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?


Bloody Mary
Champion All-Purpose Fly

Bloody Mary
By Alan Shepherd, Australia


In Rodger Hungerford's 1971 book Guide to Trout Angling there is quite a bit about the Bloody Mary and how to fish it. I quote:

"Thoughtful and enthusiastic fly dressers are always creating new flies; their imagination seems limitless. Most of their productions, however, are really little or no better than existing ones and more often than not new words to the same music.

But every so often a real gem comes to light, a fly that either answers some long-standing need, or, by virtue of its success just as a nondescript, is a combination of definite value to the sport - one that will leave its mark permanently.

Without question Bloody Mary is such a fly.

Created in 1956 by Max Christensen of Longford, in Tasmania, whose other originals include Senator's Choice, Macquarie Red, Yeti, Miss Tasmania and Micky Finn. Bloody Mary was first made available for sale under the simple name Mary. Anglers were quick to add the colourful adjectives, because of its red tail and body tinsel. The title Bloody Mary has now become common, although some of its more staid users shorten it to just plain Mary.

Neither its design nor its name has anything to do with the salmon flies known as Hairy Mary or Bloody Mary. This is pure coincidence.

The tie for this fly is simple enough, but considerable care is needed in the selection of suitable hackles, on which so much depends for success. In actual fact, Bloody Mary can neither be made nor fished correctly without the right hackles.

Here is the tie:

    Hook: no. 6, 8 or 10 down eye preferably round bend.

    Silk: Black.

    Tail: Tomato-red silk, or nylon.

    Body: Orange-red "Lurex" (untarnishable tinsel).

    Rib: Fine gold wire.

    Hackle: Soft black cock, preferably game.

Proportion is particularly important. Size 8 is the most popular, but I always have one or two other larger and smaller ones with me; especially the former.

The purpose of the ribbing of gold wire is solely for durability. Without it, the tinsel soon becomes broken by the trouts' teeth.

The hackles are doubled; that is, they are folded before tying in so that all the fibres are on the same side of the stem. As the hackle is wound on, palmer fashion, the fibres are pulled toward the rear to make them lie back.

The head is built up with tying silk and varnished. Max Christensen's thoughts were first stirred when he considered the larval and adult stages of large stone flies and wondered how best to imitate them. Bloody Mary is the result of much subsequent trial, error, and careful experimentation. I have no doubt that, in addition to achieving this aim, Max has accidentally evolved a most remarkable general-purpose fly which, so far as I can see, will work successfully at any time, so long as it is fished correctly.

Support for this rather sweeping statement is found in the fact that when I first introduced Bloody Mary to the trout in the Snowy Mountains area of New South Wales their reaction was not far short of ecstatic.

Together with Fred Stewart, past president of the Victorian Fly Fishers' Association, I fished Bloody Mary on and off for more than a week in both rivers and lakes and took trout wherever I went. Fred's enthusiasm can be judged when I tell you that no less than two dozen newly-made Mary's were dispatched to him on my return to Tasmania.

The very first morning when Fred guided me to a small bay on Lake Eucumbene, where several decent looking browns were working along the shore, it was Bloody Mary that did battle. Fred, as yet unaware of the fly's prowess, was soon to find out.

A small weedy trickle ran into the bay from the nearby hills. At its mouth a shallow pool some ten yards wide had been formed, itself weedy in parts but clear in the centre. In this pool an active trout worked eagerly, rummaging in turn round each little corner, fins or tail momentarily visible sometimes even the whole back as he sought out nymphs and such like.

The sun shone brightly, there was no wind and the calm water was only bare inches in depth the most testing conditions of any, surely, under which to try a fly that, so far as I know, had never before, seen the light of a New South Wales day.

To the observer it may well have appeared intentional that my cast was some six feet off track; the fly landed well away from the fish, where it floated as conspicuously as a wild duck. Such was not the case, however, and I rather fancied that I was faced with the dangerous business of retrieving for a second shot without arousing his suspicions.

But, almost as it fell he spotted it at a range by then of at least eight feet. Straight at it he came like a steam engine, as if he had searched for it all day; the waves spreading over the whole pool.

There was no doubt about his intentions. He took it with gusto, his big snout protruding right over the top; poor Bloody Mary as he rose artistically and gulped it in.

My strike was solid: he was one of those sitters I could hardly have missed. In and out of the weeds he charged, leaping as best he could in the confined space, while I closed up the gap by moving towards him. Seldom if ever does Bloody Mary let go and soon it was over, a beautiful brown trout of about 4 lb.

At nearby Lake Tantangara, too, and also on the Murrumbidgee and Eucumbene rivers, Bloody Mary consistently took a toll. In Tantangara I was able to try the fly properly and prove how remarkably effective and versatile it is both on and under the surface.

For this is one of the greatest features. Without changing rod, line, cast or anything you can fish Bloody Mary either wet or dry. Flick it in the air a few times before setting it down gently and it floats like a cork. With no flicking and a more positive landing it sinks. In addition if you want it to sink while floating all that is needed is a gentle but definite little tug.

And as for a dapping fly Bloody Mary excels.

By this I do not mean for fishing with a blowline from a boat. Nor do I mean delicate dapping in some quiet pool under the willows; Bloody Mary is too big and ugly for that. No, what I mean is a much more rough and tough business than this.

When the wind is so strong and gusty that all thoughts of a dry fly proper vanish from your mind, when all you can think of is bashing out a wet or retiring with hurt feelings to the pub, this is the time to turn confidently to Bloody Mary, in size 6, and get amongst them.

