Outdoor Writers Association of America
Northwest Outdoor Writers Association
This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

March 9th, 1998

Mystery solved?

Edges yellowed with age, tucked away under the book's dust cover, the handwritten words ricocheted off the paper. "... Perhaps you shall be able to convince the fly fishing world of certain physical truths which I have failed to do in spite of all my writing and talking."

Who was the writer? Very possibly the inventor of the first dry fly! What was his mind set? After all, there were hundreds maybe thousands of "dry" flies with names like Quill Gordon, Cahill, and Beaverkill. Didn't those flies catch trout? You know they did.

Confused? Let me back up here. It seems every fishing magazine has yet another article on the originator of the dry fly, not to mention the 'latest book' on the subject. Who is the inventor this week? Scholarly appearing treatises have appeared. And even more interpretations on those. Recently, the fur and feathers have been flying again. Let's look at how we got here, from way back in time. No name, rank or serial number. Just how, not who.

Back in merry old England, people fly fished. No one specifically claimed it was "dry fly" fishing. From everything I can glean, it was wet fly fishing. The flies sank. It doesn't appear there was any intent to make them float, not at first. These tied bits were akin to what we would call nymphs. In fact, they were sort of trolled. Not necessarily behind a boat, although I have been some paintings where it appeared that was the case indeed. History says they caught fish.

Poorly tied flies didn't always sink. Fishers had to wet them, or use a little muck to weight them. Some flies almost floated. They caught fish too.

Some observant individual, or group of individuals must have been sitting beside the stream having their loaf of bread, jug of wine, and thou. Perhaps they saw insects on the surface of the water. Ah ha! Or maybe one flew into their wine and didn't sink. No matter whether serendipity or genius intervened, the floating fly came about. Other than the "dry fly" all types of flies existed; it wasn't necessary to name them, it was just fishing.

The idea that the trout would have to reveal himself on the take took form. This is when just fishing took the giant leap to sport ... fly-fishing became full-blown; the thrill of the rise was discovered. And has been nurtured ever since.

Viewed floating in the surface film, hackles below the surface resembled legs. A bulge in the body represented wing cases. The floating fly certainly looked like an emerger.

Notice, the operative word here is floating. Not dry. Was the technology available to make flies float? More or less. Even with the paraffin treatment, the floating fly was just that not a dry fly.

On the invisible time line, in the same era, someone figured out how to make a line float. I suppose that's relevant. Hard to have a sinking line (even if the leader floated) and a floating fly. What were the leaders made from? Cat gut. Awful stuff. Really high maintenance. But then, the fly lines were high maintenance too.

All of the quoted important stuff about the development of flies is from England or Europe. Interesting. What if nearly the same thing was happening thousands of miles away? Simultaneously? How about the South Pacific Islands?

Native peoples on far off Pacific islands also fished. Long before sports fishermen flocked like snowbirds to warm beaches, natives tied gobs of colorful feathers together to catch fish. At some point they discovered you could oil the feathers with coconut palm oil and they would float.

Where or when did the dry fly get into the equation? It depends on how old you are. Or even if you are a reader. Really. If you are a brash and untutored twenty-something, you may think you invented the dry fly. We've all seen articles in fly-tying and fly-fishing magazines where the writer thinks he invented a particular fly. After all, he put his name on it. No matter that someone else tied it before he was born.

Thirty-something? Gary LaFontaine. Forty-something? Swisher & Richards. Fifty-something? Maybe Halford. Older yet? A little gray creeping in at the temples? Bifocals too? Well here we go, the nuts are off the buggy wheels.

Ever hear of Hewitt? LaBranch? Marinaro? Why would any or all of them be the inventor of the dry fly? Because it had not yet been invented. A 1940 book by William Bayard Sturgis, Fly-Tying gives tying formulas for both "wet" and "dry" flies. Some more recognizable patterns on both lists are: Beaverkill, Cahill, Coachman, Ginger Quill, Gordon, Royal Coachman ... you get the idea.

"The fly at the edge of the window, where the trout sees, inspects and takes it is drab and dull, with no distinct color rendition."
from "Rise of the Ring" by Vince Marinaro

Longer tails, and a little white for visibility were the major differences. These variations, even if the instructions spoke about tail length and hook-hackle balance, were simply a move from fishing the fly totally submerged to floating on the surface.

Looking sideways through an aquarium or jug of water with a bug on the surface of the water is not reality. Nor is photographing chilled or drugged bugs reality. The chilled or drugged insect neither sits nor rides the water in a natural way.

