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Nothing's sacred when John Betts scouts synthetics to use in his revolutionary flies

A notice to managers and clerks in lingerie, secondhand clothing, wig, fabric, crafts and artists supply shops: If John Betts, age 43, 5'9", 165 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes, residing at 49 Gillespie Avenue, Fair Haven, N.J. 07701, enters your establishment, whips out a 10-power magnifying glass and begins to fondle a toupee, sigh over paintbrush bristles or ooh and ah over nightgowns, peignoirs and other froufrou of the boudoir, be assured he is legit. Betts isn't a fetishist, he's a flytier, and the flies he ties, usually concocted entirely from synthetic materials, bid fair to cause a revolution in fly-fishing.

In recent years an increasing number of flytiers have been turning to synthetics in place of the traditional fur and feathers, but no one is close to Betts in the range and creativity of his forays off the beaten path. He has devised a whole series of extraordinarily realistic and durable flies for fresh and salt water out of the new materials, and some of his "tying" techniques, such as using the flame of a cigarette lighter to make insect bodies from polypropylene yarn, are as novel as the far-out materials he employs. Compared to Betts, other tiers practicing with synthetics are at the "Chopsticks" level, while he is playing Bach. "Betts has a unique mind," says Ted Niemeyer, the fly tying editor of Fly Fisherman magazine. "He can take synthetic materials and find multiple uses for them. He just doesn't develop a body or a wing, but a whole fly."

All of which leads to the question: How well do the wonder-fabric flies do on fish? "I caught more fish, and bigger fish, last year than I ever caught before," says Betts. "On my last cast on the last day of the '80 season, I caught a 4½-pound brown trout on one of my synthetic nymphs." Others who use Betts' flies agree that they are extraordinary. Dr. Heinz Meng, professor of biology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, says of Betts' mayflies, "They're the best. They look like a mayfly; they land like a mayfly; they float like a go wild over them."

A couple of years ago Betts sent some of his first synthetic mayflies to Robert Rifchin in Natick, Mass. Rifchin is the editor of The Roundtable, a magazine published by United Fly Tyers, Inc., and he sees a lot of flies and hears a lot of claims about them. "I was very skeptical until I went to the pond at a local trout club," Rifchin says. "The fish really get pounded by the members, and as a result they become extremely selective. I went there in the fifth week of the season, and the trout were so wary no one could catch a thing. I tied on one of John's mayflies and cast it out. I caught a trout. I caught another trout. I caught another. I caught another. In fact, I caught 63 of them. Then I went to a local stream and caught more trout on the fly. His mayflies are exceptional."

The once skeptical Rifchin is just getting warmed up. Last year, he goes on, he and Betts fished the Delaware together to study the efficacy of a polypropylene minnow that Betts had devised. Rifchin says, "I was using a smelt imitation, a modified Grey Ghost streamer. John's polypropylene minnow was the same color. It was a fair comparison. We fished the same water, cast for cast. John had follow after follow, strike after strike, fish after fish. I only got two.

"Then there's John's spoon fly," Rifchin continues. "He makes a small loop of monofilament line and dips it into Pliobond cement to form a sticky membrane. He then dips this into powdered metal. You put the spoon fly, which has a small hole in it, on the leader just ahead of the hook so that it wobbles and flashes but won't catch on the point. John sent me one last year, and I took it along with me to Cape Cod when I went to fish a stream with sea-run browns. A friend was fishing a pool there and we could see fish over 25 inches long. My friend got nothing, and after he gave up, I fished the pool. I tried everything standard with little success. Then I tried the spoon fly. On my second pass a big female, 28½ inches long and weighing 7½ pounds, swam over and ate it. It was the biggest trout I'd ever caught, and this was right in the middle of a hot August day. I've since caught fish of 22, 23, 25 inches on that spoon fly."

