Evening Frenzy, Morning Calm

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.

Tup’s Indispensable

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.

Fox grapes, sour but fair…

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.

From the eve of frenzied action…

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.

From the morning after…

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…

Lots of wild browns the morning after…

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.

On the headwaters stream…

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.

Trico #20 on a fingernail…

Early morning tributary…

The rambler in Maine, July 2019…


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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14 Responses to Evening Frenzy, Morning Calm

  1. plaidcamper says:

    What a wonderful piece, Walt – indispensable, even! I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to read about hairs plucked from a ram’s scrotum to create a fly, but I’m glad I did. Fascinating history behind the fly with the secrecy and all.
    I hope September is a fine fishing month for you – it appears to have started promisingly…

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    What a great way to spend an evening. I do think that for posterity, some of the authentic dubbing should be obtained. If we happen across a sheep farm, I’ll hold em and you clip. Or vice versa. I’ve been known to pluck feathers from roadkill, so perhaps this is the next logical step?

    • No doubt authentic dubbing would be indispensable for us, but lest the neighbors get the wrong idea, maybe we should stick to plucking feathers? I don’t know, Bob; but maybe we’ll know when we get there!

  3. Brent says:

    I think one of the most fascinating parts of your particular hobby/passion are the connections between the sport’s history (and the stories behind its accoutrements) and the cultural, social, and environmental factors that influenced its development. Sure, these factors influence a lot of things, but fly fishing seems especially influenced–perhaps because it’s such a simple, elemental pastime.

    • Thanks Brent! The long-standing history of this solitary sport has a lot of fascinating elements that are relevant to modern life. It also allows us to make connections to the natural world surrounding us, no matter where we live. All in all, it’s a fine place for exploration and for having fun in the water.

  4. UB - Marion says:

    Great to hear the back story on the Tup’s Indispensable, some fine fish to show for your efforts and a great pic of (I believe you) standing in the Maine pool. Also appreciated was the descriptions of the colors used in Tups ‘tie’.
    No matter whoever it is standing there, I have always found it easy to fish such a still pool in bright sunlight, but difficult to catch much with that kind of water an those light conditions.

  5. tiostib says:

    A delightful piece! I particularly enjoyed the mix of river time with history. Yes, that’s quite the unique dubbing.

    Have you ever fished Bob Clouser’s “Deep Minnow?”

    Wishing you some wonderful Fall fishing, always my favorite time of year.

    • Thanks Tio! Fall brings a resurgence of the fishing energy, for sure. At this point I have limited experience with Clouser Minnows in the salt, but Clousers are my go to when I have the opportunity to ocean fish. I’m a work in progress!

  6. loydtruss says:

    I’ve seen the trout on the Sipsey feeding just below the surface film numerous times. Sometimes I make a connection and other times I fail. Just wondering what size was the fly and how was you fishing it? Gorgeous area you was framing—thanks for sharing

    • Bill, the soft hackle size was 14 and I would cast it upstream & across, then drift it down with a high-stick approach. Doesn’t always work but when it does, it seems to be the best strategy. Thanks!

  7. Thom Hickey says:

    Wonderful headline!

    Followed by a continuing education for me.

    Regards Thom

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