If Donald Trump continues having trouble making interest payments on the Taj Mahal, maybe he should call up Paul Schmookler, one of his old schoolmates from New York Military Academy, for some moneymaking tips. Schmookler, 43, is positively thriving in Millis, Mass., selling vintage fishing tackle, angling art and, in particular, flies.
It has taken a bit of time, however, for Schmookler, a man of multiple talents and interests, to find his niche. He has been a field entomologist, collecting butterflies, beetles and other insects in North, Central and South America, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Southeast Asia for biological supply houses, museums and private collectors. He is an enthusiastic and expert angler who has taken Atlantic salmon weighing up to 38 pounds in New Brunswick and Quebec, and chinook up to 52 pounds in Alaska.
More important, Schmookler is a gifted flytier who has discovered a way to dwell in a world all his own. He can tie ultrarealistic flies—his imitation of the nymph of the Eastern golden stonefly was featured in Judith Dunham's acclaimed book, The Art of the Trout Fly. But Schmookler derives the most satisfaction—and much of his annual income—from tying tiny but elaborate works of art reminiscent of another angling era.
"Just as I was never meant to be a part of the mainstream work force, I was also never to be a mainstream flytier," Schmookler says. "I fell in love with creating beautiful jewels that came from my own imagination and had not been previously tied by someone else." Schmookler has long been enamored of flies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the ultrarealistic—those fanciful and ornate concoctions devised to catch Atlantic salmon at the height of the Victorian Era.
Bearing such memorable names as the Thunder and Lightning, the Silver Doctor, the Bronze Pirate and the Fairy King, and tied—or "dressed," as the British say—with silk, tinsel and exotic feathers and furs dispatched home by far-ranging stalwarts of the Empire, these classic flies are now celebrated and sought after for their beauty, grace and complexity of design, with no thought as to whether a salmon would consider giving one a tumble. Along with hand-carved duck decoys and some pre-World War II cars by Bugatti, Duesenberg and Mercedes-Benz, they are considered to rank as the most gorgeous objects ever made for sport.
Take the materials required to dress the Fairy King—one of the flies originated by George M. Kelson, the authority of that distant period, whose opus, The Salmon Fly, was first published in London in 1896.
Although the Fairy King is relatively uncomplicated compared with other flies of the time, the dressing calls for a tag of twisted gold and scarlet silk; a tail of toucan and jungle-cock feathers that have been dyed scarlet; a body of black seal fur ribbed with oval gold tinsel; a throat of long, light-blue hen hackle and African-guinea-fowl neck feathers dyed orange; a "mixed" wing of peacock herl (tail feathers), primary-wing or tail swan feathers dyed yellow and scarlet, and wood-duck flank feathers capped with two strips of white-tipped black turkey tail feathers; flanks of jungle-cock feathers dyed scarlet; and a head of black ostrich herl.
At one point in his career, the influential Kelson maintained that salmon struck at these gaudy flies because they imitated butterflies upon which, he postulated, the fish fed. That idea is preposterous—the truth is that salmon are often attracted by any bright object—and in later years, Kelson himself refuted the notion. After the turn of the century much simpler fly patterns took over as practicality—and science—prevailed. Thirteen years ago, however, Schmookler decided to turn back the clock by tying salmon flies in the Victorian style, but he did so with a very different twist.
Instead of copying the Fairy King and the other classics feather by feather, Schmookler created patterns of his own, inspired mainly by the colors of butterflies and other insects that he had collected on his globe-ranging jaunts. "I didn't want to be doing what everyone else had done," he says. "In art, if we copied what everyone else had done in the past, there would have been no Impressionism, no Post-impressionism, no new painting at all."
Although a number of Schmookler's flies have actually taken Atlantic salmon in North America and Europe, the majority end up in the den of a collector—usually mounted in a bell jar or framed in a shadow box. And with good reason: Schmookler's presentation flies are among the most expensive in the world, selling for $375 to $2,000. Only a wellheeled angler with a lot of nerve would dare cast one into a river, where it might well be lost in a tree or hang up on a submerged rock or even be broken off by an infuriated salmon.
"A single fly can take me as little as three or four hours to dress," says Schmookler. "Or it can take as long as a month." To dress one fly, Schmookler will use up to 150 different materials, ranging from polar bear and mink fur to the feathers of wild turkeys, golden and Reeves pheasants, the African speckled bustard and the Brazilian blue chatterer. "The materials I use are not from animals on the endangered species list, or were collected before the Endangered Species Act was passed," he says. "When you tie artistic or classic-style Atlantic salmon flies, you not only have to know materials but you have to know the law."
Considerable dexterity is needed to manipulate materials on a hook and get their proportions and that of the finished fly exactly right. For example, when making a mixed wing, Schmookler "marries" individual fibers from feathers of different colors by alternating them so that the tiny hairs on the sides of each fiber lock like a zipper onto the hairs of the adjacent fibers. Carefully stroked into position, the fibers remain aligned, creating a distinctly banded, multihued effect. He used this technique with Chinese goose shoulder feathers dyed in four different colors to create his imitation of the monarch butterfly. The Monarch fly is among his most popular. It has not only taken salmon and wound up framed on den walls, but a painting of it by artist Wayne Trimm also adorns the 1989-90 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation resident fishing license.
Schmookler's favorite work is a fly he named the Double Leopard, which he created to memorialize a pet peacock pheasant killed, alas, by a great horned owl. "I've raised a lot of birds and animals over the years, but I never raised them for their feathers or fur but simply because I loved them," says Schmookler, whose current pet is Loombie, a 25-pound orange tabby he found as an abandoned three-day-old kitten. "The peacock pheasant used to sit in my hand, and after the owl killed him, I wanted his feathers to live on. It took me four years to come up with a pattern utilizing them, and that's when I created the Double Leopard, which imitates South American butterflies of the genus Caligo, the owl-eyed butterflies."
Every fly that Schmookler tics has a ready customer. One that a collector put up at auction reportedly sold for $1,900. "I have a small clientele," Schmookler says, "but I read that Trump once said that you have a lot easier life if 10 percent of your customers give you 95 percent of your business. I've been very fortunate in that regard. Besides, I'm having fun."
People interested in these flies can contact Schmookler by writing to him c/o Complete Sportsman, P.O. Box 540104, Millis, Mass. 02054.