“It’s All About Foolin’ the Fish”

In Features, Human Interest, Non-fiction on May 28, 2013 at 4:35 am

Written by Alex Ashley

“Other people tell me it’s an art, but I’m just a fisherman,” says Chewelah resident John Newbury, as he invites me into his home on a brisk, rainy day.

When John says “art,” he is speaking of work as one of the greatest fly tiers in the country, maybe even the world.  In 2007, he was named the first inductee in the Washington State Fly Tying Hall of Fame.  The next year, the Federation of Fly Fishers—an international non-profit organization encompassing more than 300 clubs in 14 countries—honored him with the Lew Jewett Memorial Life Award.  The year after that: the Buz Buszek Memorial Life Award for “significant contributions to the art of fly tying.” He’s been at it for 35 years, first introduced to fly fishing by a friend in 1978.

“For 30 of those years, I’ve had Parkinson’s disease,” John tells me.  We sit at the dining room table of his cozy abode, and he fills me—struggling one word at a time—on what that has meant for him since his diagnosis in the early 1980’s while, at the time, he was working as a teacher in Colville.

John has approximately four forms of dystonia; rapid-onset dystonia Parkinsonism is just one of them.  Cervical dystonia causes the head to twist and bob; oromandibular affects his ability to speak, eat and drink; laryngeal further affects speech and voice quality; and myoclonic, which instigates rapid jerking movements in the upper body, including the arms, shoulders and neck.

Unfortunately, there is no medical solution for controlling the disorder’s unpredictability or progression after onset.

This makes Newbury’s accomplishments as one of the world’s most renowned fly tiers even more incredible, since his is a skill that demands intense precision and control.  Still, John says “it’s therapy for me.  It helps me relax.”

It has also given him opportunities to utilize his skillset as an educator, teaching his skill at fly shops and fly fishing club seminars; he also taught a fly-fishing class at the Colville campus of the Spokane Community College.

“It should be mentioned that fly fishing is nothing like, say, bait fishing,” writes a friend, Aaron Bragg.  “It requires specialized equipment to cast a nearly weightless ‘fly’—usually a concoction of hair, feathers and a thread wrapped around a hook—meant to mimic a native invertebrate.  It requires a greater degree of skill and patience, not to mention at least a passing familiarity with entomology.” 26 of John’s fly patterns were even featured in the 2000 edition of Fly Pattern Encyclopedia.

And when it comes to flies, Newbury’s are the best.

When he moved to Chewelah, for example, he built an aviary, housing 2,500 birds, to facilitate his need for feathers to make his flies realistic: 21 varieties of pheasant, and 17 species of waterfowl, along with peafowl, partridge and Merriam wild turkeys.  When the birds got free during a snow storm one winter ten years ago, however, and after John and his friends spent the better part of a day chasing exotic birds through Chewelah, he put the concept of the live bird aviary out to pasture.

Simply put, “John ties flies to catch more fish,” says Kim Hogan, who is the principal at Jenkins High School, and also happens to be one of John’s former students.  “Others sell them, put them in a case to look at…”

Each fly is a work of carefully constructed art.

Still, John Newbury maintains: “I’m just a fisherman, and it’s all about foolin’ the fish.”

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