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 today's 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?

Henry P. Wells

Parmachene Belle
By Eric Austin, Ohio

Parmachene Lake is located north-west of the main chain of Rangeley Lakes in Maine, Mooselookmeguntic, Mollychunkamunk, etc., and was originally visited only by the true outdoorsmen, men who could make the long trek up there. No discussion of the Rangeley Region of Maine would be complete without the inclusion of Parmachene Lake and the fly named for it, the Parmachene Belle. And no discussion of this famous fly would be complete without talking about it's inventor, outdoorsman Henry Parkhurst Wells.

Henry P. Wells was a New York City Attorney, and well known author of fly fishing books and articles who wrote in the mid-to-late 1800s. His titles include Fly Rods and Fly Tackle Suggestions as to their Manufacture and Use, The American Salmon Fisherman, City Boys in the Woods or a Trapping Venture in Maine, Fly-Fishing for Trout in the Rangeley Region, the latter an article for Charles Orvis' Fishing with the Fly, and articles for magazines like Harper's Monthly and Life.

An exhaustive view of all the work done by Henry P. Wells is quite beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say his interests extended well beyond fly design, to rod building, casting technique, reel types, theories about how trout viewed flies and leaders, you name it, he was intimately involved in it. His examination of the various woods that could be used to make rods would simply blow your mind. He built tanks for experimentation, in order to see how trout viewed different colors of gut leaders from above and below, and his methods were highly scientific and his conclusions quite well thought out. He is known though, above all for his fly, the Parmacheene Belle, and it's on it that I'll focus. Here's a fly I've done that I think is fairly close to what Mr. Wells' fly originally might have looked like:

Parmacheene Belle

Well's description of his fly and its intended use is found in several sources, here from his book Fly Rods and Fly Tackle:

"What flies take best in those waters? There is a wide divergence of opinion as to this; still I will give my own for what it is worth.

My first favorite is the "Parmacheene Belle." Perhaps I am too partial to this fly, since it is in a measure my own child. ~ often the fly-tying box is produced, and the word is, "well John, what shall we tease them with this afternoon?" Thus, on joint suggestion, very many different combinations have been tried, and so some seven years ago was the "Parmacheene Belle" born. It was a success, and since then I have used it four-fifths of the time when fishing the head-waters of the Androscoggin River.~ The body is lemon-yellow mohair, wrapped with silver tinsel; tail two to four strands of white and scarlet; hackle white and scarlet (I have sometimes wound both hackles on at the same time, and sometimes the white first and the scarlet afterwards, and over the white, capping it as it were; the latter is the better); wings white, striped with scarlet, the white decidedly predominating.

Unless I am deceived, these large trout take the fly not as an insect, but as some form of live bait. If this is true, an imitation of some favorite form of food is in itself sufficient under all circumstances, provided it is so conspicuous as readily to be seen. To test this theory the fly in question was made, imitating in color the belly-fin of the trout itself.

Place the whole catalogue of known flies on the one hand, and this single fly on the other, and force me to choose and confine myself to that choice, and for fishing in those waters I would choose the "Parmacheene Belle" every time."

Wells was above all a fisherman, and there's no small proof of that in photo from the preface of the book. The caption reads "EIGHT POUND BROOK-TROUT (SALMO FONTINALLIS) TAKEN FROM RANGELEY LAKES AUG.22, 1884 (From a photograph from Life). Take a look at the tail of the fish, and then the fly reel. The tail is bigger.

A specimen
The Parmacheene Belle was not universally regarded as God's gift to fly fishing. Emlyn Metcalf Gill, making a case for the dry fly fisherman in his book Practical Dry-Fly Fishing, , clearly didn't think the Belle a panacea:

"The author fished the wilderness waters of Northern Maine before the Parmacheene Belle had come into existence, and in those days the grizzly king proved an irresistible lure, day in and day out ~ I trust that wet fly fishermen whose faith in the Parmacheene Belle is deep-seated, will not think that I am speaking disparagingly of their favorite lure. Many times in recent years I have fished streams not so far north as Maine, where an angler would be practically sure of success if he had in his fly-book no other fly than this imitation of the trout's fin. But it has always been a question in my mind as to what kind of food the trout thought was being presented, when fished for with this lure. "

He goes on to say that the fly just didn't work well in "more civilized" waters, with fish that were more "educated", and I would agree that a wary brown trout might be terrified by the fly. But that wasn't the point of this fly, nor was it the point of any of the flashy brook trout flies used in those days. The point was, as Henry P. Wells points out, to take advantage of the brook trout's cannibalistic tendencies, as well as the fact the brook trout hunted using its eyesight only, and in that regard, the fly worked very well.

Wells himself didn't for one second think that the Parmacheene Belle was the end-all and be-all. He makes his point in a section where he warns that any sort of dogmatism regarding flies and fishing strategies can be your downfall. I love the opening line of the section:

"Some years ago, when I knew more about fly-fishing than I ever shall again, I made a fishing trip to Tobyhanna, in Pennsylvania."

I think we can all harken back to times when we knew more about fly-fishing than we ever shall again, or thought we did. Just when you think you know something about this game, there the fish are to prove you wrong. Henry Parkhurst Wells knew this as well as anyone, and harbored few illusions where fly fishing was concerned. When he talks of his pet fly, he carefully qualifies the region for which it was designed, and the fact that it is NOT supposed to represent an insect. When the great fly designs of all time are assembled, and flies for brook trout are mentioned, there will be four at the head of this list, the Black Ghost, Grey Ghost, Muddler Minnow, and Parmacheene Belle. This fly and ones like it paved the way for the streamers that were to come later. The Parmacheene Belle represented a conscious departure from wet flies that imitated insects, to ones that were intended to imitate minnows. For that fact alone Henry Parkhurst Wells should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of fly design. While he didn't invent the streamer per se, he made its invention possible.

There a many versions of the Parmacheene Belle, later to become known as the Parmachene Belle. Some are tied as actual feather wing streamers, others more like ordinary wet flies. The one I grew up with is shown at the top of the article, and is featured in Ray Bergman's Trout. Some were done with mohair, some done with floss, some didn't have the peacock herl butt, some did, but all were great brook trout flies. I was in a brook trout fly swap a long time ago, and volunteered to do this fly before I realized that it had married wings. I wound up doing 36 of them for the swap, and sent them off to Canada. The fellow hosting the swap fished one of my flies, which were just awful as I had never married anything to that point, and CAUGHT A BROOKIE WITH IT in British Columbia! Now that's a fly.

Parmacheene Belle from J. Edson Leonard's Flies

    Tip: Silver tinsel

    Tail: Scarlet and white

    Butt: Peacock herl [shown in Mary Orvis Marbury's Favorite Flies, but I remember versions without it]~ELA

    Ribbing: Silver tinsel

    Body: Yellow floss [or mohair]~ELA

    Hackle: Scarlet [I believe this to be erroneous, but was taken from the fly as it appears in Mary Orvis Marbury's Favorite Flies. The fly as I know it always has white hackle with scarlet over] ~ELA

    Wing: White, scarlet over [This was taken from the illustration in Mary Orvis Marbury's Favorite Flies, which shows no scarlet strip as Wells indicates. Some flies WERE tied that way, as I've found the same version in the Chubb catalog from that era]~ ELA.

Credits: Fly Rods and Fly Tackle Suggestions as to their Manufacture and Use by Henry P. Wells; Practical Dry-Fly Fishing by Emlyn Metcalf Gill; Flies by J. Edson Leonard; Trout by Ray Bergman; Favorite Flies and Their Histories by Mary Orvis Marbury; ~ EA

About Eric:

Eric Eric lives in Delaware, Ohio and fishes for brown trout in the Mad River, a beautiful spring creek. More of his flies are on display here: Traditionalflies.com -- Classic salmon and trout flies of Europe and the Americas.

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