Building Classic Salmon Flies

Posted by Nick Amato on


Salmon flies developed from trout flies, and both were originally of a commonplace character and dull in appearance. The leap forward to bright featherwing salmon flies with exotic feathers appears to have gained strength and reached its greatest extent in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The popularity of these flies for fishing prevailed into the twentieth century.

In the 1930s and 1940s, hairwing flies began to take over. I believe that the unavailability of many exotic materials, coupled with very high prices for those rare feathers that were available, played a major role in the decline of traditional featherwing salmon flies.



Since the 1950s, hairwings have been the predominant flies for Atlantic salmon fishing. This is not to say that the beautiful feather­wings died a sudden death. Many popular patterns are still being fished. Even though hair replaced feathers in the wings, a fascination with the "classics" has revived interest in featherwings, and they are now considered a challenge to build and are thought of as works of art. Most are now framed and displayed in collections.

My first book on dressing salmon flies was Eric Taverner's Salmon Fishing, published in 1935. In it, he identifies many of the established feathers that I had previously known only by name. He recommends alternative feathers to replace some of the exotics, and his comment that cock-of-the-rock would hardly be missed because of its poor quality can be interpreted as his indifference to the unavailability of certain specific feathers. His comment was inspiring, for I thought contemporary fly-dressers were adhering too rigidly to the use of mandated feathers in building featherwing salmon flies. At the time, the accepted view was that without them, flies would be inferior and inadequate.



Thereafter, as I added books to my collection, more references sur­faced advocating various feathers as replacements for the scarce or unavailable exotics. Each author justifies the use of interchangeable materials simply because of the unavailability of a particular kind of feather.

Two early books-George Cole Bainbridge's The Fly Fisher's Guide and P. Fisher's The Angler's Souvenir (published in 1816 and 1835, respectively) are a joy to read. Although lacking in descriptions and applications of customary feathers, each offers interesting historical insights. Bainbridge writes about such things as grass and horse-hair fly lines, which gender of horse has the best quality of hair for fly lines, and the belief that a cock salmon uses its kype to help the hen salmon prepare a redd. Of interest to all fly-dressers is that the book was the first to have a hand-colored plate of salmon flies.



Fisher's book covers all types of fishing, and is also a pleasure to read. The woodcut illustrations and page borders are beautiful. However, it is elementary with regard to building salmon flies. Nevertheless, it does give excellent examples of early fly-dressers' use of unusual materials. For example, Fisher tells of a friend's visit to a zoological garden that results in one of the friend's flies having "the wings formed of the feathers of a condor, variegated with the plumage of a macaw. The body is formed of the undergrowth of a lion's mane, and the whiskers are from the beard of a leopard." (I don't doubt for a moment the use of strange materials, but I would like to know how they got the leopard's whiskers.)

The second edition of J.H. Hale's How to Tie Salmon Flies (published in 1919) contains an appendix of 344 dressings and also lists feathers that were not used in standard dressings. These include bittern hack­les, cockatoo tails, cuckoo dun hackles, snipe feathers, shovel duck, mandarin drake, and Egyptian goose.

In the fifth edition of A Book on Angling (published in 1880), Francis Francis also mentions a few obscure feathers, such as purple lory and flamingo. His recipe for the Dhom gives the option of using king­fisher or chatterer for the fly's cheeks. All of Francis Francis's dressings refer to ribs, which are what we today call horns.



After a variety of alternative types of feathers, the next things that became apparent were changes of components in separate dressings for a fly with the same name. For example, in the Dusty Miller Francis Francis has a wing composed of golden pheasant tail, mallard, teal, green parrot, and lavender swan. However, Hale's second edition lists that pattern's wing as having black turkey with white tips, golden pheasant tail, bustard, pintail, guinea fowl, and mallard. And T.E. Pryce-Tannatt's How to Dress Salmon Flies prescribes a white-tipped turkey underwing with married strands of teal; yellow, scarlet, and orange swan; bustard; florican; and golden pheasant tail.

Looking for standardization in featherwings is labor in vain. All fly­tyers have their own unique styles of building flies. That alone will prevent the establishnlent of any criteria, because no two tyers can dress identical flies. One tyer can influence another to the extent that there will be close similarities in the way a particular fly is built, but no one has been able to prescribe how a fly should be dressed in such a way as to set an absolute standard. It will never happen because no one has ever dressed, nor will anyone ever dress, a perfect fly. The per­fect fly is, in any event, a physical impossibility, because no two feathers are exactly the same. Therefore, why have secrets in dressing methods? I believe that secrets hinder advancement and success in the art. Without fresh ideas, progress will be limited.



Prerequisite to building these flies is understanding the meaning of "classic salmon flies." The best explanation I've found is on page two of Pryce-Tannatt's first edition: 

There is an indescribable something about a fly dressed by an expert amateur, who is a practical salmon fisherman, which the fly dressed by a non-angling professional not infrequently lacks. I have heard this peculiar quality rather neatly referred to as 'soul.' A precise explanation of what is meant by 'soul' is one of the impossibilities. The term is incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but is completely understood by the experienced man. 




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