The Traditional American Wet Fly
By Reed F. Curry
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the fly fisherman wading the streams of the Catskills and fishing the trout ponds of Long Island cast wet flies of somber hue, imported from Britain. In time, however, local flydressers emerged to supply the growing market. The irrepressible urge of fly fishermen to experiment with fly patterns, and the deft hands of the Yankee tiers, soon brought forth a distinct series of flies, based not upon European insects, and formed not to lure the German Brown Trout, but as dazzling new creations intended to court the gaudy Brook Trout.
The first recorded flydresser to recognize the Brook Trout's predilection for "fancy" flies was William J. C. Forster of Milwaukee. He notes in a letter that "In the spring of 1840, I came to the Eastern Townships of Canada, about 12 miles north of what is called Derby Line on the Vermont side and Stanstead on the Canada side. I found the streams full of trout, and there was a Scotchman on the next farm who used Scotch flies and did pretty well with them; but I found that the flies I brought from England did not seem just the thing, so I tried brighter colors. All I had read was Walton's Angler, and that did not help me. I first used different shades of scarlet for the bodies and the brightest red hackles; then I died them scarlet, orange, yellow, and green, and also the wings; but the three best flies that I made were drakes wings made with two feathers, and I think I invented the reversed wings in 1841 -- scarlet body with gold tinsel (they call it Lama [sic] now); scarlet hackle and tail."
How different were these new flies? Below is the sole page of wet flies for trout sold by Ogden Smiths, London, in the 1920's to the British market.
And below is a plate, one of nine wet fly plates, from Ray Bergman's book "Trout" (1938, Penn, NY) of flies tied for American conditions. You will note the brighter colors -- the use of red, yellow, and bright green -- the higher contrast between elements of the fly, and the married wings.
The Elegant Wings of the Wet Fly
The American wet fly in its traditional garb has a wing of primary or secondary feather -- often of duck, turkey, or goose -- frequently ornately married of different colors. An alternative wing material is the flank feathers of duck -- teal, mallard, and wood duck being the most popular. Hair wings were never used. Of the four-hundred and thirty-five wet flies displayed on elegant painted plates in Bergman's "Trout" approximately 70% had quill wings, 28% had flank feather wings, and the remainder were wingless. Of the wingless flies, many were palmered, such as the Zulu and the Black Hackle Red Tag, some were hackled, for example the Orange Fishhawk and the Gray Marlow, and a very few were soft hackles, such as the Grouse Spider. Quill wings were set upright at approximately a thirty to forty-five degree angle from the head (see Victoria Green below) with the convex curve down. Only in the later years, 1950 and beyond, were the wings inverted (see Calder below) so that the convex curve was up and the wing hugged the body.
Flies tied by Eric Austin
The bodies of the flies were dubbed-fur, silk floss, tinsel, wool, chenille, peacock herl, raffia, or any combination thereof, usually with a "tag" of silver or gold beneath the tail. No weight was applied before forming the body; weighted flies were considered unsporting. Ribbing in silver or gold tinsel or thread was a feature of most of the American wet flies, the most common exception being peacock herl bodies, which, perversely, would have benefited structurally more than the others from the use of ribbing ("Form Follows Function" was certainly not the credo of wet fly designers). The application of palmered hackle, with the hackle swept back at sixty degrees, was not uncommon, comprising approximately ten percent of the flies, whether quill-winged, flank feather-winged, or wingless.
Wet Fly Hooks
Hooks were bought from Great Britain -- Dublin and Limerick, Ireland; Aberdeen, Scotland; and Carlisle, England - names commonly associated with hook shapes today. The bend and weight of the hook was crucial. Most anglers believed that the Sproat bend was stronger than the Model Perfect, and favored the extra weight of 1X stout wire, both to sink the fly and to handle the savage strike associated with a worked wet fly. The hooks were "blind" (that is, lacking an eye) and required a gut snell in order to fasten them to the gut leader. The snell was typically of a fairly large diameter, perhaps 1X (which means it was "drawn" once through a diamond die of .010" diameter) and the hooks ranged in size from a #4 to #14, with the most popular sizes for trout being #8 and #10; though Sturgis was recommending as late as 1940 sizes #4 and #6 for large trout. It was difficult to carry gut snelled flies with gut strands longer than six inches, even with the special fly wallets of the time which featured clips and springs to keep the gut straight. The gut strands had a loop at the end for loop-to-loop attachment to the "cast" (leader), either as the tail fly, as the dropper, as the bobber, or as the hand fly -- these being common designations inherited from the British in referring to the fly's position on the leader. The heavy gut snell and the short length of gut before the unsightly loop made delicate 4X or 5X gut leaders superfluous. For sophisticated trout, the angler needed a better method of attaching the fly than the snell provided. With the advent of H.S. Hall's 1879 development in England of up-turned and down-turned-eye trout hooks, the snelled gut loops gradually, very gradually, gave way to attachment directly to the leader. Nine years later, Genio Scott described in his classic "Fishing in American Waters", the proper procedure for attaching the gut to blind hooks before tying the fly, with nary a mention of eyed flies. Some intransigent Americans were still using snelled wet flies against all advice or logic forty years later. In 1929 Ladd Plumley, one-time fishing editor for "Field & Stream" tried, in "With the Trout Fly" (Stokes, 1929), to encourage American wet fly anglers to use eyed hooks and forego the snells.
