Over the past few months, I’ve become fascinated by J. W. Dunne and his mathematical approach to the invention and tying of dry fly patterns with translucent bodies. Name checked by many angling authors, Dunne’s book Sunshine and the Dry Fly, has been resting on my bookshelves for many years without ever really catching my imagination. Until recently, when I came across several of his dry fly patterns produced by Hardy’s in an old film reel tin dating to the 1940s. Opening the tin and investigating the many minute labels attached to each fly brought forth images of a bygone world. It also had the effect of bringing to mind an earlier correspondence with the world renowned flytyer Davy Wotton. And his generous gift of some incredibly fine cellulite silk of the type used in Dunne’s radical fly patterns. These two corresponding events then started me on the notion that I might dress some flies using some of Dunne’s original materials.
Born on 2 December 1875 in Curragh Camp, a British Army establishment in County Kildare, Ireland. John William Dunne was of a polymath whose wide-ranging interests and professions took in a military career, aeronautic design, and even his own branch of philosophy called Serialism. His book Experiment with Time, containing all his philosophical ideas of precognitive dreams and multidimensional time, being published in March 1927. Provoking a great deal of interest and controversy, Dunne’s book and ideas influenced many writers of the period, including C.S. Lewis, J.B. Priestley and J.R.R. Tolkien amongst others. Priestley later describing Dunne’s Experiment with Time as “one of the most fascinating, most curious, and perhaps the most important books of this age.”
Happily, Dunne was also a keen fly-fisher, and I suppose it was only a matter of time (excuse the pun), before he turned his analytical brain to the questions of trout vision and fly design. Through personal observation, he realised that the natural fly was often translucent when seen from below in bright sunlight. A conclusion which gave way to a series of articles in The Field magazine and the writing of his book Sunshine and the Dry Fly.
With the publication of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, Dunne became one of the early modernists to counter Halford’s legacy in relation to the tying of dry flies. Taking aim at Halford and his approach to dressing dry flies. Dunne protested that Halford took his initial observations of natural insect colours under the wrong conditions of light, and that his record of colour was therefore flawed. Dunne’s reasoning being that Halford’s study of insect specimens with their dorsal surfaces in a white saucer and allowing light to fall on their ventral surfaces, reduced the light showing through from the back of the fly and increased that reflected from the ventral surface. All this having the effect of making Halford’s fly body colours were darker than they should have been. Dunne also alluded to further errors within Halford’s use of preserving fluids, which materially altered the colour of the natural flies he had preserved for copying. Dunne’s reasoning being that the body of the living fly was suffused in light which went out in death. Furthermore, after his purchase of some ‘Halford’ patterns, he found that they didn’t resemble the insects which he himself witnessed on the same river as Halford. All this leading Dunne to become fascinated by the idea of replicating the translucency he found within insect bodies.
His thoughts on the transparency of fly bodies led him to experiment with a new range of dry flies which, he argued, were “far more natural looking” than Halford’s aforementioned dry flies. Dunne’s experiments in producing translucent fly bodies were originally undertaken using an underbody of silver tinsel, before hitting on the idea of using white painted hook shanks to produce the translucent effect. Prior to the publication of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, Dunne used “Esplen-d’or” an artificial silk produced by Wardle & Davenport Ltd of Leek in Staffordshire. The artificial silks later being sold by the company to fly-tyers under the name of “Cellulite”. By varying the number of individual colour combinations, Dunne produced a mathematical system of producing fly bodies to the exact colour shade he required using these wonderfully sheer artificial silks. To further aid the impression of translucency, a fantastically named potion called “Sunshine oil” was produced and sold, which when applied to the fly boosted its transparency and aided floatation.
As book sales increased, and his modern mathematical system of producing transparent fly bodies caught the imagination of modern anglers. Leading tackle firms such as Hardy began selling his flies, whilst the fly tying company Messeena & Co also sold cock hackles dyed to Dunne’s instructions and his specially numbered Cellulite silks.
