Article by Jason Klimock

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KILLFULLY MADE FISHING FLIES of all types are noteworthy, and yet there is something especially captivating about the exquisite salmon flies of the nineteenth century, which were also known as gaudy flies. My fascination with Victorian salmon flies started when I was a child, raised on the lore of fly-fishing—tales of clear rivers, far away, and the silver ghosts that inhabited them. On the West Coast the steelhead was revered as fly-fishing’s finest quarry, and yet it was the Atlantic salmon—“the leaper” by its Latin name Salmon salar—that captivated me. Like the Victorians before me, I placed the leaper at the pinnacle of fly-fishing’s hierarchy. In Canada, Agnes Macdonald (1836­1920), wife of Sir John A. Macdonald, experienced first-hand the appeal of fly-fishing for this king of game fish. Wrapped up in the lore of an imported British sport are the flies, the objects that lure and catch the fish. Made by wrapping or tying materials such as silk, fur, and feathers around a hook, flies were developed to catch fish, yet as history has proved, many an angler was also ensnared by their beauty.

When I began to make flies for Pacific salmon and trout in my early teens, this enhanced my connection to the sport. My first flies were incredibly ugly but they did catch fish, and as I progressed I began to take great pleasure in crafting these objects and sought greater challenges such as the Atlantic salmon flies created in the Victorian era. Texts from that period draw a connection between time spent crafting and time spent on a river. As George M. Kelson wrote in The Salmon Fly (1895), tying flies helped extend the pleasures of salmon fishing to all seasons of the year. By making flies, a fly maker—known as a fly tier—could transport himself or herself to a river far away and experience fond memories or dreams of remote rivers in Canada, Norway, or the United Kingdom.

Gaudy flies are among the most difficult to create due to intricate patterns that require numerous materials to be applied in a precise and skilful manner. By comparison, trout flies generally mimic a trout’s food source, which usually consists of insects and small fish, and for this reason the colours are drab and the patterns simpler. What further sets salmon flies apart from relatively simple trout flies, other than their larger size, is their bright colours, their complexity, and their required technical prowess. Many of the materials needed to tie the gaudy flies are exotic and colourful, which adds to their visual impact. Accordingly, these materials were (and still are) expensive, so the tier would take time to ensure that the finished product was well made.

Flies are usually created following a pattern, though a highly skilled maker might customize or develop a unique example. Periodicals and guide books, which both gained popularity in the nineteenth century, facilitated the circulation of fly patterns, as did the establishment of stores by famous salmon anglers. Many of these sources provided technical instruction which is still of great use today. The Victorian gentleman or lady would grasp the bend of the hook between the middle finger and thumb.

Although most contemporary tiers use a vice, some still hold the hook by hand. To this hook, the maker would affix and wrap a length of silk thread which is then used to attach all other materials. The process could take many hours of work to produce an object generally between one and four inches in length. Broken down into parts, the prototypical Victorian salmon fly consists of many, if not all, of these components: tag, tail, butt, body, ribs, hackle, underwing, wing, sides, cheeks, collar, roof, topping, horns, and head. We can see the sum of these parts in this contemporary rendition of the classic fly pattern called the “Jock Scott,” which is often called the king of salmon flies. Thousands of other patterns have been developed over the years and many of these were tied in styles specific to certain regions.

Authors such as William Blacker, Frederick Tolfrey, John Hale, and George Kelson, among others, left their marks on the craft throughout the Victorian period in the books and articles they published. While these men did not necessarily create the patterns in their texts, the circulation of patterns with names such as Silver Doctor, Childers, Major, and Green Highlander came to form a sort of canon that dominated the craft. These texts also provide accounts of the use of patterns from Norway to Canada, and many places in between. Agnes Macdonald’s “On a Canadian Salmon River” (1887) is noteworthy in locating these flies within Canada. Our adventurous Baroness travelled to the Restigouche River to experience the joys of salmon fishing. In her account she expresses the pleasure she found in fishing where flies such as the Silver Doctor and Durham Ranger played a central role. These were tied and generously supplied by her guide whom she names only as “the superintendent.” Frederick Tolfrey’s book The Sportsman in Canada (1845) also emphasized the presence and popularity of fly-fishing in Canada. And in relation to fly tying, Tolfrey mentions Major Browne who had provided flies for fishing the salmon rivers of Quebec.

The aesthetic allure of these flies has influenced generations of men and women who either pursued salmon or simply enjoyed making the flies for their own sake. The notable fly tier Major Traherne, a gentleman who created some of the Victorian period’s most beautiful and complex flies, is quoted as saying that one did not need to fish in order to enjoy the craft. In Canada these fly patterns captivate those who seek a challenge or connection to a rich history where aesthetics, crafting, and utility coexist. The craft of tying classic flies is alive and well in contemporary times with many excellent artists in online communities such as classicflytying.com.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Jason Klimock is an art historian who was awarded his MA from Concordia University. His thesis uses Atlantic salmon flies to build on methods of interpreting and understanding Victorian period handicraft.


Pearl fly-fishing fly by Dave Carne