Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Voices from the Past: Jimmy Donahue (1939)

The following article first appeared in 1939 in Every Week Maagzine, a newspaper insert magazine similar to today's Parade. It is a charming and fun little history of the fly written by Jimmy Donahue. It also had a wonderful art deco style engraving of a woman fly fishing (with original caption). Enjoy!

Everyone thrills to the ancient sport of fishing. . . . Even a pretty girl can match casts with the best when trout is the prize. And the poor man can catch them as easily as the millionaire.

The Bait Fallacious
Jimmy Donahue

CENTURIES before Christ, man was fooling fish with an artificial fly. Theocritus, in 200 B. C. described a method of luring fish with a "bait fallacious suspended from the rod." This lure was that daddy of all flies, the red hackle, which was used by the Macedonians 200 years after Christ.

"Between Boroca and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astracus," wrote Aelian, of Macedonia. "In it are fish with spotted skins. These fish feed on a fly which is peculiar to the country. As these flies seek food over the river, fish observe them, swim quietly up, and devour their prey.

"Now, although fishermen know of this, they do not use the flies for bait; for if a man's hand touches them, they lose their color and become an unfit food for fish. But they have planned a snare for the fish. They fasten red wool around a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. They throw their snare and the fish, attracted by the color, comes up, thinking to get a dainty mouthful."

The art of fly tying reached its golden era in England. Isaak Walton gave the hobby its first big boost.

From England and its chalk streams came the first flies used in the United States. And English flies tied in the middle of the 17th century still are catching their limits of fish in North American waters.

One of the most popular of the early English creations is the Coachman fly. Its background is colorful. It was first tied by Tom Bosworth who. during his time as coachman for British sovereigns, handled the reins for George IV, William IV, and Her Majesty. Queen Victoria.

Bosworth was an avid angler. He would often fish in the wake of several others, and come away with a full bag, while those ahead of him left empty-handed. His skill with a rod probably was due to his skill with a coach-man's whip. He could flick the pipe from a passing pedestrian's mouth.

As tied by Bosworth, the Coachman had a peacock herl body, brown hackle at head, and light wing's. Its varieties are the gilt Coachman, tied with bright gold body; red-tip Coachman with touch of red at tail; and Royal Coachman, with red body, herl at tail and just behind wings, white wings, and brown hackle.

The latter fly is distinctly American. It first made its appearance in New York City in 1878. John Haily, a professional fly dresser, received an order for some Coachman flies. To make the fly extra strong, he added a band of red silk in the middle of the body, and added a tail of barred wood duck feathers. The result was such a handsome fly that friends urged him to dub it the "Royal Coachman."

There is no natural fly that even remotely resembles this pattern—nor are there natural counterparts- of the Silver Doctor, Zulu, Parmachene Belle, Professor, Jock Scott, Queen of the Waters, Jenny Lind, or hundreds of other creations.

FISHING in Laurentides Park, Quebec, for brook trout last summer, I discovered two distinctly North American patterns were most popular in those waters. They were the Parmachene Belle and the Montreal, and took almost three trout for any other type's one.

The former was first tied by Henry P. Wells, in the 60's, at Parmachene Lake, Me. Employing red and yellow hackle, peacock herl at the tail, red and white wings and tail, the fly was gaudy. Wells, at the time, remarked that he was convinced trout took it for a type of live bait, and not for a fly. When I fished the fly wet in Laurentides waters, I noticed the striking similarity to a minnow.

The Montreal is a fly developed in Canada. It is thought to be the original work of Peter Cowan, of Cowansville, Quebec. Cowan often fished with British officers stationed there in 1S50, and a fly he tied was so successful they took it back to England.

The Beaverkill is another popular American pattern, particularly in the east, where it was first tied by Judge Fitz James Fitch about 1846. The fly takes its name from the New York river.

Materials for fly lures come from every part of the world.

Take the Jock Scott. This popular salmon fly. when tied properly, contains 22 different materials—hackles from Chinese game cocks, English bluejays, mallard ducks, Chinese peacock, Indian crow, South African toucan, African ostrich, Egyptian ibis, American teal and wild turkey, tinsel and silver from France, and other odds and ends.

Then, fly tiers employ hair of the polar bear from the Arctic; hair from the white-tailed deer of the United States and Canada; squirrel tail, rabbit hair, and even fur from the skunk!

This gives the angler the idea the hue of the fly plays an important part in its fish-getting ability. There are two schools of thought in this regard.

The first contends fish are color blind and that size and shape of the artificial offering determine whether it will produce strikes; the other contends color does play an important part in effectiveness, and point out that such vivid offerings as Silver Doctor, Parmachene Belle, and Royal Coachman will produce on one day, and that the next will find fish shunning the vivid-hued offerings to take nothing but the somber flies such as the black gnat, brown hackle, cahill, quill Gordon, and others.

It behooves a fisherman to adopt some of the teachings of each school—plus any schooling that he acquires himself in the classroom of actual experience.

I am convinced fish are not color blind—else why do they take a brown hackle of the same size hook and general shape and refuse a Silver Doctor? Why will they rise day after day to a fly such as the Royal Coachman, when there isn't such an insect in all the air of the universe? The answer seems to be: color attracts them.

In regard to size—any trout angler has had the experience of showing up on his favorite stream with all patterns of flies, only to find fish rising to tiny midges and that his hook sizes are much too large. At night, when fishing for big browns, the small sizes aren't so valuable. Larger insects seem to hatch at, or after, sundown, and it is then that lures tied on hooks from No. 8 to No. 4 and No. 2 take the big fish.

Another factor that plays an important part in the effectiveness of the fly is the way it it tied. In the case of a dry fly, the hackles which support it must be stiff and tied well toward the eye of the fly to give it the head buoyancy that it needs to float well; a lure that is barb-heavy will float tail down and give the artificial bait a false appearance.

In wet flies, on the other hand, the hackle used must be soft and sparsely tied. In most cases a wet fly resembles the nymph of the actual fly swimming in the water before hatching, and an artificial too bulky won't fool even the most foolish of fish.

It isn't necessary by any means to have all patterns of flics in your book; there are anglers who fish successfully and don't employ over a half-dozen type flies.

-- Dr. Todd


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