by Joe Jackson
Photos by Jonathan Farmer
There’s a vexed sigh from the other end of the phone line, Jonathan Farmer says “This stupid Schlappen is not cooperating.”
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Jonathan Farmer, founder and owner of Midnight Sun Custom Flies, is tying as we speak. As a full-time fly designer who produces something on the order of ten dozen flies per week (sometimes more—sometimes much more), it seems he would have time for little else. What does surprise me, though, is that in only perhaps forty minutes of chit-chat, Jonathan’s tied four complete Chinook tubes. This is a feat worthy of recognition, if you ask me; I’d still be toiling over one of those things in an hour.
Jonathan Farmer is on the cutting edge of modern Alaskan flies (no pun intended; when I asked him where his interest in fly tying began, he asked me, “Do you think I can cut five tubes at once?”). Flies such as the Graboid Leech, the Led ZepPrawn, the Minion Leech, and the Avenger are all his brainchildren, and for as highly revered as these patterns are in pursuit of Alaska’s trout, steelhead, and salmon, you’d think Jon Farmer would have been tying for years; decades, even. Not so. Farmer came to fly tying relatively recently, in fact at about the same time that I did. But the quality, longevity, and sheer quantity of his patterns suggest first, an extraordinary talent, along with copious amounts of uncommon drive.
The flyfishing seed, for Jonathan Farmer, was first planted at a Christian youth camp in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado when he was 17. At that stage the lessons were a one-off, but the allure of the sport would come to echo and influence him much later in life.
Farmer’s move to Alaska is a classic story likely shared by many: He abandoned life in Florida, sold his truck, and bought a plane ticket to the Last Frontier, all without an apparent second thought. His first job took him to Denali National Park, where he found out that, although the area was boundless and otherwise unmatched for sheer grandeur, there wasn’t much fishing to be had. Luckily for him, three years later he accepted a job as a ski patroller in Girdwood.
Now closer to the epicenter of Alaskan angling, Jonathan Farmer was able to spend more time fishing. Soon he would come to spend up to a hundred days fishing the Kenai in the summer months, along with up to forty plying the Peninsula’s waters for steelhead in the fall. With how much time he spent on the water, during which he’d constantly observe how fish behaved and what forage they keyed in on at different times of the year, Farmer developed an interest in perhaps the polar opposite of some of the streamer and swinging patterns he would eventually originate: dry flies.
Surface patterns made perfect sense. Kenai trout would key in on mayfly and caddis hatches throughout the summer, and he could probably whip out a few dozen patterns for far cheaper than he could buy them.
It is here that Jonathan Farmer pauses to give me an update on the Chinook tubes—”That’s two down,”—before continuing on, his stories punctuated by the crackles of tying.
Not long after he discovered the draw of dry flies, Jonathan Farmer was involved in a ski accident that resulted in a broken hand. You’d think having one of two essential tools out of commission would severely inhibit one’s ability to tie flies, but Jon used his time off to tie no less than five-hundred Elk-Hair Caddises. Since these dry-fly beginnings, he’s spent upwards of thirty hours per week behind the vise without fail (which partially explains why he’s made such quantum leaps as a tyer).
As the years slid by, Jon’s penchant for dry flies morphed into an interest in swinging patterns and Skagit techniques. His wealth of experience on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers made this transition relatively seamless, as did the fact that, by now, he was tying pretty much any pattern he wanted to with ease. He realized that many of the swinging flies of the day were marketed more toward anglers than they were at catching fish (a curse that perpetually afflicts the flyfishing industry), and his mission became to tie flies that mimicked true forage or were otherwise created with the quarry—not just the user—in mind. Some of these first Farmer patterns were sold on consignment at Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage. In the serendipitous way that these things often go, the company Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics (OPST) was simultaneously looking for someone to tie Intruders commercially. Intruders, it’s no secret, are not the easiest patterns to tie, and as such most anglers prefer to buy them rather than produce them themselves. On the flip side, however, there aren’t many professional tyers with the gumption to take on such a mammoth task.
