John Warren Duncan

 1948-2007

            John Warren Duncan, was a resident of Saint John, New Brunswick,  born on June 24, 1948 in Campbellton, New Brunswick.  His name is as familiar among fishermen as Remington and Winchester is to hunters.  He has appeared often on radio and television and can be read about in practically every fly tying and fishing book published today.  You can safely say that he was one of Canada’s most famous fly tyers.

 

 John Warren Duncan “The Highness of Hairwing” Mid 1990’s

 When Warren set out to learn about the art of fly tying in 1962 he purchased a cheap fly tying kit and went to visit the well-known fly tyer Ralph Billingsley in Campbelton, New Brunswick.  Ralph showed Warren some of the fundamentals of tying, but from there on he flew solo in his pursuit of fly tying excellence.  His passion for fly tying and his desire to be the very best required a tremendous sacrifice in time, study and practice.  The results of the sacrifices were soon revealed when he began turning out top quality flies to anglers around the world. 

Warren Duncan was a commercial fly tyer.  He ran the business out of his shop on Hickey Road in Saint John, New Brunswick.  He has always been serious about what he is doing and for more than four decades he had supplied flies to everyone from Pauper to Prince and President.  The quality of the product is the same for everyone, excellent.  He produced hundreds of thousands of flies.  His flies are so identifiable, a known signature, and anglers can identify them at a first glance and tell if Warren Duncan tied them.  No doubt about it, Warren Duncan was “The Highness of Hairwing”.

            In the late 1970’s Warren popularized a fly called “The Undertaker.”  The fly gained such recognition that together they will forever be remembered in the history of fly tying.  In 1993 he gave birth to a fly called “Picture Province”.  This fly, which was originated for the province of New Brunswick can be seen by going on-line at www.gnb.ca/cnb/logos/index-e.asp  

 

 “Rusty Rat” tied by Warren Duncan 1996

 

Warren’s favorite fly was the “Rusty Rat”, because of its historical connection with the Restigouche River.  His favorite river for fishing was also the Restigouche, but he caught his first Atlantic salmon on the Hammond River over thirty-five years ago while out trout fishing.  Things were never the same after that.  The salmon, he describes as the King of them all, is his favorite sport fish.  He knew this because he had fished many of the other game fish and there is no comparison with them to the stamina and fight in an Atlantic salmon.

In 1994 Warren Duncan became a member of “Where The Rivers Meet” The Fly Tyers of New Brunswick collection. 

 

 

                         Undertaker tied by Warren Duncan in April 1994

 

Head:               Black

Tag:                              Flat gold tinsel, fluorescent green floss and fluorescent red floss

Body:                           Peacock herl

Rib:                              Oval gold tinsel

Throat:                         Black hackle

Wing:                           Black Bear hair

 

                       

                      “Green Machine”                                                     

     Tied by Warren Duncan in April 1994    

 

       

       Picture Province by Warren Duncan       1994

 


 

On February 10, 2007 Fly Tyers from around the world were terribly saddened when they learned of the sudden passing of Warren Duncan To New Brunswickers it is even more devastating. The name,"Warren Duncan" is as household among fly tyers and anglers as the name of the car they drive, or the children they raise. His passing is a tremendous loss, but what he did and represented for New Brunswick will surely live as long as there are fly tyers and anglers.

Shortly after Warren's passing his family graciously permitted, Marty Klinkenberg, contributing editor of the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, New Brunswick to meet with them and learn more about the life and love of this gentle man. Marty Klinkenberg generously agreed to allow his story added in Warren's writing in "Where The Rivers Meet", THE FLY TYERS OF NEW BRUNSWICK.



Behind Warren Duncan's work bench in his silent fly shop in Saint John, a spool of white thread, as delicate as a bird's tongue, dangling beneath it. It is here, at this cramped little table in an unassuming strip mall, that Duncan's masterpieces, fashioned from wisps of animal hair and feathers and fancied by fishermen the world over, took wing. In its infant stages it is hard to tell exactly what Duncan was working on. But two things are certain: it would have bamboozled persnickety Atlantic salmon, and it was the last of about 500,000 he created. It will go unfinished, and be delivered soon, along with his desk, to a museum in Boisetown.



New Brunswick's Lord of the Flies died last Saturday as he sat in the chair behind his work station, a pair of scissors in his right hand. He was working diligently to complete an order of 190-dozen salmon flies for L.L. Bean, the world-famous outfitter in Maine that has sold his renderings for more than 30 years. "We've had a real run on his flies the last two or three days," Ken Estes, a salesman at L.L. Bean, said this week. The sprawling store in Freeport features Duncan's creations in a special display case, and by mid-week had posted a note informing customers of his death.

