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Passion for Fishing Flies Produces Remarkable Collection

July 3, 1988

FLORENCE, Ore. (AP) _ Though William Cushner has never felt the sweet rhythm of casting a fly rod or the glowing satisfaction of tying a fly, he has been hooked by a passion for the work of the world’s greatest fly tiers.

″It’s the artistry, the craft and the skills these men possess,″ said Cushner, a master picture framer who also frames flies for display.

Cushner’s been a fly admirer for a long time, but what got his collection rolling was the demise of the venerable New York City angling supplier Wm. Mills & Son.

″Harry Hunt (who was liquidating the company’s assets) opened the doors for me,″ Cushner recalled. ″We all knew that somewhere in that place were the flies of Theodore Gordon, the father of American fly fishing. I kept buying all morning long.

″He suggested he would like to have a set of flies (framed) for himself. Once I agreed to that, the whole picture changed. He took me down to the basement and showed me flies that were tied in 1870.

″I wound up with an inventory of 100,000 flies.″

The flies are put together with bits of fur, feathers and anything else that a tier thinks might attract a fish, all tied to a small hook. Most are designed to imitate flies that trout and salmon feed on along streams and are less than half an inch long.

Cushner shows them off with a flair so compelling that other collectors frequently offer to share their most prized flies with him if he will frame a set for them.

″Joe Howell was here from the North Umpqua,″ a famed steelhead river in southern Oregon, Cushner said.

″He says, ‘Have you heard of Herb Howard?’ I said, ‘You have a set of Herb Howard?’ He said he had 38 of them. He said, ’I’ll split them down the middle with you.‴

Cushner uses a water-soluble glue - so they can be removed without harm - to mount the flies on a tiny clear plastic post within the frame.

″When I first thought of it, I was sitting in the subway, and all of a sudden, I could see in my mind the man casting and the fly floating in space,″ said Cushner, a former denizen of New York. ″That got to me. So I raised it from its background, which gives it its whole dimension.″

Cushner combines flies with a painting, print, carving, photograph or some other work of art, taking special care that they relate to each other.

″Given the fact that I did not fish or tie flies, I had to make this interesting for myself,″ Cushner said.

An etching by English artist Norman Wilkinson showing a single salmon leaping from a river has been combined with four feather-wing salmon flies tied by Spanish master Belarmino Martinez.

Other fly tiers represented include Carrie G. Stevens, inventor of the gray ghost streamer; Lee Wulff, originator of the royal Wulff dry fly, and C. Jim Prey, creator of the Thor steelhead pattern.

A photo of famed Pensylvania angler Jim Leisenring is mounted with a set of 11 trout flies and the dog-eared piece of paper on which he stored them, complete with pencil notations about the flies.

Cushner’s work has been displayed at the American Museum of Sports and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A collection of 230 pieces is been at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt.

The Fly Fishing Museum and Cushner’s workshop now occupy the top floor of his small two-story house. Now 75, Cushner figures he has another 10 years to build up the collection and hopes to see the work continued by his son-in-law, who lives nearby with Cushner’s daughter and two grandchildren.

Visitors to the museum are few, so far - it opened in May - and not all of them understand what he is doing.

″I had a man in here the other day who said he loved fishing so much, you could put a bucket of water in front of him and he could fish all day,″ said Cushner. ″Yet with all this around him, he wasn’t interested. Fascinating.″

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