In rethinking the role of wet fly patterns, both the winged and wingless models, I’ve refocused on the time-honored traditions of fishing with an artificial. Although I never really abandoned the use of wet flies over my lifetime, I primarily fished like most of my contemporary fly rod zealots, folks who love the modern dry fly, nymph and streamer. Over the last few seasons, however, I’ve been taking a closer look at the old wet fly patterns that have origins extending back to about the 15th century.
Wingless wet flies, also known as “soft hackles,” appear in the first known English book on the subject, A Treatise of Fishing With an Angle, ostensibly written in 1496 by the prioress Dame Juliana Berners. With some tying experience under your belt, and with some quality thread and feather, soft hackle flies can be easy to produce and fun to fish with. There’s something definitely appealing about casting with a simple but exquisite pattern like a soft-hackled Orange Fish Hawk or the Partridge and Orange. In my case, learning how to fish these flies effectively helps to broaden the angling horizons again.
The number of wet fly patterns in British and American angling history is immense and overwhelming if you’re looking for a place to start. A possible approach would be to read or reread Trout, a classic tome by Ray Bergman. I selected a couple of wet flies to study. I chose the Orange Fish Hawk out of Bergman’s book and found another one on-line– the obscure Green-Ass McGee. The Green McGee is a pattern once popular in the Pine Creek Valley of Pennsylvania, and perhaps nowhere else. I’m a sucker for its link to local history in an area that I frequently haunt.
I also tied a lot of the irresistible Partridge and Orange and the Leisenring Spider, old flies resurrected by the popular book The Soft-Hackled Fly, by Sylvester Nemes, 1975. But for the purpose of quick immersion in the subject, I followed the Orange Fish Hawk and the Green-Assed McGee. In a period of deep winter time with “cabin fever,” I was singing the “before and after flyfishing blues” but was glad to have the tying vise in front of me.
After a bit of struggle getting the appropriate tying material, I was ready to go. I needed Hungarian partridge feathers for a couple of patterns but readily substituted English grouse. I dove deeper into English and American fly-fishing history, hoping to enrich the present moment. I wanted to keep the study simple.
The Green-Assed McGee apparently had its start in the early 20th century in the upper Pine Creek Valley. Ostensibly the name “McGee” was from an early fly-fisher of north-central Pennsylvania and, as far as I know, he had a normal-colored posterior. It’s reported that old-timers liked to fish the fly in tandem with a Muddler Minnow, but the big green fly was also effectively fished alone.
Tied on hook sizes 10 to 14, the McGee has a tail formed out of brown hen fiber. The butt and front end of the body are typically tied from green wool, although red or yellow wool was sometimes used instead. The body’s mid-section is a wound strand of peacock herl. Brown fibers can be tied in toward the eye of the hook to represent legs. A dark guinea feather, mottled white, is tied on for a wing. I found that getting decent body proportions with this winged fly was trickier than with the soft-hackle patterns.
The Orange Fish Hawk is a wonderful soft-hackle pattern that is simple to tie. The body of orange floss has a strand of tinsel and a turn or two of soft grizzly hackle. I enjoy tying the old wet fly patterns but, admittedly, my skills remain limited. As my drive toward angling simplicity muddles onward in a time between two seasons, I will say this: I won’t be taking up Tenkara fishing any time soon. Tenkara is an old Japanese approach to fly fishing. Beautiful and very simple, perhaps. But it’s suddenly fashionable in the Western world and relies on the purchase of new equipment. Seeing red flags, I resort to my comfort zone and remember Henry Thoreau.