An addict and his art.

How musky flies saved Brian Bergeson’s life

I'm sitting in Bob Mitchell's Fly Shop in St. Paul, Minnesota, watching Brian Bergeson tie a fly. His thread wraps are quick and confident. He trims a tightly bound clump of bucktail and a plume of hair rises and settles to the table. His Red Bull sits safely outside the fallout radius. His fingers seem to operate on micro muscle-memory rather than direct control. Over the course of a half hour, as we talk about muskies and the flies he ties for them, a pair of bare hooks develops into a twelve-inch black-and-orange streamer.

We step outside for a break and Bergeson lights a cigarette: A simple act, slightly more difficult than it looks, unconsciously practiced until deeply and personally known. More ritual than habit. Reminds me of his tying style.

He smokes quietly. He's tall and thin, almost gaunt, but his voice is deep and resonant.

"Fly tying saved my life," he says, as he lights a second cigarette with the butt of the first. "No question in my mind."

"The power of the vise," he calls it, this realignment from chemical abuse to tying flies, trading a vice for a vise.

It started with his grandfather, who himself had once used flyfishing and tying to help him quit drinking. He'd been inspired by young Brian, who at seven was following him around the unforgiving steelhead rivers of western Lake Superior: the Knife and the Devil's Track and Wisconsin's Bois Brule. Twenty years later, when Bergeson needed to get sober, his grandfather was there with the vise and boxes of old Herter's materials in wax paper. Brian sat down and tied thirty dozen woolly worms. It worked for a while.

"I'm an addict," he says with a small shrug, sitting back down at his vise. "Legal, illegal, what have you. It's in my genes." He tells me that he continued to tie and fish and get clean, and then relapse. "By the end I was drinking whiskey like water. My life was falling apart."

It wasn't until 2013 that things changed.

"The day I got sober was the day I started tying musky flies," he says. "I would tie every minute I was awake so I wouldn't drink." He found himself on the ground floor of the exploding musky flyfishing phenomenon. Soon he was partnering with guides and companies in the industry and selling flies. "That's when it all clicked: This is a thing I can do."

It's the blank canvas, he says, that makes musky flies different from tradition-bound trout flies. Within the "hair, feather, flash" streamer playbook there's a lot of room for creativity, detail, and innovation, and while it's easy to tie a big, flashy streamer, it's not easy to tie a really good one.

"Every thread wrap matters. Every hair," Bergeson says. "I could spend an hour picking out the perfect saddle-hackle."

He picks up a finished fly from the table and spreads it open to show the inner detail—an almost medical gesture—of the synthetic head, subtly barred; the layered and oxygen-red gill tissue; hen-neck side plates and fins; perfectly oriented holographic eyes. Even the hidden thread wraps of the rear segments are exactly tapered and roundly glued.

Do these details make a difference to the fish? They make a difference to Bergeson. He lays the fly back on the table with two others—different colors, but otherwise identical, as if tied by IBM's Watson.

"You see a lot of addiction in flyfishing," he says. "I think if you're going to be successful as a fly angler you've got to have that tendency." He clamps another massive hook in the vise. "I just have to channel it."

Another musky creation ready to hit the water.
Another musky creation ready to hit the water.

He channels it like a basalt gorge on Lake Superior's North Shore channels meandering beaver-choked swamp creeks into a single rock-cutting torrent. I ask him what he thinks about while he's tying.

"Nothing," he says after a moment, and keeps wrapping. "Blank." The fly he's pouring this focus into, his signature pattern, is called the Demon.

During the next smoke break he shows me a customer photo on his phone: a massive Mongolian taimen, bigger than any musky that ever swam. In its mouth is a Double Demon.

"See the smile on that guy's face?" he asks, adding that the Demon in the picture has caught nineteen taimen and is still being fished. "The time I spend and the materials I use—I lose money," he says. "But I want my customers to catch fish. That's all I want."

"It was muskies that did it," he tells me on another evening, as we trailer his boat after a short outing on a metro Twin Cities musky lake. All our fishing outings are short. "That's what did my elbows in. Musky fishing, musky tying."

Hours of search-casting giant flies takes a physical toll even on healthy anglers, and for Brian, the transition from alcohol and narcotics to pure, grade A, 100-percent musky fishing and fly tying caused old injuries to flare up. After three elbow surgeries—and a healing process impaired by years of chemical abuse—he was finally diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a nerve-pain condition that's more mystery than medicine. Traditionally, it's treated with narcotics. Not an option for Brian, obviously.

"Sometimes I feel like someone's testing me," he says. "Tying is my sobriety, but some days I've got so much pain I can't do it. And it's from the fishing. It's a mind trip." He says that, on those days, he just sits down at the bench and stares at a half-finished fly. Or makes just a few thread wraps.

"The last few years have been my longest time sober since I was a kid," he says. "I like my life now. I like being part of the flyfishing community. I like the people."

It's all of these things together—the flies, the fish, the places, the people—that have saved Brian's life. He mentions each as we spend time together over the summer. "The Brule has saved my life a few times," he'll say. Or, "Those North Shore brookies saved my life." But tying remains the foundation. He keeps a bin of tying gear and materials in his truck all the time. It goes where he goes. Just in case.

The next time we meet, Bergeson brings me to his basement rec room. We had a musky trip planned this weekend but no dice—he's recovering from the removal of a spinal implant that was supposed to help his CRPS but didn't. Instead, it caused plenty of its own pain.

A lot of the 1950s ramblers in the Twin Cities have bars in their basements, and he's converted this one into a comprehensive fly lab. The glossy pine bartop just peeks out from beneath the fluorescent bucktails, grizzly capes, and reams of Flashabou. On one end is a stack of fresh flies, bound for the mouths of Christmas Island GTs. He picks one up and hands it to me. It's a creamsicle Double Demon, orange and white with rusty flash and holographic eyes.

"This one right here," he says with obvious pride. Like all newly tied flies, it glows with pure hope. "Got a feeling about it."