Featured image by Nolan Blizzard
Jake Villwock (a.k.a. @RelentlessFlyFishing) is a warm water obsessed fly tyer and guide out of the Midatlantic. Raised on the Chesapeake, with a commercial fisherman as a father, Jake’s love for the water was inevitable. Currently, Jake balances managing his guiding service, Relentless Fly Fishing, and developing incredible fly patterns. We caught up with Jake to talk about how he got his start tying, share he takes his tying inspiration from, and why he does what he does!
Flylords: When did you tie your first fly? What pattern was it?
Jake: First fly I tied, actually, compared to a lot of people, probably later in life, my first year guiding in Alaska. So that would have been 2008, so 11 years ago.
It was the starlight leech. We had tied it… It only came in one size. It came in a size two. And I was like, “We need to tie this fly smaller,” because some of the smaller trout couldn’t eat the big ones. So I was like, “We need to tie this smaller because it’ll work.” And one of my clients gave me a Thompson A vise, C clamp, and I went into the fly shop and bought all the material. And the first fly I ever tied was actually tied backwards. So I tied a whip finish to the tail because I had no idea what I was doing. I just was like, “This is what it looks like, I’m going to tie all the material on there.” I started from the hook eye and I went back, instead of the back to the front. ended up catching a bunch of fish on that anyhow.
Flylords: What was the first fish you caught on your own tie?
Jake: The first fish I ever caught was about an 18-inch cut bow in Alaska on that Starlight Leech. In southeast AK we had rainbows, cutthroat, cut-bows, dollies, and all the salmon. So, we fish the starlight leech for salmon and steelhead. And I remember throwing one of those through a pool and seeing all these trout come out after it. But the hook was just too big. And we had wilderness trout, which aren’t trophy trout, so it was anything from six inches to 24 inches. after realizing the hook was too large I was like, “Nope, got to tie a smaller fly.”
Flylords: What is your favorite pattern to tie these days?
Jake: That’s a good question. I’d say that, for the art side of it, the Game Changer with mallard flanks all around it, those are the full-dressed salmon fly of the warm water fly fishing world. But one of my signature flies, the Roamer, is definitely one of my favorites to tie. And then just an Arctic Fox Game Changer. Those are probably my favorite two, the Roamer and the Arctic Fox Game Changer.
Flylords: What drew you to the smallmouth side of fly tying?
Jake: So that’s a super long story. I would say the first thing that drew me to smallmouth was when I moved from Alaska to Pennsylvania. There wasn’t that much wild and exciting between the PA Turnpike and 422, and we had the Schuykill River close to our Redding store and I decided that I was going to buy a raft and learn how to row drift boats/raft and start fishing that because nobody else did it. Nobody talked about it. And there were stories about smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna and how it wasn’t what it used to be. I started fishing in the Schuylkill just like I was fishing for trout with streamers, and we were catching a bunch of dinks, but we would fish for eight hours and not see a single person. We wouldn’t see houses for three or four miles on the river.
The first time the river got clear enough I started to see big fish, and I was like, “Oh, there’s bigger fish in here.” So we started to slow down and retrieve a lot and figure out how to move these bigger fish, and realize now after almost 10 years of smallmouth fishing around Pennsylvania, really around the midwest and east coast, the Schuylkill river bass are definitely a different breed of predator. They don’t have to feed as frequently as other places, so a fast aggressive strip of a big streamer is not going to get one of those big fish because they don’t have to move, there’s not as many big fish. So it’s not like a very competitive area. And so it taught me how to fish differently.
But really what it came down to was the wildness of a fishery that wasn’t really explored yet. And then when you start to see these fish eat big streamers in the springtime and eat poppers and sight fishing and all of that stuff, it’s just the attitude of smallmouth bass is probably one of the things that drew me to them. They are relentless, they are boxers, and they don’t give a shit about anything except for the fact that whatever’s in front of them has to die. They’re basically a freshwater predator with an attitude problem, and I like to piss them off.
Flylords: What draws you to fly tying and fly design?
Jake: So, obviously, as everybody starts they start out mimicking all kinds of different patterns and I still have some fly tying magazines that I bought in 2008 from the early ’90s that this one fly shop/craft store in Alaska had stacks of old fly tyers. I bought a bunch of those and started tying saltwater patterns. But I think what really turned the design side for me was when one day I was out striper fishing with my dad and I was using all of my favorites, Lefty’s Deceiver, the Mush Mouth, tried and true patterns for me for stripers for years. My dad was fishing a rubber fluke and was just crushing fish, and I couldn’t catch one to save my life. There was just no shot I was getting fish that day. And I’m pretty sure I went through about 15 fly changes that day before I realized that if I didn’t a fly that was moving the way that fluke was, I wasn’t going to catch fish. They were really into that action.
