The fly collector: Collection of 9,000 flies holds memories, knowledge for Bryson City angler
“This is the ugliest fly I have,” says Mike Kesselring, pulling a battered-looking brown-bodied, black-feathered fly from a box marked “18. Antiques.”
The box is just one of the many filling the back of Kesselring’s red SUV, the fly just one the roughly 9,000 in his expansive collection. The flies run the gamut from the long, flowing streamers designed to resemble flashy-colored minnows to tiny but intricate creations mimicking the river’s smallest insect nymphs. Nearly all are prettier, more pristine than the 20-year-old thing Kesselring, 64, now holds up to the sunlight.
But this ugly little fly carries the weight of angling glories past in its torn-up body.
“I caught one of my biggest brown trout with this when the creek overflowed,” Kesselring says, recalling the story.
It was back in 1995, and Deep Creek was in flood stage. Kesselring was out with his rod and reel. The brown he pulled in was huge, somewhere between 20 and 22 inches.
Boxes of memories
“I go looking through my collection and think about this fly I used in a certain place, caught a certain fish or think about where I got this fly, who gave it to me,” he said. “There’s a lot of memories connected to them.”
Memories of travel connected to flies he snagged while on vacation to this place or that. Memories of people he’s met, fly tyers from all over the world who have given him a memento to add to his collection. And, of course, the memories of fish and the stories behind their capture.
Like the time he was fishing a black-and-silver streamer in the Oconaluftee and got hooked into a trout that, judging from the way it pulled the line, had to be huge. He lost his footing and got swept downriver in the swift water, eventually stopping against a pair of rocks. The pressure of the oncoming water pinned him there — he couldn’t move.
“I still had my rod in my hand with the fish — I wasn’t going to lose it after all this,” Kesselring recalled. “The only way I could get unplugged from those rocks was to roll my whole body around the facing of the one rock.”
Eventually, he escaped the current and reached calm water, where he reeled in the line to discover a 20-inch rainbow trout on the other end.
“Nearly drowning,” he declared, “was worth it.”
Then there was the parachute Adams — a gray dry fly imitating a mayfly — that he had on the line when walking slab-like rocks in Walker Camp Prong in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“They would clank and clack like flat rocks will do, and I heard that same sound behind me and I thought, ‘OK, something got knocked loose, moved by the stream,’” Kesselring recalled, “and I turned to look behind me and there was a bear coming down the rhododendrons.”
Thankfully, Kesselring didn’t have any fish on him at the time. He made his way up the bank as quickly as he could, not even stopping to wind his line in.
“It saw me, but it never seemed to be interested in me,” Kesselring said, “It could have been worse, but it scared me pretty good for a while.”
The collector of collections
Some of the flies are attached to compelling memories involving gigantic trout and close calls, but of the 9,000, Kesselring estimates he’s fished only about 900. Most of the flies have never even been dipped in the water. A lot of them wouldn’t even be any good to an angler in Western North Carolina, as they’re designed to catch fish that don’t exist in the waters around here.
That doesn’t bother Kesselring. The variety of his collection — the myriad of styles, variations within styles, materials used, tyers and regions represented, colors and textures — established over the course of decades, mean something special to him. Having spent his career as a professional photographer and writer, Kesselring has an eye for beauty, and he sees the collection as an investment, a catalogue of memories, a learning tool, a record of changes in fly styles and materials over the decades.
“There’s very few people I’ve met who have a collection as big as mine,” Kesselring said.
The endeavor began innocently enough, back when Kesselring first started getting back into fly fishing upon moving to Bryson City in the 1970s. He made it a habit to buy multiples every time he went to get some flies.
“I would save the ones I didn’t lose in the trees or didn’t lose in the bottom of the creek, and that’s how my collection started, the extra ones I purchased,” he said. “But after a while I made it an intentional thing.”
When traveling, he’d find a fly shop and purchase something representative of the area. He’d strike up conversations with tyers, who would learn of his collection and — after failing to convince him to start tying himself — give Kesselring something to add. Slowly but surely, the collection expanded to the 9,000 carefully organized — but uncatalogued — flies he owns today. Each has its own compartment in the multitude of plastic cases Kesselring keeps for the purpose, packed away in zip-up carriers that hold eight trays of flies apiece.
He’s also got a few other mini-collections to go along with his massive inventory of flies. Kesselring owns 15 different varieties of fly boxes, 30 different reels and 28 different rods.
“I don’t know if it’s a mental disease,” he said, “but I collect stuff.”
The “stuff” isn’t limited to fly fishing paraphernalia. Since beginning his very first collection — stamps, a fitting object for a military kid moving around all over the world — Kesselring’s also developed collections of Star Trek items and chess sets. He has about 1,200 movie posters, and more than 1,000 vinyl albums.
“A couple of friends have called me a collector of collections,” he said.
For Kesselring, though, collecting is an avenue to learning. The stamps that ignited his love of collecting, for instance, had a wealth of information contained in the mottos and emblems of their designs, often particular to the place he was living at the time. His fly collection is similarly informative. The flies represent all the stages of insects and fish and aquatic creatures a trout might like to munch, and picking the right one for any given hour demands a knowledge of what’s going on in the stream ecologically. The more traditional flies in the collection also point to the region where they originated, using materials and techniques based on the place they were created.
“I’ve learned a lot about Appalachia by learning about the flies that are called Appalachian flies,” Kesselring said.
His collection is a working collection, so each season demands a different arsenal of Appalachian flies to catch Appalachian fish. While most people are changing over their wardrobes, Kesselring is changing out his fly box. He roots through his collection with each shift of the seasons, picking a couple hundred flies to supply him over the coming months — of those, he might use only about 20 on any given day, but it pays to be prepared.
Going through the collection also has an organizational purpose. About twice a year, he’ll integrate any new flies he’s acquired with the existing collection, placing the new stuff in its proper place based on style, color and size. The process can take a week or more.
“It can be a little anal, but think how much more difficult it would be if you didn’t do it,” he said.
Kesselring, who readily admits he has a fascination with organization, is fully capable of spending hours updating and maintaining his collection. But his favorite place is still in the creek, with waders on and a line in the water.
“A river or a creek is a nature trail of sorts,” he said, and the views from any given stretch of it are gifts that 99 percent of the population never get the chance to see.
“There’s a lot of memories there,” he said.