Mark Hieronymus is a self-proclaimed “fish translator,” and his mentality for fly creation is refreshingly simple: The fish will tell you whether something works or not. It follows, then, that his resume of fly creations is essentially a Rosetta Stone of fish opinion, and the resounding diagnosis is that Hieronymus flies might be the best thing to hit Alaska since sliced bread. Take, for example, Hieronymus’s Happy Meal or Twofer. These flies are among the first to combine the effectiveness of flesh flies and beads (a pairing that we take for granted these days). Or what about the Fryolator, one of the most effective attempts to rethink a staple like the Clouser minnow? And we cannot exclude the Haymaker. Derek Fergus unveiled the “strung out” technique for tying articulated patterns in the early 2000s, which was revolutionary in its principle of wrapping body material around the backing connection between hook and shank. Hieronymus, however, took this one step further with the Haymaker by furling the fly’s body with Schlappen instead of rabbit or dubbing. But more on that later.
Hieronymus fits the mold for what I’ve taken to calling “the innovative Alaskan fly angler’s alma mater.” That is to say that he started out gear fishing. Something about the beginnings of spinners, spoons, and heavily-weighted tackle ends up translating to deadly fly patterns, as is the case with George Cook and Mike Cole, and as is the case with the Intruder fly itself (depending on which circle of anglers you attribute its creation to).
Mark’s piscatorial beginnings took place near Seattle where he grew up. His father was an avid fisherman and rod builder who specialized in conventional tackle but was happy to show young Mark the ropes with a rudimentary fly rod. These first attempts, even though they took place in such a baptismal location as Yellowstone National Park, proved that not only was gear fishing more productive, but Mark was probably better suited for it, anyway.
This began to change when Mark entered high school. Some of the guys he ran with were what he deems “hardcore anglers,” and while they specialized in using gear for the local salmon and steelhead fare, they also dabbled with coastal cutthroats on the fly. The juxtaposition of these experiences made him wonder: Could he catch a steelhead on a fly, too?
By 1995, Mark had been asking similar questions for over a decade and would describe himself as mostly a fly angler. He’d conquered a steelhead on a fly rod and his guiding star became wondering what other species he could catch. Gear fishing, it turned out, was predictable. If you cast a Pixie into a pod of cohos, you didn’t have to guess at anything; you were probably going to go home with a hefty stringer. On a fly, however, it was anything goes.
All of this was preceded by Mark’s first visit to Alaska in the winter of 1987 which, like his introduction to the fly rod, would prove to be life altering. Hieronymus had signed on as a deckhand for a ship in the Bering Sea, and he would spend October and November of that year being battered by the apocalyptic squalls that, today, make for some nail-biting drama in the popular television series Deadliest Catch. In the spring of 1989, he’d had intentions of fishing in Valdez with his brother (also a commercial fisherman), but their plans were soon smothered—along with a good deal of Prince William Sound’s ecosystem—by the contents of a particularly ill-fated oil tanker. Calling an audible, Mark spent the early ‘90s long-lining for halibut and black cod in southeast Alaska. It was then that he also established a productive relationship with gillnet marketers with whom he would eventually begin a caviar company. By 1995, Hieronymus made the move to Alaska and called it home full time.
For the first decade of Mark’s career in the seafood industry, his season took place in the heart of Alaskan summer: basically, June to early September. Aside from the actual farming scenario that the metaphor is taken from, Alaskan fishing might be the best demonstration of “make hay while the sun shines” that we have in the English lexicon. Commercial fishermen often subsist for the entire year on their income from those precious few months. In the early 2000s, Mark began to see new possibilities for his “shoulder season”—that is, April to June and September through October—when he met some sport guides in Juneau. One of them needed a replacement for the day, so Mark filled in and got to see how it all worked.
While a far-cry from hauling longlines, sport guiding proved intriguing from the outset. This was a good thing because the following year, the same guide who needed a fill-in required one for three weeks (a logistic he neglected to tell Mark about until just a few days before he was due to start).
