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 . .

Part Ninety



By John Mundt

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. Letourneau writes:

"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.

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."

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.

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:

    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.

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. Letrourneau wrote:

"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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

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."

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

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