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If Donald Trump continues having trouble making interest payments on the Taj Mahal, maybe he should call up Paul Schmookler, one of his old schoolmates from New York Military Academy, for some moneymaking tips. Schmookler, 43, is positively thriving in Millis, Mass., selling vintage fishing tackle, angling art and, in particular, flies.
It has taken a bit of time, however, for Schmookler, a man of multiple talents and interests, to find his niche. He has been a field entomologist, collecting butterflies, beetles and other insects in North, Central and South America, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Southeast Asia for biological supply houses, museums and private collectors. He is an enthusiastic and expert angler who has taken Atlantic salmon weighing up to 38 pounds in New Brunswick and Quebec, and chinook up to 52 pounds in Alaska.
More important, Schmookler is a gifted flytier who has discovered a way to dwell in a world all his own. He can tie ultrarealistic flies—his imitation of the nymph of the Eastern golden stonefly was featured in Judith Dunham's acclaimed book, The Art of the Trout Fly. But Schmookler derives the most satisfaction—and much of his annual income—from tying tiny but elaborate works of art reminiscent of another angling era.
"Just as I was never meant to be a part of the mainstream work force, I was also never to be a mainstream flytier," Schmookler says. "I fell in love with creating beautiful jewels that came from my own imagination and had not been previously tied by someone else." Schmookler has long been enamored of flies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the ultrarealistic—those fanciful and ornate concoctions devised to catch Atlantic salmon at the height of the Victorian Era.
Bearing such memorable names as the Thunder and Lightning, the Silver Doctor, the Bronze Pirate and the Fairy King, and tied—or "dressed," as the British say—with silk, tinsel and exotic feathers and furs dispatched home by far-ranging stalwarts of the Empire, these classic flies are now celebrated and sought after for their beauty, grace and complexity of design, with no thought as to whether a salmon would consider giving one a tumble. Along with hand-carved duck decoys and some pre-World War II cars by Bugatti, Duesenberg and Mercedes-Benz, they are considered to rank as the most gorgeous objects ever made for sport.
Take the materials required to dress the Fairy King—one of the flies originated by George M. Kelson, the authority of that distant period, whose opus, The Salmon Fly, was first published in London in 1896.
Although the Fairy King is relatively uncomplicated compared with other flies of the time, the dressing calls for a tag of twisted gold and scarlet silk; a tail of toucan and jungle-cock feathers that have been dyed scarlet; a body of black seal fur ribbed with oval gold tinsel; a throat of long, light-blue hen hackle and African-guinea-fowl neck feathers dyed orange; a "mixed" wing of peacock herl (tail feathers), primary-wing or tail swan feathers dyed yellow and scarlet, and wood-duck flank feathers capped with two strips of white-tipped black turkey tail feathers; flanks of jungle-cock feathers dyed scarlet; and a head of black ostrich herl.
At one point in his career, the influential Kelson maintained that salmon struck at these gaudy flies because they imitated butterflies upon which, he postulated, the fish fed. That idea is preposterous—the truth is that salmon are often attracted by any bright object—and in later years, Kelson himself refuted the notion. After the turn of the century much simpler fly patterns took over as practicality—and science—prevailed. Thirteen years ago, however, Schmookler decided to turn back the clock by tying salmon flies in the Victorian style, but he did so with a very different twist.
Instead of copying the Fairy King and the other classics feather by feather, Schmookler created patterns of his own, inspired mainly by the colors of butterflies and other insects that he had collected on his globe-ranging jaunts. "I didn't want to be doing what everyone else had done," he says. "In art, if we copied what everyone else had done in the past, there would have been no Impressionism, no Post-impressionism, no new painting at all."
Although a number of Schmookler's flies have actually taken Atlantic salmon in North America and Europe, the majority end up in the den of a collector—usually mounted in a bell jar or framed in a shadow box. And with good reason: Schmookler's presentation flies are among the most expensive in the world, selling for $375 to $2,000. Only a wellheeled angler with a lot of nerve would dare cast one into a river, where it might well be lost in a tree or hang up on a submerged rock or even be broken off by an infuriated salmon.