Posts Tagged ‘classic flies’

Lockdown Day 12

April 7, 2020

Corona Lockdown day 12

Something a little different today and really a shout out to the novices out there.

The very first fly I tied was held tight in my father’s woodworking bench vice (less than ideal) and tied with my mother’s sewing thread and some raffine as wings. It was in today’s language I suppose a “spent spinner”, it didn’t really matter what it was supposed to imitate, I didn’t own a fly rod and couldn’t cast one at the time.

The “Fly”, if you could rightfully describe it as such,  was lowered into the water with a sinker above it on a little spinning rod outfit, into a location where we mostly caught eels on worms. Not really the best of testing grounds and the experiment met with less than spectacular results, in fact nothing that could be remotely perceived as a result. The story is of absolutely no import at all but for the fact that I did try, and did experiment well before I “officially” took up fly fishing as a pursuit. Experimentation, if you don’t already know, is a pretty key ingredient to both fly fishing and fly tying success.

There is an indefinable element to fly tying and to fishing flies in general, something which has us believe that this pattern is better than that one, or this material contains some magic within it. That is confidence and confidence is something neglected at your peril when it comes to fishing.

I have mentioned confidence in past posts on this blog, notably from some considerable time back.

But having confidence in one’s fly is important and if you are a novice that confidence can be hard to come by. One can develop an eye for patterns which are likely to work, but even that subjective measure is intertwined with your own personal experience. I have friends who catch fish on flies that never work for me, I have plenty of flies which are now firm favourites but which initially really didn’t awaken any confidence at all.

Who could have imagined that this odd looking fly would become a firm favourite?

I never thought Comparaduns would be as effective as Catskill flies until I tried them, I never thought that parachute flies would work, because they were so different to what I had been told was a proper dry fly. Having lived and breathed the idea of mobility and liveliness in a subsurface pattern it took a lot of time to believe that the absolutely rigid perdigon was even worth getting wet.

I have always believed in “micro movement” in subsurface patterns

So how then does one explain the effectiveness of the rigid Perdigon?

We can be easily negatively biased and if you are a novice all too easily so about your own fly patterns. Each day on social media there will be a post of a fly with a comment that suggests that “it is overdressed”, “The tail is too long”, “The proportions are not right” etc etc ad infinitum. Hell it is as likely that I have made one of those comments and certainly there are “norms” of flies, of proportions etc but they are only “norms” because we all buy into them.

Nice fly, Interesting suggestions on proportions, but really is any of that true? Certainly many of my effective parachute patterns don’t follow these prescribed dimensions

Even what are now classic patterns more than likely have a far from scientific birth. The Adams for example; now widely regarded as the invention of a Mr Leonard Halliday of Mayfield Mitchigan. But in its original format the body was gray wool, later replaced by muskrat fur, the position of the wings which were originally pushed forward became upright and split apart under the influence of the accepted norms of the Catskill school.

The Adams is possibly the most famous upwinged dry fly imitation of a mayfly on the planet, but it was originated to copy a caddis.

To make matters even more confusing it was originally conceived, at least according to some, as a caddis pattern. A fly now almost universally tied with down style tented wings.. So what is the truth? Was it simply that Halliday had some gray wool and barred Plymouth Rock hackles lying on his bench or was the fly engineered with a specific bug in mind? I personally suspect that the former is as or more likely than the latter explanation. Today the Adams in all its various guises is perhaps the most popular and recognizable dry fly on the planet.

The Adams has been modified so many times that the name has virtually lost any meaning in terms of design. Here a parachute Adams.

Or how about an “irresistible Adams”?


Yes, even a parachute Purple Adams


There is even a purple “Adams” dry fly which is neither the colour of the original Adams or the format of one. Who decides what works and what doesn’t? The FISH decide.

Another interesting and for me exceptional fly is the traditional wet fly the “Invicta”. It is now almost universally accepted as a particularly good wet fly to be fished on stillwaters during a hatch of pale coloured sedges (Caddis Flies if you are not English). But it is highly unlikely that it was designed as such. The layout of a palmered hackle with a wing and “hot spot” throat hackle of Blue Jay, is simply a traditional wet fly recipe, repeated over and over again in traditional wet flies, particularly ones for stillwater.

