Helen Shaw Collection

Arnold Gingrich (1903–1976), founding editor of Esquire magazine, proclaimed Helen Shaw to be the “First Lady of Fly Tying.”
Helen Elizabeth Shaw (1910–2007) was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved with her family to several Midwestern locations and states. The Shaw family returned to Wisconsin, settling in the city of Sheboygan along the shores of Lake Michigan. Shaw began to fish with her father at a very young age and started to tie flies as a youngster, learning from other tiers who were eager to help. Fly fishing was a passion for her entire life.

While still in high school, Shaw began to tie flies for a local tackle shop owned by Arthur Kade (1890/91–1952), Art Kade Flycraft. After graduating, she worked at Kade’s shop full time, tying flies and training other tiers, and eventually opened her own store in Sheboygan. Her reputation as a talented fly tier went well beyond the shores of Lake Michigan, and many of her clients were well-known personalities.
After a chance meeting in Milwaukee with Hermann Kessler (1904–1993), art director for Field & Stream magazine, Shaw married Kessler and moved to New York City in 1953. The move east was fulfilling for Shaw as she became very much a part of the angling crowd in New York. Many of her earlier clients made the move with Shaw, and she soon acquired new clients through exposure in the city, especially through the Anglers’ Club of New York.

In 1963, Shaw’s groundbreaking book Fly-Tying: Materials, Tools, and Techniques was published, illustrated with Kessler’s photography. It included black-and-white images of Shaw tying flies step by step and was one of the first fly-tying books written by a woman. A unique aspect of the book was its photography: images were taken from the tier’s vantage point, making it easier for the reader to see and understand the tying process. It was a great success, and the book was in continuous print for more than twenty years. Shaw and Kessler worked together again to photograph and publish Flies for Fish and Fisherman: Wet Flies (1989).

Besides her publishing accomplishments, Shaw was the Federation of Fly Fishers 2002 Buszek Award winner and the first woman to be hosted at the (all-male) Anglers’ Club of New York luncheon. The Trout Unlimited chapter in Sheboygan is named after Helen Shaw; her Wisconsin home river, the Onion River, was restored to its former condition when conservation funds were raised in her name; and at one time, she was the only female member of “The Grand O’Dawn Club,” a men’s casting club in Chicago.

Helen Shaw passed away in Red Rock, New York, where she had lived since 1979. At the time of Hermann Kessler’s death in 1993, the couple was working on a third collaborative book about fly tying. Sadly, that book was never published.

Made byHelen Shaw