Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

The Pot Scrubber Nymph (Dick Wigram)

By Alan Shepherd, Australia


Richard Henry (Dick) Wigram was born in England on the 25th February 1903. Dick writes about his early days of fishing in his 1951 book,The Uncertain Trout:

"I caught my first fish at the age of four with my nurse's large hand maintaining a firm grip on the slack of my breeches. It was not a large fish, I should say some where in the vicinity of two ounces. My tackle consisted of an ordinary garden cane about five feet in length, a piece of string, and either a bent pin or hook, a small detail not worthy of remembrance. Our cook, an unpleasant woman with a mole on her chin, refused to cook it; so it was returned whole to my trouser pocket to be taken out and inspected at frequent intervals. Authority, in the person of my sister's governess, eventually smelt it out, and my first catch, with my breeches, was taken away from me. I cried bitterly and refused to be comforted.

My career as an angler had begun, and from that day to this I cannot see water in the form of lake, pond or river without the desire to fish in it.

I believe that a grounding in coarse fishing is the best approach to the art of fly-fishing, it teaches the habits of fish and the playing and landing of them. The small successes and many failures welding into more stable contentment and enjoyment of angling which does not necessitate the catching of fish to bring fulfilment to the angler's day.

At the age of seven I was presented with a two-piece Greenheart fly rod of ancient vintage, a reel without a check, and fifteen yards of level casting line. The reel and line lived under my pillow at night, and the rod stood against the foot of my bed. I thought of little else.

One day-one glorious day-I set out, with escort, to the nearest trout stream, and there in a pool below a disused mill I saw lying poised in the current those most desirable of all living creatures-the speckled trout.

There were many days on the Midland streams, including the waters beloved of old Izaak Walton, the Dove, the Derwent, the Wye, in fact all over Derbyshire from Buxton to Twyford-on-Trent. As a schoolboy all my summer holidays were spent on the river bank fishing, with permission on private waters, and often without permission on still more private waters. I developed a technique of watching the water with one eye while watching for the keeper with the other. I learnt to use cover, to avoid the skyline and to lie up in the reeds or bushed when anyone came across the fields. All this was good grounding. Pocket-money was not large and had so many calls upon it that, at the age of twelve, I was taught to make my own flies and spent many hours in the factory of a well known tackle firm."

As a teenager, Dick fished, or should I say pilfered, the hallowed waters of the Itchen on the beat of George Edward MacKenzie Skues, 'the father of nymph fishing'. Skues first thought of young Dick as a bit of a poacher, but judging by the comments below, he must have taken Dick under his wing.

In Australia's Best Trout Flies published in 1997 by Flylife Publications, Noel Jetson writes:

"My work as a photo-engraver put me in constant touch with artists and their artwork for reproduction, and it was in David Scholes' studio one day that a tall English looking man delivered a gross of Red Tag dry flies to David. I had met Dick Wigram in person. At the time I wondered what David needed all those flies for. Now I know only too well! From that day on my ideas about fishing changed and I was keen to learn as much as I could about my new-found sport. I enrolled in Dick Wigwams' fly tying class with the Adult Education Department and soon learnt how to transform hook, fur and feather into flies. Not many people know this little piece of angling history that I will pass on, as Dick was a very modest man and would not have done so himself. In The Chalk Stream Angler: Sidelines, Sidelights and Reflections G.E.M. Skues refers to a boy called "young Dick" in the chapter The Rising Generation, Skues writes: "My one regret about that young man is that I shall never be here to see how he shapes up when in his prime." Well, I did, Mr Skues. He was a great fly-tier and angler; it was an honour to have known and studied under such a man."

In his book, The Chalk Stream Angler: Sidelines, Sidelights and Reflections Skues states: "Young Dick-another fourteen-year-old - is going to be a mighty angler before the lord. Already he ties trout flies with quite a professional touch to them."

