Aelian, Angling History, Artificial Flies, Creative Fly Tying, Major John P. Traherne, Salmon Flies, The Gaudy Fly
The Abominus Noah.914.GFNP Salmon fly, created by Val Kropownicki for his grandson Noah. The fly’s name includes the September 2014 date it was made, reference to the gold filled wire and nickel metals used, and a “P” for prototype.
Artificial flies built on hooks to catch fish have been used immemorially, almost certainly down in time from the Neolithic Period. The earliest written description of them can be found in the 15th chapter of De Natura Animalium by Claudius Aelian, who flourished circa 175-235 A.D.
Aelian wrote (translated by William Radcliffe):
I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between BorÅ“a and Thessalonica runs a river called the AstrÃ¦us, and in it there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed upon a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river. It is not like the flies found elsewhere, nor does it resemble a wasp in appearance, nor in shape would one justly describe it as a midge or a bee, yet it has something of each of these. In boldness it is like a fly, in size you might call it a midge, it imitates the colour of a wasp, and it hums like a bee. The natives generally call it the Hippouros.
These flies seek their food over the river, but do not escape the observation of the fish swimming below. When then the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above, lest it should scare away its prey; then coming up by its shadow, it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle a goose from the farmyard; having done this it goes below the rippling water.
Now though the fishermen know this, they do not use these flies at all for bait for fish; for if a manâ€™s hand touch them, they lose their natural colour, their wings wither, and they become unfit food for the fish. For this reason they have nothing to do with them, hating them for their bad character; but they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fishermanâ€™s craft.
They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cockâ€™s wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.
Necessarily larger, and over time, increasingly elaborate artificial flies began to be made in modern times for use in fishing for the Atlantic salmon, the largest and noblest game fish taken in fresh water.
Descriptive names of specific kinds of insects artificial flies were designed to imitate have been applied to the artificials as far back as the time of Aelian, but in the mid-19th century a dramatic and important change occurred.
Professional fly-dressers began to apply to their wares the same kind of evocative and whimsically associative names that were previously routinely applied to horses, dogs, and boats. The practice of applying romantically associative names to artificial flies was popularized by Ephemera (Edward FitzGibbon, 1847), Frederick Tolfrey (1848), William Blacker (1855), and Francis Francis (1867), but it was probably James Wright of Sprouston on the Tweed who played the greatest part in making a striking nomenclature an important a part of a fly pattern’s appeal to the angler as the rarest and gaudiest piece of exotic plumage.
Suddenly, starting in the 1830s and 1840s, and increasing steadily through the 1850s and 1860s, instead of a mere “March fly” or a “Dun fly,” anglers began to be offered Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick-Makers, Majors and Colonels, flies named after specific rivers (the Shannon, the Namsen), noteworthy anglers (the Popham, the Wilkinson, the Jock Scott), and even flies named for abstract imaginary entities (the Green Highlander, the Durham Ranger) or meteorological conditions (the Thunder-and-Lightning).
As the names of fly patterns grew more romantic and evocative, so, too, did the palate of feathered materials used to create them grow increasingly colorful and imaginative. Where earlier provincial fly dressers were content to get their feathers from ordinary domestic chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, the new “gaudy fly” required the contributions of Asian pheasants, Latin American cotingas, Indian kingfishers, and African and Asian bustards.
The next watershed moment occurred at the Great International Fisheries Exhibition at London in 1883, when Major John P. Traherne exhibited a case of salmon flies so elaborate and artistically created from such rare and expensive materials that matters had obviously reached a point at which the creation of the gaudy salmon fly as an art object in its own right had begun to move beyond the original utilitarian goal.
The rediscovery of Traherne’s patterns described by George Kelson in a series of articles published in the Fishing Gazette 1884 and 1885 by myself and their general distribution through the angling community via a couple of books, including the 1993 Paul Schmookler volume which presented photographs of the Traherne patterns actually tied with all the correct materials, played a major role in the modern revival of interest in the gaudy fly and its history and that revival of interest simultaneously produced an entire new era of creative fly tying.
Over the weekend, I happened to encounter the above extraordinary specimen of creative tying by Val Kropiwnicki on the Cotinga-Classic Salmon Fly Facebook Group.
This fly is not only pretty. It constitutes an amusing comment on just how far elaboration can go. But I also could not avoid reflecting, while looking at it, that this is really a design that would almost certainly kill fish. Val is not just presenting a single fly. He has created a small school of potential victims. He just needs to do this pattern over, putting hooks in all the dropper flies, and making sure that the wires they are tied on will hold, say, 20 lbs. of bright Atlantic salmon.