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Fly Tying: Quill Gordon

Quill Gordon fishing fly by Rusty Dunn

Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”

by Rusty Dunn

We are a nation of immigrants … a melting pot, where cultures and traditions imported from abroad adapt, evolve, and meld into a uniquely new society. The history of American fly fishing is much the same.  Fly an­gling as we know it developed in Great Britain, often by a privileged upper class.  The methods, how­ever, emigrated to America along with the hard work­ing early settlers.  Fly angling then adapted to the new geography, took root in America’s tremen­dous natural resources, and grew into the magnifi­cent pas­time that we honor and protect today.

Theodore Gordon (1854-1915) is often called the “father” of American fly fishing, but “ambassador” is perhaps more fitting. He was not the first to cast arti­ficial flies before American trout, but his knowledge of English angling, his fly-fishing experiences, and his prolific writings of the late 1800s had great influence on fly anglers of a pros­perous and growing nation.  Gordon lived among the famous Catskill riv­ers, and he educated Americans about fly fishing, especially the dry fly revolution tak­ing place then in England.  Gordon conveyed the rich traditions of the Old World to the emerging angling culture of the New World.

Gordon was a principle architect of early American dry flies. He received in 1890 a gift of ~50 dry flies tied by the great English angler/author F.M. Halford.  The flies were starting points for Gordon’s New World adapta­tions.  He modified the patterns to imitate local in­sects and to float better on America’s swifter rivers.  Gordon, together with Her­man Chris­tian, Roy Steen­rod, and Edward Hewitt (“the hal­lowed four”), estab­lished what was later called “the Catskill style” of dry fly.  Catskill-style flies are tied of Yankee fru­gality – lean, clean, and Spartan – but with a healthy dose of ingenuity and effec­tiveness.

Gordon was a prolific author, but he never wrote a book.  His articles on fly fishing appeared in Britain’s Fishing Gazette and America’s Field and Stream, among others.  Gordon was acknowledged in Britain as America’s leading authority on fly fishing, but his recognition in the U.S. was more limited, probably for lack of a published book.  A book manuscript was rumored to exist when Gordon died, but it never sur­faced.  He may have faded into angling obscurity were it not for the heroic efforts of historian John McDonald, who collected Gordon’s written legacy in his 1947 master­piece The Complete Fly Fish­erman, The Notes and Letters of Theodore Gordon.

Gordon was a passionate conservationist as well as an expert angler. He wrote frequently about pre­serv­ing the environment and of man’s thoughtless­ness and stupidity toward nature. He opposed put-and-take trout management before it was even called such, and he proposed that some waters should be set aside for fly angling only, protected from baited hooks.  Gordon despised private waters that were closed to public access because they violated his code of ethics.  Gordon’s notoriety brought him many invitations to fish the protected and well-stocked waters of private clubs.  He always declined, saying such waters were not a test of his skill.

We do not care for preserved waters unless they are hard fished and hold wild trout. Who cares much for trout that will rise freely at almost any fly and can be taken without effort?” (Field & Stream, 1913).

Theodore Gordon’s most fa­mous fly is the Quill Gor­don, first described in 1906. Quill Gor­dons imi­tate Epeorus pleuralis, a large may­fly of early spring in the East and Mid­west. The design is quite generic, how­ever, and many an­glers use Quill Gordons as a gen­eral mayfly attrac­tor pattern. It is, indeed, a very handsome attractor. Per­haps nothing in fly fish­ing is more beautiful than a Catskill dry fly riding majesti­cally above the wa­ter’s sur­face, braced by nothing but the tips of its hackle and tail feather barbs

Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn

Quill Gordon

Hook: Dry fly, #12-14
Thread: Gray
Wings: Wood duck flank, upright and divided
Tail: Hackle barbs, medium to dark natural dun (spring) or honey dun (summer)
Body: Stripped peacock quill, light for summer and dark for spring
Hackle: Medium to dark natural dun (spring) or honey dun (summer)

Quill Gordon fishing fly by Rusty Dunn