Naturally, Jonathan Farmer signed on with OPST, and was soon producing something like forty Intruders a day. I feel the need to inform readers, especially those not familiar with the Intruder, that these flies include around fifteen materials and take even the most practiced tyer around half an hour to tie correctly. Forty in a day is a truly remarkable achievement. Jon went on to inform me that his record for tying an Intruder in-hand (that is, without the utility of a vice) is twenty-four minutes. Why someone would even consider doing this is beyond me, but it’s stunningly impressive, nonetheless.
By 2016, just two years after he first picked up a bobbin, Jonathan Farmer had gone full-time with fly tying. The crux of going commercial was that, while he was doing what he loved, he wasn’t able to continue his personal experimentation or “artistic freedom,” as he dubs it, to the same extent. The Intruder wasn’t his pattern, and though OPST needed a given quota of these flies at regular intervals, producing them didn’t give him the same satisfaction that he would’ve received had they been his own.
(“There’s three tubes done…”)
Not only that, but the prevailing technique in the Pacific Northwest was one that Jon wanted to branch out of: composite loops. There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with the technique, he just wanted to try other things. And try he did.
The Beast of Burden and Led ZepPrawn, both steelhead flies that make use of more traditional tying methods (albeit with some simple composite loops incorporated within them), emerged at around this time and were soon adopted by OPST. The Beast of Burden is a sparse, lightweight creation that Farmer developed on the Kenai Peninsula. It employs a tantalizing combination of Arctic fox, Finn raccoon, marabou, and jungle cock to achieve an unmistakably “shrimpy” profile. The ‘ZepPrawn, on the other hand, is what Farmer considers to be his “angler fly”—one of those patterns that tends to catch as many fishermen as it does fish. Of the seventeen total materials that the ZepPrawn is comprised of, five of them are tied in the first seven millimeters. This, combined with the fact that Jonathan Farmer refuses to use anything less than the very best materials, is why the ZepPrawn retails at $17.50 per fly.
Arguably, Jonathan Farmer’s most popular fly is the Graboid Leech. Most of us know and love the infamous Dolly Llama because of its signature double-bunny-strip design. Funnily enough, Farmer tells me, these two strips were meant to be glued together; the originator just didn’t have any adhesive to do the job and thus kept them separated. Even if it was accidental, this innovation is undoubtedly what makes the Llama so appealing to fish. It’s also what makes it the devil’s own errand to cast, though.
As Farmer became more well-versed in the tying world, he decided that he was going to redesign the Llama to make it more castable. Replacing the bottom bunny strip with a composite loop of synthetic material seemed like a good place to start. For this, he utilized a relatively new innovation called Kraken Dub, which is similar to traditional dubbing except that it’s composed of micro silly-legs and produced in outlandish colors. The Kraken Dub achieved an uncanny “swimminess”—similar to the bunny strip it was meant to replace, but altogether unique—without retaining water weight. The first few patterns were spun up in black, red, and copper, and Farmer’s initial tests on the upper Kenai suggested that he had something good; something really good. All it needed was a name.
The movie Tremors was released in 1990 under the tagline, “A monster movie that breaks new ground.” Today it is one of those cryptic, B-list cult classics (with a number of inexplicable sequels), involving a small town that gets terrorized by an unseen, subterranean monster called a “Graboid.” Jonathan Farmer hadn’t seen the movie when he started testing his new ‘Llama-inspired creation (neither has most of America), but luckily for him, one of his good friends had. This same friend had given Farmer some critical seed money back when he first started tying for OPST and was otherwise a huge influence on Farmer’s tying. He had a distinct penchant for quoting spaghetti Westerns and other “bad movies,” according to Farmer, so most of the time he was taken with a grain of salt. On one occasion, however, as the two of them hooked fish after fish on the prototype flies, one of these quotes just struck a chord:
“Graboids, that’s what I like!”
