to be this day and age and still have things out there that have not been targeted regularly on a fly. I love that. That to me is what I get up every day really loving and looking forward to. Because there is a new horizon, there are a lot of things out there that has not been mastered yet.
I don't think you can master fishing, but something I've always strived to do is to get as good as I can at it.
7. On your guided trips, what are some of the pieces of advice you most commonly give that you think most anglers could learn from?
The one thing I noticed early on was people want to rush into everything. What I would suggest to anybody that's going to go fish, whether it's a body of water they fished a long time ago or a piece of water they've never fished before, is sit back and let nature bring you to what you're fishing.
Just like hunting, you can learn so much just by sitting there. I've guided a lot of people that when they start seeing trout rising in a stream, they want to run out there immediately and start casting to them. But I always say, hatches generally progress and we've been here before this hatch started and it's generally going to get better and better. The longer it progresses, the more fish that are going to start feeding right in front of you, and you'll notice that there are fish closer to you than you realize. So by sitting and observing is one.
The other thing is staying in the moment. Every time you're throwing a fly, especially streamer fishing, always expect your fly is going to get eaten and there's always a fish behind it.
A lot of times people just throw streamers out and just bring it back, mundane. The key with a lot of predators is you have to create these triggers. A lot of the flies that we designed, and what I like to do with my designs, is have those in the design itself. But they need to be fished properly — it might be a start and stop motion, speed up faster, slower, let it fall longer, different things and understanding what that fish wants that particular day or what that biologic makeup is of that specific fish you may be fishing for. Understand those things.
Photo by Jim Shullin.
A lot of times people just want to get out there and have instant success and never understand the whole process that you're going for. So I always would like to tell people that they want to definitely understand what they're trying to accomplish.
Another one is really learn how to cast in all different types of the whole realm of casting, whether it be dry fly, nymphing, streamer fishing, or whatnot. Learning how to cast and learning the techniques of casting and choosing the right line for the type of fishing that you're doing. Because fly line, in my mind, as a guide and an angler, is probably the most overlooked aspect other than the fly.
The fly is the most overlooked part of the whole sport, but the fly line in my mind is second because the fly line gets your fly to the target either hard or easy and having the proper line, it's night and day. You could have a $10,000 fly rod or $100 rod, if you don't have the right line, it's going to feel like a $5 rod, if it's a $10,000 rod and if you have the right line on $100 Rod, it's going to feel like a $10,000 rod.
So knowing all the different elements of the sport and knowing how it all works will make you as an angler much better and it'll make your day on the water a whole lot more productive.
8. You had a close relationship with Lefty Kreh during his time. How would you describe your relationship with him?
I've been very fortunate in my fishing career to have some amazing people in my life. Lefty was probably my biggest inspiration and my biggest mentor. He took me under his wing 20 some years ago.
The thing about Lefty is he cares about people and he can see right through someone. He'll take somebody that may not, he's been friends with kings and presidents and you name it, and he treats everybody the same and he treated me like that. If you were really serious and you wanted to do it the right way, he would spend the time to help you no matter what you wanted. So he taught me early on that people matter; it doesn't matter if we're fishing or not, I mean we're not curing cancer. It should be a brotherhood, male or female.
Lefty, he taught me a lot about life. I had a lot of mentors in the industry that taught me a lot about fishing and fly design: Bob Popovics taught me a ton about fly design, Larry Dahlberg has taught me a ton about fish behavior and the different triggers that caused these different fish to strike, so that's all really helped me, but Lefty has really taught me about life and I can never pay him back for that.
9. It’s hard to keep up with all the amazing fly fishing trips you’ve been taking, from Saskatchewan to Baja to the Amazon. Can you tell us a bit about your favorite trip so far and what your dream trip would be?
Photo by Jay Nichols.
I've been traveling a lot here in the past two years. To be honest with you, every trip I go on is special. The Amazon was probably the most special trip just because it's the Amazon. You're in the middle of nowhere, catching fish that may have never even seen a person before. Seeing all the different fauna and all the different animals and the crazy fish that live there, that to me was special. Catching fish is one thing, but it puts us in places that are phenomenal and unbelievable.
