The tie that binds

Mark Van Patten stopped selling fishing flies and started a national television show to teach viewers how to tie their own
Sunday, March 19, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A nationally-broadcast television show filmed at his house. Acclaim and admiration from his peers. A chance to teach others about what he loves.

Not bad for a self-proclaimed hillbilly tying flies.

Mark Van Patten, host of the nationally-broadcast “The Tying Bench” on PBS (Sundays at 6 p.m. on KMOS/Channel 6) has been tying flies for 40 years.

“My grandparents were fly-fishing purists,” Van Patten said. “When I was 12, my grandpa taught me how to tie and he and my grandma taught me how to fly fish. I’ve been at it ever since.”

Van Patten has turned his passion for the hobby into “The Tying Bench,” a half-hour how-to show about tying flies that is broadcast by PBS around the country. The show is produced by Michael Moyer’s Niche Productions out of Jefferson City. Moyer said he convinced his friend Van Patten to do the show after Van Patten had become a regular guest on Moyer’s community access late night talk show “Live on Friday Night.”


The fly in the magnifying glass is one of many that Van Patten has been tying for more than 40 years and one that he demonstrates on his television show. (ASHLEY HENRY/ Missourian)

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we just do a how-to?’” Moyer said. “It’s perfect for PBS. It’s not just educational, but also a lifestyle show.”

Moyer said the show is unique, offering an alternative to the regular fare found on television these days.

“I just think it’s a good program, with so much junk on TV these days,” Moyer said. “There’s nothing like it out there, no other national show like this.”

The show is funded by the Hook and Hackle Company, local fly fishing company Clearwater Outfitters, Mustad & Son International, Troutdale Farm and Griffin Enterprises, Inc., among others. Van Patten is careful to stress that the show is educational and nonprofit.

“I used to try to sell the flies,” Van Patten said, “but there was too much demand and it took the pleasure out of making them.”

Walking into the living room of Van Patten’s home in Tebbett’s, a few minutes south of Jefferson City, is like walking into an artist’s studio. The only difference is this studio has Cappuccino carpet and an overstuffed couch covered with a brick red floral pattern. This is where the filming of “The Tying Bench” takes place.

During filming, couches and tables are moved to make room for cameras and lights as Van Patten sets up his solid oak tying bench in front of a window that opens out onto his spacious backyard. Dozens of drawers sit against the wall beneath the windows, packed full with fly-tying materials separated by color, with everything from rooster and hen feathers to deer hide. Some of them are drab earth tones, while others have been dyed electric neons to emulate the bright hues of specific water insects.

This attention to color and detail is what helps fool the fish. Van Patten said this is one of the reasons he likes to teach.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in sneaking up on a fish and catching it, and that’s what I want to pass on,” Van Patten said. “If I can teach them to catch a fish with a fly they have made with their own hands, they’ll be hooked.”

Moyer said that with a show like Van Patten’s, it’s all in the details. One thing that sets the show apart from others of its kind is the attention to detail. Van Patten’s explicit directions and meticulous camera work help viewers get a good grasp on every loop and tie needed to construct the flies. Moyer said this is necessary for such a show.

“If you’re going to do a how-to show, you really need to show them how to,” he said. “Mark’s very specific about going from beginning to the end of the process. You can see every thread on the hook.”

According to Van Patten, the show is geared toward teaching beginning- and intermediate-level fly tiers. He said he takes pride in being able to show and teach them how to tie flies.

Steve Scott, employee of the Clearwater Outfitters and veteran fly fisher, said he thinks Van Patten’s delivery when teaching is what makes him so accessible to viewers.

“His delivery on the show is very methodical,” Scott said. “His directions are thorough enough for beginners to grasp what he is talking about.”

Van Patten’s beginners come in all shapes and sizes, highlighting one of the benefits of fly tying. According to the host, fly tiers don’t have to fit the mold of any specific type of athlete in order to succeed.

One of the molds Van Patten’s audience does fit is that of a South Callaway R-II middle school student.

Van Patten and his wife Regina, a teacher at South Callaway, have developed a program called “Hooked on Fly Fishing, Not on Drugs” for seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school. The organization is free for students and holds meetings once a month in which the students learn how to tie flies and fly fish. Van Patten said the organization helps give students something constructive to do.

“We try to teach the kids something that is a little different than what they are usually exposed to,” Van Patten said. “It’s something they can either do alone or do with friends and family and it is much better than some of the alternatives the students might partake in.”

Fishing guide Kent Campbell of KoziCamp Guides and Outfitters said Van Patten’s work with kids is commendable.

“He’s very involved with kids in Tebbett’s,” Campbell said. “He’s had a lot of success with his programs there, helping keep kids off the streets.”

Van Patten is clearly in love with fly tying and does his best to emphasize why the hobby can be so rewarding. He said it is great because it allows fishers to vicariously fish through the creation of the flies.

“Fly tying is great because, in the middle of the winter when everything is frozen over and you’re just dying to go fishing, you can sit and tie and imagine all the fish you are going to catch with the fly you made,” Van Patten said. “You can have a great fishing trip without even getting up off your chair.”

Since ”The Tying Bench” first aired in late 2000, Van Patten said he has filmed over 130 episodes. Its eighth season is currently airing, with filming for the 10th season currently being finished. Filming of the 11th season will begin this spring. As for how long Van Patten is going to continue teaching on the air, he is not going to speculate about any final episodes.

“As long as PBS likes it, we’re going to keep doing it,” Van Patten said.

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