"A man who tied f lies for princes and presidents, prime ministers and rock stars, Duncan was 58 when he suffered a massive heart attack, leaving loved ones devastated, and fishermen stunned around the world.

Born in Campbellton and taught to tie flies there by the great Ralph Billingsley, Duncan had operated his shop on Hickey Road for 20 years. The store, which is not far from the oil refinery where he worked for three decades, will never re-open. Customers have been snapping up Warren Duncan's flies for more than 30 years, first out of the basement of his family's home in Barnesville, later from the garage of his house in Saint John. He opened his first shop, now the site of a gas bar and convenience store two decades ago. Since then, Dunc's Fly Shop has welcomed a countless stream of unlikely visitors, all brought together by a love for fly-fishing. Alice Cooper has been there, as have members of the heavy metal bands Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. The actor William Hurt has come several times, and even gifted Duncan with flies he tied on his own. The prime minister of Ireland stopped by once while visiting executives from Irving Oil Ltd. Everybody got the same greeting from Duncan, a man who enjoyed playing the role of curmudgeon and burying well-placed barbs in thin-skinned customers.

"My father wasn't impressed by movie stars," said Warren's son, John Duncan. "He was a simple man, and treated everyone the same way. He could roll with the kings or roll with the kids, talk to anybody at their own level. Dad never saw anybody as being famous, even though they treated him like a god "Anywhere, he went, he was admired."

Duncan was asked by L.L. Bean to tie special flies for President George Herbert Walker Bush, an avid angler who keeps a residence in Kennebunkport, Me. He tied flies for Prince Charles when he and the Princess of Wales visited Saint John, and he was commissioned to create the official salmon fly of New Brunswick in 1993. One of those flies - which he named The Picture Province - was given to each of the leaders who attended the G-8 summit in Halifax in 1995. He also created a fly for the McDonald's Corporation - using golden pheasant feathers to create the arches - and another for Irving Oil, which is displayed at the company's headquarters in Saint John. He fished with Ted Williams and tied more than a few streamers for Teddy Ballgame, a member of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as well as the Atlantic Salmon Hall of Fame. And he fished in the River Thames once at the invitation of Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who. "He asked my father for his autograph,"John Duncan said, chuckling.

For years, Duncan has filled special orders for L.L. Bean, and for the last decade was the only fly-tier the retailer employed to fashion Atlantic salmon flies. He was in the midst of producing a massive order of Black Gnats, Blue Charms, Bombers, Copper Killers, Cossebooms, Glitter Bugs, Golden Eagles, Gray Ghosts, Green Machines and Undertakers when he was felled by the heart attack. He had finished 46 dozen at the
time.

"I did some clinics at the L.L. Bean Fishing Expo last spring and got to watch Warren," said Rip Cunningham, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Salt Water Sportsman, a popular fishing magazine based in Massachusetts. "Watching him tie flies was truly amazing. "He had done it so many times he could carry on a conversation and be looking at you and tying them at the same time and never miss a beat."

Duncan also tied flies for major competitors of L.L. Bean, including Orvis and Ramsey's Outdoors, an outfit in Paramus, N.J. But he was never too short on time to help organizations like the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Hammond River Angling Association, and offered tips to too many fledgling fly-tiers to mention.

"I knew Warren by reputation for 10 or 15 years, and started talking to him six or seven years ago," said Jeanne Jenkins, a fly-tier from Fortune, Prince Edward Island. "He was an amazing man - kind, generous, an encouraging mentor, a true gentleman with an absolute heart of gold." Jenkins said she occasionally received boxes containing flies and fly-tying materials from Duncan. "I'd just go out to my mailbox one day and a box from him would be waiting for me," she said. "Only a couple of weeks ago, I received my last, and it's something I'll cherish. "I was devastated when I heard he died. I'm still in a state of shock."

Bryant Freeman, a fly-tier since 1946, has operated a specialty store in Riverview since 1984. He said even though his business, Eskape Anglers, competed with Dunc's, Duncan helped him just the same. "We were competitors but still friends, "Freeman said. "Warren was always very obliging." Freeman jokes that he was born with a fly-tying vice in his hand, but makes no claims of being better than Duncan. "I have an appreciation for Warren's work," he said. "His flies were very neat, and he was very fast. I don't think anyone could match his speed and efficiency. "I've only been tying flies 60 years. I'm not anywhere near as good as him."