Then there are Betts' caddis flies. Peter Dully of Englewood, N.J. uses the adult caddis patterns on landlocked salmon in Maine. "The most fantastic flies I've ever used," he says. "They're unbelievable. They'll turn fish on when nothing else will. In fact, I use them when you think you might have to use a stick of dynamite. And the flies are rugged. One caddis fly I used caught 14 landlocked salmon."

Like his flies, Betts is a bit far out. He considers himself "the most conservative and conforming person I know," yet at age 16 he wired his fingers apart so he could play octaves on the piano. He often ties flies while listening to classical music on hi-fi and watching commercials on TV at the same time. "TV is about commercials," he says. "I love trash.' He is also a bird watcher ("I learned to read with a bird book"), and several years ago he was the first to spot a European widgeon that had been blown off course and wintered in the middle of Rumson, N.J. A graduate of Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Betts flunked out of Washington & Lee his freshman year because he spent 10 to 14 hours a day practicing in the pool so he could make the swimming team. "I wanted to be recognized," he explains. "I wanted everyone at college to call me by my first name. The coach was delighted, I made the team, everyone learned my first name, but I wasn't around the second term to answer to it."

Betts enlisted in the Air Force and served four years in Texas as a medic. Upon his discharge, he returned to Washington & Lee for a semester and then dropped out because, among other reasons, he wasn't allowed to have a car. So Betts embarked upon a series of odd jobs. He worked as a laborer in a concrete-pipe factory in Cheyenne, Wyo. and then spent a year in England as a groundskeeper for Peter Scott, the noted ornithologist and artist, and the Wildfowl Trust in Slimbridge. Betts' principal task consisted of shooing cackling geese away from the house so Scott could paint and write a book about waterfowl without being disturbed.

Back in the U.S., Betts worked as a loan collector for a bank in Denver, but left to take a job in another concrete-pipe plant after he was thrown through a screen door by a pugnacious delinquent. He moved back East to work as a lathe operator for Johns-Manville in New Jersey and then was employed by the Orvis Company in Manchester, Vt., where he repaired reels, shipped parcels and clerked. He was fired after a year and a half. "I was never able to complete anything," he says. He worked for a vet and then for a silversmith at $1.45 an hour. The silversmith suggested that Betts go to college on the GI Bill. "I thought that was for poor people," Betts said. The silversmith looked at him. "What do you think you are?"

In 1967 Betts enrolled at the University of Vermont to study forestry. "I loved it," he says. "I did a 4½-year program in 3½ years and I never cut a class." After graduating, he worked a while for a landscaper in Vermont, and then, in 1973, went into that business on his own in New Jersey. One of his specialties is bonsai. He has a Scotch pine 35 to 40 years old that is 19 inches high, with tiny needles, and azaleas that are probably 40 years old and only eight inches high.

A flytier since he was eight. Betts began tying orthodox ones professionally six years ago, and in 1977 he began to fiddle around with synthetics. He did so because of philosophical and economic considerations. "I couldn't afford to fish with bamboo rods, silk lines and gut leaders," he says. "Like most other fishermen I use fiber-glass rods, plastic-coated fly lines and nylon leaders, and synthetic flies seem appropriate. I'm also not putting any demands on animal populations for feathers and fur for flies. I used to hunt a lot and I kept every fish I caught. Now I release every fish I catch, and I don't hunt. I don't want to sound soapy, but killing for sport was no longer necessary for me."

Betts' first all-synthetic fly was made of polypropylene. Called Poly-Fly, it had two looped wings that looked like ears, four fuzzy legs, a floppy detached body and tails. Although the fly floated well in rough water and took fish, Betts was dismayed by Poly's slovenly appearance, and that winter he descended into his freezing basement to redesign the fly and make it "socially acceptable," as he writes in Synthetic Flies, a 68-page hand-lettered book he recently wrote and published on his own. The following spring, Betts emerged from his basement with a realistic mayfly with upright synthetic wings and immediately headed for a local pond, confident that, like the Gossamer Condor, he was destined for a "flight into fame and immortality."

