SWTU, P.O. Box 45555, Madison, WI 53744-5555 president@swtu.org

Fly Tying: Brown Owl

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

Brown Owl

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