And so, I went home that night and I tied a fly that just looked like a fluke. And so, I was like, it’s got a bulky head and tapers down to nothing. And I have a picture of that original Roamer and it looks terrifying compared to what they look like now. But it worked. I went out the next day and I caught two fish and obviously my dad caught like 30 and I caught two. So it wasn’t that much of a success. But I caught my biggest striper to date that day. It was 33… Actually that’s not true. The biggest one was 40 on the flats, but until the 40 on the flats, it was my biggest striper, it was 33 inches.
And then I’ve started to ask myself, “Well, why did it work? How do I make it work?” And once you understand what materials do on a hook, then you can start to decide what materials you put on, where you put them. And besides just the design of making the fly do things, I also wanted it to look like the fluke. And so, if you look at soft plastics, all of the flash comes from inside of the actual material. It’s kind of an internal flash. And so I figured there’s all these flies out there that have flash on the outside and lots of movement, but to get a fly that had material over the flash that just slowly peered out, just like a flaking effect almost. And once I figured out how to do that and I got the fly and realized what it looked like, it just went down a rabbit hole after that.
And then the rest of the design came from solving problems, basically. Making sure that, you know, being like, “Okay, well I need a fly that does this.” Whether it’s something as simple as just I need a fly that’s going to drop really fast, but it’s going to hold its profile. How do you create a fly that has a good profile but doesn’t have too much material that slows the drop? You know? And so, I have some flies that people look at and they’re like, “Well that doesn’t look like much.” Or, “How does that look in the water?” And I’m like, “Well, if you put it in the water, the way that it works is it holds the profile, it holds the shape, but it also allows water to slide through it.” So, with smallmouth, you fish a lot of low-and-slow in faster-moving water. So being able to get a fly down as quickly as possible puts you in the zone more oftem.
So, basically, what it came down to was just problem-solving, I wanted to be able to design something. And then you get addicted to it. You get addicted to starting to create things that are your own. And, no, I didn’t come up with this spine system of the Game Changers, like Blane Chocklett and all these different materials. So there’s a big difference between that type of innovative fly tyer and somebody that has to solve a problem. And so, I would say I’m more of a problem-solving person when it comes to the design.
Flylords: What is your process while designing and testing a new pattern?
Jake: Yeah. So, unlike some guys that I know that tie flies commercially and don’t necessarily fish as much as they tie. My design comes from being on the water and being like, “Okay, this worked really well, but how can I make it better?” And then I’d go home and I’d tie that fly or something that is similar to that. And I’m super OCD about the way the fly looks too. It’s got to look good, but it also has to get a fish. The joke is, flies are really just in the bin to catch a fisherman, not a fish. Well, I want mine to do both. Right? So if I have an idea, I’ll create it. It’ll look like total dog shit the first time. And then it’ll slowly get better until I get to the point where it does exactly what I want it to and looks good. And I’ve had flies that have come out one way and I liked the way they look, but they don’t do what I want them to do. But so by the end of the time that I start to finish, they look completely different, but now it actually fishes better.
So sometimes it looks better. But, honestly, I’m not a tyer in the sense of I tie a fly and I give it to 10 different people, say, “Guys, go fish this and see what it’s all about.” Because I guide, I can do that on a daily basis with clients that don’t fish as well as I can. So if I can get a client to fish the fly that I’m testing the way I want it to, and it works, then I know it’s going to be good.
The Roamer is probably my number one fly in the sense of from start to finish design, creating something that’s never been done before. I remember I showed Greg Senyo, the Roamer, a sculpin, and a couple of other flies that I was going to send the Orvis, and he was like, “Yeah, this one’s good. You should probably fix this and send it.” I handed him the Roamer and he was like, “Send it right now.”
I’ve never seen anything like that. And somebody like Greg Senyo who’s is a fly tying geek, he saw something that I created that he’s never seen before.
So he’s like, “Send that.”
But if you looked at the original to what it is today, it’s been five years in the making to get it to do exactly what it does. And last year after I thought that the design was finalized, I had an epiphany tying a Game Changer with laser dub head that changed the entire design, almost, of the fly, and allowed me to get rid of two materials but still have the same bolt. So, you’re actually never truly done designing a fly. Look at Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer. It started off with CCT, fiber, fur, whatever the hell you call it, stuff. Now it’s tied with every material you could possibly think of.
Flylords: How do you come up with your fly patterns’ names?
Jake: So, the Roamer is named after my dad’s old boat, because he’s a commercial fisherman. So I figured since I designed that fly with him on the Chesapeake, it would be cool to name it the Roamer after his workboat. The majority of the rest of my flies that have been bought by Orvis or Fulling Mills have breakfast themes. I don’t know why, but I like breakfast food and I think you can spin off a lot of that. So I’ve got a sculpin called the Over Easy Sculpin. The original fly had a bead behind it, so it was kind of like an egg carrying sculpin. And I was like, “What can I come up with egg-wise that’s breakfast?” So Over Easy is what came out of that one? I’ve got the Triple Stack stonefly, which is a triple stack of pancakes. The Flapjacks stonefly. And, yeah, so they just kind of roll off the tongue.
