Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”
by Rusty Dunn
The technology of fly tying took a giant leap forward in 2,640 BC when, according to legend, a Chinese Empress named Leizu discovered that the natural glue of silkworm cocoons could be softened in hot water and a long thin filament of pure silk unwound from each cocoon.
Twisting several such filaments together produced a thread of remarkable strength and beauty. Leizu later invented the silk loom and established China’s first commercial silk enterprise, thus earning her a title of reverence, ‘The Goddess of Silk’. Silk is wonderfully shiny and lustrous, and silken goods were in great demand by Western civilizations. Chinese methods of silk production and processing, though, were state secrets for over 3,000 (!) years. China was the sole supplier of silks, and a lucrative international trade developed to meet Near Eastern and European demands. This “Silk Road” lasted over 2,000 years and profoundly influenced global human history.
The words “silk” and “thread” were synonymous for much of fly tying history. Ounce for ounce, silk threads are stronger than threads spun of other natural fibers. Silk was the thread of choice for fly tying until it was replaced by synthetic threads (e.g. polyester and nylon) in the mid-20th century. The most famous of all silk-tied trout flies are undoubtedly the soft-hackled spiders and wingless wets of the English north, because silk is a major element of their basic design. Bodies of North Country flies consist of silk alone or silk covered with a thin veneer of natural fur. The design imitates translucency of natural insects better than any other method. Light passes through wet silk and reflects off an underlying hook. When wet, North Country flies glow as if lit by an inner fire. No other materials – synthetics included – can match the translucency of silk-bodied flies. The color of silk darkens when wet, but such changes were taken into account by North Country fly designers.
Perhaps the most famous of all North Country flies is
the Orange Partridge (aka. Partridge & Orange), which first appeared by name in William Pilling’s A List of Flies for ye River Wharfe (1794). Flies don’t stay famous for 200 years unless they are effective, and the Orange Partridge is one of history’s finest. Fish it either deeply as a nymph or near the surface as an emerger or cripple. The Orange Partridge is tied of Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, color #6A (Orange), which is one of about two dozen Pearsall’s colors dyed specifically for fly tyers. English anglers have long paid great attention to color in fly fishing (probably too much attention), and Pearsall’s responded by developing a veritable rainbow of subtle olive, yellow, ginger, brown, orange, and red-hued threads. Pearsall’s Gossamer is the thinnest of all silks, being about 7/0 on the confusing ‘ought’ scale. It is the acclaimed standard for tying classic salmon flies, spiders, and both winged and wingless wet flies.
Pearsall’s as a company was established in 1795 as “Pearsall and Green” in central London by “silkmen” James Pearsall and William Green. Their shop on Cheapside (St.) supplied wholesale and retail silks primarily for the embroidery, lace making, knitting, and weaving trades. The company changed names to “James Pearsall & Co.” in 1865 and moved to Taunton in southwest England. The excellence of Pearsall’s silks for fly tying was discussed in print as early as 1841 (E. Chitty, The Fly-Fisher’s Textbook). Generations of English and American fly tyers used Pearsall’s Gossamer, including such greats as Halford, Kelson, Marryat, Skues, Edmonds & Lee, Mottram, Woolley, Jennings, and Leisenring, to name a few.
Alas, the march of time has not been as kind to James Pearsall & Co. as it has to the Orange Partridge. After 230 years of supplying the finest silk threads, production of Gossamer and other Pearsall’s silks ceased about two years ago. Retail inventories have dwindled, and popular colors of Gossamer are now difficult to source. Alternative silk threads are available, but none have the same subtle colors, none are the same fine size, and none are intertwined with two centuries of fly tying history quite like Pearsall’s Gossamer.
Copyright 2017, Rusty Dunn
The Orange Partridge recipe below is from Edmonds & Lee, Brook and River Trouting (1916). Vary the hook size to match natural mayflies. A mottled brown feather of any game bird (woodcock, grouse, etc.) is a good substitute for partridge on smaller hooks
|Hook:||Wet fly / nymph, #14|
|Thread:||Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, orange (#6A)|
|Rib:||Fine gold wire, about four turns (optional)|
|Wings:||Hackled with a brown mottled (not barred) feather from a Partridge’s neck or back.|