Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?


The Black Quill

Black Quill
By Eric Austin, Ohio


I've got just one more quill body fly to show this week, as well as some observations about Ray Bergman. For some time I've wondered about the wet fly illustrations shown in Bergman's Trout. Each of these flies are quite perfect, with heads that are nearly unachievable with some of the flies, each appearing to be the same size, one after the other, in cookie cutter fashion. Now I knew Ray Bergman was a first rate tier, but were these flies actually representative of the flies he tied and fished on a regular basis? I thought not, and pictures of flies actually tied by Ray Bergman bear this out.

They were printed in Outdoor Life magazine in 1950, the publication for which Bergman wrote for a number of years. Two pages of flies, one of wets and one of dries are shown on classictrout.com, in the "Classic Remembrance" section. They dispel some illusions that we tiers may have had about the "Bergman" wet flies, which of course were no more Ray Bergman's than anyone else's, and serve to reinforce the notion of Ray Bergman as fisherman, rather than that of Ray Bergman, pretty fly tier.

In short, Ray Bergman's actual wet flies are somewhat different than those shown in the Dr. Burke illustrations. They are "buggier," i.e., not as clean and antiseptic looking, with somewhat bushier tails and hackles. They look "fishier." The hackles on all flies are not pulled neatly down, and on some go almost 360 degrees around. The sizes vary a great deal, and the proportions do somewhat as well. The majority of the wings don't extend much beyond the bend of the hook, not half way down the tail as is commonly thought. The bodies vary from fly to fly, sometimes showing a lot of taper, with a bulging thorax, sometimes having no perceptible taper at all. Even though Bergman says in Trout, "For wet flies, place the two even and concave edges together, with the tips pointing inward and touching each other," literally half the wets are tied with their tips apart. The most dramatic difference between Ray Bergman's actual flies and the idealized illustrations in Trout is found with the heads. While we have all been working very hard to get hemispherical, perfectly polished heads, as shown in the book, Ray Bergman appears to not have been concerned with this in the least. He was a fisherman after all, and these flies were tied for fishing. Some exhibit the "cliff" that occurs when you cut the wing butts off flush after tying them on and then wrap all the way down to the eye and back. There does not appear to be black lacquer used, in fact, there well not have been any glue used at all. If there was, it was head cement at best. These are not, by today's standards, pretty heads, though they are neat and fairly small. As a rule they are more elongated than those shown us by Dr. Burke. Some DO look like the ones in the book however, and this says to me that we all have our ideal vision of a fly, but none of us achieves it every time out.

One other thing that must be said here is that Trout was written in 1938, and the Outdoor Life photos appeared in 1950. A lot of ideas about tying can change in 12 years. What I take away from this has a lot to do with the way I've always thought about Ray Bergman, that he was a fisherman first, and a great one. I can't imagine Ray Bergman or Lee Wulff spending a lot of time over a fly. They would be much more concerned with imitating what was going on at a particular time on a stream, throwing some flies together in the evening for the next day, as we all do. Many of us, myself included, have exalted these flies to a status never conceived of by Ray Bergman, and that's fine. I tie one sort of fly for show, and one sort of fly for fishing, and there is nothing wrong with that, many of us do it. As far as Dr. Burke's illustrations are concerned, there is nothing inherently wrong with them either. He was attempting to illustrate exactly the colors and textures of the real flies, in an instructional way, not unlike the illustrations done in Kelson's The Salmon Fly. Neither set of illustrations do a very good job of showing how the fly actually looked, when tied for fishing, but do a perfect job of showing exactly what materials were used, and how they went together.

As far as the Black Quill is concerned, think Blue Quill with black hackle instead of dun. It's a great early season fly, wet or dry. Here's the recipe:

    Tail: Black hackle.

    Body: Stripped peacock quill.

    Hackle: Black.

    Wings: Mallard quill.

Credits: Trout by Ray Bergman, classictrout.com by J.B. and Chris Martin ~ EA

About Eric:

Eric I started fly fishing as a teen in and around my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, primarily on the Saranac River. I started tying flies almost immediately and spent hours with library books written by Ray Bergman, Art Lee, and A. J. McClane. Almost from the beginning I liked tying just as much as I liked fishing and spent considerable time at the vise creating hideous monstrosities that somehow caught fish anyway. Then one day I came upon a group of flies that had been put out at a local drug store that had been tied by Francis Betters of Wilmington, N.Y. My life changed that day and so did my flies, dramatically. Even though I never met Fran back then, I've always considered him to be one of my biggest influences.

I had a career in music for twenty years or so and didn't fish much, though I did fish at times. The band I was with had its fifteen seconds of fame when we were asked to be in John Mellencamp's movie "Falling From Grace." I am the keyboard player on the right in the country club scene in the middle of the movie. Don't blink. It's on HBO all the time. We got to meet big Hollywood stars and record in John's studio. It was a blast.

So how did I wind up contributing to the Just Old Flies column on FAOL? I'm not sure, it was something that I simply wanted very badly to do, and they let me. Many of the old flies take me back to the Adirondacs and my youth, and I guess I get to relive some of it through the column. I've spent many happy hours fishing and tying over the years, and tying these flies brings back memories of great days on the water, and intense hours spent looking at the flies in the fly plates in the old books and trying to get my flies to look like them. And now, here I am, still doing that to this day. ~ EA

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