Skues was born in Canada on the 13th August 1858; he died 9th August 1949. In England, he first pioneered nymph fishing amid considerable controversy. Skues studied stomach contents of trout he caught by placing the contents into a shallow white bowl filled with water. He would gently agitate the mass separating it into identifiable insects, or parts of. With those particular insects he experimented with flies to imitate them. In those days fishing a dry fly was considered fair means, rather than the foul wet fly. A bitter dispute was fought between Skues and the dry-fly purist Frederick Halford. The nymphs Skues made were unweighted and the fly was fished in or just under the surface film therefore, it was a foul ungentlemanly method, which eventually led to Skues being banished from his beloved Itchen. Skues would cast his unweighted nymph only to rising fish thereby nymphing the film, often a more productive method than fishing the dry.

Richard Henry (Dick) Wigram

In 1924, at the age of 21, just 60 years after the introduction of brown trout, and only 27 years after rainbow trout ova were introduced into Tasmania, Dick and his brother John immigrated to Tasmania, the 'Island State' south of mainland Australia. Doubtlessly Dick would have taken a great interest in reports of huge trout being caught in Tasmanian rivers and lakes. An interesting fact concerning the introduction of brown trout to Tasmania is that Dick Wigrams great uncle, Money Wigram, donated space on one of his ships - the Norfolk. Two previous attempts to transport fertile trout eggs half way around the world, and across the equator had failed. The Norfolk shipment was successful, and from that delivery, brown trout eggs first hatched in Australia on the 4th of May 1864. From the progeny of 38 trout introduced into the Plenty River, in January 1866 and the 133 retained in the hatchery, came the Brown Trout Salmo trutta, now populating Australia and New Zealand. Let loose in rivers, brown trout grew to record sizes, having few aggressive competitors for food. In this new land of bounty, populations spawned annually and dispersed rapidly through the process of natural migration and propagation, sometimes helped by man. In November 1887 a brown trout weighing 29 pound and measuring 35 and a 1/2 inches was caught by the then Governor Sir Robert Hamilton. In 1925, the year after Dick Wigrams arrival in Tasmania, a Major R. J. McIntyre caught a Brown Trout of 20lbs.

Dick Wigram had arrived in trout-fishing-heaven.

Macquarie River

For much of his life Dick lived around Longford in Northern Tasmania, close to the South Esk and Macquarie Rivers. He would fish almost every day and his favourite river was the Macquarie, a river famous for its 'Red Spinner mayfly hatches. He was a professional fly tier with a team of fly dressers supplying trout flies to the Australian market.

Wigrams Brown Nymph is commonly called a Pot Scrubber Nymph, is without question, Tasmania's most famous nymph pattern. In an article reprinted in Freshwater Fishing in Australia and New Zealand 1981, the introduction of Wigrams Brown Nymph to Tasmania is noted as occurring in 1935. After talking to Jos Sculthorpes' son Roger, I found out that the use of copper wire from a pot-scrubber for the rib occurred some time later. Roger remembers how anglers such as Dick Wigram, David Scholes, General Wordsworth, Max Christensen, Dr Pyper, Bre Lutwyche, Frank Wadley, Jos Sculthorpe and others would meet at Sculthorps Fishing Department in Brisbane Street on Friday afternoons. They were talking fishing, planning weekend manoeuvres, and most likely telling tall stories. One day as a bit of a joke, Frank Wadley came into the store with a huge nymph dressed on a 1/0 hook. For the rib he had used copper wire from a pot scrubber so they jokingly called it a Pot Scrubber Nymph. Dick being a true salesman saw the marketing potential of such a name. His original Brown Nymph pattern had no thorax and a full body rib. With the addition of a pronounced thorax and the pot scrubber rib adaptation, Wigrams' Brown Nymph became The Pot Scrubber Nymph.

