The Fancy Flies of T.K. Wilson

During his service in the R.A.F. the well-known angler and author T.K. Wilson planned the idea of a book dedicated to the subject of “Fancy Flies”. Unfortunately, Wilson’s intended publication never came to fruition, with the intending author having instead to settle on producing a series of articles in the Angling Magazine based around his original idea and notes.
At the recent British Fly Fair International, I was given two of Wilson’s preparatory notebooks by the renowned author and grayling angler John Roberts, as well as an envelope containing several drafts of Wilson’s intended forward for the proposed book.

T.K. Wilson’s notebooks


Upon reading through Wilson’s notebooks and jottings, I was surprised to find how much the contents of Wilson’s original notes changed when eventually coming to print. A prime example being the story behind Blades’ Purple Dun which is given a fuller rendition in his notebooks, but shortened by over a page in his published magazine article. In his notes, Wilson also mentions that it was F.M. Halford who accompanied Walbran on his visit to fish with James Blades on the River Ure. Whereas, in his published article omits the Halford reference and simply refers to a “south-country fisherman of national repute.”
In writing about Blade’s signature pattern, Wilson mentions that the Purple Dun had been a popular Yorkshire grayling fly for over half a century, and quotes Blades as saying, “best for trout from July onwards, then whole of the season for grayling.”

Blade’s Purple Dun

Hook: No.1 Body: Purple silk dubbed with peacock herl, ribbed over with purple silk.
Hackle: From a blue andalusian cock or hen.

Born in 1902, Wilson moved from Westmorland to become the Ticket Master at Barnoldswick railway station. Writing under the nom de plume of “Broughton Point”, Wilson contributed many fishing articles for a varied range of magazines and newspapers, including The Angling Times, Dalesman, Trout and Salmon and the Yorkshire Post. His final book Trout By All Means completed shortly before his death and published posthumously contains still relevant sections on wet and dry fly-fishing for trout and grayling on Yorkshire’s rivers.

Amongst the patterns listed by Wilson for insertion in his projected book were the Ridsdale’s Special and Ridsdale’s Favourite. Two dry fly patterns invented by Austin Ridsdale from the small village of Mickley which lies beside the River Ure just above West Tanfield. And it is Wilson’s inclusion of these two patterns that shows how serendipity often takes a hand. For in my collection of north country fly manuscripts, I also have Austin Ridsdale’s own fly manuscript contained within a Boots “Home Diary” for 1931. Thus, allowing me the opportunity to cross-reference Wilson’s notes with Ridsdale’s original manuscript dressings and therefore spot Wilson’s mistake in setting down both Ridsdale’s dressings.

Austin Ridsdale’s Fly manuscript

Sadly, for his legion of readers, T.K. Wilson in his notes confuses the title of both of Ridsdale’s fly patterns, by attaching the wrong dressing to each fly. The fly called the “Ridsdale’s Favourite” should in fact be called “Ridsdale’s Fancy”, and the recipes for both fly patterns should be swapped over.

Wilson’s misplace and wrongly named dressing for the Ridsale’s fancy
Ridsdale’s actual dressing for the Ridsdale’s Fancy
Ridsdale’s actual dressing of the Ridsdale’s Special


Catskill Dry Flies & The Charmed Circle

Catskill Dry Flies & The Charmed Circle

I have always been fascinated by Catskill dry flies, it stretches back to my teenage years when I was given a copy of Harry Darbee’s book Catskill Flytier: My life, times, and techniques. The book was co-written by Mac Francis who later would not only build on my interest in Catskill fly patterns, but also ignite my fascination with the fabled rivers with his book, Catskill Rivers: Birthplace of American Fly Fishing.
For years I fished my native Dales rivers with recognised Catskill classic dry flies without any thought or hesitation to their effectiveness. Though born on different rivers, the patterns were supremely at home on my local waters. And no wonder, as many of the Catskill patterns have that remarkable quality of being able to cover different hatch situations.
A classic example is the Quill Gordon, probably the most famous dry fly to come out of the Catskills if not America. Though this pattern in some way owes its existence to Britain, and its originator Theodore Gordon’s correspondence with Frederick Halford, and H. G. McClelland’s publication How to Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing. In which McClelland recognized the usefulness of quill material, for small dry flies. The pattern is nevertheless the touchstone by which all American dry flies are judged, and reaches a level of sophistication never previously seen in a dry fly.
I constantly fish this pattern to rising fish, despite it being thousands of miles away from its home waters of the Catskills. The fly’s towering wood-duck wings provide a superb silhouette in bright sunlight and shadow, thus providing both angler and fish the perfect opportunity to track the fly. Its stripped quill body actively mimicking the segmented body profile of countless flies.

