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?

Flank Feather Wings:
The Deacon, Brown Mallard, Light and Dark Cahill

The Decon
By Eric Austin, Ohio

I've been playing around this week with a winging technique with which I was unfamiliar. I found it in a book from 1902 called Salmon and Trout, a section of which can be found on-line. It's called it "reverse winging," the idea being that you tie a flank feather on backwards, with the tips out over the eye of the hook, then reverse the entire wing and bind it down to form a conventional wing. This technique is one that works particularly well for fishing flies. By fishing flies I mean the ones you're going to take out to the stream and fish with, not those flies that you're going to display, put in a museum, or frame for posterity. If you want to do gorgeous, showy flank feather wings, you need to find gorgeous flank feathers, ones having just the right qualities of size and web that will enable you to cut slips from them just as you would mallard quill feathers. These feathers are hard to come by, and expensive when you do find them. With the technique I'm going to show here however, you can make very serviceable fishing flies, ones that catch fish and look presentable as well, with very ordinary mallard flank feathers.

I've caught a good number of brown trout with wet flies like the Light Cahill and Blue Quill, but they weren't flies that I ever wanted to show anyone. The wings always seemed rather "straggly" looking, and were laid over the body lower than I would have liked. I could never get these flies looking the way I wanted by tying a bunched or folded flank feather over the top. I like the look of these flies done with the reverse method. The angle of the wing is completely controllable, and the presentation is quite satisfactory. The only downside is a slightly larger head, but I'm working on that. Here's a Dark Cahill done this way, step by step.

Step One

Here I've tied the tail in first, then gone to the head and tied in the wood duck feather. It's best to use wood duck or mallard feathers with "square" tops. The text of Salmon and Trout says to tie it in "convex side up," but the drawing shows it tied in concave side up. If you want the bunch all together, as in a "tips together" wet fly, tie the feather in concave side up. In order to get the proper length wing, tie three wraps of thread toward the eye over the stem with medium tension, then draw the end of the stem toward the tail a bit at a time, folding the feather back as you go, testing the length.

Step Two

I've now built a taper and dubbed the body up to just behind the wing, leaving room to wind the hackle.

Step Three

I've wound the hackle here, and pulled it down. All that's left to do now is fold the wing back and anchor it in place with the thread. The best method I've found so far to do this is to take the thread right up to the eye of the hook, and hold the flank feather in its final position with the left hand. Now, work your way back gradually, binding the fibers as you go, building a head at the same time. This is the tricky part and takes some practice. You may also take hard wraps back from the eye a bit, and then try to cut the remaining "bulge" of fibers between these wraps and the eye, but this method has not worked well for me. In theory it should, but it doesn't.

Dark Cahill

Here is a finished fly. The tips of the wing are reasonably even and the angle of the wing is what I like to see, around 45 degrees. This is arbitrary, of course, and you can set the wing at any angle you wish, and that's the beauty of this method. To quote Salmon and Trout:

"As it is no harder to make the reversed or turned-back wing, than the [plain] winged flies, and as they have a much better appearance, we will begin with that style of wing."

I do like the appearance, and plan to do more of these for my spring fishing needs. Here are a couple more examples:

Light Cahill

Brown Mallard


    Tail: Gray mallard

    Wing: Grey Mallard.

    Body: Yellow mohair ribbed with silver and gold tinsel.

    Legs: Yellow hackle, wound from tail to shoulder.

    Head: Black Ostrich (conventional head shown, as eyed hook was used). Ray Bergman's version also has red hackle in front of the wing, as does J. Edson Leonard's.

    Dark Cahill

    Tail: Wood duck flank (brown hackle used on more modern versions).

    Wing: Wood duck flank.

    Body: Dark gray dubbing, muskrat traditionally, or mole as I've used.

    Hackle: Brown.

    Light Cahill

    Tail: Wood duck flank (ginger hackle used on more modern versions).

    Wing: Wood duck flank.

    Body: Red fox belly fur (cream).

    Hackle: Ginger.

    Brown Mallard

    Tail: Brown Mallard.

    Wing: Brown Mallard.

    Ribbing: Gold tinsel.

    Body: Brown dubbing.

    Hackle: Brown.

Credits: Salmon and Trout by Dean Sage, C.H. Townsend, H.M. Smith and William C. Harris; eFishingBooks.com; Flies by J. Edson Leonard; Trout by Ray Bergman; How to Tie Flies by E.C. Gregg. ~ 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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