|Syl Nemes in 1998 on the Madison River|
About a dozen years ago, I served as program chairman for the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and had the privilege of contacting people in the flyfishing world and talking them into sharing their expertise in flyfishing, just for the fun of it. No money, just fun.
A highlight was the evening Syl (short for Sylvester) Nemes did a presentation on his lifelong passion, soft-hackled flies. Al Troth of Dillon, another flyfishing legend, came to Butte for the evening and Al and Syl exchanged a number of viewpoints, some of which were rather pointed. Judging by the grins of people enjoying the exchanges between these two legendary characters of the sport, I knew that booking Syl Nemes was a home run.
The next day I met Syl and his wife, Hazel, for breakfast and the opportunity for an interview, and out of this conversation came an invitation to go fishing with Syl on the Madison River a couple weeks later. Subsequently I occasionally ran into Syl at fishing shows where he did flytying demonstrations or promoted new books.
It came as a shock when I belatedly learned that Syl Nemes died at his home in Bozeman on February 3, 2011, at age 88.
Syl grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where a barber introduced him to the basics of flyfishing and flytying. He enlisted in the Army at the beginning of WWII and in England met Hazel, his future English war bride, who waited anxiously as Syl went to Normandy, just four days after D Day, to direct Air Corps fighters in the push to Germany. He returned to England after nine months and married Hazel, bringing her to the U.S. after the war, where Syl went to Kent State University on the G.I. Bill.
Syl worked as a copywriter for major advertising agencies a number of years and also freelanced as a photojournalist, though when possible he arranged vacations and weekends around flyfishing, always using soft-hackled flies.
In 1975 he published his first book, “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” which re-introduced the all but forgotten English-style wet fly to American anglers.
In 1984, Syl and Hazel moved to Bozeman and, in retirement, built a life around flyfishing, designing new variations of soft-hackled flies, and writing more books and magazine articles promoting variations on soft-hackled flies. Syl became known worldwide for his work; there is even a flyfishing club in Japan that is named after him. In 2008, the Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Bozeman honored Syl with their “Legends of the Headwaters” award.
In the brief time that I got to spend with Syl I learned to appreciate him as a humble and gentle man, and for his love of learning new wrinkles of entomology and fly design, including his 1998 book, “Spinners,” highlighting a then mostly-overlooked part of the mayfly life cycle, as well as demonstrating formidable skills in macro photography.
Syl could be a bit stubborn about his flies, however. On the day we fished together, he commented, “A fly company sent me a whole bag of bead heads and synthetic stuff for me to try out and design some new flies. They’re still sitting in the garage. I don’t want anything to do with that stuff.” Syl believed in the traditions of soft-hackled flies, and natural materials, such as silk and partridge feathers.
In an interview with the Bozeman Chronicle, Hazel commented, “Syl didn’t like to fish too much with people he didn’t know,” so memories of that afternoon on the Madison River seem all the more precious.
Hazel told me that in Syl’s last couple years he had mostly lost interest in fishing, possibly due to subtle changes in his health, though just last October a friend took him out for what turned out to be Syl’s last day of fishing, on a favorite stream, DePuy Spring Creek.
I have autographed copies of several of Syl’s books, including that first 1975 edition of “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” now a collector’s item, as well as some flies that he tied. They are treasured reminders of a memorable friend.