Quill Gordon tyed by Rube Cross

Quill Gordon

Hook: Size 12 & 14
Body: Stripped Peacock Quill
Tail: Dun hackle fibres
Wing: Wood-duck fibres
Hackle: Blue Dun cock hackle

Through the years of course I learned to adapt traditional Catskill dry flies and invent my own regional patterns based around the Catskill style. One of these was my dressing of the Olive Upright which featured the distinctive stripped quill body and wood-duck wings. Although it was primarily aimed at suggesting the Olive Uprights found on the River Wharfe, I found this pattern increasingly adaptable to numerous hatch situations where a range of native olives were on the water.

Olive Upright Catskill Style tyed by Robert Smith

Olive Upright Catskill

Hook: Size 14 & 16
Body: Stripped Peacock Quill dyed olive
Tail: Blue Dun hackle fibres
Wing: Wood-duck fibres
Hackle: Brown cock hackle with Blue Dun cock hackle wound through.

My love affair with Catskill dry flies continues to this day, and although I don’t tie and fish the Catskill style of dry fly as much as I used to. I am still captured by their simple elegance and beauty, and never stop in my quest to learn more about these iconic dry fly patterns, the region and the people who created them.

As a consequence of writing a book about my own regional patterns, I was asked to talk about the history of the North Country Flies and demonstrate aspects of their tying at this years International Fly Tying Symposium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This trip of course not only gave me the opportunity to mix with some of the world’s best fly-tyers, but also the perfect opportunity to visit some of the Catskills holiest of shrines to flyfishing and flytying through the generosity of my good friend John Shaner.

The Symposium was everything I had heard, and showcased some of the world’s best fly-tyers. With an eye on Catskill patterns I made a B-line to the table of one of the Catskill region’s acknowledged greats Dave Brandt. Dave is a font of all knowledge relating to the tying and fishing of traditional Catskill dry flies and instructs at the world famous Wulff Fly Fishing School which is situated in the heart of the Catskills at Livingson Manor. Dave was as ebullient as ever and did the great honour of sitting in on my Featured Fly-Tyer demonstration and my latter talk on the history of North Country Flies to a packed audience. His gave me some invaluable tips regarding tying the Catskill patterns and also a boxed selection of his superbly dressed flies. I have already taken onboard some of Dave’s tying tips, in particular his tip about not trimming the wing butts at a slant. But cutting them flush and then butting the tailing material up flush with them, giving a slimmer body profile.

Light Quill Cahill tyed by Robert Smith

Light Cahill Quill

Hook: Size 14 & 16
Body: Stripped Peacock Quill natural
Tail: White or cream hackle fibres
Wing: Wood-duck fibres
Hackle: White or cream cock hackles

In line with the Catskill theme, I was also honoured to spend a couple of hours visiting and speaking to Joe Fox the grandson of Mary Dette Clark, at the world famous Dette Fly Shop in Roscoe. I first visited this shop in the 1990’s and it is still a time capsule of Catskill traditions. After some retail therapy I even managed to walk away with a few Eric Leiser caddis flies.

As morning drifted into afternoon we made our way up the Little Beaverkill for a meeting with probably the greatest fly-caster and fly-casting teacher who has ever lived. I have been in awe of Joan Wulff ever since I read her book on fly casting techniques in the 1987. She was single-handedly responsible for me not abandoning flyfishing after an accident left me barely able to cast. Her book revolutionised my thoughts on casting, and with the aid of “Fly-o” got me back into the loop.
As I chatted for a couple of hours in the company of Joan and her husband Ted Rogowski, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the kindness and generosity being extended by one of our sports greatest figures to a total stranger from the other side of the world. Even in the great lady’s advancing years she was all I expected her to be, easy, graceful and as precise as her casting. As we chatted, I was guided down to Lee Wulff’s private sanctum, where many of his artefacts and belongings from a lifetime of flyfishing and film-making were kept and catalogued ready for donation to libraries and museums. Then finished with a one-to-one casting lesson in her front room!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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