Matching the Hatch
A Practical Guide to Imitation of Insects Found on Eastern & Western Trout Waters
By Ernest G. Schwiebert
Scott & Nix, Inc. Copyright © 2011 the Estate of Ernest G. Schwiebert, Jr. and Scott & Nix, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The evolution of flyfishing
The artificial fly is quite ancient as a means of fooling trout, for as early as the third century anglers were using flies on the unsuspecting trout of Macedonia. The philosopher Aelian tells us in his De Natura Animalium that a fly of wool and hackles was fished effectively on the Astraeus, and that these crude flies were an attempt at matching the hatch.
We know relatively little about the sport of angling in the long years after Aelian, but in 1496, just four years after an historical voyage by one Christopher Columbus, there came from Winchester, England, a treatise on trout flies. Dame Juliana Berners described methods of fly-dressing and fly-fishing in her surprisingly thorough Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle. Some of those historic patterns are still used today.
In 1653, at the mellow age of sixty years, Izaak Walton published his famous Rich, Marriot edition of The Compleat Angler and endeared himself forever to the angling fraternity. This little volume is not just a discourse on fishing methods. It expresses a philosophy of life as well. We know little of Walton's education, but the stature of his angling friends in the intellectual climate of his day indicates that his education must have been adequate, regardless of its nature.
Such men as Sir Henry Wotton, who was an ambassador, scholar, poet and Provost of Eton; John Donne, the well-known poet and preacher, who had no little influence on the thinking of his time; Michael Drayton, who was beloved as England's river poet; and John Hales, scholar and fellow of Eton, were his companions on the stream.
These men fished the quiet British rivers with the long rods and horsehair lines described by Aelian centuries earlier, and it appears that only minor improvements had been made in the tackle used.
In the fifth edition of The Compleat Angler, which appeared in 1676, we meet Charles Cotton, who contributed a treatise devoted to the artificial fly and its use. With this work, he firmly established himself as the father of the sport. Although Walton was thirty-seven years his senior, the esteem that these two men had for each other was apparently great. We have tangible evidence of it in their initials over the door of the fishing house along Cotton's trout water in Derbyshire. Cotton was a man of some means, and was later to achieve a reputation as a traveler, scholar, soldier and poet. The little fishing house on the Dove, with its inscription Piscatoribus sacrum, is preserved today much as it was in 1674. It stands as a shrine for anglers and has stood through the centuries as visible evidence of the brotherhood existing between them.
Walton and his friends lived in troubled times, for England was torn by war between the Roundheads and the Royalists. Yet the tranquility of the words of Walton gives little hint of the strife. Behind those words is a relaxed spirit born on the quiet pools of his rivers.
Some centuries later, in 1836, we find the serious study of insects creeping into angling, with Alfred Ronalds' classic The Fly Fisher's Entomology. It was a book of insects and their imitations, written for the swift rivers in the north of England.
Four years later, John Younger contributed River Angling to the literature of fishing. The most significant facet of this work was the speculation on the nymph in the trout diet. Unfortunately, Younger did not pursue his theories, but continued to fish the traditional wet flies instead of exploring nymph fishing.
In the ten years that followed, there appeared two innovations that were to change angling. Edward Fitzgibbon, in the Handbook of Angling published in 1847, wrote of British tackle-makers and their exploration of split-bamboo rod construction. Their work was apparently confined to tip sections, and the construction was one of three strips, glued with the power fibers of the cane in the inside of the finished sections.
At the same time, the American gunsmith Samuel Phillippi (or Phillipe) was building rods of split cane with the power fibers on the outside, as we do it today. In all fairness, it must be said that a British rod-maker was also using this method at that time, but Phillippi is credited with inventing the four-strip and six-strip construction techniques. He was a native of Pennsylvania, and his contemporaries verify the fact that he was building split-bamboo rods as early as 1846.
The eyed hook for fly-tying is almost unquestionably of British origin, and we know that it was perfected in 1879 by Henry Hall and George Selwyn Marryatt. It was their work that made the dry fly possible.
To Frederick Halford must go the credit for perfecting the dry-fly technique, and it was Halford who wrote the engaging treatises on the dry fly that aroused American interest in the 1880's. His writings included Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, Dry Fly Entomology and The Development of the Dry Fly. Not long before his death in 1914, Halford compiled the dressings for some thirty-odd patterns imitating those insects he had found most important in a lifetime of fishing British trout waters.
Martin Moseley carried on Halford's work in imitating British fly life in his Dry Fly Fisherman's Entomology. Much credit must be given to him for this refinement of dry-fly knowledge.
