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In With the Old & Out With the New: Reviving Historical Fly Patterns

Article by Jack Harford

Well, 2019 has just finished and it was an interesting year of fly fishing with tenkara rods and some conventional setups too. One of the most interesting things has been the diversity of flies that have come off the vise and then hit the water. This has been a year where the “new” flies and styles of flies have been some of the “old” flies and styles.

It has been enjoyable to learn some of the old winged wet flies, soft hackle flies, and streamers. It seems that a lot of the fly fishing world has become enthralled with new versions of flies and the new materials that are often extra bright, extra UV, extra shiny, or extra-large. With the move to the extra big streamers has come the need for extra big and extra stiff rods, new species-specific fly lines, and an assortment of new articulated shanks and hooks. And there is a lot of good to be said about those who have chosen to push the limits of the fly fishing world and boldly go were no one has gone before.

However, this is not the direction my fly tying and fishing took last year. I don’t really see myself as a nostalgic type of fisher or fly tyer. If I were, my only fishing as a youth was with a cane pole and red & white bobber with a can of worms or a Zebco 33 with a Mepps spinner. Historically, I have not been the type of person who relishes the status quo for the sake of tradition. Nevertheless, I have found myself drawn to flies that were popular one or two or more centuries ago. There is something of mysterious beauty in those flies.

A couple of years ago, an unexpected urge came upon me to learn more about Salmon Flies that led me to the book “The Hair-Wing Salmon Fly” by Fulsher and Krom. There is something particularly American about these flies.

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March brown salmon fly

Many of the first fly tyers on this side of the pond had been serious salmon fly tyers back in England and the old world. However, when they came to America, many of the exotic materials used in the full-dress salmon flies were not available in this country. The resourceful ones then created new flies with the materials using like squirrel tails, black bear fur, calf tail, and skunk for the wing. They called these new flies “Hair-Wings.”

What they found was that these new hair wing flies were not only easier to tie but were also more effective and less expensive than their full-dress counterparts. Here in Indiana, smallmouth bass have eaten several of these flies.

The next venture into the older flies began with the reading of “The Soft Hackled Fly” by Sylvester Nemes, (pronounced “Nemish”). Nemes is a lover of history and has been called by some the “Soft Hackle Evangelist.” These traits are reflected in the way he uses historical documents to lift and praise the prowess of the soft hackle fly. Of course, Syl’s book is written for the edification of the trout anglers, but quickly I found that the soft hackle flies and a tenkara rod are dynamite for bluegills, panfish and even some bass. They also were effective on the tenkara trout trip to Hatchery Creek in Kentucky.

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Soft hackle pheasant tail

The venture into the soft hackle flies opened the whole world of subsurface flies in a new and interesting way. The early fly fishers on the European stage and even Japan were wet fly fishers and the dry fly in its historical context is a rather recent innovation first becoming serious sport around the 19th century. Soft hackle flies and the winged wet flies conveyed by Bergman in his encyclopedic “Trout,” were a whole other realm of the fly fishing world that I had not ventured into.

Winged wet flies are not the easiest to tie and it takes some practice to get the wing feathers to set properly on top of the fly. They sure are beautiful and offer a feeling of accomplishment when things work right. These flies might be considered old fashioned, but they still work.

White Miller Streamer

A good source for info on fishing wet flies for trout is the video Wet Fly Ways” by Davy Wotton. Davy guides on the White River in Arkansas and shares flies and knowledge with his clients. Not having a lot of trout water nearby, the local pond and creek were the testing ground for winged wets and some larger bass wet flies.

More recently, I tried tying a couple of New England streamers pretty much in the Carrie Stevens style. These flies use extra-long hooks up to 9XL and feature a beautiful feather wing and often a shoulder of Jungle Cock eye. I happened into a Carrie Stevens class taught by Ian at Flymasters and learned a little more about how to tie these pretty streamers.

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Supervisor fly

Sometimes in looking for the newest innovation or “improvement” in the fly fishing repertoire it is easy to miss older flies, rods, and techniques that worked in years past. However, most of those methods and flies still work today for those willing to make an investment in them. I am anxious to try a few more of these flies in the new year and see what they can do, maybe you can too.

Tight lines and have a safe, productive, and fishing season and try something old.

Jack Harford is the editor of the Armchair Angler, a monthly newsletter of the Indianapolis Fly Casters. He began fly fishing as therapy and spiritual practice of engagement with nature. Jack has tied flies at the Sowbug Roundup and several other shows. He is enjoying the philosophy and lessons learned from tenkara.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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1 comment

  1. Great article. I am just about finished reading “The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies” and really enjoy reading about the history of fly fishing. I am now collecting vintage fiberglass fly rods and vintage reels. I will be tying many of the old wet fly classics over the next few months and have been fishing wets with Tenkara for a while now instead of the classic Kebaris.

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