Jon knew it as soon as he heard it. The fly would be called the Graboid Leech, and it would go on to be used (to great effect) not only in Alaska, but in such far-flung places as Iceland, Argentina, and New Zealand.
The speakers on my phone are overwhelmed as Farmer suddenly blows straight into his microphone. “Sorry,” he says. “There were some ostrich clippings on my phone.”
Jonathan Farmer’s other patterns include, but are certainly not limited to: the Avenger, the Revenger, the Back Door Slider, the Kryptonite Sculpin, the Crown Jewel, and the Minion Leech. Each is wholly unique in its profile, variety of materials, and depth at which they fish in the water column, but they all bear what has come to define Farmer’s style: innovativeness. This is an easy trait to ascribe in theory, but when you consider how deeply Jon’s flies have percolated through modern Alaskan angling (and in how short a time), it’s hard to deny that they might just be some of the most innovative flies of the last decade or two. They achieve all that Alaskan flies should—movement, color, castability, and toughness—and have passed the test that all truly good flies are measured by: they catch fish.
Jonathan Farmer has gotten to where he is today by refusing to use anything but the highest-quality materials, not to mention working his tail off and utilizing what I can only call a God-given talent. It’s not everyone that can tie five hundred Elk Hairs with one hand bound up in a stub of gauze; nor is it everyone that can stomach putting every last penny they have (quite literally) into tying materials.
These days, Farmer spends far less time fishing than he used to; simply because there’s just too much work to do. Midnight Sun Custom Flies, in addition to offering Farmer’s exclusive patterns, has started stocking up and selling some of his favorite materials, as well. The decrease in his own fishing time is okay, he tells me. He’d rather watch other people catch fish anyway.
As Farmer regales me with tales of his favorite fishing trips of yesteryear—fishing the Olympic Peninsula, for example, or setting out on daring floats of Alaskan waters that shall not be named—I can’t help but feel inspired. Over the course of this “Behind the Vice” project, I’ve talked to a handful of dedicated fly tyers and perused innumerable resources trying to get to the bottom of Alaskan patterns; where they’ve come from, what they’ve evolved from, and potentially, where they are going. Jon Farmer seems to be both the future of Alaskan flyfishing and the type of steadfast person that, say, Paul Harvey would talk about on his radio show. We may never see a fly so revolutionary as the Egg-Sucking Leech, the Woolly Bugger, or even the love-it-or-hate-it Dolly Llama, but if we do, I think there’s a good chance that it’ll come from the vice of Jonathan Farmer. And who knows; maybe it already has, and something like the Graboid or the Avenger or the Beast of Burden will be kept in museums forty years from now and people will fish the mist-shrouded waters of the Kenai and say things like: “Yep, the ol’ Graboid was developed right here.”
Speaking of Paul Harvey: In 1978, Harvey wrote his now-famous speech called “So God Made a Farmer.” The first line goes like this:
“And on the 8th Day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a Farmer.”
I like to think that perhaps this speech could be adapted, just a little, for us anglers of the fly.
Maybe once He’d finished creating Alaska, and the years had gone by in which a pipeline was built and bush planes raided the airspace like mosquitoes, God decided that He needed someone to care of His fish. He needed someone to put the same time into tying a fly that they did in catching those fish; He needed someone to raise awareness about fish handling to ensure that catch-and-release stayed that way. He needed someone that, according to Jon’s own tale, could lose a potentially 40-inch steelhead at the boat side on the middle Kenai River and take it with good graces, then drift down to the pullout and come back to the vice rekindled, ready to crank out a few dozen flies to try again the next day. He needed someone to watch over Alaska’s rivers in the same way a ruralite might watch over a newborn colt, so God made a Farmer.
“Are you done with your tubes yet?”
As our conversation trickles to an end, I can’t help but wonder what number Jon’s on.
“Fly number four is done,” he declares, and I hear the unmistakable squeak of tying thread as it’s lashed around a new tube. “But I’ve still got a lot to go.”
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 Fly Fishing, and won’t be tying any flies this month because he’s all set with a pack of Midnight Sun Custom Flies original