The bulk of the credit for the development of the dry- fly technique on our streams must go to Theodore Gordon, who is considered the father of the dry fly in America. He was first attracted to the dry-fly method by Halford's Floating Flies and How to Dress Them in 1886. The concept of the dry fly must have germinated within Gordon for some time before he took it up, for he once wrote that the dry fly became an obsession with him about the year 1889.
In that year he began to acquire suitable tackle from British firms. His stronger interest may have resulted from the appearance of Halford's second work on the dry-fly technique. Through correspondence with Halford, he obtained a now-famous set of dry-fly patterns, complete with instructions on their tying. Gordon went on to create many of the popular patterns of today.
He spent the closing years of his life pursuing his beloved trout fishing on the Catskill streams of New York. His notes and letters are lovingly gathered for us in The Complete Fly Fisherman by John MacDonald. He died at Bradley, near the Neversink, in 1915.
While the evolution of the fly was progressing rapidly, men were learning more of the latent possibilities in split bamboo. Rods were becoming lighter and more efficient under the patient hands of men like Hiram Leonard and the group associated with him. These associates were to form the cadre of fine rod-makers in America, and they included names like Thomas, Payne and Edwards.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, many figures appeared to contribute to the fly-fishing tradition of this country. Edward Ringwood Hewitt is one to whom we owe much. His writings include The Handbook of Fly Fishing, Nymph Fly Fishing, Telling on the Trout, Secrets of the Salmon, Better Trout Streams and A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-Five Years. His development of nymph techniques for our streams, and his dry-fly innovations, are high among the outstanding contributions to trout lore.
The perfection of the nymph technique is the work of G.E.M. Skues, the well-known British angler who made the nymph popular. His excellent writings include Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and The Way of a Trout with a Fly. There is much excellent theory in these works.
The first American to attempt a correlation between artificial flies and the naturals of our waters appears to have been Louis Rhead, among whose contributions were The Book of Fish and Fishing and American Trout-Stream Insects. Both of these volumes were published before 1920. Rhead's collections were made largely on the Beaverkill in New York, where the artist-author was a familiar figure. Unfortunately, he used insect names of his own devising, rather than the accepted scientific nomenclature, and his drawings as printed in the finished volumes were far from clear. It is virtually impossible today to identify the species that he collected, and his work has little more than historical interest.
Perhaps the reason that the dry-fly fishing was slow to catch hold in this country lay in the fact that many British writers had expressed the idea that it was a poor technique for fast water. These writers meant that anything much swifter than the placid chalk streams was impractical for the floating fly. Men like Halford were so idolized by our anglers that they did not attempt to use the dry fly on our faster streams.
In 1912, Emlyn Gill published his Practical Dry Fly Fishing, which outlined methods of using the floater on our trout waters. Two years later, George M.L. LaBranche contributed The Dry Fly and Fast Water to angling literature. He too had been inclined to follow the British dogma and to ignore his own observations as accidental. In a clever piece of writing, LaBranche tells us of the killing of dry-fly trout on the Willowemoc, and how he later shuddered at his heresy. Later success with the floater on fast water stimulated some healthy thought, and his fine book was the inevitable result.
Another excellent angler who contributed no written lore was Richard Robbins of the Beaverkill in New York. Although he did not write, he influenced many of the younger men who frequented that river. According to William Schaldach, in his exquisite Currents and Eddies, Robbins was the dean of the Beaverkill in the '20s. He died in 1937 at Roscoe, at the junction of the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, and is buried in Riverview Cemetery, overlooking the famous Junction Pool. Several seasons ago I spent some time looking for the grave, and was saddened to find that Richard Robbins lies in an unmarked spot above the rivers he loved for so many years.
The spirit of these early anglers lives on today on the Catskill rivers in the nimble, talented hands of Walter and Winifred Dette on the Beaverkill, Harry Darbee on the Willowemoc and Art Flick on the Schoharie. Their fly-tying and fishing have become a legend with the anglers of the eastern streams; while Jim Deren's Angler's Roost, in New York, has become a headquarters for fine flies, and a gathering place for many of today's enthusiasts.
The work begun by Ronalds in England has been ably pursued here by fly-fishing entomologists like Preston Jennings, in A Book of Trout Flies; Charles Wetzel, who wrote Practical Fly Fishing; Alvin Grove, with his Lure and Lore of Trout ishing; and Art Flick, in his Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations.
Trout fishing is an art; and like the other arts, it is greatly enhanced by the history and romance that have accumulated over the centuries. The rivers that were the stage for much of this angling drama have something that is lacking on other less-fabled waters.