The fly proved a clunker; its rigid wings twisted the leader and caused the fly to land upside down on the water. Betts decided he would try blow-line fishing, an old Irish technique in which the wind blows the fly and light line over the surface of the water. He made a 13½-foot telescoping rod from two fiber-glass blanks, inserted one-pound-test line inside the hollow rod, returned to the pond, tied on the fly and held the rod up in the air. Static electricity in the rod's walls bound the line to the fiber glass. Tenderly he pulled 60-odd feet of spidery line out from the rod on the lawn bordering the pond. With that, he let the wind launch his fly and line. "Once in the air the effect was truly amazing," Betts writes in Synthetic Flies. "At 80 feet the line billowed and blew, and the fly sailed and skimmed over the water. A sudden dead spot put the fly down for an instant; in that space a tiny perch grabbed it. With his strike he parted the line instantly.

"Soon I had another fly in the air at 80 feet, but against light reflecting from the water's surface, the fly was hard to see. I had to keep waving this long rod around to make the fly move enough to make itself visible. After a bit I found that no amount of waving made anything visible. I couldn't figure out what was wrong—until I noticed that the line itself was missing. My fly and over 80 feet of line were wafting off on their own."

Never one to give up, Betts corrected the aerodynamics of the wings and devised a mayfly that would cast easily and land right side up on the water. For wings, he likes to use either white organza, a nylon monofilament used for bridal gowns, or plastic bags. To give the wing a veined effect, he holds a sheet of plastic against his leg and gently buffs it with sandpaper. Legs are often composed of synthetic White Sable paintbrush fibers tapered at the tips. Using these and other materials, he has tied nymphs and dry flies to hooks as small as a minuscule size 28. His minnows can be used with effect in either fresh or salt water; his shrimp and crab patterns are for salt water. The crab is an ingenious pattern. It is tied backward on the hook, claws extended. When the crab fly settles on the bottom and is retrieved, it scuttles backward, the hook point plowing up sand or mud and the claws waving in a threatening fashion, very similar to a real-life crab on the run.

As a general rule, Betts uses white synthetics. If he wants, say, a green drake mayfly, a blue-claw crab or a black-nosed dace minnow, he colors the white fly with waterproof marking pens. Should a different-colored species of any of these be what the fish are really after, Betts simply dips the fly into Carbona to turn it white again. Then he marks it anew in the appropriate colors. When occasion demands, Betts will use a material already colored, such as a vibrant creamy yellow see-through vest ("I guess it's what you'd call a vest," he says) that he got at Frederick's of Hollywood. "It has a fleshy and luscious look," he says. "When you color it with a brown marking pen, you get olive, and I've used this for caddis wings."

Betts charges $2.50 to $3 for each of his flies, more than double the going rate for standard flies. If the customers like the flies, they can easily learn to tie their own with materials that are readily available, thanks to modern technology. "I'm not interested in keeping any of this to myself," Betts says. "I've no desire to patent my flies, and I don't want a captive audience. I want all these synthetic flies and techniques to belong to the world. Why? Because synthetic flies will make fly-fishing more popular, just as fiber-glass rods did. And the more people who fly-fish, the more people will join Trout Unlimited or the Theodore Gordon Flyfishers and see to it that we have wise, stewardship of our natural resources. If I can help do that by devising synthetic flies, I'll feel as though I've made my contribution to the world."



A Frederick's of Hollywood retail store in Livingston, N.J. is mined by Belts in his unending quest to make his fishing flies the most seductive available.



A halo of bubbles surrounds one of Betts' color-your-own streamers and a nymph (top). At his vise, Betts fashions a wing from a plastic sandwich bag.



A Fabric-wing fly rests lightly and realistically on the surface film (above); a Grasshopper's articulated legs can make it seem to struggle in the water.



A nylon organza Crab has a fearsome aspect in the palm of its creator.



Betts checks the action of a spoon made of monofilament line and glue.