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Fly-tying ace: Wisconsin man wraps up reputation for quality lures

Outside, the river flows by, dark against the new snow.

Inside the house, just up from the river, David Lucca is in his "comfort zone." It's the room in his basement where he has tied thousands of fishing flies.

On this February morning, he's at his formidable tying bench, glasses riding low on his nose, tying a Hexagenia mayfly imitation in a pool of incandescent light. The walls around him are knotty white pine, harvested locally. They are covered with framed prints of flies, illustrations of fly-fishers Lucca has known, a pack basket, a wicker creel, an aging fly rod, wooden landing nets, pictures of friends.

"Everyone needs a comfort zone," said Lucca, 63.

From this comfort zone, Lucca has made a name for himself in fly-tying. He started like most fly-tiers, hoping to save a few bucks by tying his own.

"Then it gets hold of you, almost like you're caught in a current," Lucca said. "It takes you in."

He seemed to have a knack for tying flies that both fish and fly-fishers liked. He became so good, and so consistent, that his work was in demand. He began tying professionally for Tom Helgeson, who then owned Bright Waters Fly Shop in the Twin Cities, probably 30 years ago.

It wasn't long before Lucca was tying for retail shops from Hayward to New England.

"I used to tie up to 15,000 flies a year," Lucca said. "I did that for almost a decade."

Lucca has cut back now, turning out 3,000 to 4,000 a year, some at wholesale, some for clients who order direct from him.

Pinned to a drawer above his fly-tying bench is a note that reads: "Next month," with a laundry list from one of his clients: a dozen and a half green drake parachutes, a dozen No. 16 Griffith gnats, a dozen No. 16 black gnats, a dozen No. 16 Adams.

Lucca is known, especially, for his Hexagenia mayflies, imitations of the big flies that hatch around the Fourth of July on Wisconsin's Brule and the White rivers. Among fly-tiers and fly-fishers, Lucca is known for both the consistency of his flies and their durability.

"Dave is a professional, one of the best fly-tiers around," said Helgeson, of Minneapolis, who publishes Midwest Fly Fishing magazine. "It has to do with consistency. You put 12 of his flies on the table, and you can't tell one from another. It's more of an aesthetic."

"He's just a machine," said Superior fly angler Steve Therrien, a friend of Lucca's.

Lucca isn't sure where that talent comes from.

"You have an eye for it," he said. "It's a gift God gave me. I can hardly read a ruler, but I know when something's off."

His style is so distinct that some of his flies bear his name. Umpqua Feather Merchants sells a Lucca Hexagenia limbata mayfly. Stone River Outfitters markets the Lucca foam cricket and the Lucca foam 'hopper.

Lucca is reticent to discuss much of this. It is not his style.

"There's very few flies that someone can say, 'I invented,' '' he said. "You might think it's new, and you look in a book from 50 years ago, and there it is."

When a wood engraver named Gaylord Schanilec fashioned his two-volume "Mayflies of the Driftless Region," eight of Lucca's flies were encased in glass as part of the books' leather slipcover. Just 50 of the collector's editions were printed. Lucca tied eight flies, from Tricos to Hexes, for each one. The books sold for more than $1,200 each.

But Lucca says tying flies is no way to get rich.

"I'm lucky. I'm a fast tier," he said. "But I'd be hard-pressed to make more than $10 an hour tying wholesale."

Lucca was born in International Falls and spent most of his career as a speech pathologist in Cambridge, Minn. He and his wife, Michaele, bought their home on the banks of the Namekagon River in Hayward and began remodeling it. When Lucca retired five years ago, they moved to the home.

Lucca fishes the Namekagon - sometimes right out his door - as well as the Brule and the White. As a young man, he was a "worm fisherman."

"The first couple of years, I killed everything I caught," Lucca said. "Then I made a decision."

He has kept just one fly-caught fish, a rainbow of immense proportions that graces a beam in his home.

"I foul-hooked it (outside the mouth), and it bled to death," he said.

It was easy for Lucca to become a catch-and-release angler. He's allergic to eating fish.

His mentor, in both fly-fishing and fly-tying, is fellow Hayward resident John Mateju. The two met on a river where Mateju, a quadriplegic World War II vet, was fishing from a rubber raft. Mateju passed along his knowledge of fly fishing. For many years, Lucca took Mateju to the Brule River and carried him to his canoe for evenings of fishing. They still talk often.

Helgeson became another of Lucca's advisers - in writing. When he began publishing Midwest Fly Fishing magazine, Helgeson asked Lucca to write for it. Lucca has written how-to pieces on fly-tying and the occasional angler profile. But he is perhaps best known for his Lake-Wobegon-like cast of characters from a fictional small town. They're based on bait shops and characters he has known from International Falls to Hayward.

"I don't think I've met many people who have a sense of story that's as well-developed as Dave's," Helgeson said. "When he goes to the river, he's got all these people around him. Some are real. Some are imaginary."

The fictional stories, often set at Bertha's Angler's Cafe, use dialogue and detail to paint pictures of a small town's fishing community. Every angler knows someone like Lucca's "Minnow Jim," his "High Pockets Lindell," his "Milt," the postmaster.

"The stories are kind of like his tying style - sparse," Therrien said.

Meanwhile, Lucca keeps writing and tying. He has a couple of stories in the hopper for Helgeson. He has a couple of thousand flies ready to ship to New England shops.

And when May rolls around, he'll be hip-deep in one of his home rivers, laying out fly line, dropping one of his own creations on the current.