The Gaudy Salmon Fly


almon fishing wasn't a popular sport before the nineteenth century and as a result early salmon fly patterns are hard to find, although we do know that they existed, because salmon fishing is mentioned in the Treatyse on Fishing with an Angle. Walton mentions salmon flies in passing, as does Franck, but neither pays much attention to the subject and as a result, these two flies, given by Bowlker in 1774, are the first detailed patterns to be listed:

The wings are made of a reddish brown feather from the wing of a cock turkey, the body of auburn-coloured mohair warped with yellow silk, and a ginger cock's hackle wrapped under the wings; the hook No. 2 or 3. Or it may be varied thus; the wings of a rich brown feather from a heron's wing; the body drab, or olive-coloured mohair, a bittern's hackle under the wings, and a forked tail. This fly is about two inches in length.

This is also a salmon fly, and is seen at the same time as the Dragon Fly. The wings are made of a feather from the neck or tail of a peacock; the body of deep green mohair, warped with light green silk; and a jay's feather striped blue and white, wrapped under the wings; the hook No. 2 or 3. It may be thus varied; the wings of a dark shining green feather from a drake's wing; the body of green mohair warped with chocolate silk; and a bittern's hackle under the wings.

It wasn't long before more salmon fly patterns appeared in print, in a book written by a man called Taylor, who was one of the first to deal with the increasingly popular sport of salmon fishing at length. Taylor gave us three detailed salmon fly patterns, the first good description of how to tie a salmon fly, and the first reference to the vice. One of the interesting things about Taylor is the way he used materials like parrot and golden pheasant, which gave his patterns a distinctly gaudy air. This raises a question about the origins of the 'gaudy' salmon fly; the development of which seized the imagination of nineteenth century fly tyers, and arguably took the development of the salmon fly to its zenith.

It is commonly held that Ireland is where the gaudy salmon fly originated, and it is likely that there is more than a grain of truth in this, although some of the very early English salmon flies were pretty bright. The trouble is that if the early Irish fly tyers wrote anything it would have been in Irish, and because printing was controlled by license of the British crown, little was printed about Irish flies before 1800, with the result that we are almost completely in the dark about early Irish patterns. If anything earlier exists, it is likely to be not only hand written, but in Irish, making it doubly hard to track down.

Despite a few gaudy originals, the bulk of early Scottish, Welsh and English salmon flies were dull in the extreme, and my own view is that early Irish flies were hardly different to their English counterparts. As evidence for this, I would point to the selection that Tolfrey fished in Canada in 1816; a very early list of Irish patterns. When Tolfrey tried to establish the origin of the patterns, he asked no less an authority than William Blacker, who confirmed that he had fished the same flies on the Bann. Here are three of the flies:

No. 1. Body, yellow tag, next to purple, cinnamon-brown mohair, or pigs-down at the shoulder, reddish-brown hackle for legs; wing, hen pheasant's tail, two strips of Mallard wing, for tail; either ribbed or not with gold or silver twist. Hook 8 or 9, Limerick.

No. 2. Body, brown pig's hair full slightly ribbed with gold twist. Wing, from the wing of a hen pheasant. Tail two strips of mallard wing. B. B.

No. 3. Body, tipped with yellow, then dark blue pig's down up to the head ; black hackle wound from the tail up, and silver twist. Wing, teal-feather. Hook 8 or 9.

I hope that you will agree that these are not gaudy flies. They lack macaw horns, are bereft of jungle cock, haven't the merest hint of cock of the rock, and can't boast a sprig of gallina between them. So when were the flies designed? Since Blacker was born in 1814, the earliest date he could have fished them was, say 1830, allowing us to fix the latest date the patterns could have been created to between 1816 to 1830. My own opinion is that these are early nineteenth and possibly even late eighteenth century Irish patterns. This puts them firmly among the earliest known Irish salmon flies, and while they lack the solemnity of Scottish patterns, they aren't very showy either. One of the few sources of illustrations of pre-1850 salmon flies is Scrope's book, which has some superb plates like the one above, showing patterns which definitely have touches of colour, but have little in common with the pile of flies in the plate below, originals which were tied barely fifty years later.

