Thai fly tiers produce lures designed by Texans.
By Wayne Richey, head of Targus Fly & Feather, one of the largest fly-making operations in Thailand.
Two of the most popular saltwater flies on the Texas Coast are the Haines shrimp and the parachute crab. The Haines shrimps are made of hot pink or green-and-brown polyester material, glittery thread, chicken feathers and tiny beads for eyes. The parachute crab has a brown-and-green wool body about the size of a dime, with gold bead eyes and a feathered tail.
You can’t buy one of these lures tied by their inventors, Larry Haines of Port Isabel or Larry Sunderland of Austin. “I never intended to tie the parachute crab for sale myself,” explains Sunderland. “The monotony of tying flies for sale is too much. I sell about 100 dozen a year, and an experienced tier can produce about eight an hour.” The Haines shrimp takes even more time to make.
Haines and Sunderland have others doing the intricate and tedious work. Their source is the city of Chiang Mai in Thailand, which is renowned for its arts and crafts, and the conduit is Buddy Atwell of Houston Associates of Austin, (512) 328-4237, an importer and distributor for fly-fishing tackle. Atwell lived in Thailand for eight years and married a Thai woman, giving him good connections in the country. Atwell began importing the flies designed by Haines and Sunderland four years ago, but fly tying in Thailand dates back to the 1970s, when an American named Bill Black taught Thais to tie flies in order to make them more affordable.
“Almost every fly available at a reasonable price in this country is tied offshore,” says Jim Lynn of Westbank Anglers in Dallas, which sells flies made in Thailand as well as other countries. Foreign-tied flies typically retail for $4 to $5; domestic ones start at about $6. Low price does not affect quality. “You can’t tell those tied in Thailand from the ones I tie,” says Haines.
Haines, owner of The Shop in Port Isabel, sells more Haines shrimp than any other fly. “Basically it’s tied for redfish and speckled seatrout, but it also catches flounder, snook and even tarpon. It seems to appeal to everything,” he says. Larry Sunderland’s parachute crab was also designed to appeal to redfish, though it works on bonefish as well.
Whichever fly you choose, it may well have been tied in Chiang Mai by a young woman who has never used one. The tiers command high wages because of the skill required. Working on a piecemeal rate in a country with a per-capita income of $2,000, top tiers can earn as much as $3,400 annually.
Chiang Mai, a city of 170,000 in northern Thailand, draws people from nearby mountain regions so undeveloped that elephants still carry goods to remote villages. Founded in 1296, the city developed into a regional center for fine handicrafts, especially silver jewelry, umbrellas, paper, textiles and lacquer work. The artistry and skill needed to produce those items translates well into fly tying. Chiang Mai offers other assets, too: low cost of living, cheap factory space and a working class population with many English speakers. Since the 1970s the business has mushroomed so that Chiang Mai has been called the “Silicon Valley of fly tying”