Blog by Joe Jackson
“For the curve of learning is a meander, the shape of a spring creek on a valley floor…”-Ted Leeson
Full Circle with Shann Jones
There are a lot of full circles in the life of Shann Jones: The signature of a rising grayling, the wrap of a soft hackle, and most fulfilling of all, the imparting of his own knowledge and passion for the world of flyfishing to future generations.
My own obsession for chasing Alaskan fish on the fly began in Jones’s classroom over six years ago. My first impressions of him were thus: He was the only person I’d ever heard of with a master’s degree in Flyfishing, (technically, it’s a Master of Arts in Aquatic and Environmental Education, but that doesn’t sound quite as cool) and he had the distinct, pensive air of not just a good teacher, but a great one. Out on the spacious lawns of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Murie building, he showed me that I was using far too much wrist in my false casting. Under the radiant buzz of fluorescent lighting in the classroom, he demonstrated how to tie flies ranging in difficulty from the Brassie to the Royal Wulff. I went on to get a degree in Wildlife Biology from UAF, and am currently working on a Master’s of Education, but I can say without qualm that Jones’s class was the most impactful of my career.
For Shann Jones, the story of flyfishing began as quintessentially as you could ask for. He grew up in Appalachia fishing wet flies and Catskill-style dries for small-stream brook trout under the tutelage of his father. The year was 1976. Coming from a self-sufficient family that did everything from growing their own vegetables to building their own furniture, Jones soon picked up fly tying as both a hobby and a necessity to spending more time on the water. His materials and styles followed a similarly utilitarian mindset: partridge, fur dubbings, and well-swung wet flies. Some of his earliest patterns were tied so well that he occasionally uses them today—partly because he’s run out of similar patterns, mostly for old times’ sake.
In 1986, Jones headed north. He was enlisted in the Army and soon found himself in a world totally unlike that of his rhododendron-studded home: Interior Alaska, and the desolation of Fort Greely near Delta. Jones soon began branching out and sampling the nearby streams, where he first struck up what would turn out to be a lifelong friendship with the Arctic grayling. Wind of Jones’s skill with a fly rod made its way around the base, and before he really knew it, he was leading a fly-casting class for interested soldiers. It was his first glimpse into the rewards of teaching; the sparks of understanding showing on students’ faces, the ignition of passions that, just like his own, would turn out to be incurable.
By the time Jones had taught this first class, flyfishing courses had been around for several decades and were being taught in dozens of different ways—some listed as entomology courses, others physics or kinesiology—in dozens of academic institutions across the country. George Harvey taught the first official (though non-credit) flyfishing course in 1934, as well as the first credited course in 1947, through Penn State University. Being that flyfishing was “a sporting backwater” in those days, as John Gierach has said, enrollment numbers were barely enough to keep the classes afloat. However, they were enough to add steadily to the membership of regularly practicing fly anglers, which experienced a noticeable surge through the turn of the century.
Kenneth Jones, Shann’s father, had always expressed an interest in this Penn State flyfishing course (which Joe Humphreys took over in 1972). He believed that learning was lifelong, and it didn’t matter how long you’d been doing something because there was always more—more to know, more to experience, more perspectives to draw from. Perhaps it is this belief, passed down between father and son in Shann’s halcyon boyhood, that makes Shann such a strong teacher and student. Kenneth was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2000 and passed away in 2001—tragically—before he could take the fly course he’d always wanted.
Shann took this as his calling to take up the torch. He knew that his own fly course could be bigger and reach more people, so he approached UAF Summer Sessions about the possibility of listing his course there. The verdict came with an ultimatum: Jones had one year to get 14 registrants for the class in order to pay his teaching salary.
Two summers later, Jones’s class was successful enough to not only surpass his registrant requirement, but to earn it a place in the UAF College of Liberal Arts as a fall and spring offering. Jones, in turn, adjusted his course plans to allow for fly tying in the frozen winter months, along with the sundries of casting, mending, and fish conservation during open-water seasons. Several years into these offerings, Jones’s course underwent another evolution when a man named Scott Murdock entered the scene. Murdock, well-known for his pristine Atlantic salmon flies, suggested a significant departure from the typical beginning of a fly-tying course, as well as an “advanced” section of the fly-tying class to pick up where the first semester would leave off. Here, Murdock would take students through sophisticated techniques like spinning deer hair, tying articulated patterns, and agonizing over the patterns in his Atlantic salmon wheelhouse. Jones was immediately on board for the improvements, but only on one condition: Murdock had to take the class first.
As a tyer, Jones is practical and simplistic. Every stream or lake has a different fly that works well. Every situation in flyfishing calls for problems to be solved. This mentality, which takes the forefront in his instruction, has led him to develop several unique patterns, some named and some not. There’s the Tangle Lakes Teaser, a Stimulator variant tied on a short shank and made to represent the local variety of stonefly. There’s also the Pink Lady, Jones’s wet-fly-enthusiast spin on the popular Salcha Pink. He realized, after fishing the Salcha Pink enough, that the typical chenille body soaked up water and made the fly sink, but that it was doubly effective when fished subsurface. Jones traded the chenille for dyed ostrich herl, the tightly-spun grizzly hackle for a soft hackle and omitted the red tail. He also started fishing the fly in a traditional downstream swing, harkening back to his upbringing in Appalachia.
Jones encourages similar innovations from his students. At the end of each semester, Jones assigns a final project in which students are asked to design their own fly and write a short essay describing what problems it solves. If I recall, my own final project was some deer-hair-and-foam-beetle abomination (which did solve a problem and, with some minor adjustments, remains a staple in my fly box). The whole point is to get students to realize that fly tying doesn’t just exist for the tried-and-true patterns, but that it’s a means by which they can participate more deeply with the sport of flyfishing and, more importantly, put their own spin on it.