Rivers like the Beaverkill were the cradle of the dry fly in America, and one cannot fish them without respect for their tradition. With our fishing pressure of today, they can never be what they once were; but even in recent years I have fished the Beaverkill, and have seen the rise at twilight on Barnhart's Pool reminiscent of the old days on the river.
There is something quite wonderful about fishing those storied pools, and one cannot help but feel reverence for the parade of famous rods that has fished before him: Theodore Gordon, John Taintor Foote, Edward Ringwood Hewitt, George M.L. LaBranche, Albert Everett Hendrickson and countless others who have dropped their casts on the pool that gurgles about his waders.
I know that I cannot escape this feeling on the pools away from the highway when the twilight falls and I am alone with the river. One almost expects to round a bend and find the ghost of Richard Robbins, and to be hailed by the old man to tie on a fly for him in the failing light of age and evening.
The trout and his habits
When the average fisherman becomes aware of the great tradition and literature that surround the trout with an aura of mystery and charm, he invariably wonders many things about the species that has inspired so much. To many of us, the trout is the aristocrat of game fish, requiring cold, pure water in which to live. Within the lore that has grown around the sport of trout fishing there is a refinement present in no other angling.
Perhaps the greatest charm of the trout is the country in which he abounds. Trout country is synonymous with forests and mountains and white water. The trout fits well into his spectacular habitat, for he is a graceful fish of great beauty. In coloring, the trouts are unrivaled among freshwater species, from the rich yellow found on the undersides of the brown to the rosy gills and sides of the rainbow. These two forms, with the lovely brook trout, are the principal species found in our streams today. The cutthroat or black-spotted trout, too, retains considerable importance in some of its native western waters.
The brook trout is known to the biologist as Salvelinus fontinalis, and is thought by many to be the most beautiful member of a colorful family. Technically, the brookie is not a trout, but is a member of a closely related group of fishes called the chars. The chars may be distinguished from the true trout by the presence of only a very few teeth on the vomerine bone in the roof of the mouth. In the chars, these teeth are concentrated in a small area near the front of the mouth. True trout have teeth distributed well along this bone toward the throat.
Originally, the brook trout was found in almost all spring-fed streams from Georgia to Canada. It was a distinctly eastern and Northern species until stocking spread its habitat to the cold waters of the West. Civilization has brought pollution and lumbering to drive the brook trout from his native haunts, and force him deeper into the wilds. The large trout rivers of the East that still remain are all but devoid of Salvelinus fontinalis, which was the only species native to them. Competent men have expressed the belief that the brookie will make his final stand in the back country of the West and the wilds of the North.
The brook trout survives best in waters of sixty-eight degrees or less that have an abundance of cover and oxygen. Brook trout will die in water that rises above seventy-five degrees. When the streams begin to get warmer than his preferred sixty-eight degrees, the brookie migrates into the feeder brooks and spring holes along the larger streams.
Like all the trout, the brookie is primarily an insect feeder. He takes about 85 to 90 per cent of his diet in the form of underwater insect forms. Brook trout seem to show a marked preference for the immature stages of the caddisfly, an insect order that will be treated later. I once took a large brookie, on the swift Pine in Michigan, that contained sixty-two caddisfly larvae complete with their stick and gravel cases. Number sixty-three turned out to be my caddisfly imitation.
Figures compiled by research biologists in Michigan show that the brook trout is the most susceptible to the wares of the fishermen. In deference to an otherwise noble species, let us say that the brookie is not a stupid fish, but that he has an often fatal curiosity.
The Michigan experiments showed that 40 per cent of the brook trout planted were caught shortly after they had been placed in the stream. An electrical census showed that only 5 per cent remained at the end of the season. The other 55 per cent had apparently succumbed to the rigors of nature.
An inability to stand high water temperatures and a fatal curiosity are the main factors contributing to the decline of the brook trout. Many persons place the blame upon the brown trout, but they should pause to realize that often the brown is the only species able to live in our badly depleted suburban streams.
The brook trout is not a showy fighter when hooked. He uses his strength in an underwater battle that searches out snags and rocky ledges. He is stubborn, and often refuses to give up even after he has been subdued and netted. He is a fish of unsurpassed beauty and a wonderful table delicacy. One cannot ask more.
The rainbow trout is generally considered to be the most spectacular as a fighting fish. His resistance to the hook is high-lighted with threshing leaps and reckless dashes through the heaviest water. Oncorhynchus mykiss was originally a trout of the Pacific slope, but he is now well distributed in our trout streams. The species requires fast water of a relatively high oxygen content. (Continues...)
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