In 1955, Mr. Wigram hurriedly returned home to England on family business. Whilst there he tied flies commercially for Ogden Smiths, Farlows and others. He stayed in England from 1955-56 and for some time he lived on the Avon River in a five-room cottage. During this time on the Avon, Dick fished with Frank Sawyer, who many consider 'the master of the weighted nymph'. Sawyer began writing about nymphs after reading Skues' books Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout. In 1945 Sawyer actually met Skues, a rather frail 90-year-old that still had a needle-sharp mind. When Wigram and Sawyer met, one can only ponder as to what they talked about and how the conversation concerning nymphs and nymph fishing may have transpired. One would like to think that while fishing together, their recently departed mentor was looking down with a twinkle in his eye, as they caught a brace or two, using nymphs.

Sawyer was a practical man; he made his Pheasant Tail Nymph using copper wire rather than thread. This enabled him to easily vary the weight of different flies. His flies were no works of art; in fact they were rough looking but efficient. Sawyers aim was to concentrate on what he believed were the key elements trout look for in a nymph. Those being, a slim streamlined silhouette with legs flat against the body, gill movement along the abdomen and short fuzzy tails.

Concerning fishing and the nymph, Dick Wigram writes in his 1946 book Anglers Guide to Tasmania:

"The nymph for use in all kinds of water, fast, slow, broken or smooth is rapidly becoming more popular with fly fishermen. It should hold just as much fascination as does the dry fly and is often infinitely more deadly. The only occasions when it is of little use appear to be at times when trout are feeding on spent spinner or smut. The nymph has a great advantage over the dry fly in that it can be used to fish water where drag would be certain to occur with the floating fly. As such places are often tenanted by the best fish in the river, to whom drag is as popular as raw meat to a vegetarian, it would seem logical to offer them an underwater lure. Most of the nymphs in their natural state are sombre in colour, ranging from pale yellow to darkest brown. The most successful patterns are made from seals' fur, which looks alive and translucent in the water.

It is important to imitate the movements of the natural larvae where possible. It must be remembered that these insects can move only slowly and do not swim much against the current. In process of hatching to the sub-imago they may be found near the surface and at this stage are most readily taken by trout. The line should be kept floating and if preferred the cast can be greased to within a link or so of the fly.

There is often little indication of the "take" other than the sudden sinking of the cast or a slight hump in the water.

A quick eye is needed with perfect co-ordination of hand and eye. The nymph has been found most successful in all Tasmanian waters and at all times throughout the season."

In Dick Wigrams book, The Uncertain Trout, published in 1951 Dick writes:

"The larvae of the Ephemeroptera are lively little beasts. They swim with an undulating movement of the body, their legs move, and the breathing gills situated on the sides of the body are constantly pulsating. How then should the nymph be fashioned by the fly-maker to prove attractive to trout? It must give the appearance of life in the water, it must be more or less translucent, it must be the correct colour. Stiff material is obviously no good and silk will not give a resemblance of pulsation to the body. The very slightest movement of a fur-bodied fly in water will cause the loose ends of fur to sway and waggle in the water in a most convincing manner: Apropos of this it must be remembered by the fly-maker that the under silk will show through when the fur is wet. Mixing fur with wool is rather a tedious job but the addition of wool makes a big difference to the finished product. It helps bind the fur together and to fasten the body more firmly to the hook. Two parts of fur to one of coarse unspun (but scoured) wool is an ideal mixture. Tease it out by putting the two together and pulling the whole into small pieces-repeating until the fingers ache. It takes about fifteen minutes to mix an ounce.

Even the old cruiser likes a nymph. A few months ago I found one in the Macquarie wandering up and down a long bank of weeds and having a great time with all sorts of dainty bits that had collected in the slack water. He passed my Black Spinner three times and not once did he take the slightest notice of it. The next time he came drifting along there was a nice little Brown Nymph waiting right in his path and sinking ever so slowly towards the bottom. It seemed to breathe because there was a sort of fluttering movement all over the body as the water pushed against the ends of the fur. Poor fish!"

