OVERLAND PARK – Watch him work and you will recognize Mike George is a sculptor. Using his hands and a few simple tools, he converts what to most looks like a multi-colored blob into highly-detailed figures. His medium is dyed deer hair. His creations are fishing flies with “omigosh” realism.
“I guess this is a combination of my two passions, art and fly-fishing,” George said as he wrapped deer hair around a hook last weekend. “I think it’s become an artistic relief for me. It’s just hard to explain.”
George’s deer hair poppers and flies are so intricate, many never touch the water to tempt a fish. Some are sold to collectors, others auctioned so George can honor fellow servicemen he knew 45 years ago. Many didn’t come home.
“It’s good to feel like I’m giving something back,” said George, who loaded weapons on F-105 aircraft in Vietnam. “Those (pilots) really had it rough over there.”
George, 67, fished a lot as a kid in Iowa. His love of angling never faded and he’s been a fly fisherman about 25 years. The desire to tie his own top-water poppers began about 15 years ago for simple reasons.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to spend $6 on a fly and lose it in a tree without it ever hitting the water,” George said of why he got into tying top-water flies made of deer hair. “After that I just kind of became obsessed.”
Deer-hair flies have been around for centuries, and are valued for the life-like appearance and action they give to flies, especially poppers that chug across the surface.
George is self-taught at fly tying. In the past, he tanned and died his own patches of deer hair. Now, he buys chunks of tanned hide already dyed. He has no idea how many colors he has on hand, other than “a lot.” Those same words describe the time he puts into a fly.
“For flies I fish with, I may put in an hour to an hour and a half,” he said, “but I’ve done stuff that took me 10 hours. I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
Like a true perfectionist, George takes no short cuts like adding plastic eyes or paint markings on flies tied to imitate frogs, crayfish, shrimp or small versions of most popular fish.
Last weekend’s demonstration was at K&K Fly Fishers. He used small scissors to clip tufts of colored hair from patches of deer skin, and thread to attach them to a hook. The combination of pressure from his fingers and knots got the deer hair to stand nearly vertical. The clumps of hair varied in thickness, depending on what George wanted to show on the fly.
That could mean a something the size of the end of your little finger, or another that is just a few strands. His attention to detail includes the pupil and iris on a fish’s eye, and the most minute specks of color on a bluegill or trout.
“Every color on there is a different tuft of hair,” he said as he worked. “I’ve tied flies that have up to 72 different bundles of hair.”
Most work is done on hooks no more than three inches long.
To observers, George’s tying process produces a multi-colored, fuzzy blob. He uses first scissors, then a small razor blade, to snip and slice away enough hair to unveil what he knew was in that blob all along. He said the fine details of what he’s creating have been in his mind the entire process, and some of his best fly patterns came to him in dreams.
“I hate to say this in front of him, but he really is a genius at this,” said Ned Meyer, a friend, as he watched him work. “People come in here and they’re amazed at what he does.”
The detailing on his flies is so good George’s website, deerhairsculptures.com has a long list of contests he’s won. Last week, at the International Fly Fishing Fair in Oregon, he received the Buz Buszek Award.
“For fly tiers, that’s like being inducted into the baseball hall of fame,” George said. “It’s pretty special.”
Though he spends more time tying flies, or teaching seminars, than fishing, George knows his products have fooled at least a dozen kinds of fish. He estimates his best largemouth bass on one of his flies was upwards of eight pounds. His biggest fish have been Pacific sailfish of more than 100 pounds, a feat few fly-fishermen accomplish.
But he is more proud of his works that raise funds for several charities. One of his favorites is Project Healing Waters, which uses fishing to help wounded veterans heal physically and emotionally. Some such flies carry patriotic themes.
“Freedom,” is a red, white and blue fly complete with white stars tied in to the blue. It honors the F-105 pilots he met in Vietnam.
“They had more casualties than any kind of aircraft over there,” George said. “... They couldn’t fire at the (surface-to-air) batteries until they were fired upon. That wasn’t right.”
His “Heart of a Veteran” is a four-inch, heart-shaped fly complete with stars and stripes. His fund-raising flies have brought up to $850 at auction.
“Sitting there the first time, and listening to how high the price was going was really something,” said George. “I’ll admit, it brought some tears to my eyes.”