The Changing Face of Salmon Flies

By Jim Clarke

When I left school in the late 50's to join my father and grandfather in the gun and fishing tackle trade, great changes were afoot in the world of salmon flies. The Shrimp Fly and the Wye Bug were becoming widely used and appreciated, although they were not really new, it was just that the Irishman has always been slow to adapt to change, especially in things so important and fundamental as salmon fishing.

To paraphrase the great Bill Shankly, Liverpool football manager, talking about his sport, "Fly fishing is not a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that."

The next few years were to see Waddington flies, Canadian hair wing flies, Drury treble hook flies and then tube flies. When one looks at the fully dressed examples above, and compare them with what we use today, the change was dramatic indeed. (All of the illustrations used in this article are from Hardy catalogs, 1930s era.)

To complete the metamorphosis we experienced a total change in the method of building a salmon fly, what one could call minimalisation.

It would be fitting about here to consider the development of the salmon fly over the years, and to put these changes in perspective.

Trout flies have been in use for centuries. The Romans caught trout on hooks ornamented with wool and feathers.

By the 18th century salmon were also caught on fly. You must remember that in the days of plentiful salmon, fish were regarded as a food source, and taken by any efficient means possible. (There is a well-documented clause in apprenticeship indentures that states that the apprentices were not to be fed salmon more than three times per week, and that in London!) Sport never entered into it. With the exception of men like Walton and Cotton sport fishing was not at all common.

With the flowering of the British Empire also came some very wealthy men with little or nothing to do. They turned to all manner of interests to occupy their time, naturalism, chemistry, exploration, religion, and art and field sports. Suddenly fishing became one of the things to do! Tackle developed apace. Advances in rods, reels (or winches) lines and our immediate interest, flies.

Early salmon flies were merely big trout flies, on the premise that bigger quarry needed bigger baits. These were fairly rudimentary examples of what we now consider to be an art, just wool bodies and feather wings, of convenient materials and rustic colours. Eyes had not been developed on hooks, so gut loops were whipped on the tapered shank as the first step in tying. However, as a distant portent of things to come, grub patterns were also used, probably as food imitations.

It was believed at that time that salmon ate butterflies, and you can see where this is leading!

It seemed to follow in those days that as salmon fishing became popular and was to be found at its best in the rivers flowing through lordly estates, that the gentry would take up this new sport with enthusiasm. They had the time, the money and above all, the rivers.

The fact that salmon flies became the gaudy somewhat over-the-top objets d'art that they did owes a lot to the fact that a rich man fishing for the king of fish would feel it only fitting that he should fish with a richly dressed and expensive fly. It was found that these caught fish better than did their predecessors and so the process started.

I have a book that I treasure greatly, How to Tie Salmon Flies by Captain Hale. A classic, printed in 1892, it shows how the salmon fly had reached a peak of opulent development, (or should we say absurdity?) I know that eyebrows will be raised at my temerity in using that word, but I really cannot feel that the salmon, for whose benefit these gorgeous creations were intended, was interested in or capable of discerning the myriad colours and subtle shades deemed so essential at that time.

Consider, if you will, the dressing the worthy Captain Hale gives us for the Jock Scott:

    Tag:   Silver twist and light yellow floss.

    Tail:   A topping and Indian crow.

    Butt:   Black herl.

    Body:   In two equal sections; the first, light yellow flossed, ribbed with fine silver tinsel; above and below are placed three or more toucan, according to the size of hook, extending slightly beyond the butt, and followed by three or more turns of black herl; the second half black silk, with a natural black hackle down it, and ribbed with silver lace and silver tinsel.

    Throat:   Gallina.

    Wings:   Two strips of black turkey, with white tips below; two strips of bustard and grey mallard, with strips of golden pheasant tail, peacock sword feather, red macaw, and blue and yellow dyed swan over, with two strips of mallard, and a topping above.

    Sides:   Jungle cock.

    Cheeks:   Chatterer.

    Horns:   Blue macaw.

    Head:   Black.

Tied on the size of hook prevalent at the time this was a serious piece of work, not something you could run up on the tail of a pick-up in response to a sudden hatch, but that a salmon could discern those features which make a Jock Scott differ from, say, a Silver Grey or a Black Rover, both flies of similar outline and overall colour, is really beyond the realms of likelihood. Add to this the fact that lists were drawn up, in all seriousness, of which flies one was to use in various rivers, with the inbuilt suggestion that salmon would refuse a fly lacking any of those features deemed by the pundits to be essential for its own river!

On the Welsh Dee one was to choose from the following list: Jock Scott, Butcher, Wilkinson, Black Doctor, Gordon or Grey Turkey. On the Lancashire Lune however, a river not a million miles away, emptying into the same bay of the Irish sea though its drainage area is vastly different, one was almost commanded to pick a fly from: Grey, Childers, Blue Doctor, Parson, Jock Scott. The Wye was very different. It required a Sun Fly, Colonel, Britannia, Black Dog or the ubiquitous Jock Scott. The Tyne and the Tees in north-eastern England had to have totally different flies in spite of being no more than thirty miles apart.

Into this long-established routine, in the 50's, dropped a revolution in pattern, size and more importantly in fly construction. To say nothing of the hook.