Warren Duncan's fly shop in Saint John is as much a museum as it is a retail store. It contains all the trappings one would expect to lure anglers - rods and reels and fishing flies in a rainbow of colours - but there are surprises, too. There are weathered volumes on fishing in his office, and photos of men and women known the world over in fishing circles. There are rare wildlife prints and black and white pictures that represent a who's who of Miramichi salmon fishermen over the years.



A photo of Ted Williams, sitting across from Duncan at a picnic table, hangs on one wall, displayed not the way most people would by fastening it over the mantle piece, but in a hidden corner above a rack of wading boots and vests. Duncan and the former Red Sox slugger were dear friends, but in his typically understated way, the New Brunswicker never boasted of it. The photo was taken at Duncan's home in Barnesville, where Williams was a frequent visitor. "Ted Williams thought my dad was one cool dude," John Duncan said. "He used to throw the ball around the yard with us in Barnesville when I was a kid. He wasn't an acquaintance, he was a friend."

Duncan's shop is a sea of spools of colourful fly-tying thread, and there are plastic boxes against one wall stuffed with the unusual materials he used to create lures to trick Atlantic salmon. There are bins full of turkey quills and silver pheasant skin, boxes with feathers from herons and mallards, wood ducks and teals, containers full of calf and caribou hair, and fur from rabbits, beavers and bears. A pair of 10- and 12-foot bamboo European fly poles are suspended from the ceiling, and merchandise is scattered around, everything from plastic bobbers and sunglasses to fly reels, creels, hand nets and floating
and sinking fishing lines. There are packets full of black hooks, tiny brushes and bottles of resin, and there are flies, so many flies: Grizzly Kings, Mickey Finns, Orange Blossom Specials, Rusty Rats, Royal Coachmen, all forged by Duncan's deft hands. Original framed prints by the artist Dave Whitlock hang on the wall above the desk where Duncan
worked, and the shop's small bathroom is decorated with plaques and certficates he received as thanks, as well as autographed photos of other fly-tiers and friends. It is easy to tell those Duncan liked and those that he merely tolerated. Some are nailed to the wall directly beside the commode. "Everyone that sent Dad a picture was afraid they
were going to be in the splash zone," John Duncan said, laughing.

Hundreds of flies, sent to Duncan by amateurs throughout the world, are displayed in cases attached to the front wall. A man who could turn out nearly 100 flies a day, each as perfect as the next, appreciated the work of people who struggled to finish one a day.

"This is not so much a store as it is a celebration of what my father loved," John Duncan said. "This place didn't mean anything to most anybody else, but it meant the world to him. "If the walls in here could talk, you'd have to write a book, and it would be the size of War and Peace or something."

A sign taped to the back of the cash register sums up the way Duncan conducted business: "Customers: Please wait on each other or please wait on yourselves." John Duncan Jr., who lives with his wife, Donna, in Frankford, Ont., said the ironic thing is that, for all of his success, his father didn't make much selling salmon flies. "He was a terrible businessman," John Duncan said, chuckling. "As an individual, he was the smartest man I ever met. But as a businessman, he was one of the worst of all time. People would walk in and he'd just give them stuff. "He was an incredibly kind person. He'd just tell them,'Take whatever you need.'"

Duncan kept company with the likes of Schmookler, Bill Hunter and Whitlock; if not household names the biggest stars in fly-tying. "For fly-tiers, that's kind of like hanging out with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Duncan charged $500 (US) for four hours, plus expenses, when he did fly-tying demonstrations, but he invited people to come to his shop in Saint John and watch him tie flies for free. "Sometimes, guys would come in and watch him tie flies for hours. He never minded. Cathy Allen used to tie flies with her dad. The Blue Charm was her specialty. "We would sit across from one another, face to face, tying flies for hours without ever saying a word," she said.

Duncan had suffered a minor heart attack in October 2006 while visiting family in Ontario. Recently, he had been given a relatively clean bill of health.

Anne Duncan said this week. "It didn't take me long to realize Warren was the kindest, most decent person I ever met." She laughed about the times she would visit his cluttered shop and come home with bird feathers and deer hair latched on to her clothes. "I asked him once if he believed he was the world's greatest fly-tier," Anne Duncan said. "He told me he wasn't, he said that many people could tie better than him, but nobody could tie as fast, or accurately." "He died doing the thing he loved. He loved his life and had such a good life. He was only 58, but he had done so many things in his life, more than most people who are 90 have ever done."

Eulogy by Paul Schmookler