Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Voices from the Past: Theodore Gordon

One of the most influential and important fly fishermen in history was Theodore Gordon. A legend even in his own day, his reputation was enhanced in the decades after his death to the point that he has become one of the luminaries of the field, the American alternative to the many British fly fishing writers. Gordon was a knowledgable writer and this column on flies is of particular interest as it has many lessons of great utility still today. It appeared in 1912 in Forest & Stream. The second part of this article will appear a week from today.

A Little Talk About the Anglers' Flies, Part I


Theodore Gordon

THE study of the insects born of the water and forming a considerable portion of the trout's food is one proposition. The imitation of these delicate creatures is another and requires much time, labor and close attention to detail. The hard-worked business or professional man, whose recreation is angling, can by close observation become sufficiently acquainted with the insects most favored by the trout for all practical purposes. He will, if he is a believer in imitation, have sufficient knowledge of the insects that prevail upon the waters he fishes, to guide him in the selection of his artificial flies and will know naturals when they appear, also their seasons, and when to expect them. He has not much leisure for fly dressing, nor for the endless task of searching for and buying perfect materials that will satisfy him and enable him to realize his ideals. Many of the best amateur fly tiers purchase a portion of their stock, thus saving time for the creation of a few favorite patterns. They know that enormous stocks of well dressed artificials, are carried by the best shops, and that they can match most flies in size and color. However, their fingers are often busy in leisure hours, and there is great satisfaction in killing trout with the work of one's own hands.

Those of us who have actually lived upon the trout streams in youth and in maturity have been favored by opportunity. We have not the diversions, the excitement and keen competition of life in a great city. In the country, sport and all things pertaining to it becomes of great importance to us, and fishing and shooting become to a great extent our only recreations. We spend our leisure in or near the water, and the habit of observation grows upon us. The flies that interest the angler and the trout, aside from those land insects occasionally blown upon the water, or like the ants, seek it in the winged state of their own will, may be divided into a few great families and may be recognized by the position of their wings and their habits when in or on the water. These insects are the day flies (Ephemeride), the stone flies (Peplidae), the case worms or caddis flies (Phryganidae) and gnats and midges which belong mostly to the order of the Diptera. There are other flies, of course, but these are by far the most important. We wish to know in advance what insects may be expected at certain times, and their sizes and colors, as we do not care to be tying flies when we would be fishing. Then we ascertain the time of the rise; that is, the hours of the day when these insects will undergo the transformation from larva, nymphs or grubs, into winged flies, and this varies with the seasons and temperature. Yet day after day it may occur at nearly the same hour. I fancy that the temperature of the water has a good deal to do with it. Early in the season the rise is usually after mid-day and before 3 o'clock P.M. As the weather becomes warmer, the flies may appear early and late in the day, but the best of days for the angler are those when the rise is at short intervals, or when a few flies continue to hatch out all day long. The day flies come from a larva that lives in the gravel, under stones or in moss or mud; the caddis flies from little cases of sand and gravel or bits of wood; the stone flies from larva and the gnats and midges from the water and the land: A well made artificial fly having a natural appearance and having good colors put into it may answer for more than one species.

Dun for instance is a common color among insects, from gray to almost purple, a dark blue dun. Yellow is another standard color, from a pale fleshy yellow through delicate primrose to orange. Brown is quite fashionable, particularly for evening wear, although in spring it is quite proper in the morning and may run from a soft yellowish brown to brown red. Black is never out of season and is comme il faut for bugs and gnats of many sorts.

I have even collected a black spinner, a perfect day fly with clear wings.

The family names of all the gnats. and midges need not trouble us over much. We want only the position of the wings, color and size of these tiny' creatures. Many of the day flies and caddis are extremely small, but are easily recognized. Tile larger trout are not much given to midging on our mountain streams, unless these insects are superabundant. If any man wishes to tackle a tough proposition, let him try for a big trout that is rising at tiny insects, in quiet water that is as clear as glass (and as smooth). Unless the fish happens to be unsophisticated and will accept a fly of respectable proportions, the task is a difficult one. Then, if ever, one wishes for invisible gut and the hand of a fairy. Trout that are feeding, or ready to feed, in rough or crinkly water are 'easy if the surroundings are such that we can present the fly from the correct position and place it so that it floats down naturally.

A fly dressed after a day fly may answer for one of the caddis of similar coloration. Pull off the tail if you like, but it assists in balancing and floating the fly. When the caddis, flutters, its wings are up. When in the air and sunlight, its buzzing wings and the legs give one the impression of a little halo around the body. The stone flies often raise their big wings when running on the water, and when laying eggs of course their wings are tip. Because of the color of the wings the English yellow Sally is often used for one of our caddis flies, but a simple yellow hackle of the right shade will often kill better, and I have seen a yellow tag do good work. Hackle flies may be made to float and kill well. I have used what are called spent spinners a great deal, and these are supposed to represent the day flies in the very last stage of their existence, but mine are not always spent. Some insects carry their eggs in a bag at their hinder ends, and when this is conspicuous, it must be quite attractive to the trout. The insect may deposit its eggs in one parcel by a single dip in the water, but then again it may not. I have seen them come down from a height, make one dip and fly away, but many flies dip a number of times in one place, then fly a short distance and do it again. I have seen an insect come out from a bush and pound up and down like a piece of machinery, then fly back to the bush. The female stone flies are heavy and clumsy in laying eggs. They are sometimes caught by the current and carried downstream a short distance before they can rise again.

The common stone fly appears on these waters in limited numbers throughout the season, but there are other species of this fly that have a short season during which they are plentiful. One of these is quite fat and more yellow than the common species. Some of the western rivers have great hatches of stone flies. We have at least two species of May fly (Ephentera) and probably many more. I have had specimens of three that I thought differed most decidedly in coloration and even in size, but color is not very reliable in distinguishing the species in fish and flies. Some familiar insects rise in multitudes one year and are scarce the next season. Any angler of experience can select an assortment of artificial flies that will kill well on all waters where the dry-fly is good medicine. As the years pass, he picks up a pattern here and there and stows it away in his box for a special occasion. He has known days when one little shabby fly made all the difference between a full creel and a few small trout, and he has an eye for any fly of perfect coloration.

-- Dr. Todd

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