“Not many people knew how to tie a fly back in those days. It was an art – a well kept secret,” Walter explains. He taught himself how to tie a fly by buying them and untying them just to see how they were put together. “I didn’t get very good at tying a fly for about ten years,” said Walter. His love for fishing began around the age of seven when he fished with worms.
His father, the late Walter Babb Sr., better known as ‘Doc,’ was an avid fly fisherman. Walter Jr. later became passionate about fly fishing when he started tying flies himself. “My father didn’t know how to tie a fly, so I basically kept his fly ties stocked,” joked Walter.
When Walter was a teenager, he sold his flies for $3.00 a dozen to make money. When he started driving, he would take a map and anywhere he saw blue on it – he would find it and fish it.
Walter explained how everyone gathered at Percy Swainson’s Drug Store in Tellico Plains. The Drug Store is where you got permits, fishing gear, bait, and purchased the nationally renowned ‘Tellico Nymph’ fly, tacked to an individual card made by the E.H. Peckenpaugh Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The ‘Tellico Nymph’ was created in the logging days. “It was a good fly that caught fish. You could catch a fish just about anywhere in Southern Appalachia with it,” said Walter. The nymph is an aquatic feeding insect that was found on the Tellico River. The tail is made with both guinea and pheasant feathers and ribbed with peacock feathers.
Walter explains how he loved to tie flies and fish with his good friend, the late Mr. Eddy George. Walter described Eddy as a legend among fly fishermen. He states, “One time I asked Eddy, where do people get all these exotic feathers for flies?” Eddy simply replied, “Most of them come from women’s hats!”
Walter and Eddy became good friends with David Klausmayer, president of the local Trout Unlimited Chapter at the time. David had an acquaintance with someone who worked with the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, and they asked both Walter and Eddy to tie a dozen flies each to be featured in the museum for Southern Appalachian Flies. “I’d imagine nobody would have ever heard of our flies had it not been for David,” recalls Walter.
Walter retired in 2000, after spending 33 years with Viskase in Loudon, Tennessee. Walter stated, “I retired one job only to pick up about six more.” Walter became a fly fishing guide in The Smoky Mountains. He still teaches a fly tying class in Townsend at Little River Outfitters, as well as a fly fishing class with the owner of Little River Outfitters, Paula Begley. Walter has since begun custom bamboo fly rod building.
Walter’s friend, Stan Smartt, tried for years to get Walter to start building fly rods. Finally, Walter bought a fly rod book to teach him how to tie them, and he also watched and learned from Stan as he was building rods one day. Walter thought he could do it, so he made several rods for his friends. “It was never my intention to make a business out of it, but that’s what happened. My friends would show their custom fly rods to their friends who would then want one and so on and so on.” You start with a cane that’s about 12 feet long. “It doesn’t look like you can possibly get to a rod from that, but you can,” explained Walter.
Building fly rods is a difficult and tedious project. Walter’s friends always said he made it look easy, just like tying his flies. Walter said, “My dad told me one time, everything is easy if you want to know how to do it.” Walter sells his custom bamboo fly rods from Maine to Colorado. He stated, “I’m currently 17 rods behind right now.” Walter said each rod takes nearly 80 hours to build so he makes about a rod a month.
When asked about his favorite place to fish, he replied, “I’ve fished everywhere out west. I’ve even fished the Catskill in New York, which is the birthplace of fly fishing, and though it’s rich in history, the Tellico River is by far my choice to fish.”
If you are interested in Walter Babb Jr.’s custom made flies or bamboo fly rods, he can be reached at 423-337-6772.