Flies of fancy

The humble fishing fly is being reinvented as a bespoke work of art. Adam Edwards finds Scottish hand-tied beauties that are luring a host of fans.

August 23 2010
Adam Edwards

The boast by an Edwardian member of the Flyfishers’ Club – the London club for the “social intercourse of gentleman interested in fly fishing” – was that he had tied such a realistic artificial fly that “the moment I opened my box, it was rogered by a natural”.

Much as I would like this story to be true, it is, I fear, just another fishing tale, a bit like the “one that got away” and the presence down-river of a 50lb salmon. There are no official reports of the wooing and ravishing of an artificial lure by a live, antennae-rubbing insect; no records of the deflowering of a silk and feather clone by its winged alter ego.

On the other hand, if there ever was such a thing as a shapely dummy created to awake the ardour of a flesh and blood arthropod, then it would almost certainly have been made by Cohn O’Dea or his former partner, Ranald Hutton.

The two men are the gurus of the sensuously covered hook; masters of the honey-trap that can tempt even the most uninterested of Atlantic salmon. The cleverly wrapped decoys, which are as much sculpture as snare, enchant both fish and fisherman.

“We tie traditional-built single-wing, single-hook salmon flies, the kind that in a bygone age were used for salmon fishing but have now been superseded by simpler, hair-wing patterns,” says Hutton, who won the professional Flydressers’ Guild competition in 1970 – a victory that briefly made him the best fly-tier in the world.

O’Dea and Hutton turned this traditional craft into a bespoke artform, tying flies specifically designed for clients who are not only seriously enthusiastic fishermen, but also celebrities and City escapees.

“I would take into account the name, personality, favourite colours, likes and dislikes of a client,” says Hutton, who recently tied “The Dandy Davidson” for the comedian Jim Davidson and the “Sensational Charlotte” for Charlotte Gifford, the wife of parliamentary lobbyist Andrew Gifford. “The flies were designed with the characteristics of the individual in mind and the finished examples look very precious in their glass-fronted frames.”

These old-fashioned flies, which originally had names such as Jock Scott, Green Highlander and Durham Ranger, were introduced in the mid-19th century when salmon fishing first became popular. Originally, salmon flies, particularly in England, were practical, uninspiring and dull items. However, in Ireland in the 1840s, fishermen started to make lures in more vivid colours. Also about that time, William Blacker from County Wicklow crossed the Irish Sea to set up as a fly-tier and tackle dealer in England to capitalise on the rising popularity of the sport.

“Where the salmon fly is concerned, Blacker was the torch that illuminated the night,” says Andrew Herd in his book The Fly (Medlar Press, 2003). “The patterns he created suddenly made anything seem possible. Nothing like his salmon flies had ever been seen before.

“The fact that these flies were completely unnecessary didn’t have the slightest impact on the near hysteria with which salmon fishers adopted them. With few exceptions, the sombre traditional patterns, which had worked so well for many years, were swept aside by bright new substitutes.” By the turn of the century, the salmon fisherman’s box was replete with colour, with materials pilfered from an extraordinarily eclectic collection of multi-hued furs and feathers: from seals and pigs to red macaws and green parrots. There was a different fly for every river – even for specific sections.

However, within a few years there was a backlash to the flamboyance, fuelled by debate about whether there was a real need for such specialised flies. There was also growing resentment about the high prices being charged for them. Experts started to claim that what was more important was the size and movement of the fly rather than the colour or material, and a heated exchange of letters began in the influential Fishing Gazette.

About the same time, fly-tiers and fishermen began experimenting with less exotic hairs from animals such as foxes, hares and squirrels. And slowly the rainbow-coloured fly began to disappear.

Now Hutton and O’Dea have brought back the lost art – although they are the first to admit that the flies have very little mobility and are better at catching anglers than they are fish. The pair sees them more as objets d’art.

“The old salmon flies are difficult to obtain these days, partly due to a scarcity of the exotic materials used in their construction but mainly because of the high level of skill required for their tying,” says O’Dea, who has taken over the bespoke business. “These days, very few fly dressers are capable of tying these old traditional patterns properly.”

A large Dunkeld pattern, for example, can be 10cm long and take more than a week to tie. Others can take even longer. His flies, which are made in consultation with the client, cost about £200 each (depending on the complications involved) and are a match for any made by Edwardian members of the Flyfishers’ Club. In fact, while O’Dea’s lures do not yet come with a health and safety warning, it can only be a matter of time before there is a notice on the back of the mount that reads, “Please cover during the mating season.”