Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”
by Rusty Dunn
If the history of fly fishing is viewed in the mirror of time, dry-fly fishing is a relatively new invention, appearing only about 150 years ago. Wet-fly fishing, on the other hand, existed for centuries before the words “dry” and “fly” were first juxtaposed. One of the cornerstones of wet-fly fishing as practiced today developed slowly but steadily in the north of England during those wet-fly-only centuries. This unique style of fly tying and fishing originated in and around Yorkshire, which is north of the midlands and south of Scotland. Yorkshire is a land of striking natural beauty, with expansive moorlands, dense woodlands, cascading waterfalls, glacially carved mountains, and rich beautiful valleys. It is a land of swift stony-bottomed rivers that drain the English highlands. Yorkshire rivers are home to ancient brown trout and centuries-old fly-fishing traditions. They are the birthplace, incubator, and laboratory of “the North-Country style” of fishing. Flies and methods of the North Country were refined for centuries by observant and talented Yorkshire anglers.
North-Country flies are remarkably simple designs, being sparsely dressed of silk threads, soft feathers, and natural furs. They are usually tied without explicit wings. The flies’ thin profiles, translucent bodies, and graceful movements of soft materials underwater amount to little more than a suggestion of a natural insect … a mere hint of imitation. But, when experienced anglers present North-Country flies before trout, those suggestions become irresistibly attractive.
The earliest indications of a distinct North-Country style of fly are, arguably, evident in certain flies of Charles Cotton, described in The Compleat Angler (1676). Cotton’s flies were winged, but he describes their sparse and delicate dress as being quite unlike the thick heavy flies in common use in the English south. North-Country flies appear in books and manuscripts through the 1700s, but they received a tremendous surge of attention during the 1800s. Indeed, the mid- to late-1800s was a golden age of the North-Country school, with numerous authors and books contributing to its growth and popularity. Two landmark books published near the turn of the 20th century assimilated dispersed threads of the northern style and presented an integrated angling philosophy. The books, Yorkshire Trout Flies (1885) by T.E. Pritt and Brook and River Trouting (1916) by H.H. Edmonds & N.N. Lee, describe insects of northern rivers, pattern recipes for their imitation, and angling methods for success. The books are today’s definitive reference – the Old Testament, if you will – of tying and fishing North-Country wets.
Yorkshire Trout Flies emphasized pattern recipes but gave little guidance on how the flies are actually tied. Brook and River Trouting remedied that shortfall, as it provided quality photos both of the finished flies and the silks, furs, and feathers with which each is tied. Simplicity of the patterns plus quality photos of the finished flies made their tying understandable even for beginners. Flies described in Brook and River Trouting were not of Edmonds’ and Lee’s design. Rather, they were previously published patterns used widely in the north. Brook and River Trouting integrates accurate entomology with descriptions of insect behaviors, times of emergence, matching flies, and methods for effective presentation. The book emphasizes above all else the importance of knowing the biology of trout and insects:
“A thoughtful fisherman studies the water, its pools, currents and eddies, and … realizes the necessity of a good knowledge of insect life, watercraft and the habitat of the trout, and becomes as intimate with each as an artist is with his colours.”
Edmonds’ and Lee’s minimalist approach to angling is evident in their selection of flies for the book. Rather than being an exhaustive collection of the large number of existing North-Country flies, it gives recipes of only thirty nine. These flies alone are sufficient to catch trout all year long, in varying weather, and in any type of river. Brook and River Trouting demonstrates yet again that accurate presentation of a fly is always more important than precise imitation of a natural insect.
Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn
Hook: Wet-fly, #14
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, orange (#6A)
Wings: Hackled with a reddish brown feather from the lesser coverts of a Tawny or Brown Owl’s wing. (Substitute with wing coverts of an English woodcock)
Body: Tying thread
Head: Bronze peacock herl