DARK MAYFLY SPINNER
Hook: Size 9.
Thread: Silk M2.
Tails: Cock pheasant tail herls, not dyed. ‘Ends of whisks should be 1 ½ inches from eye of hook.’
Body: ‘2 (298A) + 2 (298) + 2(226). Thickness behind hackle, about 8/100 inch. Taper to half this thickness.’
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Outspread wings: Cut from hackle H2 (including plenty of brown markings). Total spread, 1 ½ inches.
Hackles: Four turns of N behind wings, and four turns of N in front. Maximum width across shank, ¾ inch.
Sadly, however, Dunne’s empirical system of dry fly design was just too impractical for the amateur fly-tyer. His cellulite silks were also too delicate and provided the most frail of fly dressings. Fiddly in the extreme, the silks were almost impossible to tie with unless using gloves. All these factors leading to his dry flies dying under the weight of more functional designs of the period.
“Mr Dunne, in preparing his series of dry flies, tackled the problem from the view point of the trout, and the results he obtained are the best imitations that have yet been produced. The complete series is stocked by all the leading tackle-makers. The foundation of a Dunne fly is a coat of white paint on the shank on the hook, over which is wound a carefully blended mixture of strands of artificial silk. Before use the body of the fly is anointed with a special oil, which renders the artificial silk semi-transparent, and allows the underlying coat of white paint to shine through the covering. The effect is astonishing. The body looks hollow and translucent, and has exactly the delicate tinted appearance of the natural fly’s abdomen. There is no hint of shank within, and the most educated of trout are unable to distinguish it from the real thing. It is a masterpiece.
Dunne flies have however, one disadvantage. They are difficult and laborious to tie. The hook must first be painted and allowed sufficient time in which to dry. Then the correct shades of artificial silks must be procured and blended according to the formula. And finally, the completed fly requires its own special oil. All of this is too much of a business for the amateur fly-tier who has only an occasional evening at his disposal. What he wants is a convincing imitation which can be tied quickly with materials easily procured. He wants to be able to sit down on a Friday night and rattle off a dozen flies for use during the following week-end, and to feel confident that his creations will deceive the fish. He wants a shortcut to the Dunne effect.”
Robert Hartman – About Fishing 1935
However, despite anglers reservations about the practicality of his fly designs, Dunne’s writings on fly-fishing remain some of the most technically observant in the sport’s history. His production of a range of artificial tying silks and accompanying of fly patterns was a bold and ingenious attempt to solve the real problem of translucency in dry flies. Sadly, however, his mathematical approach was consistent in its disregard for that most inconsistent of variables, namely the British climate. On a dull and overcast day, Dunne’s flies appeared just as lifeless as those of Halford whose dressings he disparaged so much. Even the magical elixir of Sunshine Oil could not bring life to his patterns without the inconsistent aid of bright sunshine overhead. Dunne, as Hartman attests, also underestimated the apathy of amateur fly-tiers, and their need for untaxing and quickly produced fly patterns.
However, the ever practical Hartman misses one often overlooked aspect of fly-tying. That being the concept that the finished fly can be somewhat of an irrelevance. And that the joy of using supremely delicate materials or the mastering of a process or technique becomes just as much of an inspiration. Having a comprehensive collection of vintage materials and armed with a small quantity of cellulite silks. I spent an enjoyable afternoon rewinding time to produce a few imitations of Dunne’s prescribed dressing. Sadly, because of his mathematical formulas and the lack of any numbering to my gift of Cellulite silks, it was for me impossible to replicate the dressing in Sunshine and the Dry Fly. But as I waited for the white paint to dry on the modern hook shank, I imagined Dunne casting his radical dressings to lazy chalk-stream trout, and remembered his efforts to transcend the limits of substance and time. And pondered, were we both now in a multidimensional time?
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.