I follow in the family tradition of collecting rare fly-tying materials. It’s turned into an obsession. Some early collected materials date to the mid-1800s, whilst others date to the inter-war period. Continually adding items of my own, and keeping the focus on the North Country traditional of fly-tying, the collection has continued to grow through the years.
Increasingly, many of the authentic hackles and materials used in traditional fly-dressing are now impossible to get. However, some unique materials show up in old fly-tying collections placed into auctions. And it is in these auctions where my keen eye often lingers, in the hope of picking up a rare material. In respect, my specialisation in the world of North Country fly-dressing traditions mirrors that of some classic salmon fly-dressers. We both strive passionately to find authenticity in our flies and illustrate the unimaginable world of the Victorian and Edwardian flydresser.
My own pre-occupation with a fly-dressing school that used hackles and materials no right-minded person would use today. Became fuelled by a quest to compare and catalogue a selection of suitable substitutes to the once prescribed materials. But this use of these substituted materials presented a fundamental question concerning the dressing of fly patterns. For example, a Fieldfare Bloa. If I replace the required wing of Fieldfare rump fibres for say Light Blue Dun fibres, have I not created a different fly. And where does the substitution of an essential and constituent part of a fly pattern render it a different fly? It is a question I have pondered over for decades. The answer is hard to find because alternative hackles have been suggested ever since we imagined the patterns.
However, uncomfortably, I now recognise that there are no real tangible alternatives to some prescribed North Country hackles and materials. The characters of the hackles are so singularly unique, they become irreplaceable. The Tawny Owl over-covert used in the dressing of the Brown Owl pattern is a classic example of a unique hackle that is irreplaceable. We can dye the softest of hen hackles or use an appropriately shaded feather. But we never accurately replicate the quality of the original hackle. Many have tried, and all have failed.
Here the collection of vintage hackles and materials shows its true value. Its extensive nature allows me to dress and fish traditional North Country patterns in their truest form. Giving an opportunity to judge whether commonly stated substitutes carry any validity. The collection has also allowed me to assemble a bound catalogue of North Country hackles to exhibit at fly-tying shows and symposiums around the world.
But my collection doesn’t just contain vintage game and songbird hackles. It also has Old English Game hackles and capes, and many other antique poultry hackles and capes. These allow for comparison with modern mass-produced genetic varieties, and show that we have lost an indefinable quality with the use of modern genetic strains of hackles.
For a confessed “Wet Fly” addict, the number of vintage hen hackles and capes contained within the collection is pleasing. Dressing with theses hackles is a pleasure and shows the rich seam of quality once clear in the choice of traditional wet fly hackles. A quick comparison with today’s supply of hen hackles show modern wet fly hackles are devoid of of that indefinable quality called “life”. And don’t compare favourably with past generation’s capes and hackles. The collection shows that whilst earlier generations of fly-tyers had a greater choice of hackles, they were also more discriminatory in their hackle choices and more adept at searching out variant and unusual hackle shades. Perversely, today’s industrial scale hackle breeders has had the effect of limiting the supply of greater hackle choices.
In many respects, my continually growing historic fly-tying collection holds a mirror to the multi-faceted character of our sport. The direct method of hooking a fish with an artificial fly has diverged and formed other elements of satisfaction. Though intertwined, these elements are likewise somewhat tenuous. The trout I am seeking to fool doesn’t care for history lessons or fly-tying nuance. And yet to me, they have both become inextricably linked. Bringing a quiet joy and appreciation, in fishing age old fly patterns dressed with their historically prescribed materials, on the very rivers of their birth. And thanks to a long held family obsession, my vintage fly-tying collection allows me to fulfil this quiet passion. The collection also so illustrates that the true nature of fly-fishing history is not found in books and index cards. But, is instead found in the very materials used to fashion that most important element of our sport. Namely, the FLY.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.