Helen Shaw

The First Lady of Fly Tying

"Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire magazine, upon being presented one hundred Helen Shaw flies at the celebration of the magazine's fiftieth birthday in 1983, said, tearfully: 'I have never had a Helen Shaw fly: now I have a hundred. Nobody's worth that much.'

Helen Shaw made a seminal contribution to fly tying. Now in her mid-nineties, she was called the First Lady of Fly-Tying by Arnold Gingrich. In 1963, she published Fly-Tying, a book named by Gingrich as one of ten of the best "modern" fly-fishing books. It was an early book on the subject, and it set a standard for dozens of other books since."

Taken from "Helen Shaw: A quiet Pioneer by Harry L. Peterson"
The American Fly Fisher, Winter 2008

Helen Shaw tying with Art Kade, 20 June 1942. As a young woman that she met and was hired by Art Kade, owner of Art kade Flycrafters. The inside of his catalog read "Art Kade Flycrafters, Designers and Manufactures of Fine Fishing Flies." Kade's catalogue announced:

Art Kade Flies are "Made in America"...all in our own shop. They are not "production line gadgets" knocked out to sell at a price but are created with the utmost care for discriminating anglers who appreciate a truly fine fly. Our own expert fly tiers are not only artists in fly dressing but each is a proficient fly fisherman as well-who analyzes the handling and fish attracting qualities of our flies and tests their durability at the streamside in actual use.

Kade also sold fly lines, line dressings, leaders fly boxes, leader boxes, creels, landing nets, and, yes, spinning lures and stringers. (Photo courtesy of the Sheboygan County (Wisconsin) Historical Research Center)

Kade Fly Crafters, above Keitel's Confectionery, 816 North 8th Street, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. There, while still in high school, Helen Shaw would tie flies and continue to develop her craft that was to receive international attention. (Photo courtesy of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center.)

Believed to be the earliest commercial Helen Shaw flies in this box of Art Kade Flycrafters dry flies.

In 1953, she married Hermann Kessler, the art director for Field and Stream magazine, and moved from Wisconsin to New York City. Kessler and Shaw were part of the meetings in 1965 at which the beginnings of the Museum of American Fly Fishing were conceived, and Kessler served on the first board of directors of the museum. After marrying Kessler and moving to New York, Shaw continued to tie flies at their East 46th Street apartment.

Later she stopped tying commercially, but as Gingrich wrote, "...as of the last decade has confined her artistry to the creation of flies meant for presentation not to fish but to fishermen- special specimens intended for collectors, and for display rather than for everyday routine use." She published a second book, Flies for Fish and Fishermen, in 1989.

She was the recipient of the national Fly Fishing Federation Buszek Award, and her nomination for that award was initiated by the FFF chapter in Sheboygan, the Helen Shaw chapter.

Helen's Size #40 Royal Coachman

Above: The size #40 fly on the end of a cigarette to highlight the diminutive size. Right: Articles ran in Field and Stream as well as the New York Anglers Club bulletin among others highlighting Helen's showcase fly.

"The number 40 Royal Coachman is dressed as Ray Bergman lists it in "trout", and was tied the year after his book was published...Too tiny to have an eye, the #40 hook was fastened to a strand of gold wire thread...to permit handling it later. This fly was tied at the International Outdoor Show in Chicago in 1939, and at the time was one of three such hooks in the world, the others having been made for a collection of miniature hooks."
Letter from Helen Shaw to Herman Kessler Oct 11 1952.

Royal Coachman
Coachman (confirm)
Quill Gordon (confirm)
Blond Ginger Quill (confirm)
Ginger Quill (confirm)
Overfied's Kites Imperial
Lady Beaverkill (confirm)
Adams Olive (confirm)
Light Caddis Pupa
Green Caddis Pupa
Caddis Worm
Fan Wing Royal Coachman
Royal Coachman Trude Wing
Mayfly Detached Body
March Brown Clipped Hackle
Black Gnat
Siler Sedge
Royal Coachman (feather)
Professor (hair)
Royal Coachman (hair)
Quill Gordon Polled Wings
Hendrickson Polled Wings
Green Drake Polled Wings
Cahill Polled Wings
Spider BiVisible (Not Confirmed. Rube Cross?)
Grizzly King
Good Evening Fly
Martin (1896)
Grouse & Orange
Cinnamon Fly
Fire Fly
Brown Miller
Claret Dun
Prime Gnat
Rio Grande king
Jungle Francis
Bee Collection 1
Bee Collection 2
Bee Collection 3
Bee Collection 5
Bee Collection 6
Bee Collection 7

©2006 RDotson, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photographs property of artist and can not be used without express permission. Note some historical photographs and majority of write-up is printed with permission of Harry L. Peterson.