The Compleat Angler and the "1847 Dozen"

In 1847, George Washington Bethune brought Isaac Walton's classic text "The Compleat Angler" to the United States.  In this first American edition of Walton's quintessential work, Bethune included a footnote describing flies specifically created to fish the Brodhead and surrounding streams in Monroe County. This is the earliest documentation I found of flies created specifically for Pocono streams. The footnote details a conversation with a person of some reputation as a fly tier whose “particular haunts are the streams of Pike, Wayne, and Susquehanna counties.” This person of reputation (who remains unnamed throughout the passage) describes twelve flies that are specific to the Brodhead and surrounding creeks. While only one of these is specifically tagged as the angler’s own creation, it is relatively safe to infer that the others were created for these waters as well. The first of these flies was apparently so well known at the time as to be called “The Fly,” yet, as with all the flies described in the footnote, it is identified by number only. Interestingly, while there are twelve flies described, they are not numbered sequentially. The passage ends with fly number 15 and omits flies numbered 9 through 11, which leads me to believe that there were in fact three other flies that were edited out for some reason. Perhaps continued research will unveil them at some point in the future. Stumbling upon these patterns was like finding a Mickey Mantle rookie card stuffed in a shoebox at the bottom of a cluttered closet – a priceless treasure, nearly overlooked, almost forgotten, now unearthed and prized beyond value.

Below are the flies described in the 1847 edition of The Compleat Angler, along with the original descriptions as they appear in the footnote. The flies pictured are my interpretation of Bethune’s text. I found it challenging trying to interpret the descriptions of historical flies. Historical flies were not described by recipes, as is the practice today. Instead, the characteristics of the fly were detailed in a narrative of sorts. The language used and the labels applied to materials, while common to the era, are different from what we are accustomed to today. It was like reading Shakespeare – you get the gist of it, but you have to concentrate to understand what is really being said. It’s a worthwhile effort, though, as the results yield historically productive flies that trout probably haven’t seen for a hundred years or more. I tried as best as able to accurately depict the flies using the materials described, but some of the materials stock common to the era are just not readily available today. As a result, some substitutions needed to be made. The relevant substitute materials are noted in the descriptions that follow.

"No. 1. A tail, end, or stretcher fly, on a No. 4 (Limerick) hook. Body, light slate drab, wound with the smallest gold cord and a red hackle. Wings, the brown under feather of the peacock’s wing. Its tail has a tuft of red worsted (or mohair); and its head is wound round with gold cord. This is so excellent a fly as to be known in some places as The Fly. It is good as a general fly throughout the season. Made on a No. 8 hook, it may be used as a drop-fly with much execution."

 

[I believe the feathers described here are the rust wing feathers found underneath a peacock’s primary wing feathers. These are difficult to find, but tan duck quills, however, would be an effective substitute. “Worsted” and “mohair” are both types of yarn made from wool and angora goat, respectively. Any red yarn would be a good substitute.]

 

"No. 2. For a tail-fly on No. 5, for a drop on No. 8. Body, first wound with yellow floss silk, then a thread of crimson, then in an opposite direction a thread of gold, with a slight yellow or red hackle at the head for legs. Wings, rather full of the brown wing feathers of the peacock, or the lightest brown wing of the turkey-cock. (This fly is my friend’s own invention, and he pronounces it very good. It resembles the cow dung, except in the body, which is gayer.)"

"No. 3. A dropper on a No. 6 hook. Having attached the hook to the snell, take two pieces of stiff gut about ½ to ¾ of an inch long, and, having soaked some pieces of fine gut, wind them round the stiff gut to make a tail, winding in three black hairs at the end, then bind this on the hook. The body is of a peacock’s herl; red hackle for legs; wings of a mottled wild duck’s feather. An early fly."

 

[I struggled most with this interpretation. This description may refer to an extended body, but I’m not sure as it seems that just the tail would be extended. As gut is hard to come by, I opted to tie the fly with a tail of 3 moose mane hairs, though any black hair would suffice. A down wing of dark mallard flank barbs seemed suggested by the wording and would be consistent with the era given the sources I found.]

"No. 4. A dropper on a No. 9 hook. The body, of a bright yellow floss silk, wound with gold and a red hackle. Wings, of the bright feathers on the breast of a wild pigeon, cut rather short, and dropping a little below the line of the hook. A most effective fly for May and June, indeed for the whole season. It may be varied in the color of the body by dubbing with red, &c."

 

[“…bright breast feather of a wild pigeon” was also a challenge to interpret. The feathers just below the beak of a pigeon have a light iridescence to them, which may be the “bright” the author is referring to. I was unable to secure any pigeon feathers, so I used starling breast feathers instead. The wording suggested a low seated delta-style wing, so I mounted the starling feathers accordingly.]

 

 

 

 

 

"No. 5. On a No. 8 hook. Resembles No. 2 with the wings of No. 4."

 

 

 

"No. 6. A tail palmer, on a No. 4 hook. Body, black mohair, with a little orange towards the head; wound with silver, and a strong black hackle from the tail of a Poland cock. A very killing fly, though it has a course look, and will tell effectively through the season, especially after a flood or windy days."

 

 

 

 

"No. 7. A drop on a No. 8 or 9 hook. Body, black mohair, wound with silver, a small black hackle for legs; wings of a black cock’s feather; tail tufted with two hairs. This fly may be greatly varied."

 

 

 

"No. 8. A dropper on a No. 9 hook. Body, red floss silk, wound with gold; the head with a small black hackle; wings, brown wing of the peacock, or the domestic cock, or the dun wing of the pigeon, or the breast feather of the cock pigeon; varying the complexion of the fly many ways."

 

 

"No. 12. A dropper on a No. 9 hook. Body and wings like No. 13, with dark red hackles, round the head, for wings. Latter end of May, June, and beginning of July."

 

[Again, I was unable to find a source of pigeon feathers. Many birds, however, have wing quills that possess a brown hue, and any such feathers with the correct hue would suffice.]

 

 

 

 

"No. 13. A dropper on a No. 8 hook. Body, a brownish, greenish, or yellowish brown, wound with a small red hackle about the head; wings, brown wing feathers of a wild pigeon; tail, tufted with two hairs. A beautiful and effective fly for May and June."

 

"No. 14. A dropper on a No. 8 hook. Body thin, of brown floss silk, wound with gold, pale red hackle wound about the head; wings, a cock’s reddish brown wing-feather. Good the whole season, but better in July and August."

 

[For this fly, I substituted brown duck quills for the wings. As for the pale red hackle, I could not find any feather of such a color, so I dyed white hen hackle to a very pale red color. I would choose to darken the hackle to make the red slightly more prominent on the next batch.]

 

 

 

 

"No. 15. A tail-fly on a No. 2 hook. Body of crimson, wound with gold, and a red hackle; wings of a cock’s blackish grey wing-feather."

As Walton states, “If, from the directions given, the reader should acquire a due proportion of my friend’s art in making and using the flies recommended, he will have nothing to wish for but a heart equally at peace with God and man – and, when he goes a fishing,

 

‘A day with not too bright a beam,

And a south-west wind to curl the stream.’”

 

 

 

Sources:

The Compleat Angler, Isaac Walton, 1847 and 1880 editions.

Peacock Wing Quill Materials Source: Saint Mary Magdalene’s Retreat in Yreka, California through their website at http://www.stmarymagdalenes.org/peacockfeathers.htm. They offer pairs of naturally molted quills for $2.00 a quill and are very customer friendly.