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The Michelangelo of Deer-Hair Flies

AS A CHILD Brandon Bailes grew up in Athens, Alabama and spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s wood shop. His grandfather cut a block of cedar wood for Bailes, then sketched something on it—the outline of a northern cardinal, for example—and gave it to Bailes. “Okay,” his grandpa would say. “Now that you have an idea of ​​what is in that block of wood, start carving and carving until it becomes visible.”

Decades later, Bailes is still carving out what’s inside. Only these days he works with fluffy balls of deer hair spun on fishing hooks instead of wooden blocks. And instead of cardinals or other critters, what ends up showing are some of the most strikingly and carefully tied flies imaginable.

“It’s come full circle since I was a kid,” says Bailes of his part-time career as one of the most talented stag-haired bass and panfish beetles in the country. (He works full-time as a technical technician for NASA’s Space Environmental Effects Lab, which explains the engineering precision evident in his flies.) This spring, Bailes opened the door to his tying studio and gave us a peek inside.

Bennett Bailes watches his father tie a bow tie
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes has two sons: Caden, 17, who is a “phenomenal baseball player” but is not particularly interested in fly fishing, and Bennett, 11, who is his father’s shadow on the river and vise. “He’s thinking about fishing non-stop,” says Bailes. “He caught his first 20 inch blackmouth when he was seven and he has been tying it since he was five. In the garage I have an Altoids tin full of the bugs he used to bind. You are very special to me.”

Razor blade on deer hair shavings
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Some deer hair specialists take the safer route and shape their beetles with scissors. Others, like Bailes, are willing to cut their hands and use a razor blade. “They are flexible,” says Bailes. “I can bend a razor more easily and form shapes on the fly than I can with scissors. And you get a cleaner look with a razor.” While they’re more flexible, they’re not exactly durable — at least not for Bailes. His rule: one fly per razor.

Fly tyer Brandon Bailes searches feathers
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes searches a saddle for a pair of just-right feathers to tie a Waking Minnow, a bow tie designed by his good friend, the late Dave Whitlock. The two met years ago and became pen pals while tying flies. “We used to mail each other flies for a long time,” says Bailes, adding that Whitlock’s letters were always sealed in envelopes on which he hand-painted the most amazing fishing scenes. “I framed his letters all over my office. Getting one in the mail was like Christmas time.”

Close up of a hair packer used for fly tying
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Using a hair darning tool, Bailes pushes or grabs any layers of deer hair he has spun onto the hook shank. Here’s a nifty tying hack by Bailes: he cuts small square plastic sheets from the bags that contain his fly tying material and places one in front of the deer hair. “It holds all the hair back and keeps it from getting in the way so I can whip the fly.”

Six steps to tying a bow tie closeup
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Left to right, from top: Bailes prepares to fasten the final tuft of deer hair to the hook shank and spin; After all the hair is fluffed, it’s time to trim. razor blade buzzcut; the popper shape begins to develop; Rubber legs and eyes are added last; ready for the bass.

open fly box filled with lots of flies
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

“If I just want to get out on the water a little bit,” says Bailes, “I grab my four-weight box. It gets everything caught in the little streams we have here.” The left side of the fly box contains hoppers and streamers, and the right side is loaded with virgin nymphs, mosquitoes, and a variety of Bailes juvenile crabs — microcrustacean specimens that he from size 8 down to size 12 ties.

Red and black deer hair dragonfly lure
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes had never seen a deer hair damsel fly before – so he took matters into his own hands. “I just sat down one night and tied it,” he says. This fly is especially good for late summer when the water is clear and shallow. “Just let it flow. I’ll twitch it here and there to give the impression that it still has some life left in it, but you don’t have to do much. It works really well.”

Newly painted popper heads dry on a piece of cardboard
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Here’s a set of repainted heads for the future Ultra Lite Air Jet Poppers, another fly design by Dave Whitlock. The heads are made from styrofoam bobbins that are cut to size – in this case small enough for panfish – and glued to hooks before adding other materials like rubber legs and feathers.

Colorful smallmouth bass flies are displayed in a fly box
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Here’s a look inside Bailes’ smallmouth box. For deer hair options, it features a finesse slider, diver, and bass popper. Ahead of this trio is a selection of Hopper patterns. “I took this box with me this morning,” he says. “I caught six including an 18″ smallmouth on a foam cicada.”

Deer hair hummingbird sculpture hovers over daisies
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

“In the winter, when there’s not a lot of fishing, my artistic side comes out a little more,” says Bailes. A good friend asked Bailes to tie him something to display on his desk – and he asked for a hummingbird. From start to finish, Bailes said the project only took three or four hours.

four fishing flies tied by Brandon Bailes, one of them in the shape of a crab
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

One of those things isn’t like the other… “The stag hair crab is something I just came up with as a challenge,” says Bailes. “To make it run tip up, I had to put tungsten beads underneath. It’s not fun to occupy. I’ve never caught a fish with it.”

Close-up of the feather in Brandon Bailes' mouth while tying a bow tie
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes is at the point where he has the freedom to decline deals and be selective in accepting fly tying orders. Still, he estimates he ties at least 2,000 flies a year — and when you consider it takes him an average of 30 minutes to tie a deer hair fly, his time in the vice quickly adds up. Not that he’s complaining. “Fly tying is my way of relaxing,” says Bailes. “When we’re home and everyone’s settled in, I relax.”

Close-up of the bow tie as Brandon Bailes finishes tying
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes makes the final turns with the whip finisher on Dave Whitlock’s waking minnow. “It’s the original style – with the ball head,” he says. “The head is floating in the film, but the tail will be underwater. It’s a really deadly fly.”

Fly tyer Brandon Bailes at his very tidy workshop table
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Behold – the portrait of a neat freak. “Some people can tie awesome bow ties from a desk that looks like their materials have exploded everywhere,” says Bails. “But in order for my brain to function properly, I have to explain everything. As meticulous as I am, when I’m at the vise, once I’m on the water it’s like I forget the whole process that went into making this bug. At this point all I can think of is the fish. You know?”

See also: This Popular Fishing Tool Set Is Just $18 Right Now.

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