Grease everything, including the fly itself just lightly, and fish with a six pound strain leader. Choose a steepish bank with plenty of depth near the edge and the wind either blowing parallel to it or, better still, slightly off shore. Here the surface will be well ruffled, but not broken by active wavelets. Cast Mary out with a dry fly action, dropping it as lightly as possible to make sure it floats. Now hold the rod high, allowing the wind to belly the line. By twitching the rod-tip the fly can be made jump about on the surface, sometimes bounding into the air between ripples.

There is no need to cast far. In fact with too long a cast it is impossible to control the fly properly. The wind strength and the height of the angler above the surface will dictate the beat length of cast. You will soon know.

From the bottom ring the line should pass over the crooked index finger of the rod hand, thence to the other hand by your side. As you work the fly in little jerks on and over the surface towards you with the rod-tip, pull in the slack line with this hand. When the fly has been worked for a yard or two, retrieve it for the next cast.

It is not necessary to move the fly very fast or very far; let the wind help as much as possible in activating the Mary in a life-like manner, because this, in essence, is the whole thing. Neither the fly nor its behaviour in this case represents anything on earth. But the effect of this animation on the trout is extraordinary. Clearly they are just tantalised beyond resistance.

The take is always savage. A sudden slash and a splash is all there is to it. Seldom does the trout miss his aim or the angler miss the strike which really amounts only to raising the rod tip briskly. The fish does the rest.

Typical of the sort of bank to look for when angling for trout is the overhanging tussocks which not only provide shelter for various creatures that, through misadventure, can easily fall in, but also can conceal the angler.

Another pretty certain place to get results with the Mary is where a good stiff breeze is blowing directly off a sloping lake shore. The water along the edge is calm, but a little way out the ripple begins, growing rougher the farther it extends.

Cast Mary out a few yards into the ripple proper and work it in towards the calm. Watch out for a slam in such places. Action is practically certain.

Ideal water like this is found on the western shore of Lake Tantangara where quite a few narrow promontories run out towards the east. The wind often blows more or less straight across these in summer, and any grasshopper that loosens his grip on something solid is most likely to finish in the lake or, worse still, in the stomach of a trout. Fred Stewart and I had great times with the Bloody Mary along these promontories one February.

On the Murrumbidgee and Eucumbene Rivers, too, along those long, deep, flat almost flowless pools that are normally so hard to fish, we got some fiery response.

Although these big pools are frequently fruitless just let the wind spring up and see how you go! And the harder it blows the better, providing you don't have to cast into it. Even on the upper Eucumbene, Bloody Mary was successful in the comparatively small pools.

In addition, as a wet fly, Bloody Mary is no less effective. Indeed, it has the edge on many a standard pattern, because of its pronounced pulsating action. The long spongy hackle throbs so convincingly that the trout seem unable to resist it.

There is no need to work Bloody Mary very fast in the water as a wet fly. In fact it is better not to. On the other hand it is not, as a rule, the best sort of fly to be fished absolutely inert or dead drift. Far better to sink it down near the fish and move it in short, easy jerks so that the hackles pulsate properly.

For obvious reasons I have found this a most deadly approach when the trout are feeding on frogs. Indeed, Bloody Mary could then be even a better fly than the Yeti, and that's saying something.

Finally as an ordinary dry fly, incredibly enough, Bloody Mary can still hold its own; the smaller sizes 10 and 8 being naturally the best.

At the Dee Lagoon in Tasmania, where very difficult fish rose very occasionally one summer, I smote quite a few of them with a dry Mary.

There's no doubt about it, Bloody Mary is a winner, and is likely to be with us forever, to be viewed with esteem by our children's children. My fervent hope, however, is that when the commercial fly dressers get at it they will stick to Max Christensen's recipe, because if there's one fly that poor dressing will spoil, it's the Mary.

But tied and fished correctly Bloody Mary is amongst the deadliest fish-getters in the game."

In the 1978 book by Max Stokes, Tasmanian Trout Fly Patterns, there a fly called a 'Mary' and another called a 'Bloody Mary,' both Max Christensen patterns. The only difference is, the 'Bloody Mary' is tied with silver wire and poor quality hackles, whereas the 'Mary', has gold wire and quality hackles with fibres about 1/2" long.

Tying instructions

    1. At the bend of the hook tie in tag and the ribbing followed by the strip of orange-red tinsel.

    2. Bind tying thread along the shank, leaving room for a good sized head.

    3. Bind on the tinsel and tie off at back of head.

    4. Strip fluff from base of cock hackle, then double it (folded so that all the fibres are on the same side of the stem). Tie in hackle by the stem at back of head, wet fly style. Cut off excess stem.

    5. The hackle is wound on, from back of head down the shank to the butt. This is done palmer fashion with considerably more fibres at the eye end. As the hackle is wound on, the fibres are pulled toward the rear to make them lie back. The turns should not be too close together, otherwise the effect of the tinsel is lost.

    6. Secure hackle at butt with a turn of the wire, then before ribbing, stroke the fibres into a vertical plane, but still sloping. Make five or six turns of ribbing and secure rib with tying thread. Cut off rib and end of hackle protruding from back of fly.

    7. Make a well formed head and whip finish.

    8. Varnish head, either red or black (the shine seems more important than the colour). If desired, diamond-shaped pieces of tinsels may be added as eyes on sides of head. ~ Alan Shepherd

Editors note: New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania, the 'Island State' are states in south eastern Australia.

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