Fountains of Youth – Classic trout flies that have withstood the test of time … flies that remain “forever young”
by Rusty Dunn
A time-honored Scottish proverb states, “There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one of them is malt whisky“. If that Highlander be a fly fisher, the other naked delight is a trout fly.
Scottish flies reflect the character of the country … austere, frugal, and modest. The designs are humble yet graceful. Their short slender bodies, tiny slips of wing, and hint of hackle are tied from nature’s palette of silk, fur and feather. Scottish flies may contain few materials, but they hold centuries of streamside observation and skill at the tying bench. G.E.M. Skues described the Scottish approach:
“The artificial fly is a sketch. The slight shred of wing, the slim body, the slight but active hackle. I have known Scottish burn fishers fill bumping creels with just such simple patterns.”
The most famous of all Scottish trout flies is a Greenwell’s Glory. Indeed, it may be the most widely known artificial fly of all time. The Greenwell’s Glory is a winged wet fly whose global popularity from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s placed it in almost every angler’s fly box. It even drew attention from non-anglers. People all over the world, including those who had never handled a fly rod and wouldn’t know a mayfly from a maypole, recognized a Greenwell’s Glory by name as something with which to catch trout.
Angling authors have struggled for centuries to understand why winged wet flies appeal to trout. Their paired feather slips arched over the back imitate the fully elongated wings of adult insects. Winged wets, however, are fished underwater with lots of cross-current movement. Why on earth would winged adult insects be swimming underwater? Several plausible, although not entirely compelling, explanations for this seeming contradiction have been proposed. Perhaps winged wets imitate drowned adult naturals whose emergence at the surface failed to complete. But would a drowned adult swim so vigorously underwater? It seems unlikely. Perhaps winged wets imitate emergers with partially expanded wings. Many insects rise to the surface during a hatch with such nascent wing buds. Perhaps winged wets imitate small baitfish, whose rapid movements provoke strikes by predatory trout. Entomologists have established that egg-laying females of many mayfly and caddisfly species swim or crawl underwater to lay eggs at the stream bottom. Perhaps winged wets imitate the vigorous struggles of such females when they are swept into the currents.
A Greenwell’s Glory owes its name to Canon William Greenwell of Durham, England, who was an experienced and frequent angler on Scotland’s River Tweed. Greenwell fished the Tweed one afternoon in May, 1854 when a pale olive mayfly hatched in abundance. Trout rose freely all day, but none of Greenwell’s many flies was up to the task. He ended the day frustrated and fishless. He captured one of the naturals and headed straight to James Wright, a renowned professional fly dresser who lived nearby. Wright and Greenwell together designed a fly on the spot in hopes of imitating the captured mayfly. Wright tied a dozen for Greenwell to try the next day. Greenwell reported the result in a letter published in The Fishing Gazette:
“Next day I had as fine a day’s sport as I ever remember, and going, on my return, to James Wright, he asked me what success I had had. I told him I had filled my creel. ‘Why’, he said, ‘but your creel holds 32 lb’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘but I have got my pockets full as well’.”
Wright and Greenwell organized an impromptu gathering to celebrate the remarkable success of the new fly. The gathering included local regulars of the Tweed and generous quantities of Scots malt, with which the fly was ceremoniously christened to great fanfare as “Greenwell’s Glory”. Word of the new pattern spread quickly due to James Wright’s reputation as a fly dresser and to his influence among affluent British anglers and authors, for whom the River Tweed was an elite destination. Many variations of the pattern have since appeared, but James Wright’s River Tweed original remains unmatched for its combination of beauty, simplicity, and effectiveness.
Copyright 2018, Rusty Dunn
Greenwell’s Glory, Tweed Style
The wings of James Wright’s original dressing were set upright, but the fly shown to the right reflects the traditional River Tweed style of wings slanted backwards.
|Hook:||Wet fly, #14|
|Thread:||Silk, light yellow, well waxed.|
|Wing:||Folded or matched quill slips from the underside of a blackbird’s wing|
|Ribbing:||Fine gold wire|
|Hackle:||Hen, coch-y-bonddu or furnace; length no longer than the hook point|