What awaited Mark was a baptism of fire. The guide service he worked for had a rap sheet of over 60 watersheds near Juneau, all of which had to be known right down to the pool and how they were affected by tides. Luckily, Mark had a good set of sea legs underneath him and a good brain between his ears and was able to take the reins relatively quickly and do, in his own words, “okay.” Apparently, he did better than that, because over the next several years he routinely filled in and by 2012 he started guiding full-time.
Hieronymus’s transition from commercial to sportfishing proved to be just as resounding as his adoption of flyfishing. While commercial fishing is literally about numbers—fishermen live and die on pounds of fish and how far, to the cent, they can get into the black—Mark soon found guiding to be experience driven. Some clients wanted the numbers, sure, but others wanted to see the abundance and diversity of Alaskan wildlife or practice their fly casting. Mark learned to accommodate them all.
It was through these accommodations that his innovations in fly tying really started to take off. When you fish every day, or take someone fishing every day, you get many, many chances to observe fish behavior. Flyfishing was nothing more than responding appropriately to whatever this behavior happened to be; in other words, a conversation that required active listening and adjustment.
Luckily, Mark’s formative years behind a fly rod were spent with devotees Trevor Gong and Sean Fansler (among other members of the “high-school hardcores”). Gong is a full-dress salmon-fly tyer who specializes in absurdly complex and resplendent flies, often tied around hooks of his own creation. Fansler, on the other hand, specializes in minimalism and unconventional materials, a combination which results in brutally effective patterns. Through observing both Gong and Fansler behind the vise, Mark learned the subtle art of tweaking and the not-so-subtle art of the “undo button.” One of his first breakthrough patterns to utilize both is known today as the Haymaker. The strung-out leech technique was unveiled by Oregonian Derek Fergus back in the early 2000s (in a fly called the Mother Of All Leeches, or M.O.A.L), and while Mark could not deny the fly’s effectiveness, it was a brute to cast. The real key with the M.O.A.L was that it employed a technique never before seen in the fly world: an articulated design where body material was wrapped around the backing connection between hook and shank. The result was a serpentine fly that achieved movement even the revolutionary Intruder could not.
But where the M.O.A.L utilized rabbit fur, Mark decided to try schlappen instead. It’s hard to imagine how these first experiments went. What Mark had to do was furl a length of Schlappen (cream-colored, in this case) between two strands of Dacron, all the while keeping the arrangement sturdy and avoiding trapping individual feather fibers. After a few trial-and-errors, which Mark compares to “wiggling a wire and running upstairs to see if it worked,” he had it; a fly that would come to be a favorite of many an Alaskan angler beginning in 2006.
While we’re still on the subject of the M.O.A.L, let’s delve into another one of Mark’s patterns: the Party Girl. This fly has endured the test of time in both appeal to fish and cost-effectiveness to tie, and you can buy a variety of colors in fly shops through the Pacific Northwest as well as the Umpqua Feather Merchants website. In another attempt to improve upon the M.O.A.L around 2007, Mark sought out synthetic materials to replace the rabbit body. As if through divine intervention, Brad Elfers of Alaska Flyfishing Goods in Juneau received a new material in the mail that he gave Mark to try—a dandy new innovation called polar chenille. Combined with its heavy jigging action, monochromatic coloring, and sprigs of angel hair on either side that looked like earrings (hence the fly’s name), the Party Girl proved deadly from the outset. This fly was also among the first to employ what Mark calls “shelling” a fly, a principle that remains vital to his vise mentality today.
The foundation of “shelling” is in giving the illusion of multiple layers in a fly, or rather, giving the appearance of internal life. Nature doesn’t exist in one dimension; it is layered in subtle shades of color and in speckles of iridescence. At the vice, Mark attempts to replicate these phenomena by minimizing materials, maximizing profile, and tying from the inside out. Perhaps no fly demonstrates this better than his Doppelganger, a later creation that would emerge in 2014 and be somewhat of a be-all, end-all of smolt patterns.