And then I have another one, and I guess that if it’s not breakfast, it’s some sort of outdoor food. I’ve got one called the Freeze-Dried Sculpin, because I just got back from a four-day backpacking trip, eating freeze-dried food as I tied this fly, and had to come up with a food name for it, and Freeze-Dried Sculpin is where that one came from.
A lot of other ones, too. Sometimes it’s just like I look at the fly and be like, “Man, this kind of looks like a rocket ship or a fighter jet or something.” I have a stonefly that I call the B52 Bomber. Not all of them are special names, but I would say the majority of my flies are named after breakfast stuff. So, yeah.
Flylords: Do you have any advice for tyers looking to play around and design their own patterns?
Jake: Do not listen to social media. Do your own thing. There’s always going to be somebody that’s like, “Oh, that’s already been done before.” “Oh, there’s a guy that designed a fly that looks very similar to that.” The difference is if you’re designing your own flies, it’s because you have a problem to solve. And so you fix your problems, you solve your problems, create your flies, and if it works the way you want it to do, don’t worry about it. There are amazing fly designers out there that a lot of people don’t even know their names, that have flies that are basically the basis for, or the skeleton work for some of the biggest flies out there.
Flylords: Do you have any advice for anglers looking to get into fly tying?
Jake: Yeah. So, working in a fly shop for almost 11 years, teaching myself how to tie flies and doing a boatload of fly tying classes over the year from beginner to expert and specialty stuff. I would say the biggest piece of advice that I would give a person walking into the fly shop right now that says, “Hey, I want to get into fly tying,” is to not buy one of those kits and pick two or three flies that you want to tie and master those before you start to get into anything else. Slowly getting into something and mastering little steps till then you get to… Next thing you know you’ve got way more money than you need to spend on tying material. But picking the flies that you want to learn how to tie is probably the biggest thing that I would say. Being like, “Yeah, I want to get into fly tying, but I don’t know what I want to tie.”
So pick your favorite three flies that you fish already and learn how to tie them. And guaranteed that learning how to tie those three flies is going to add one or two pieces of skill for your next step. And eventually, you go from tying a San Juan worm and a pheasant tail. Obviously, maybe years or months down the road, now you’re tying an intruder fly or a Game Changer. And that journey from a pheasant tail and a San Juan worm to a Game Changer all of a sudden puts you, you know, you can now tie just about everything.
So pick your couple flies and learn how to do them and do not buy a kit. Just go into the shop or go online and buy just some material for those flies and be done with it. Because otherwise, you’ll confuse the shit out of yourself.
Flylords: If you had to pick three all-time fly designers to sit down and tie a fly with, living or dead, who would they be?
Jake: Lefty Kreh, for sure. Lefty’s Deceiver was probably one of my, and still is, one of my all-time favorite all-around Predator flies. I have sat down with Blane Chocklett, but I’d sit down with him again. He’s a pretty fantastic guy to sit down and talk to. And his brain works in a level of intelligence when it comes to fly design that I’ve never even thought of. I’ve even asked him before, I’m like, “How did you even come up with the idea of making a spine, or making a shank? I don’t even know how you do that.” And then the third person that I would sit down with, man, I don’t know. I’d sit down with a lot of different people.
Ed Ward would probably be my third. He’s the guy that designed the Intruder. And he is like the founding father of Skagit fishing. And so, besides just being able to sit down and like, “What made you come up with the Intruder?” So, Lefty Kreh, Blane Chocklett, and Ed Ward would probably be the three that I would do, because I do love steelhead as well. So put those three together and you’ve got striper, smallmouth, and steelhead.
Flylords: Favorite drink to enjoy while tying?
Jake: Jack and ginger.
Flylords: What’s next for Jake Villwock?
Jake: So, coming up in 2020, I will be releasing my first book, which will be called Small Mouth Bass Top to Bottom. It is going to have over 300 fly patterns, 12 tutorials, and a good writeup on each level of the feeding column that smallmouth bass feed in. So top, middle, and bottom. So it’ll be a book for all around, all different. It’ll be a fly encyclopedia, a tutorial, and a how-to, why we fish, but also not so much like strategies on fishing, but more like why we designed flies and how it relates to the behavior of smallmouth, the profile of certain flies in conjunction with what forage food is happening right now. And really looking at some things that you probably wouldn’t otherwise think of when you’re floating on the river.
So it’s a lot of work, but it’s been a great experience so far. So that should be out by the end of the summer of next year.