The Kate McClaren, The Dunkeld, The Zulu, The Soldier Palmer, The Bibio, The Butcher etc etc all follow very similar lines of construction and proportion. No matter that when they were “designed” nobody understood that flies underwater don’t have wings, dry flies had wings so they just added wings to the wet patterns too. All that was really going on was that people were changing the materials and the colours. Bear in mind too that at the time there were considerable limitations in terms of colours of materials available. None of the modern synthetics or fluorescent materials were at hand, so if you wished to add a dash of colour you used red wool perhaps or an exotic game bird feather such as Jay or Golden Pheasant. It turns out that the Invicta seems to be a particularly good imitation of an “ecloding sedge”, that is one exploding from its pupal shuck at the surface of the water. But was that good planning or just a bit of luck?

The Mallard and Claret, a great wet fly but is it not just an Invicta in different colours?

When you consider that very similar flies in different colours, such as the “Mallard and Claret” do as good a job imitating claret buzzers (Midges) my thoughts would be hedging towards luck. The Invicta is a great fly, a go to pattern during a sedge hatch, but how’s this? It was originally designed by its inventor James Odgen as a dry fly! So again, was this famous fly a result of investigative and scientific study, logic and painstaking attention to detail or was it just that Mr Odgen happened to have some Blue Jay lying about on his bench when he was fiddling about? I don’t know, but again my instincts go more with thoughtful fiddling than scientific process. Let me not suggest that some good old logical fiddling isn’t a great skill for a fly tyer, it undoubtedly is. But all these patterns hide, to a degree, an inconvenient truth, most were fashioned out of hopeful experimentation and their effectiveness was almost certainly as much a result luck as judgement.

The Flashy Dunkeld really a “lure” version of a wet fly before long shanked hooks and modern materials came up with alternatives. But the same general layout all over again.

On a more local, or at least South African note, it is very hard to purchase a damselfly nymph pattern here that doesn’t have red eyes. Just about everywhere in the world damselfly patterns are tied with black eyes, or perhaps bead chain, but rarely will you see red eyed damsels outside of SA. Is that because our damselflies are different? Do they genuinely have red eyes? Is the red simply a well thought out trigger before the common acceptance of “Hot spots”?

The Red Eye Damsel, a clever use of hot spot colours or simply good fortune?

The reality is that the red eyed damsel was the creation of Hugh Huntley, and as I understand it, the most likely explanations for the red eyes were that Mr Huntley whilst tying flies late at night in the Dargle region of Natal either was too tired, too inebriated or two lazy to find his black chenille or had simply run out, no matter a classic fly was born. Of course it helped that Hugh was mates with Tony Biggs and Tom Sutcliffe real leaders of the pack in South African Fly fishing circles, so the pattern was publicized and discussed and gained almost universal acceptance as a classic. Had this trio of true legends in fly fishing been locked down in the Dargle with Covid 19 at the doorstep and no alcohol in sight it is  entirely possible that all our damselfly nymphs would have black eyes like everyone else’s.

The point of this entire diatribe, other than hopefully to provide some amusement, is to point out that even classic patterns, ones with universal acceptance and appeal, all too often started life as fortuitous fiddlings or downright mistakes.

If you are a novice bear this in mind, that someone else thinks that your hackles are too long, that you can’t make a wing from your dog’s tail, or that Persian carpet won’t make a good material for a thorax, don’t worry about it.

I would say that some things: the ability to tie touching turns, to whip finish, to make a pinch and loop are important, for durability as much as anything, but what you do with these techniques is up to you, only the fish get a vote. You never know, you could create a classic.

Go out there and fish your flies, fish them with confidence, learn and experiment, because the only difference between confidence in a fly and lack of it is how many fish you have caught on the same thing and to get to that point you have to get them wet.

This post is an aside from many recent submissions which have come partly or indirectly from one of my two books on fly tying. That said, if you wish to download a copy of either of these books you can do so at a 50% discount for the duration of our 21 day lock down. Links and discount codes are provided below

Discount code Essential Fly Tying Techniques: DR62J Code will expire 17 April 2020

Discount code Guide Flies : SB94S Code will expire 17 April 2020

Thanks for reading, stay safe out there.