Another one of Mark’s smolt patterns, the Fryolator, was a tweak on one of the most classic flies of all time. The Clouser is undoubtedly one of the most productive flies ever conceived, but after fishing it day in and day out with clients in Southeast, Mark realized that it could stand some improvement. It’s not that it didn’t catch fish, it just didn’t catch all of the fish that Mark wanted to put his clients on. The biggest problem with the Clouser is that it doesn’t move. It’s tied on a long hook with bucktail as the main ingredient, resulting in a combination about as flexible as a toothpick. The solution, Mark realized, was in replacing the bucktail with flash and “flow-ier” materials and tying it all around a jig hook. The result, while perhaps a tad unnatural, proved irresistible to springtime Dolly Varden; they crushed the fly on retrieves and dead-drifts alike. Today, the Fryolator is a staple.
By the late 2000s, Mark began branching out of the Juneau-area fisheries with which he’d become intimately familiar. Bristol Bay became the target of his angling efforts starting in 2010, and a whole host of flies would originate from this experience. The first of these was the Darkness, an ostrich-winged tube tied in cream and black to represent anything edible from lampreys to leeches. Mark soon ditched the tube for want of orienting the fly correctly, especially after he realized that trout were hitting the flies headfirst.
Separately, in 2009, Mark was introduced to a revolutionary material called Bird Fur in the Columbia Basin while fishing for steelhead. The verdict there was that flies had to be smaller and sparser to attract wary chromers, so Mark employed a small leech to great effect. The possibilities of Bird Fur echoed in his brain for weeks afterward, though, and over the next several years he combined the elements of his Darkness fly, Bird Fur, and that little Columbia leech into a mischievously-attractive pattern known today as the Goblin.
Speaking of steelhead, Mark had grown extremely proficient at catching them on flies over the years. The Goblin, of course, was proof of this, but the reality also manifested itself in a tiny little nymph known as the Money Bug. I’m told that this whacky fuschia-rubber-legged-backward-beaded pattern is one of the go-tos in southeast Alaska, and that if you need to move a fish out of a deep hole or logjam, this is the fly to do it with. Between Mike Cole and his Liquid Wrench and Mark’s Money Bug, those Juneau guys have something going on.
I would be remiss if I didn’t close with what Mark considers to be his crowning achievement in the fly world. The Happy Meal was one of the first flies that employed the deadly combination of flesh and beads (if not the first). Such a pairing has proliferated by the dozens in fly shops across Alaska, and it’s probably accounted for more bruiser trout than many other patterns combined. Though originated relatively early in his career, one which spanned from gear to flies and gillnets to 8-weights, the Happy Meal stands as a perfect testament to Mark’s never-ending conversation with fish. Not to mention it’s a fly that still knocks ‘em dead.
The biggest challenge in writing about Mark Hieronymus was simply keeping track of all of his patterns and doing them ample justice. This is not an easy task with how prolific of a tyer Mark is. If I wrote as much as I wanted to for each and every pattern, this thing would be book sized. He’s constantly thinking about how to listen to fish and about how to catch as many of them as he wants to, and I think it’s safe to say that Hieronymus patterns won’t dry up anytime soon.
For my own part, my conversation with Mark and his fish of yesteryear has made me rethink my own mentality behind the vise. I’m revitalized by his innovations and ready to abandon collective dogma and start wiggling wires of my own to see what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Mark is that he’s a guy who says what he means and means what he says, especially when viewed against our industrial world of glamor and facade (which even flyfishing, unfortunately, isn’t immune to). We could all stand to be reminded that the best thing we can do, either on the water or at the vise, is to listen to the wonderful creatures we pursue.
Joe Jackson is a fly nerd who wishes to thank each and every subject of “Behind the Vice” for indulging his curiosity. Joe has written for Fish Alaska, The Flyfish Journal, The Drake, and American Flyfishing, among other publications.
All photos courtesy of Mark Hieronymus