Slate Drakes (Isonychia) emerged from evening riffles, and the trout rose hungrily to the surface of the Genesee. Browns and rainbows up to 17 inches long provided a busy outing. In the same stretch, two nights later, there were differences. The cool overcast conditions were replaced by sun and warmer air. The large gray mayflies were exchanged for a sporadic hatch of sulphur mayflies and some caddis. Trout weren’t taking on the surface so I switched to an emerger pattern– a soft-hackle wet, viz. a Tup’s Indispensable– and braced myself for action.
The fly worked well for me, and I soon checked out its history. Created by the Englishman R.S. Austin around 1890, the Tup’s Indispensable became quite popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Although this dry fly/soft-hackle pattern is largely forgotten or ignored today, its history, as well as its appeal to trout, will probably save it from oblivion.
The Tup’s had a lively, irresistible dubbing for the thorax. Austin wanted the material to be kept a secret from all except his good friend, the writer George Skues. The writer’s book, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, gave the Indispensable great publicity without revealing the dubbing’s constitution. When the vow of secrecy concerning the mysterious substance was lifted in 1934 (following the deaths of Skues and Austin), it was learned that Item X was simply hair from the scrotum of a ram. The dyed hair, often urine tainted, had a special hue beloved by fussy trout and difficult to imitate with more traditional bits of fluff.
I experimented with this soft-hackle fly, finding that on this occasion it out-fished the similar Lil’ Dorothy, created by my late friend, Mark Libertone. Be that as it may, I was thankful for the Indispensable, for the way it helped carry on the frenzied link between man and trout, and for those who helped develop this fundamental soft-hackle pattern in the first place.
Speaking of gratitude, it’s probably useful to remember that everything changes, for better or worse, and fly patterns aren’t exempt. Modern synthetics have replaced a lot of the traditional tying ingredients, and dyed rabbit fur is now a substitute for pink scrotum hairs. Rabbit fur is said to have a similar magic, much to the relief of barnyard rams around the world.
The cedar waxwings picked off Sulphur mayflies from the high banks of the Genesee. I watched their flight, a fine transition from frenzied river to the quiet night and morning hours. Casting Tup’s Indispensable, I noted similarities of color in the waxwing and the fly…
The bird has a yellow band at the tail tip, with waxy red tips on the secondary feathers. The fly has a yellowish abdomen and peachy thorax (from former “tup”). Watching the birds dip down and up, capturing insects at the river, I recalled Mark Libertone’s comment about tying and fishing the soft-hackle flies: The process is “easy, mindless and uncomplicated.” Maybe. Whereas Libertone may have made the tying look as seamless as a waxwing on the hunt, I, for one, find the soft-hackle business a difficult craft to master.
It’s more difficult than relaxing in the cool fog of a morning stream. Anticipating a spinner fall of Trico mays, I saw the first rise of a fish. The tiny undulating bugs were calling brook and brown trout to the surface. I could put away the bead-head nymph and cast with bamboo ease. The fog was lifting like a gentle wake from sleep. September, too, stretched out endlessly across the pools and riffles. It was pleasant till the sun bored down and brought old challenges to the fore.