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?


By Eric Austin, Ohio

The real mystery here is where in the world you're going to find cuckoo hackle this side of Switzerland. Once again I had to find a sub, and I think I've come up with a decent one, but who knows? I've heard from reliable sources that guys use all kinds of things to sub for cuckoo, dying hackle pale yellow for instance. That said, the recipe from Francis Francis calls for "darkish cuckoo; dun natural color", and the picture in Mikael Frodin's book looks as if the hackle is a fuzzy grizzly. I decided that dark dun marabou would work, but didn't have any. Then I looked at the bases of some rather poor dark dun turkey flats that I bought some time ago, and remembered that marabou is made from turkey. Voila! I'm not sure how the hackle compares with real cuckoo, but I like it anyway.

I tied this one for my friend Alice Conba from Tipperary Town, Ireland. The town is located on the banks of the Suir River, pronounced "sure." She has helped me overcome many difficulties with fly tying, and is a constant source of inspiration. I plan to do all three patterns listed in Francis Francis for the Suir, and give them to her as a thank-you. So this is the first of three.

The Mystery is a spring fly, used for rough, fast water, as are all three flies listed. The fly is very much in the style of The Shannon, but the version sent to Francis Francis was tied with goose tip wings rather than the macaw I've done. Francis Francis felt that the fly would perform much better with the Macaw, and that has become the standard. Kelson has some minor variations, a plain head, and chatterer instead of kingfisher, but it's basically the same fly. He mentions that the fly's originator caught a 57 pound salmon on the Suir using the Mystery. I've written Alice, and netting has destroyed much of the salmon fishing now, but the river has brown trout and fishes quite well. There are moves afoot to reestablish the salmon, and it's all quite political, which I'm sure comes as no surprise.

Sir Herbert Maxwell, in his book Salmon and Seatrout (1898) mentions that in Ireland where he was born the Mystery was tied often without the cuckoo hackle. I almost took the easy way out and omitted it when I read this, but how much fun is that? I think one of the big challenges with these flies, and part of what makes them so interesting to tie, is coming up with suitable subs.

So there you have it. I've substituted for one other material on this pattern, and used fairy bluebird instead of kingfisher for the shoulder/cheeks. I have kingfisher, could have used it, but I remembered how much I liked the fairy bluebird I used on the Shannon, and decided to do it again. Call it artistic license. Mine's currently under suspension. Here's the recipe for the Mystery from Francis Francis book A Book on Angling.

The Mystery

    Tag: Silver twist and orange floss.

    Tail: A topping and an Indian crow.

    Butt: Black ostrich herl.

    Body: Orange floss.

    Ribs: Broad silver tinsel edged with fine gold thread.

    Hackle: A darkish cuckoo, dun natural color, all the way up, with a claret hackle near the head.

    Shoulder: Kingfisher.

    Wings: Bright yellow macaw, with red macaw points.

    Head: Black ostrich herl.

Credits: A Book on Angling by Francis Fransic; Classic Salmon Flies by Mikael Frodin. ~ EA

About Eric:

I started fly fishing as a teen in and around my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, primarily on the Saranac River. I started tying flies almost immediately and spent hours with library books written by Ray Bergman, Art Lee, and A. J. McClane. Almost from the beginning I liked tying just as much as I liked fishing and spent considerable time at the vise creating hideous monstrosities that somehow caught fish anyway. Then one day I came upon a group of flies that had been put out at a local drug store that had been tied by Francis Betters of Wilmington, N.Y. My life changed that day and so did my flies, dramatically. Even though I never met Fran back then, I've always considered him to be one of my biggest influences.

I had a career in music for twenty years or so and didn't fish much, though I did fish at times. The band I was with had its fifteen seconds of fame when we were asked to be in John Mellencamp's movie "Falling From Grace." I am the keyboard player on the right in the country club scene in the middle of the movie. Don't blink. It's on HBO all the time. We got to meet big Hollywood stars and record in John's studio. It was a blast.

So how did I wind up contributing to the Just Old Flies column on FAOL? I'm not sure, it was something that I simply wanted very badly to do, and they let me. Many of the old flies take me back to the Adirondacs and my youth, and I guess I get to relive some of it through the column. I've spent many happy hours fishing and tying over the years, and tying these flies brings back memories of great days on the water, and intense hours spent looking at the flies in the fly plates in the old books and trying to get my flies to look like them. And now, here I am, still doing that to this day. ~ EA

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