We had, from time immemorial, sold Best Quality salmon flies tied on black japanned, return shank, up-eyed hooks of a distinctly Kirby bend, together with Second Quality flies, a much more plebeian offering. These were more simply dressed, the expensive exotic feathers being omitted, and tied on a plain down-eyed bronzed Limerick hook, The fact that these would have tempted salmon just as efficiently as their esteemed brethren never seemed to come to light. The best people with more time to fish the best waters naturally caught more fish. They also used the best flies (they cost more so they must be better-nothing changes!) therefore they perpetuated the myth that these complex monstrosities were necessary in order to catch salmon.

Works of art they may have been, but their end was in sight.

A.H.E.Wood had brought about the first stirrings of revolution with his theory of low water flies fished shallow on a greased line. Anglers soon found that Wood's small, lightly dressed flies took fish in normal and even in higher than normal water.

Smaller flies were on the way.

We had stocked the traditional flies in sizes from 4/0 down to 4, and even a few in a daringly minute 6; 1/0, 1, 2 & 3 being the norm.

Wye Bugs and Shrimp flies were suddenly being used in large numbers, and in sizes down to 8.

Canadian hair wing flies followed soon after, the lightness of their dressing and the translucency of the mobile wing seeming bearing little relationship to their ancestors. Richard Waddington's Elverine flies, with their flowing heron herl hackles and on tiny articulated trebles, with all round dressing giving pulsating movement in the water became the next nail in the coffin of the old faithfuls.

When the Esmond Drury treble hook fly came along soon after, it swept all before it for quite a few years, until the advent of the tube fly which now shares the platform with double or treble hook flies of modern pattern.

The revolution in patterns is beyond the scope of this short article but one has only to contrast Captain Hale's Jock Scott with, say, the Silver Stoat, one of the most popular and efficient modern patterns, to be amazed that they are intended for the same fish. The Silver Stoat is tied with a silver body and a bunch of black hair for a wing. Just that! The whirring noise you can hear in the background is poor old Captain Hale spinning furiously around in his well deserved resting place.

The Collie Dog is perhaps the ultimate in the minimalisation of flies. It consists of a bunch of 6 to 8 inch black hair from the tail of a Border Collie, that ubiquitous farm dog which exists on every farm in the British Isles. Simple? It catches salmon. Who can ask for more?

Incidentally, Captain Hale gives detailed instructions for forming and whipping gut eyes on to one's hooks before commencing the dressing. There's a change for you!

Should any reader like Captain Hale's original dressing for any of the following, I would be happy to oblige and delighted to hear the patterns being used once again, even catching salmon in the New World:

Ajax Grub, Baker, Black Dog, Black Jay, Bluebell, Blue Boyne, Blue Doctor, Butcher, Carron, Claret Jay, Childers, Dunkeld, Dunt, Durham Ranger, Dusty Miller, Evening Star, Fiery Brown, Gitana, Glow Worm Grub, Gordon, Grey Eagle, Grey Heron, Judge, Kneecap (yes, honestly!) Lady Caroline, Lemon Grey, M'Intyre, Parson, Penpergwm Pet, Popham, Poynder (or Captain) Purple King, Red Pirate, Silver Grey, Silver Doctor, Spring Grub, Thunder & Lightning, Tippet Grub.

These are the dressings Captain Hale saw fit to include in his tome. There are many hundreds more. Some of my own favourites not in the list are; Black Goldfinch, Rogan's Green Parson, Green Highlander, Wye Bug and the Shrimp Fly. This last has become almost a class in itself, the variations on the theme number as the stars in the sky, and must rate as the most nearly universal salmon fly.

Personally, I am convinced that the intricate make-up of the traditionals is important only in as far as it contributes to the overall shade or composite colour of the whole. Movement is much more important, but perhaps the different feathers contribute more to this than we know.

Waddington's theory was that salmon feed in the sea on large numbers of lolligos, squid-like creatures with a similar motion in the water. His heron herl hackles suggested this most strongly, as do tube flies, flies on trebles and even hair wings to some extent. We are left dealing with a type of movement and an overall shade or colour.

I feel that once one has decided upon a hook pattern and the resulting outline, one has only to choose one's favourite colour.

That the colour alone can be any one of thousands is one of those unsolvable conundrums so loved by fishermen.

Perhaps if we select a small treble, with a flowing outline, Silver and Black as our colours, it would take a fish. It might, however, benefit from a little blue in the cheeks, a touch of red at the throat and even a little yellow at the tail, just for flavour . .

This is where we came in! ~ Jim Clarke

About Jim:

Jim Clarke
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares to remember, and on leaving school went into his family's business - Gunmakers and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By the time he joined the firm it had become more retail than manufacturing , though the history and reputation of the company was somewhat patrician, which stood them in good stead in the face of the modern, retail only, fly-by-night businesses which proliferated in the fifties and sixties in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later, feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two warring uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in Chester, England. He was to stay there for thirty pleasant years, retiring some six years ago, ostensibly to have more time to fish. He had given up shooting, but in reality appears to have retired to garden, decorate and construct THINGS in the garden. He has, nevertheless managed to fish in Ireland, Scotland Wales and England, with trips to Sweden and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our Readers Casts and many in the Worldwide - Europe section. He welcomes your email at:

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