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AS A KID growing up in Athens, Alabama, Brandon Bailes used to spend a lot of time in his grandfather’s woodshop. His grandpa would cut a block of cedar for Bailes, then sketch something on it—the outline of a northern cardinal, for example—and hand it over to Bailes. “OK,” his grandpa would say. “Now that you’ve got an idea of what’s inside that block of wood, start carving and whittling away until it shows itself.”

Decades later, Bailes is still whittling away at what’s inside. Only these days, instead of blocks of wood, he’s working with fluff balls of deer hair spun onto fishing hooks. And instead of cardinals or other critters, what ultimately wind up showing themselves are some of the most striking and meticulously tied flies imaginable. 

“It’s all come full circle from childhood,” Bailes says of his moonlighting career as one of the most talented tiers of deer-hair bugs for bass and panfish in the country. (For his day job, he’s an engineering technician for NASA’s Space Environmental Effects Lab, which explains the engineer-like precision visible in his flies.) This spring, Bailes opened the door to his tying studio and gave us a look at what’s inside.

Bennett Bailes watches his father tie a fly
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes has two sons: Caden, 17, who is a “phenomenal baseball player,” but doesn’t have much interest in fly fishing, and Bennett, 11, who is his dad’s shadow on the river and the tying vise. “He thinks about fishing nonstop,” Bailes says. “He caught his first 20-inch smallmouth when he was 7 years old, and he’s been tying since he was 5. In the garage, I have an Altoids tin full of the bugs he tied back then. They’re really special to me.”

razor blade on top of deer-hair shavings
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Some deer-hair specialists take the safer route and shape their bugs with scissors. Others, like Bailes, are willing to risk cuts to their hands and use a razor blade. “They’re flexible,” says Bailes. “I can bend a razor and make shapes on a fly more easily than I could with scissors. And you get a cleaner look with a razor.” While they may be more flexible, they’re not exactly long-lasting—at least, not for Bailes. His rule: one fly per razor.

Fly-tier Brandon Bailes searches through feathers
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes searches through a saddle for a pair of just-right feathers to tie a Waking Minnow, a fly designed by his good friend, the late Dave Whitlock. The two met years ago and became fly-tying pen pals. “We sent flies in the mail to one another for a long time,” Bailes says, adding that Whitlock’s letters were always sealed inside envelopes onto which he hand-painted the most amazing fishing scenes. “I have his letters framed all over my office. Getting one in the mail was like Christmastime.”

close-up of hair packer used for fly tying
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Using a hair-packing tool, Bailes pushes, or packs, all the layers of deer hair he’s spun onto the hook shank. An ingenious tying hack of Bailes’ can be seen here: He cuts small square sheets of plastic from the bags his fly-tying materials come in and places one in front of the deer hair. “It holds all of the hair back and keeps it out of the way so I can whip-finish the fly.”

six steps of tying a fly, close up
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Left to right, from the top: Bailes prepares to secure, and spin, the last clump of deer hair onto the hook shank; after all of the hair is spun, it’s time to trim; razor-blade buzzcut; the popper form begins to emerge; rubber legs and eyes are added last; ready for bass.

open fly box filled with many flies
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

“If I just want to go to the water for a little bit,” Bailes says, “I’ll grab my 4-weight box. This’ll catch everything in the small creeks we have here.” The left side of the fly box contains hoppers and streamers, and the right is loaded with damsel nymphs, midges, and a variety of Bailes’ Hatchling Craws—micro crawfish patterns he ties from size 8 all the way down to 12.

red and black damselfly lure made from deer hair
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes had never seen a deer-hair damsel fly before—so he took matters into his own hands. “I just sat down one night and tied it,” he says. This fly excels in late summer, when the water is clear and low. “Just let it dead drift. I’ll give it a twitch here and there to make it seem like it still has some life left it in, but you don’t need to do much. It works really well.”

newly painted popper heads drying on a piece of cardboard
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Here’s a lineup of newly painted heads for what will become Ultra Lite Air Jet Poppers, another fly design of Dave Whitlock’s. The heads are made from Styrofoam bobbers that are cut down to size—in this case, small enough for panfish—and glued to hooks, before other materials like rubber legs and feathers are added.

colorful smallmouth bass flies on display in fly box
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Here’s a look inside Bailes’ smallmouth box. For deer-hair options, he has a Finesse Slider, diver, and bass popper. In front of that trio is an assortment of hopper patterns. “I took this box with me this morning,” he says. “I caught six, including an 18-inch smallmouth on a foam cicada.”

deer-hair hummingbird sculpture hovers over daisy
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

“In the wintertime, when there’s not a lot of fishing, that’s when my artistic side shows a little more,” Bailes says. A good friend asked Bailes to tie him something he could display on his desk—and he requested for a hummingbird. From start to finish, Bailes said, the project took him only three or four hours.

four fishing flies tied by Brandon Bailes, one shaped like a crab
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

One of these things is not like the other… “The deer-hair crab is something I came up with just as a challenge,” Bailes says. “In order to make it ride point-side up, I had to put tungsten beads underneath. It’s not fun to cast. I’ve never caught a fish it with.”

close-up of feather in Brandon Bailes's mouth as he ties a fly
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes is at the point where he has the freedom of turning down business and can be selective with the fly-tying orders he takes. Still, he guesses he ties at least 2,000 flies a year—and when you consider that the average deer-hair fly takes him 30 minutes to tie, his time behind the vise quickly adds up. Not that he’s complaining. “Fly-tying is the way I unwind,” Bailes says. “When we’re home and everyone’s settled in, this is how I relax.”

close-up of fly as Brandon Bailes finishes tying it
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Bailes makes the final turns with the whip finisher on Dave Whitlock’s Waking Minnow. “This is the original style—with the bullet head,” he says. “The head floats in the film, but the tail will be underneath the water. It’s a really deadly fly.”

Fly-tier Brandon Bailes at his very tidy workshop desk
Andrew Hetherington for Field & Stream

Behold—the portrait of a neat freak. “Some people can tie great flies from a desk that looks like their materials exploded all over the place,” Bails says. “But for my brain to work correctly, I have to lay it all out. As meticulous as I am when I’m at the vise, though, once I get on the water, it’s like I forget all about the process that went into making that bug. At that point, all I’m thinking about is the fish. You know?”

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