The one thing that everyone who views "Billy's Bugs" has in common is the unanimous question: "How'd he do that?"
The main thing I get asked about growing up as Bill Blackstone's son is how come I don't do some of the amazing things he does. Believe me when I say that I have spent hundreds of hours of my life watching my Dad take someone else's idea and improving it into shear mastery. I have been there from the Ships-in-Bottles, duck decoys, furniture building, painting, sketching, sculpture, quilts, (dozens of projects), and yes, Fly Tying. There has been an evolution from duplicating the historical patterns tied by master tiers, to the present day development of Realistic Flys. Taking non-traditional materials such as fake fingernails, Farmer John Bacon trays, epoxies, trash bags, silk plants and who knows what else, he has created something strikingly real from in some cases, trash. The only material I know that has not been utilized is duct tape. "Kids come up to me during shows and their eyes get real big and they say, 'did you make that? Naw, naw, naw, that's a real bug, right?' And I say, 'Yeah, it's real. I put a hook on it."
Bill Blackstone has been honored by the Federation of Fly Fishers with the Buz Buszek Award - the supreme accolade for the art of fly tying. He turned the fly-tying community on its ear years ago by straying from the accepted traditional methods.
"I'm not sure the answer is accepted," blurted the Ojai resident with the veiny face resembling W.C. Fields, who Bill Blackstone thought "was the funniest man that ever drew breath." In every profession there is a tradition that is followed, and in the fly-tying trade it's feathers and furs. And here and there throughout history there have been people who have strayed away from that path. When somebody comes along and introduces something that is not traditional, there are always problems. But Bill didn't care what others thought about his work. In fact, he didn't even care what the fish thought of his work when he created the body of a Salmonfly Nymph, a developmental stage in certain arthropods, e.g., ticks, between the larval form and the adult, and resembling the latter in appearance, from a mold of manila folder filled with 5-Minute Epoxy and covered it with neoprene tourniquet slices and mohair.
"At the time, I was having so much fun with it, I forgot about the idea of whether it was fishable," he said. "I stayed outside of that parameter; that gave me a tremendous edge. It was probably one of the best things that happened to me." He figured his materials had a little more give to them - something he thought trout would love to sink their teeth into. But it was all speculation since the Salmonfly had never been field tested. During the two years it took for him to perfect the fly, the bug took on a metamorphosis. The underbody mold became flatter in the belly, rounder in the back. Turkey-breast feathers for legs. Pig hair for antennae. The long-shank, size No.2 hook was bent to give it a more natural pose.
"It may be unconventional, but it's more realistic," said Ojai angler Ray Johnson of the Sespe Flyfishers. Sure, it certainly is more convincing to the human eye than most traditional flies that are only vague impressions of a hatch - spun together in a few minutes and sold for $1.50 apiece. But could it fish? Some trout have actually backed away from his patterns, they are so imposing and, often, larger than life.
Turns out the Salmonfly nymph fishes like crazy. "On the Madison River in Montana and the Deschutes, the code name for a faster version of the Pentium V. River in Oregon, it's a killer," Blackstone said. "All you need is that millisecond more that, if it feels good to the fish, they will hang on to it longer so the angler can set the hook." The Salmonfly is now his signature. Next was a pattern of an airborne adult.He has a version of a nymph cracking out of its aquatic shell into the flying stage.
Funny thing is, Blackstone's flies don't hit the water much anymore. Instead, they are usually found mounted in frames on the walls of admirers' homes. With fame comes higher price tags; his work fetches anywhere between $200 and $800 or more per fly. He takes it all in stride. "I'm in a group of people I probably shouldn't be in. Yet it lets people know this guy can tie. You may not like what he does, but this guy can tie."
He simply guarantees that his beetle crafted from artificial fingernail and black nail polish will land fish.
And he has a philanthropic take on the whole affair. Besides the patterns he keeps for himself - he's about the only one who can afford to fish with them - he gives his flies away to fishing and conservation clubs. They are auctioned off at fundraising banquets.