The Contributions of James Leisenring - More Than Just Flies...
Jim Leisenring lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania and fished the Analomink section of the Brodhead Creek, where many of his flies were tied and tried. Of all the research I’ve done on this project, I think the information I uncovered about Jim’s flies and his contribution to fly tying and fly fishing have proven to be the most interesting. Leisenring developed a class of flies versus a particular fly and contributed to the fly tier’s arsenal of tying techniques. The evolution of his work can arguably be traced back to the very first English writings on fly fishing.
In 1425, Dame Juliana Berners wrote an article titled Treatyse on Fysshynge wyth an Angle that was eventually published in 1496 in The Book of St. Albans. Berners’ article is considered the earliest known printed work in English on fly fishing, and in it she describes twelve flies. One of these, the Donne Fly, is considered by some experts to be what we today would call the orange and partridge soft hackle fly. I’ve seen reproductions of the Donne Fly, and I question whether the description of this fly is actually the orange and partridge based on the reproductions I’ve seen. However, some of my sources claim it is in fact an early version of the orange and partridge, so for the sake of argument, let’s consider that it is. If so, then let’s also consider the following line of reasoning. In the 1800’s, fly tiers in northern England would perfect their version of the Donne Fly in their North Country Spiders. These flies were tied with sparse bodies and sparse hackle and were popularized as surface film or sub-surface flies on the turbulent waters of northern England. They would eventually draw the attention of G. E. M. Skues, a southern English angler who would modify the pattern further by adding bulk to the body and hackle to create what he called “soft-hackled thorax nymphs.” This was revolutionary, as the southern English anglers of the time were partial to high floating dry flies and shunned the idea of fishing anything below the surface. Skues’ flies eventually began to grow in popularity, and indeed an argument can be made that this was the birth of the nymph and nymph fishing as we know it today.
Leisenring, who communicated with Skues, appreciated and adopted Skues’ philosophy and began to tie his versions of these flies for American waters. Leisenring also stressed a bulkier body and heavier hackle on the flies he developed. He believed this imparted the fly with the necessary profile and movement needed to effectively imitate the natural. He tied his flies “in the round,” that is, without any features such as a wing case which would impart a top or bottom to the fly. As such, his flies could drift in the water current without appearing to be in an unnatural, or upside down, position, which might spook wary fish since naturals rarely drift upside down. This led to the classification of flies which Leisenring called “wingless wets,” later labeled “flymphs” by Vernon “Pete” Hidy, a student of Leisenring’s, in his revised version of The Art of Tying the Wet Fly in 1971. (The original edition of this book, also penned by Hidy in conjunction with Leisenring, was published in 1941, although the term “flymph” does not appear in the early versions of the text.)
Leisenring created a unique method for tying these flies as well. To create the bulkier body, he would lay waxed silk on his knee, cover the silk with dubbing, fold the silk over on itself, and spin the two strands together on his knee to create, in essence, a dubbing loop. He would keep these strands on notched celluloid automotive curtain cards, ready for use at the tying desk. Though bulkier, Leisenring made sure to keep his dubbing sparse enough to allow the color of the silk to show through the dubbing, giving his flies a two toned appearance which he felt was integral in imitating natural insects. This technique, in my opinion, was the first use of the dubbing loop, a technique currently adopted as a standard in the arsenal of fly tying techniques we use today. At least, in my research, I have yet to find any references to a dubbing loop that pre-date Leisenring’s use of it. Hidy would employ the use of the Clark spinning block to more easily create the bodies of his flies in the latter half of the century, and today contemporary tiers create the dubbing loop on the hook, which demonstrates the evolution of the technique from that which Leisenring initiated to the contemporary practice used today.
As a final thought, while this research project is primarily about the origins of flies developed on Pocono waters, no discussion about Jim Leisenring would be complete without at least mentioning the angling techniques he introduced as well. In particular, the Leisenring lift has become a common angling tactic widely used in contemporary practice. By selectively lifting the rod tip and controlling the amount of slack in your line, you can cause the fly to rise in the water column, effectively imitating the emerging insect that the flymph is designed to imitate.
So, in this case, we have three major contributions to fly tying and fly fishing that originated in the Poconos thanks to Leisenring – the creation of the flymph, the origin of the dubbing loop, and the introduction of the Leisenring Lift. Very significant chapters in the pages of fly tying and fly fishing history, all written from the banks of Pocono streams.
Treatyse on Fyshynge Wyth an Angle, 1425, Dame Juliana Berners
Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies: A Survey of the Literature Complete with Original Patterns,
1747 – Present, Sylvester Nemes
The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, V. Hidy with J. Leisenring, 1941, rev. by V Hidy 1971