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Fly Tying: Orange Partridge

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

Orange Partridge 


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)
Body: Orange silk
Rib: Fine gold wire, about four turns (optional)
Wings: Hackled with a brown mottled (not barred) feather from a Partridge’s neck or back.
Head: Orange silk