By Tim Behuniak
Spring means fly fishermen (and women!) will begin dotting Adirondack waterways. With smooth sways of their arm, this highly-devoted but small-numbered community catches salmon, trout, bass, and more with the help of not worms and bobbers, but handmade flies. Though, have you ever wondered what goes in to making the flies, and who is the face behind fish’s bait?
Meet John Ruff. He’s an Adirondacker at heart who’s originally from Saratoga Springs. As a boy, Ruff frequently hiked in the Park and eventually moved to the Blue Line while attending North Country Community College. After traveling West, Ruff made the Ausable River-area home while also teaching himself how to fly fish with his dad’s old pole. Rather than trust commercially-made flies to catch the fish on his home turf, Ruff began making his own flies because he knew what the fish in his home-waters liked and didn’t like. “My family did everything from baking our own bread to making our own furniture,” said Ruff. “It was almost obvious that I would eventually tie my own flies.”
Now, Ruff is a full-time guide and flytier for his personal business, as well as the Ausable River Two Fly Shop in Wilmington, New York. “We opened in 2010 and I needed help supplying flies for my shop,” said Two Fly owner Tom Conway. “John needed another outlet for his flys after the legendary flytier Francis Betters passed away, so we both helped each other.”
Once Ruff began tying his own flies about 20 years ago, he tied with Betters who then owned the Adirondack Sport Shop in Wilmington. “Fran was the Mickey Mantle of fly tying,” said Ruff. “I started tying with Fran and his style has influenced my designs, and every other flytiers’ designs, too.” Now, Ruff continues to pour his lifelong intimacy and knowledge with local rivers into his own flies.
Ruff’s style mirrors impressionism. His flies do not always perfectly resemble physical attributes of real flies, but rather the feeling and movement of a fly when it’s in the water. “I want to build life into my flies,” said Ruff. “I can make it look great, but more importantly, it has to sit right in the water and look attractive to fish at any angle.”
To do this, Ruff utilizes his wide-array of ecological knowledge and starts the fly tying process from scratch. He aims to use only natural and local materials, ranging from whitetail deer, beaver, and muskrat to chickens, hens, and more. “I use parts of the animals that people throw away,” said Ruff. He utilizes animal parts like the bottom of a snowshoe hare’s foot or the underfur of a beaver because of their waterproof attributes, meaning Ruff’s flys can float. Plus, one hide can make hundreds or even thousands of flies: “When I first began tying, a local hunter dropped off five deer hides. I still have about half of one left,” said Ruff.
After scraping, picking, drying, and dying hides himself, Ruff then clips few pieces of hair from a hide to tie onto a hook. He wraps thread from the eye of a hook down, forming the base of a fly. His fingers delicately dance their way back up the hook, starting with the “tail” to eventually end at the head. This is just one method of making the many different types of flies in Ruff’s arsenal.
The process for commercial fly tying can take anywhere from three minutes to one hour, but no matter how long, Ruff always enjoys the process. “I love the river and problem-solving,” said Ruff. “My designs come from fishing and learning what size, shape, color, and behavior of flies that the river will accept.” Flytiers tend to overdo the process by trying to match nature specifically, rather than curate their products to specific rivers, which is why “commercial flies from chain stores have no soul.” Ruff’s flies aren’t the cheapest but they represent years worth of knowledge and love for the river and the craft. “My customers are people who realize there is heritage, craftsmanship, history, and culture around the community of tying and fly fishing,” said Ruff. “Ultimately, I want to design flies that will fish certain parts of the river, and I want advanced anglers to be able to make flies do what they want in the water.”