The Wetfly Rod
Wet fly fishermen used different rods than their fellows casting dries. The quill and feather wings and unweighted bodies shed water easily, lingering on the surface when the angler needed them sinking. So, in order not to dry the flies, false-casting needed to be kept to a minimum and line speed low. Since wet fly fishermen were often using a cast of two or three flies on the leader (the Europeans would use up to twelve flies in a cast) an open casting loop, rather than the tight loop favored today, was necessary to prevent the flies from tangling. Charles Ritz in his book "A Fly Fisher's Life" (1972) speaks of the virtues of LF/LL (Long Flex/Long Lift). He presented some compelling arguments for a rod with essentially a straight taper and a tip with some substance. Examined in detail, the rod that he was designing was a traditional wetfly rod. Ritz recognized that the slow flex "reduced falsecasting by 30%", permitted more time to correct the cast, and allowed short or long casts with equal ease. An important virtue of the slow-action wetfly rod was its ability to pick up a longer length of sunken line than a faster action rod, removing the necessity for a complete retrieve before each cast. For many years, until about the late 1940's, rodmakers sold both wetfly and dryfly rods, and many anglers carried both, in preparation for varying stream conditions. The famous Maine rodmaker, F.E. Thomas, sold three wetfly actions and three dryfly actions for each of his Dirigo rod lengths.
Why do these gaudy flies catch fish
Curiously, anglers during the heyday of wet flies -- 1850 to 1940 -- never came to a consensus on why the American wet fly caught trout. Some posited that they resembled small minnows, others dead duns, still others averred that the flies were caddis or swimming mayfly imitations. Wet flies usually were fished with action -- a quartering downstream cast was made, and the fly was allowed to swing directly below the angler; the trout often striking on the swing or on the retrieve. Unlike dry flies, the wet fly was retrieved quite close to the fisherman, both to take advantage of every opportunity and to reduce the length of sunken line to be lifted into the backcast. Conditions might dictate a smooth, slow hand-twist retrieve, a short, jerky stripping motion with the rod tip bouncing, or a fast strip to goad a reluctant fish into action. Another popular technique involved a two fly rig -- small fly on the dropper and a larger fly on the tail. The dropper fly would be brought out of the water, dancing along the surface while the larger tail fly cruised below. Originally a Scottish loch fishing technique, it was readily adapted to the fast water of New England streams. The enticing "bobbing" fly often provoked hits when nothing else could. A method that I stumbled upon by accident shows the versatility of the wet fly. It was getting late, the light was low and the pool under the spillway hadn't yielded a trout, but I knew they should be active. After casting all the appropriate dries at them I tied on a #10 White Miller wet fly, a great night moth imitation. After five casts with no follows, in the middle of a rollcast pickup for the next cast, a trout struck the speeding fly. I feverishly stripped in line and played the fish. In the next half hour I took three more fish on the rollcast and missed two others.
Certainly, none of the insect life of the stream moved in the unnatural manner narrated above -- and this fact contributed to the decline of the traditional wet fly. The rise of "imitation" and "Scientific" angling in the 1930's brought with it an abhorrence of any approach that wasn't clearly representing an insect in one of its life stages, preferably the dun or spinner. By the late 1940's, phrases such as "I take my flies and my Martinis dry" gave some indication that the fishing of wet flies was considered passe, if not just one short step removed from poaching. The traditional wet flies, especially in a two or three fly cast, did not approximate any stage of an insect's life cycle. That leads us to ask this question: "What do the trout think of this?. Are trout today too sophisticated to be taken in by the colorful creations of yesteryear?" Well, absent proof that memory of fly types is transmitted through genetics, it seems safe for us to conclude that, if trout -- Brook, Rainbow, and Brown -- could be caught readily on our very American wet flies in 1920, they can be caught with the same ease, on the same flies, today. Experience has taught me the truth of this, a delightful experience of trout charging a worked fly in fast water, an experience I hope all fly fishermen will enjoy.
© 2006 Reed F. Curry