As a flytyer, I am always drawn to vintage auction lots that contain healthy proportions of tying materials and associated ephemera. More so if the auction lot is north country related or of Yorkshire origin. I like to buy “working” items rather than simple collection pieces or curios. To my mind, there is something inherently fascinating about collecting vintage capes, hackles and tying materials that were once diligently collected and used by a fellow flytyer, decades if not centuries before my birth. There is also the intrinsic pleasure of bringing these age-old materials back to life and fulfilling their original intended purpose – which was to create a fly pattern worthy of fooling a trout.
Some items bought seem at first to be mundane, another envelope of fur or hackle, a moth-eaten wing or bundle of herl. Yet, a handwritten name and address lift these contents into another realm. They are no longer routine tying materials but have instead become living and breathing aspects of social history. Faded envelopes show that surnames remain but addresses change, possible examples of the social ladder being both climbed and slipped. Wider correspondences bring more materials and letters from like-minded anglers, family members and fly-dressers of the past. Slowly a veil on a long-forgotten angling time is lifted, and an angling life gradually comes into focus. I am now no-longer sat alone in front of my tying desk but am instead in the company of angling ghosts. Their long expired club memberships and permits, have me imagining the slow cast of cane rods on pristine streams. Faded receipts from vanished fishing hotels allow me to visualise scenic journeys on sparsely populated roads.
These age-old material collections also shed light on the changing fashions of our sport and reflect the skill and fastidious nature of flytying before the age of pro-team endorsement and social media. The most striking example of these changing fashions is the varied amount of Old English Game capes and dry fly hackles found in my antique collections. The old poultry breeds and their hackles have largely disappeared from the modern flytyer’s catalogue. And once highly sort after hackles with their different shades and characteristics have now sadly become misinterpreted as sub-standard.
Today, the over-reliance on stiffness and barb count, has confused the modern flytyer as to what constitutes a quality hackle. The result being that delicacy and nuance of colour once prised by flyers of old, has now largely been discarded in favour of stiffness and uniformity. And whilst it is true that the flytyers of old did seek stiffer hackles, today’s hackles go way beyond what they originally envisaged.
But it is not just the need for hackle stiffness that has been misinterpreted, it is also these vintage hackle colours which also been somewhat misinterpreted by modern retailers and flytyers. Today we disregard what would once have been cherished fifty years ago as a fine and suitable dry fly cape. It is today more likely to be cast aside or dyed a garish colour to facilitate its use.
The process of flicking through the contents of an old flytying collection and opening envelopes of vintage materials is a fascinating and often a thought-provoking process. It allows a first-hand examination of the modern flytying landscape, through the retrospect of its most fundamental materials. And also holds a mirror to modern changes and our diminishing pallet of materials and natural colours.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.