"The Fly" - The Compleat Angler, 1848

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 text 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. In the steps that follow, I’ve quoted the original language followed by my interpretation of the tying techniques suggested by the language. The original text reads as follows:

 

“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.”

 

The tying steps, then, are as follows:

Step 1 – “Its tail has a tuft of red worsted (or mohair)”

 

Start the thread on the hook behind the eye and create a thread base to the bend. “Worsted” and “mohair” are both types of yarn made from wool and angora goat, respectively. Any red yarn would be a good substitute, so choose what you have available and tie in a piece for the tail. Proportions are not specified, so I opted to make the tail about half the length of the shank.

Step 2

 

Tie in a length of fine oval gold tinsel and a red hackle feather at the bend of the hook. Tie the hackle in by the tip. The description suggests that this is a wet fly, which would be consistent with the style of flies used around the 1840’s as dry fly fishing wasn’t fully popularized until the 1860’s according to the sources I found. As such, I chose a hackle feather with wet fly properties (longer, softer barbs.) Remember to stroke the barbs back to a 90 degree angle from the quill to expose a bare piece of quill at the tip to use as the tie in point.

Step 3 – “Body, light slate drab…”

 

Apply dubbing to the thread and create a dubbed body. I interpreted “light slate drab” to be a lighter shade of grey, and chose my dubbing color accordingly.

Step 4 – “…wound with the smallest gold cord…”

 

Wrap the gold tinsel in open wraps to create a rib.

Step 5 – “…and a red hackle.”

 

Wrap the hackle alongside the rib, trying to lay the quill of the feather as close to the tinsel as you can. Stroking the barbs back with each turn will help orient them so they sweep back toward the bend of the hook.

Step 6 – “Wings, the brown under feather of the peacock’s wing.”

 

I believe the feathers described here are the rust colored wing feathers found underneath a peacock’s primary wing feathers. These are difficult to find. I purchased quills from 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. Tan duck quills, however, would be an effective substitute.

Step 7

 

Cut and match slips from a pair of the rust colored quills. The slips should be roughly equal to the gape of the hook. Place the slips back to back so their curves cancel each other and then tie them on as a wing, tips curving up. The exact orientation of the slips is open to interpretation. I chose to tie the wing flat with the tip curving up, as this is my preference. To my knowledge, there is no way to verify which orientation is historically correct.

Step 8 – “its head is wound round with gold cord.”

 

Tie in another length of small oval gold tinsel underneath the head and in front of the wing and wind a few wraps around the head of the fly. Two or three wraps is sufficient. Create a small thread head in front of the tinsel wraps and tie off with a whip finish. The text in The Compleat Angler reads “This is so excellent a fly as to be known in some places as The Fly.” Tie a few for your box and see if you agree!