Fly-tyer began as a chicken farmer


Forty years ago, on a secret chicken farm in Warrenton, Henry Hoffman started a revolution in fly-fishing.

Hoffman, 73, is a meticulous fly fisherman who spent decades studying the science of fly-tying and breeding chickens to produce superior fly feathers.

The grueling effort, which required extensive research into the world of poultry and large expenditures on feed, drove off his first two wives and left him unable to pay child support by 1973.

But over time, his selective breeding technique had produced longer, glossier feathers in a range of tailored colors that were ideal for tying buoyant dry flies.

And in 1974, nine years after he bought his first roosters, the fly-fishing industry blossomed, the market price for specialty feathers jumped, and Hoffman Hackles became a household name at outdoor sporting goods stores worldwide.

"I kind of got interested at just the right time," he said. "It got better every year."

the early 1980s, Hoffman relied on a 6-foot fence, barbed wire and two German shepherds to keep spies and thieves out of his chicken coop. To distinguish his fly-fishing products from lower-grade impostors, he stamped the hides with a signature symbol. His chickens were the first to be bred specifically for fly-fishing hackles.

To supplement his fly-tying work, Hoffman had originally intended on raising chickens for eggs as his parents had before him. But by the time he was released from the U.S. Army in 1954, corporate farms were already putting smaller operations out of business.

"All of a sudden all I had was the fly-tying," he said.

Hoffman discovered Oregon's North Coast on a 4,100-mile, penny-pinching fishing trip in a 1948 Chevy truck. In less than six weeks, he made it from Bodega Bay, Calif., to British Columbia and back, living in the truck and eating some of his catch along the way.

"I did it all on $200," he said. "I got home and I had $19 left."

After he and his parents moved to Warrenton, Hoffman started a job working in a sawmill while continuing to tie commercial flies and experimenting with his own fly designs.

As he embarked on his fly-fishing ventures, he also worked jobs planting and harvesting trees for Crown Zellerbach, subbing for Longshoremen on the Columbia River and, while attending business school at Clatsop Community College, driving a school bus.

Without the proper space to expand his business to meet the skyrocketing demand for his hackles, Hoffman sold his business in the late 1980s. At the time, he had a little over 4,000 birds that made quite a ruckus and kept him and his current wife working through the night. Under the new owner in Colorado, the business soon expanded to around 100,000 chickens.

Freed from the daily grind of hackle production, Hoffman has devoted more time in recent years to studying the performance of various fly designs and crafting better ones.

For years he collected royalties on his trademarked "Chickabou" flies, which use a fuzzier part of the chicken hackles to mimic the movement of certain insects under water, as opposed to dry flies that skip along the water's surface.

"Mayflies and flying ants and termites, they swim down with the current," he said. "The fluffy material gives you that lifelike motion under water."

His research involves wandering up and down stream banks, pulling up weeds and taking critter samples.

"I look at insects and crayfish and see how they look on the stream," he said. "Then I design new fly patterns to match what I've seen."

At home at his worktable, sitting before an eclectic collection of spools and tools, he conjures arrangements of hooks, feathers and thread that will simulate insect movement. He even has his own tabletop testing tank &

a huge hit at sportfishing trade shows.

Some of his flies take upwards of four hours to complete.

Hoffman is hailed by regional and national fly-fishing groups for his innovations and invited to speak and demonstrate fly-tying techniques at events across the country. He's received Fly Tier of the Year, Legend of Flyfishing and Lifetime Achievement awards from the Federation of Flyfishers.

He's also collected awards for individual fly designs, which are judged on several criteria.

"Of course, it has to be neatly tied, and it has to show innovation using new materials or new styles of fly-tying that other people haven't thought of," he said. "That's what I'm into: Using new materials to effectively catch more fish."

Like most fly fishers, Hoffman releases all his catch to conserve fish runs. He quit using spinning rods, bait and lures long ago and moved into studying how fish are caught.

"People go through stages," he said. "Catching the most fish, catching the biggest fish and then the method. As you advance, you kind of go through that cycle."

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