Dick Wigram died after a car accident in 1971.

For the Boffins

The Wigrams Brown Nymph was first dressed to represent nymphs of the Tasmanian mayfly nymph Atalophlebia australis, commonly called in the spinner stage, a Red Spinner. The actual nymph is flattened and it is a poor swimmer. The colour when viewed from above is a muddy mid-brown, below the colour is paler. About two thirds of the body is segmented abdomen with seven pairs of gills on the upper sides. The other parts of the body consist of the strongly built thorax and the head with slender, pale semi-transparent brownish-yellow antennae, about half as long as the head. The eyes are black. Before emergence the body length is 9 - 11 mm and the three medium brown tail filaments are 10 - 14 mm long.

The fly can be also be made in different colours such as green, brown, black or blends to imitate Atalophlebia albiterminata, which, in the spinner stage known as a 'Black Spinner'. This nymph has a greyish pulmose gill structure, enabling the nymph to inhabit slow flowing or still water. As a nymph, this species is cryptic (blending with the colour of their habitat), becoming either greenish-brown, dark greenish-brown, dark brown, dark grey or blackish. Before emergence the body length is 10 - 13 mm. The three 10 - 14 mm long tail filaments are medium brown or greyish brown with black bands.

Wigrams' Pot Scrubber Nymph can be fished anywhere, at any time, but it is most effective when fished upstream on rivers when mayfly hatches are occurring in late spring and early autumn (fall). In the colder highland lake country, it is fished when the naturals are active - from December through until late February or early March. Generally in lakes, this nymph is fished in a natural looking manner using slow patient retrieves. It is often fished on a two fly rig, hanging below a dun.

Materials Pot Scrubber Nymph (Dick Wigram)

    Hook: Size 10 or 12 down-eye wet fly hook.

    Thread: Brown.

    Tail: Three or more brown cock hackle fibres.

    Ribbing: 4 or 5 turns of flat copper strip, the original pattern calls for a strip obtained from a copper pot scrubber.

    Abdomen: The abdomen occupies about two thirds of the hook shank. It is dubbed with a blend of dark chocolate wool cut up with the individual fibres teased out before equally blending with dark brown seal's fur. The ratio is about 1 wool : 2 seals fur.

    Thorax: The same dubbing mix as the abdomen. It is made using figure '8' binding and it is about twice as thick as the abdomen.

    Legs: Some of the thorax dubbing is picked out with a dubbing needle to give the appearance of legs.

    Wing-case: The original fly has no wing-case. Head: A well formed head, finished with black head cement.

    Tying Instructions

    1. Wind brown thread down shank to bend. The tail fibres are also locked in during this operation.

    2. Tie in flat copper strip or if available a strip obtained from a copper pot scrubber.

    3. Evenly blend dark brown seal's fur with dark chocolate wool 2 : 1 ratio.

    4. Dub two thirds of the hook shank.

    5. Wind 4 or 5 turns of ribbing and tie off. Cut off excess if no weight is required (if a weighted fly is required wind excess wire to form base of thorax).

    6. Make the thorax about twice as thick as the abdomen by dubbing using figure '8' binding.

    7. Make a well-formed head, finished with black head cement.

    8. Pick out some of the fine hairs of the dubbed thorax to give the appearance of legs, also do the same to the abdomen to give the fluttering look of gills.

Comments: The main thing about this fly once wet is the fluttering movement all over the body, which is achieved by mixing seals fur and wool. Today a small amount of fiery brown seal's fur is put in the blend. The pot scrubber rib pushes the dubbed body down giving a segmented look. When the fur is teased out it should quiver ase nymph-like gills. Although not in the original Pot Scrubber Nymph, a dark brown to blackish wing-case (shown here) is sometimes added on weighted nymphs for fishing deep. As an emerging nymph, the copper rib is replaced with imitation copper wire for less weight and cock hackle is wound at the head and trimmed flat underneath. ~ Alan Shepherd

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