The fact that very few people fished for salmon with a rod and line meant there was a dearth of salmon fly patterns of any description before 1800, and very few before 1816, and yet old Franck's dubbing bag was filled with macaw, flamingo and parakeet. I think it was these patterns which were the inspiration for the revolution that followed, and the first signs of that revolution were found in Ireland.

We don't know for sure who kicked the new fad off, but O'Shaughnessy, perhaps the most famous Irish fly tyer of all time, is a candidate. O'Shaughnessy established his business in Limerick in 1795, and his name is mentioned too often in conjunction with early gaudy flies for it to be a coincidence, given that his hooks were so prized that fishermen travelled from far away to obtain supplies of them. O'Shaughnessy would have been well placed to start the new trend. At the time, Limerick was a large seaport, into which exotic materials, including feathers would have been imported all the time. The Erne tyers were equally likely to have been involved in setting the new trend and James Rogan and Pat McKay certainly made their names tying gaudy flies.

Whatever the origins of the gaudy fly may have been, within a very few years, the dull traditional salmon fly was swept away in a flood of brilliant new creations. The fact that these flies were completely unnecessary didn't have the slightest impact on the near hysteria with which salmon fishers adopted them. With few exceptions, the sombre traditional patterns, which had worked so well for many years, were swept aside by bright new substitutes, but the process took well over a century.

Into this great melting-pot came a man of great talent, William Blacker. Blacker was born in Cronbane, near the village of Redcross in County Wicklow, Ireland, but he later emigrated to England where he set up as a fly tyer and tackle dealer, capitalising on the brisk rise in popularity of salmon fishing which started in the 1840s. Where the salmon fly is concerned, Blacker was the torch that illuminated the night; the patterns he created suddenly made anything seem possible.

Blacker's fame spread so far and wide that it wasn't long before he could afford to charge £3 for a month's tuition of four hours each day at trout and salmon fly tying. His trout flies were very traditional, and are largely derived from earlier works, but nothing like his salmon flies had ever been seen before. Sadly, Blacker died of TB in 1856, depriving fly fishing of a genius at the height of his creativity - he was only 42 years old.

Blacker is strongly associated with the rise in popularity of gaudy salmon flies in Britain, but the trend had started before he was born, with the import of so-called 'Irish' flies into Scotland. We know that gaudy flies weren't completely new in English and Scottish fishers' books, but by and large the majority of salmon flies in the early nineteenth century were pretty dull. The flood of colourful new patterns upset many well established apple carts, and they received a frosty reception from many experts, despite the fact that anglers loved them. Competition became intense, and it wasn't long before there was an enormous variety of patterns on offer.

As it happens, we can date the arrival of gaudy flies in Scotland quite precisely. According to Younger, the first contingent of 'Irish' flies were seen on the Tweed around 1810, and the interlopers were so successful that they swept the old patterns away within a few years. The traditionalists were not amused by the eclipse of their favourites, and Thomas Tod Stoddart, a man who was normally the bane of the establishment's life, was provoked into a shrill fit of apoplexy. In the process he did us the great favour of naming the newcomers:

Answer me - Where in thy day was the Doctor? where the Parson? where the Butcher? where the Childers? - where, in short, all those prismatic rarities that stock so amply the tin and vellum of a modern salmon-fisher? You possessed them not. It was neither your wish nor your interest to employ them.

We might add the Dundas Fly and the General to the shortlist of miscreants, but Stoddart's despised list of prismatic rarities formed the foundation for an explosion of creativity which would only be stopped by a world war. Auld Tom might not have approved of the trend, but from that moment onward, salmon flies could never be accused of being nondescript.

And then came the railway.

It can hardly be overstated just how dramatic the effect that this new form of transport had on the development of the salmon fly. With increasing numbers of fishermen heading for Scotland, the demand for new patterns of fly skyrocketed and the dealers were only too happy to oblige. This put the traditional salmon fly under attack. Many local anglers saw the increasingly popular gaudy salmon fly as an Irish interloper, which displaced perfectly good local patterns. During the middle years of the nineteenth century the strong links which had existed between patterns and their rivers of origin began to be lost, although were tiers who still paid lip-service to the tradition many decades later.

(Picture reproduced by permission of the Llangollen Railway Society

Before 1850, anglers like Scrope were content to fish with a mere handful of flies all of which had strong local associations. After 1850 the sheer choice of patterns made it difficult to justify the link - not that it prevented writers like Francis from quoting selections of flies 'for the River Garry,' and 'for the River Ness,' and so forth. The new flies had a truly international flavour, and they appealed mightily to the Victorian psyche. Fishermen took them abroad and slew huge fish in Norway with them; so why shackle them to a tiny spate river of the west coast of Scotland? Yet there was still a residual conviction that patterns of salmon flies were likely to be more successful if they were developed for specific rivers, on the grounds that local fish 'understood' them better. The idea of a Tweed fish being taken on a Garry fly just didn't suit every angler's sense of justice and aesthetics. The result was a deal of mental gymnastics as fishermen attempted to rationalise the reasons for the success of patterns. Again and again, patterns were published with minor tweaks which were credited with their success when used 'away from home,' George Kelson being one of the worst offenders. These years were the heyday of the gaudy salmon fly and literally thousands of different patterns were invented.

The two outstanding salmon fly tyers of this period are Jones and Major John Traherne (shown in the pic, dig the hat). Jones was a tackle dealer who had a business at 111 Jermyn Street, London, in the heart of the city's most fashionable area. He sold high quality rods and reels to the leisured classes, and chose Tolfrey, a young journalist, to write a book which promoted Norway, the favourite destination of Jones' customers . The Guide illustrates Jones' outstandingly beautiful flies in a wonderful series of hand-coloured plates which must have made them just walk off his shelves:

Tail - Golden Pheasant, Guinea-hen, and Blue Macaw.
Tip - Gold twist, blue silk, scarlet silk, and Ostrich.
Body - Lower half, dark blue, and upper half, claret Pig's wool.
Ribbed - Gold tinsel.
Legs - Dark claret hackle.
Throat - Jay's Hackle.
Wing - (Mixed) Mallard, Teal, Bustard, Black Cockatoo, Guinea-hen, golden Tippet, and golden Topping over all.
Horns - Blue Macaw.
Head - Black.

In the space of a mere fifty years the salmon fly had been transformed from a workmanlike object into a jewel - and there was more to come.

By the 1890's, a vast selection of patterns was available, and the well-equipped salmon fisherman's fly-box was a riot of colour. The selection of materials in use was quite breathtaking: tying silks, floss silks, seal's fur, pig's wool and mohair, chenilles of various kinds, and tinsels; then the hackles: white, yellowish-white, white furnace, white and other shades of coch-y-bonddhu, black, blue dun, blue furnace, red furnace, cuckoo and kneecap ; feathers: golden pheasant, blue and yellow macaw, scarlet macaw, blue and red macaw, toucan, Indian crow, jungle cock, green parrot, chatterer, bustard, florican bustard, guinea-fowl, mallard, teal, pintail, widgeon, summer duck, jay, scarlet ibis, turkey, swan, peacock and ostrich.

There was a fly for every conceivable circumstance, and several flies for circumstances which were not - take the Elsie, which George Kelson described as 'a special pattern for fish lying behind upright rocks and large boulders.' Tying techniques were far more sophisticated than they had been even thirty years earlier. The new patterns took the technical challenge of fly tying onto a new plane, since the process of cramming so many materials into a small space mercilessly exposed the slightest technical incompetence on the part of the tier.

At the turn of the century, the complexity of the salmon fly was at its zenith. Some idea of the hold that the gaudy fly had over salmon fishermen's minds can be found in a quote from Kelson himself:

Is it not notorious that in several of our rivers the fish have been educated to persistently snub old patterns in favour of the new? And is it indeed not an achievement to present to the fish a fly that he then and there prefers to your rival's - to have yourself made the attraction so strong, as to establish, more or less permanently, a decided taste in the fish, so that he refuses other flies, to wait for yours!

The idea is pure baloney, but the pretentious Kelson was typical of many salmon fishers in his uncritical worship of what he imagined as the perfection of salmon fly design. As a result he was completely obsessed with utterly trivia, such as the tag; which he pompously venerated as 'a tribute to nature'.

Kelson wasn't alone in his romantic conclusions. These were the days of 'analytical diagrams' of salmon flies, which divided and subdivided the fly into dozens of constituent parts; tying competitions and of a total lack of inquiry into whether it was really necessary to go to all this trouble in the first place.

If the 1890s marked the zenith of the gaudy salmon fly's evolution, they were also marked by the first signs of dissent. Sir Herbert Maxwell was quick to point out that:

The popular theory encourages the extraordinary delusion that every river requires its peculiar combination of silk, wool, tinsel and feathers to take the salmon which frequent it. Thus we have Tweed flies, Tay flies, Spey flies, Usk flies, Shannon flies, none of which it is orthodox to use on any stream except that from which it derived its origin.

In spite of the cult of salmon fly dressing, a debate was growing about the need for endless legions of specialised flies, fuelled perhaps by a backlash against the high prices charged for individual flies. Maxwell's final comment on the matter was a conclusion that the colour and materials of a fly mattered little to the fish, while the size and movement were all important. It is probable that few anglers paid much attention to him, for Maxwell's judgement was ahead of its time, but the days of the gaudy fly were nearly over and the fall from grace, when it came, would as quick as it was unexpected.

If I had to pick a time for the beginning of the end of the gaudy salmon fly, it would the year 1908, because that was when the controversy of the Inky Boy erupted in the Fishing Gazette. The Inky Boy was a wonder fly invented George Kelson, one of the most influential fishermen of this day, but many of Kelson's readers found the fly totally useless and wrote to tell him so. Kelson asked for samples and made much of the fact that the unsuccessful patterns all differed in some way from the dressing he specified. With a final flourish, he derided the failed readers patterns as unsuitable for catching anything but chub. Here is his dressing:

Tag: silver twist and two turns of crimson Berlin wool
Tail: a topping, a point of the tippet imitation of the Querula Cruenta and a narrow strip of Summer Duck
Butt: black herl
Body: thick black horsehair, closely coiled
Hackle: from the centre of body of Tourocou crest
Throat: a buttercup yellow furnace hackle
Wings: Golden Pheasant tippet in strands, unbarred Mandarin drake, a right and left hand claret strand of Tourocou, two narrow strips of Summer Duck, a suspicion of gallena and a topping.

Then nemesis struck. R.B. Marston, the editor of the Fishing Gazette, made the mild observation that there was no reason why a slight alteration from the dressing should cause fish to refuse a fly. Kelson's reply was magisterial:

…what in the name of Fortune can be the reason for throwing cold water on the infinitely more important measure of being careful and accurate in a fly for use when the most difficult conditions prevail?

Marston's response was to print a cartoon which showed a grateful Inky Boy bursting into tears, under the caption 'I hope I am correctly dressed at last!' This prompted a reply from Reginald Kelson, defending his invalid father's reputation. Marston's riposte was:

His [i.e Kelson's] book is supposed to give us the history of certain salmon flies. I say that some of these he claimed to have invented or named were neither invented nor named by him.

Kelson claimed he was the inventor of making salmon flies with mixed wings. Salmon flies with mixed wings were made before he was even heard or thought of.

Marston went on to dissect Kelson's claims step by step, finishing with an extraordinary article in which he listed Kelson's assertions in a column on the left and rebutted them in merciless detail on the right. The old editor finished with a slightly weary: 'Shall we cry quits, K?' but there was no need because his adversary, over seventy and in ill-health, was already finished. Neither of the protagonists gained much from the exchange, but Kelson's credibility was shattered, and so was the myth of the gaudy salmon fly.



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