Creative Tying of Old Classic Wet Flies
To start with, I didn’t start fly fishing or tying until about 1990. Although I grew up in Pensacola, FL, and started fishing when I was 10, fly fishing eluded me for a number of years. I can honestly say that my son is responsible for helping me along the way. And, it goes without saying that any talent that I have acquired has been through God’s blessing.
When I started fly fishing and tying, it has been a “Go” and I have never looked back. Early on, my instructor was my son, Jamie, who had taken an A.K. Best course. From there, I poured over any and every corner of the Internet, looking for flies to tie and use. Along the way, I happened to start finding some old fly patterns from the late 1800’s which were North American in origin. The more I found, principally from “Favorite Flies and Their Histories” by Mary Orvis Marbury, 1892; “Book of the Black Bass” by James Henshall, 1881, “Trout” by Ray Bergman, 1938 and other documents, I was struck by the creativity of the tiers of that period. As interesting to me as the fly patterns were, the provenance of the pattern was important. I wanted to know who created the fly and why they did so. Unfortunately, some of the patterns were either not documented or the information was lost. The Golden Rod fly is a good example of a beautiful old pattern where the history has been lost.
Even more came to light as I studied; it appears that after the Civil War, fly fishing started to flourish here with the advent of the split bamboo rod and better American fly line. I think many men wanted to forget about the war and started finding solace in fishing. History appears to be repeating as I write.
So, in addition to tying flies to be used for fishing, I started working on the old classic wet fly patterns from the 1800’s. I had to master the skill of married wings and through experience, found my way. Whoever said that you need to tie a dozen flies to master a pattern, was off a good bit in some cases. Maybe it was just me, but some of these patterns, are very difficult even after reviewing every step a number of times and pulling half your hair out. I smiled recently when a tier mentioned on Facebook of the difficulty he had in getting peacock swords to sit properly as a fly topping. Davy Wooten answered him that he was starting to understand tying and some things just don’t go smoothly. If you’ve been at it awhile, the sun will start shining again and you’ll get there. Good advice for every endeavor, fly tying or whatever.
Some years ago, I was tying at the Southern Conclave of the IFFF (now the FFI) when Dave Whitlock stopped by and watched me tie a “Babcock”, an old married wing wet fly. He complimented me on the tie and asked me how many fish I had caught using that pattern. It was difficult for me to state that I never really fished with any of the old patterns. He suspected the answer that I had given him by a head nod and said, that the patterns were originally designed to catch fish. He, then, gave me some good advice on tandem rigging the flies and different ways to fish them. Since then, I will admit that using one of the old fly patterns is not my first choice; but I have fished some of them, at times, and they catch fish. I’ll let any decision rest with this statement and the reader’s desire.
There have been a number of articles written in Fly Tyer magazine and You Tube about the old classic wet flies, with detailed tying instructions of some of them so I will not do a step-by-step here. The points that I will make are as follows:
First, in his book, “Building Classic Salmon Flies", Ron Alcott states on page 12, “the world still awaits that perfectly built fly”. I echo those remarks. If we look closely at any fly, mine included, you will most likely find something that should/could have been done better. I always try to remember this when I am viewing someone else’s work, you should too.
Secondly, proportions of the elements of these flies are not etched in granite. In fact, Alcott, gave some general guidelines for classic salmon flies on page 54 of the book mentioned above. But, there are no specific rules. The only thing that I can find in researching, is that the fly must look presentable. That is to say, liberties can be taken in tying the old classic wet fly patterns as long as they don’t ruin the overall design and integrity of the fly. However, I do try to keep a few parameters in mind, generally the tail should be about the length of the hook gap, maybe a little longer. The wing should extend to the hook bend, maybe a little longer. The tag should be long enough down the hook bend so that it can be seen clearly after the tail is attached.
Finally, I know there are tiers who are all about using the correct materials of the original pattern. I applaud them for this effort. But, I don’t feel that way. I use modern hooks rather than the blind eye hooks of the period. And, I will substitute materials when I need to as long as it doesn’t ruin the design and integrity of the fly. My opinion is that if the old tiers were alive today, they would be doing the same thing.
Now, after tying many of these old classic wet fly patterns, I have evolved to the point where there is a desire on my part, to do the same thing that the tiers of the 1800’s had done. They were, as history records, creative tiers. John Shields, Charles Orvis, James Henshall and others sat down and came up with beautiful American designed flies. They had a vision of what these flies should be like and weren’t afraid to make them. This passion is still alive today with tiers who now use modern materials to create a new generation of flies. Jay “Fishy” Fullum exemplifies this creativity.
To this end, I am on a journey to do my own creative reenactment of the old classic wet flies. And, taking myself to task, I am documenting my efforts so hopefully, they will not be lost. The other thing that I have tried to do, is to name the flies after Native American entities. There are three listed here: (1) The Mendota, Dakota language meaning the junction of two rivers (2) The Kiamichi, attributed to Choctaw, a river in SE Oklahoma and (3) The Weoka, Creek language meaning rushing water.
I am probably not unique in my passion and desire to be a creative tier. I am humbled by the fact that there are a lot of tiers who I look up to and have helped me along the way. If there is anything of value here, then please accept my sincere thanks.
About the author: Ted is a retired metallurgical engineer and quality manager who resides in Scottsboro, AL, near Lake Guntersville. He started fly fishing in about 1990 and credits his son, Jamie, as instrumental, in getting him into fly tying. He has developed into an accomplished tier with numerous invitations to do demonstrations at various events including the FFI International Fly Fishing Fair in Livingston, MT, the Sow Bug Roundup, and Orvis and Cabela’s stores. He is a member of the Fly Fishers International, Trout Unlimited and The Tennessee Valley Fly Fishers. He supports both Projects Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery. He specializes in tying old classic American fly patterns from the 1800’s as well as creating new flies following the old patterns and some other flies.