The Baja trip, I really got my butt handed to me there. But I learned a lot, and that's what's important. A lot of the flies that I brought with me, not knowing much about the fish and not really doing my research before I went, I learned that they don't like a lot of flash. But I took a lot from that and took enough tying material for the week that I could start getting results from these fish even though I only got to cast at three of them, three roosterfish.
I learned a little bit with each opportunity. The last one I targeted I would have caught if a wave hadn't crashed over the fish, right as it was opening his mouth to eat it. And it was an unbelievable size — it still haunts me. But it makes me want to go back, you know. So that was an amazing trip, but for me they're all special and I look forward to the future trips that I'm getting ready to go on.
I'm getting ready to go to Belize and am heading to Louisiana next week to target giant redfish. A lot of people want to go there to catch giant reds, but the thing I really want to go down there to do is catch the giant alligator gar. A lot of people consider them trash fish but a giant 100-pound alligator gar doing tail walks right in front of them with her mouth wide open... What's not to like?
Knocking another thing off the bucket list, they're all great.
10. Can you tell us about your book that’s coming out?
Photo by Jay Nichols.
A lot of people don't believe I'm actually doing a book because it's been taking so long. My editor Jay Nichols, who has ended up becoming one of my better friends, has been very patient with me. I've been working on this book now for seven or eight years, believe it or not. And it hasn't been straightforward because life gets in the way, you know. For me, writing a book is kind of like going to the dentist, you kind of put it aside until you have to do it. But I've also learned a lot over the whole process of this book. I've learned how my thoughts and fly design evolved over the years, what I'm actually thinking when I'm going through the process of designing a fly and putting the fly together, and why I choose certain materials here versus there. The way Jay is, such a great editor and such an insightful person, he's taught me more about myself than I realized on my own.
So the book not only has been a seven, eight-year project, but it's been an extremely important learning curve for me and helped me, helping myself understand what I'm actually doing. It's really allowed me to be a better angler, a better designer, and it's taught me a lot about myself, which I was not expecting. Hopefully we're going to have this book out here in the next six, eight months, but it's not going to be out until we know we're done. Jay is so good at what he does. He's not going to let me put out something that he doesn't feel is finished either.
It's really an awesome deal and I'm super excited about it. There are a lot of things we had to leave out of the book because there's so much information that we have in certain key flies, but that just leaves room for another book in the future, probably two or three books. So we'll see. Maybe I'll get to them, get to them before I die.
11. What’s next for Blane Chocklett?
What's next for me? For me what's next is more fly designs and working closer with Martin and Flymen Fishing Company. We have a lot of cool things getting ready to happen.
The sky's the limit because Martin, he doesn't want to do the mundane thing and just do the same thing over and over again. He sees the value in pushing this sport forward and sees where I want to go.
I feel like we're a good team because we both have that goal of wanting to push the envelope. We want to see where this takes us and I personally, and I'm sure Martin feels the same, I've lost a mentor in Lefty and see the mark that he left on the industry and this has been a life project for me. And now I want to leave something.
Dahlberg told me a couple years ago, "You don't stand on people's coattails, you stand on the shoulders of those who came before you."
That's important because we're building on the things from Lefty, Clouser, Popovics, Dahlberg, and all these other people I'm not mentioning now. They've all built that platform for us to stand on and it's up to us to start pushing it forward and creating new things and not just creating the same old thing and just calling it something else.
That's important to me as a designer, and I know that's important to Martin because, I mean you can change a color of a bucktail on a fly and call it something else, but it's still a deceiver, or it's still a Clouser, or it's still a Dahlberg diver. To me it's about pushing that envelope and really giving something important to our industry and moving our industry forward.
Money's never been a main thing in my life. It's always been about the passion of the sport. And I want to make sure before it's all over that I'll leave something that's important.