American Fly Fishing

By Steve Schweitzer

Illustration, sculpture, tattoos—they are all the same to Pat Cohen. These artistic media are his passions. And Cohen has a unique way of combining them all into his latest undertaking, crafting flies—cutting-edge flies that undeniably merge art and craft. Cohen, who lives in New York, fell into fly tying as he has fallen into everything he’s done in his life: by following
his heart.
   After earning an associate’s degree in psychology and entering Binghamton University’s bachelor psychology program, Cohen was wandering around campus and got lost in the sculpture studio. “I absolutely fell in love with the sculptures,” he recalls. “I had always done art growing up, and I told myself I should really be doing this [art] instead of psychology. So I did. I switched over all my classes and became an art major that instant.”
   After graduation, he took a job at a screen-printing facility and quickly befriended the graphic designer, who taught him one valuable lesson. To be good at screen printing one must be good at computer graphic design. So, not satisfied with mediocrity, back to school Cohen went, this time to earn a degree in graphic design.
   During his schooling, Cohen got his first few tattoos and became friends with the local shop owner. He inquired about becoming a tattoo artist, but found out that it was not easy. This art form stills subscribes to the traditional values of apprenticeship mixed with some good old hazing to secure one’s spot in the ranks. Between his apprenticeship and a full-time job, he was logging 16- to 18-hour days. A year later, in 2004, he was a full-time tat pro, and he has never looked back. So how does fly tying fit into all of this? Passion and artistic talent bring it all into focus.
   Cohen thinks of his fly art partially as a three-dimensional extension of his tattoo artistry, explaining, “I really got into pen and ink for a while. . . . I just love black-and-white design. There’s no hiding with black-and-white pen/ink drawings; if you are good at it, your art shows that. If you suck, well . . . people know that too.
   “My fly designs are a little bit of painting, a little bit of sculpture, a little bit of rendering, . . . and the materials tie it
all together.”
   Oftentimes, Cohen sketches out flies in pen and ink to formulate ideas before applying the design to a hook. He notes, “When I design flies, my eye is trained to look at the natural thing, baitfish for example, to notice subtle lines or colors or shapes and movement. I try to incorporate those observations into my designs. The outcome is a more realistic-looking or -acting fly.”
   That kind of design process takes his flies beyond mere artistic expression and plops them squarely in the realm of pragmatism: they catch fish.
   Cohen says his flagship flies are his Punk Rockers. These deer-hair-based patterns are, in fact, three-dimensional paintings themselves. But the carefully planned and expertly rendered color schemes are just the eye-candy front to some ultra-durable and highly effective smallmouth, carp, and saltwater patterns. As with his pen-and-ink work, Cohen comes up with creative and catchy names for his flies: Carp-N-Crunch, Carp Dart, Hell Yeah Grammite, Shaggin’ Dragon.
   Ask him to draw or tie a fly and he can’t sit still. When he is rendering a tattoo, he prefers to move around the body to look at the forming piece from all angles. It’s permanent after all, and each application of the ink melds into a developing multilayered project—it has to be perfect. He treats fly tying the same way, preferring to move around his fly and look at it from all angles as the fly develops. “As you create the fly and look at it from all perspectives, you should be thinking about color, shape, form, and movement. These are all the same things an artist thinks about when doing an art project,” he explains.
   Cohen taught himself to design and dress flies, studying YouTube videos to learn how to spin and pack deer hair as tightly and sturdily as the best hair-bug specialists. As with any complex form of fly tying, he had to push through the learning curve. “It was funny about my first attempt at stacking hair,” he says. “I used bucktail, not knowing it was the absolute worst material to use. I just couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t spinning and stacking like it should. After watching a few videos, I figured out that belly hair was the best.”
   In case you haven’t realized it by now, Cohen is a quick study at anything he delves into. In a matter of just a few short years, he has developed his own spinning techniques and even a hair-packing tool, the SF Fugly Packer; nearly 6 inches long and made of steel, it can withstand as much pressure as you need to pack super-tight spun-hair flies. In just a few years, he has sold hundreds of his Punk Rockers and thousands of his other flies around the world, all from his website,
    yet he is relatively new not only to tying, but also to fly fishing. By his own admission, he was always a mediocre fisherman at best, only dabbling in fly fishing occasionally. He chuckles, “I would spend ridiculous amounts of money buying the next best thing in lures and scents and other crap, and I couldn’t pay a fish to get on the end of my line. I was the eternal joke in my family when I said I was going fishing again—they knew I wouldn’t catch anything.”
   Things changed after one day on a local smallmouth stream when he was flinging an Eagle Claw spin/cast combo outfit on a
fly rod.
   “It was like casting with a telephone pole, but all of a sudden I got it. . . . I knew fly fishing was for me,” he says. 
   Someone once said, “A new broom sweeps clean,” which certainly applies to Cohen. Even though he didn’t start fly fishing and tying until 2009, he has inspired the fly-tying world in new creative ways. Asked where he wants to take his newfound passion for fly tying, he says, “I just want to inspire others to step outside the box. There are no rules to this game unless you put them on yourself. Everyone can be creative to some extent, and maybe I can help others pull that creativity out of themselves.”


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