Reality lies in seeing the natural insect through the trouts "window." That overhead hole in the mirrored surface of the water the fish looks through. If the insect really rides the water IN the surface film it indeed is a floating fly. Stone flies are great examples of this.

"This is all the trout sees before the insect reaches the edge of the window"

However, if what the trout sees are tiny dapples of footprints denting the surface, no body, just "footprints" you have a dry fly. Probably a mayfly at that. Why is this important?

"What the trout sees is only footprints."
Photos Jim Birkholm

Back in the 1970's Dr. James Butler, while at Penn State, did significant research on why trout feed. Part of his conclusions is that trout instinctively key on certain things. One of those things is footprints. Footprints? The tiny dapples, meniscuses denting the surface of the water. Trout see those footprints long before they see the insect. The decision to take the insect (or fly) is made exactly by instinct.

Remember the old saw about fish biting in the rain? Imagine what raindrops look like on the water from beneath the surface Footprints? It could look like lunch for trout. Butler has trout keying on footprints. Marinaro has a fly that makes footprints. Just like the insect. Marinaro took the years of research and observation produced by Hewett, as well as others, and added another twenty or more years of his own research to it. The secret of the fly that makes footprints is in the way the hackles are tied, and placement of the body and wings.

Vince Marinaro was as comfortable on a stage as a concert violinist as he was in the board room as a corporate attorney. He was meticulous selecting either an onion for a sauce or a section of bamboo for a rod. He wrote passionately. And raised bugs. His presence did not leave the room when he did.

On his only trip to Montana Spring Creeks he hired a guide. The guide was shocked when Vince told him to bring a shovel. Vince never cast a line to the creek full of trout. They did dig up nymphs. The insects in various stages were preserved in tiny bottles for future study.

"A Modern Dry-Fly Code," Vince's first book, was originally published in 1950. In it are color photographs of the fly patterns originated by Vince. The May Flies include the Green Drake Dun and Spinner, Hendrickson Dun and Spinner, the Sulphur Dun and Spinner and the Light and Dark Olive Dun. The terrestrials, for which he is famous are also shown. Our copy is dog-eared and marked.

The book was a great disappointment to him. Vince was the writer of the letter quoted at the beginning of this story. What was sadly missed by the majority of the flyfishing world (who did understand the terrestrials) was the thorax tie.

Some writers have incorrectly described the fly, often saying the crisscross hackles trap an air bubble and so it rides high. Not so. True, the fly rides above the water. The hackles do not puncture the surface film, but because of the angle at which they are tied, the fly rides on the bent edges of the hackle. Cutting a "V" in the underside of the hackle on a traditionally tied fly does not work the same as tying the fly per Vince's method.

Vince tried again with his second book,"In the Ring of the Rise", published in 1976. This book contains excellent full color photographs showing the rise forms, also illustrations and photographs of what the trout sees. Sadly for Vince, the terrestrials continued to maintain center stage.

Perhaps there is a reason the thorax tied fly has not achieved the acceptance Vince expected. This truly gentle man read, observed, and digested tremendous amounts of knowledge. His conclusions were accurate. Thorax tied mayflies absolutely work. The flies have the impact of an earthquake. To a select few.

A few? Those fishers who have evolved to the point in their fishing where they insist the trout take their fly exactly as it would a natural insect. Not gonzo chuck and chance it. No slash and grab. No flat refusal. A simple sipping take. One after another. The elite of fly fishermen. Those who chose not to fish nymphs even if they do catch fish. It is the principle of the thing, you know. Those who have learned to tie a thorax fly (and who have located hackle capable of tying it) probably still believe upstream and dry is the only proper way to fly fish. At least upstream and quartering.

Only recently, especially in England, Vince has become a hero in fly-fishing circles. Thorax tied may flies may indeed yet get their due, and Vince Marinaro credit for really inventing the dry fly as well as the terrestrial.

Still not convinced? Buy, borrow or beg a copy of "A Modern Dry-Fly Code." It has recently been reprinted. If you live in the east or Midwest, tie a Hendrickson or two; Marinaro style. Fish it.

Fishing the Spring Creeks in Montana? Forget the nymphs and San Juan Worms. Have I got the wonder dry fly for you? Chapter 10, page 258, Pale Sulphur Dun. Tie it "dry"! Vince would thank you. And you'll thank Vince. ~ The LadyFisher

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

Archive of Ladyfisher Articles

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice