One solid contribution that definitely emanated from the Belgrade Lakes region was the
tandem fly. Gene Letouneau of Waterville, Maine, was a syndicated outdoor columnist
for Gannet newspapers who wrote a column called "Sportsmen Say" for more than fifty
years. In 1949, Mr. Letourneau also published an extremely information booklet titled
Secrets of Streamer Fly fishing, which paid particular attention to trolling with
tandem streamer flies. Sadly, this booklet is often overlooked in the historical record
because it only had a small, regional print run.
The Belgrade's Messalonskee Lake [Maine] is recorded as the birthplace of the tandem fly fishing.
"When I finally attained maturity I found that Dad's stories about Messalonskee
Lake Trout were true indeed. For during the first Spring that I forsook bait for streamer
flies I hooked and landed eleven beauties, nine of them over five pounds. There had been
no material change in Messalonskee Lake down through the years. In fact, the fishing
for trout, especially, had grown poorer each season.
As for the origin of this type of fly, we can be relatively certain that it originated and
evolved from the minds of two men: Dr. J. Herbert Sanborn and Emile Letourneau
(brother of Gene Letourneau), both of Waterville, Maine. Dr. Sanborn was searching
for a fly that would eliminate short strikes during trolling. He believed that two hooks
would be better than one and devised a tying method in which he took two long-shank
no.8 hooks, filed the eye off of one, and lashed the shanks together with tinsel. This
original pattern consisted of white bucktail, light green feathers tied flat on top, over
which black feathers were placed in traditional streamer fashion. When wet, the fly
was intended to resemble a smelt.
No other factor sold me so thoroughly on tandem streamer fly trolling than the experiences
on this lake, which was but a stone's throw from my home."
This pattern, when first trolled in Messalonskee Lake behind an outboard motor, helped
land a 4 3/4 pound brook trout. The following day Dr. Sanborn hooked and landed a
9-pound, 3-ounce landlocked salmon. And thus the fly would be forever known as the
Nine-Three. The original Nine-Three streamer was unusual in that it used two hooks in
a fashion similar to a double salmon hook, but it also had a revolutionary wing configuration
that differed from traditional streamers. The lower wing of light green hackles was tied flat
on top of the hook shank. Then above that there were black hackles tied in upright
traditional streamer fashion.
Joseph D. Bates, in Streamers and Bucktails, refers to the Nine-Three
as a streamer "that stood the test of time." Bates quotes Dr. Sanborn as saying:
"I designed the Nine-Three to imitate a smelt as it looks in the water, with dark back,
lighter below, and with silver belly and jungle cock eyes. The fly looks rough, but when
wet it forms together evenly. The green feathers are tied on flat instead of edgewise,
which give the fly a motion in the water that the others don't have. I have told many
commercial tyers about this but nobody will tie it this way because it looks rough. We
believe it the best fly year-round for trout, togue [lake trout], salmon, perch, and
bass. I have also caught Atlantic salmon on it."
The pattern description recorded by Bates is as follows:
This fly was certainly effective, but it failed to alleviate the frustrations associated with
short strikes, which Gene Letourneau estimated to occur four out of five times. This
desire to eliminate the short strikes led to the tandem style that is so popular today.
- Head: Black.
- Body: Medium flat silver tinsel.
- Wing: A small bunch of white bucktail extending beyond
the bend of the hook (or hooks, if in tandem), over which are three medium green
saddle hackles tied on flat, over which are two natural black hackles tied
on upright. All hackles and the bucktail are of the same length.
- Cheeks: Jungle cock.
"The trouble lay in the fact that the bucktail and feathers extended beyond the barbs of
the fly. It was my brother Emile who conceived the tandem, subsequently identified in
other sections of the country as the "booby trap" fly.
When Graydon R. Hilyard was conducting exhaustive research for his recently released
book, Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangely Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies,
he uncovered a wealth of streamer fly information that was not directly related to his
admirable work about the renowned Rangely tyer. Through his efforts we have a
statement from Gene Letourneau that "Dr. J. Herbert Sanborn had the idea that two
hooks were better than one. Within days, Emile came to my house with the first
tandem fly which he called Sportsmen Say." The Letourneau brothers were so
convinced of the tandem's effectiveness that they even attempted to secure a patent
on the design. They were subsequently turned down by the U.S. Patent Office on
the grounds that fishing flies were too varied an item for singling out a specific type.
By using two short shank hooks, tied together with gut or wire, preferable gut, the
entire fly could be dressed on the front hook with feathers extending no farther than
the barb of the tandem hook. It did not entirely eliminate short strikes, but it reduced
the percentage by 80."
Gene Letourneau's tying instructions called for hooks in sizes 4, 6, or 8, with the
chosen pair of hooks being connected in line with suitable strength wire or gut.
"Before the thread is coiled, the gut should be notched slightly so that the thread will
hold firmly. After the hooks are tied, the dressing, bucktail, and feathers are applied
to the lead hook. Additional dressing can be, and frequently is, applied to the rear hook.
When it came to fishing with a tandem fly, Gene Letourneau recommended a
double-tapered HDH line, which is a 6-weight by today's standards, at a length
of 90 feet with 100 feet of silk backing. The fly would be connected to a leader
of fine braided wire with a small clasp. He stressed in no uncertain terms that
"under no circumstances should you use or attach a swivel, or any other device
to the line."
The basic rule for successful tandem streamer is to have all the dressing tied so that
it will ride evenly in the water, without revolving, even at fast trolling speeds."
His trolling method followed simple but calculated logic. A boat would be set up
with three trolling lines. Two rods would be set in rod holders handing over both
sides of the boat with 50-foot lines, while the third line went straight off the back
at a length of 30 feet. The strategy anticipated that the propeller wash would draw
attention to the center fly, and if for some reason that fly was refused, the fish, by
turning away to the left or right, would have an opportunity to strike one of the
outer flies as they passed by on the longer lines. ~ John Mundt
This article is part of a delightful story, Gilded Summers in Belgrade, Maine
published in the Summer 2000 issue of The American Fly Fisher, which is
published and sent to members four times a year by the
American Museum of Fly Fishing, Manchester Vermont. We thank author John
Mundt and the AMFF for use permission. ~ LadyFisher