“Students’ freedom in creating,” Jones says, “is both rewarding for me and applicable for them. There is no wrong answer.”
This creative breeding ground has led to a whole host of tying innovations over the last few decades (most of which, unfortunately, have been lost in anonymity). It’s also led to unknowable numbers of anglers who’ve moved forward with both the knowledge and the passion to take on their home waters. Gabe Smith, covered in the first installment of this series, is a notable example.
Jones follows several other tenets of good education. These are a result of both the scrupulous research he undertook in completing his master’s thesis, and the many years he’s spent developing the course on a trial-and-error basis. At the time of Jones’s thesis (2007) there were some-135 courses devoted to flyfishing around the country. Naturally, Jones picked and chose what aspects of these various versions to include in his own class, and soon decided to approach things quite differently from the get-go.
For those who’ve taken fly-tying courses before, you know that the Woolly Bugger is king. It’s a generally big fly and simple to tie, and once it’s done the tyer is left with one of the most versatile patterns known to mankind. The perfect fly for beginners…right?
Wrong; at least, according to Jones and Scott Murdock.
“There are just too many steps to a ‘Bugger starting out,” Jones says. “On the first night of a class, we’re really just learning about the tools. If I tell you how to tie a ‘Bugger when you can’t remember what a bobbin’s called, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
Instead, Jones’s curriculum starts with a Brassie, a universally effective and dastardly simple midge pattern developed for the South Platte in Colorado. This fly, in its most basic form, calls for just four materials: a hook, thread, copper wire, and dubbing (okay, five if you count head cement). From here, Jones continues with his effective pedagogy: guided practice first, in which he demonstrates very clearly how to tie the fly, and independent practice second, where students are turned loose to try it on their own. Jones takes the time beforehand to write a complete set of instructions for tying each fly—and then he himself practices tying those flies only from the instructions.
“It doesn’t do students any good if you’re tying from memory,” Jones says.
More than that, Jones would plan the pacing of his lessons from these sheets. He could decide where to pause and allow students to catch up, and where, during the course of the fly, he needed to break down complex steps and explain the “why.”
This last piece is crucial. Having spent 25 years flyfishing before starting to teach the Summer Sessions class, there were many things in the sport that simply came as second-nature to Jones. Anglers who have been on the water that long (and longer) rarely explain to themselves why they do something; they’ve developed a sixth-sense for most things and act in certain ways because it works. That didn’t work for students. Jones had to break down why he was doing everything certain ways, and why not other ways—why you spin the bobbin to wind up your tying thread, why you set downstream for a nymph take, why you wait that extra half-second while the fly rod loads on the backcast, why we should concern ourselves with flyfishing at all. Following Jones’s example, I continue to try and ask myself those questions.
Today, Jones has been flyfishing for almost half a century. His class ran consecutively for 18 years, in iterations from a Science of Flyfishing workshop in Denali National Park to the two-term university-credited course at UAF. Unfortunately, 2020 and the hasty conversion to online education put a wrinkle in that streak. I, for one, hope that it’s merely temporary.
Watching Shann Jones swing wet flies on the Delta Clearwater is an image I’ll never forget. It was September 2014, my first autumn in Alaska, and he was standing knee deep in a run the color of Damascus steel. Mist was gliding over the water, boreal owls were fluting from hidden coverts, and it would’ve made the perfect photo for a flyfishing calendar if I’d had thought to take one. Jones might as well have been wearing tweeds and fishing a gut leader from a shaft of bamboo—It was that cool.
I was standing on shore with perhaps five other students, all of whom were in various stages of knotting flies (that we’d tied ourselves) to their tippets. The mayfly hatch that we’d come for wouldn’t start until one o’clock, Jones had told us, but he decided to step in and put on a clinic with nothing but a partridge-and-orange.
The first grayling he hooked that morning was the biggest I’d seen in my life, which wasn’t saying much, although it had to go north of 17 inches. Slowly, us students gained the confidence to enter the water alongside Jones, and just as slowly, the mayflies began hatching in the riffles upstream and drifting down like a miniature armada. It was time. The fly on my leader was a pattern developed by Scott Murdock and Shann Jones specifically for the river and the hatch; a cream fiber tail divided in a “v,” a silvery body underlaid with black thread, and wood-duck-flank wings picketed by wraps of blue-dun hackle, all of which I’d tied in myself. I think it took all of fifteen minutes to get the right drift (“Stay ahead of it,” Jones instructed) and hook my first grayling. I’d be lying if I said it was a revelatory experience; I think I just held the fish up for Jones to see, garnered a thumbs-up, and let it swim back home. But I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t make a conscious effort to fish only flies tied by me from that point on.
In his 18 years of teaching the sport of flyfishing, Shann Jones has taught around 1900 students. That’s a heck of a lot of people to be blessed with the culmination of creating something and catching a fish on it.
In his characteristic interest in explaining “the why,” Jones sums it up well:
“I like seeing those full circles.”
Like all good things, that mayfly hatch in September of 2014 eventually ended and we were left standing in the cold. Jones clipped his fly and wound up the line, sloshing onto the bank and threading his way back to the parking lot. His students followed wordlessly, each of us practically glowing in the thrill of our experience, each of us listening hard for the last pocks of grayling mouths as they drew circles in the water behind us.
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, and his favorite fly to tie is a toss-up between the Splitsville Caddis and the classic Hare’s Ear.