Headley’s Alexandra (Variant)

The Alexandra has the honour of being one of the most infamous flies in the history of fly fishing, reputedly being so successful in the late 19th and early 20th century that was allegedly banned from some waters. It is, however, a simple attractor pattern and this variant is one devised by Stan Headley, introducing a little red Krystal flash in place of the red Goose quill used as an Ibis substitute for the traditional dressing.

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Hook: Ahrex FW580 #8
Tail: Red hen fibres
Rib: Oval silver tinsel
Body: Silver tinsel
Hackle: Black hen
Wing: Peacock herl over red crystal flash
Thread: Danville 6/0 black
Princess_Alexandra_of_Denmark,_later_Princess_of_Wales
Princess Alexandra of Denmark – Royal Collection (Public domain)

Alfred Courtney Williams [1] writes that the fly was originally known as “Lady of the Lake”, coming into use around 1860, and that it had been renamed in honour of Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria. He attributes the pattern to W. G. Turle or to Dr John Brunton, creator of Brunton’s Fancy. However, as Andrew Herd notes [2], the success of the fly seems to have led to several competing claims over its invention, including A. E. Hobbs of Trout of the Thames fame and even George Kelson, though he waited until 1908 before claiming that he and his father had invented the fly. The controversy over who might have originated the fly had receded by the time Courtney Williams was writing in 1949 and the classic pattern itself had been standardised. However, to this day, what makes the Alexandra or a variant of it unusual, aside from its infamous history, is that it uses peacock herl for the wings. While peacock herl is a relatively common material in fly tying, and has been for hundreds of years, it is extremely delicate and is normally restricted to use as a body material and very rarely used for wings.

It is perhaps not surprising that some of the strongest opposition to the pattern came from the dry fly purists of the English chalkstreams. It seems to have particularly angered Frederic Halford [3] who took a dim view of anglers who used the fly:

Some anglers, especially the selfish ones, are in the habit of using a huge bunch of peacock herl for wings over a silver body, called the ‘Alexandra’. What  a profanation to bestow on this monstrosity the name of one of the most charming and amiable princesses of this century! It certainly is not the imitation of any indigenous insect known to entomologists; possibly the bright silver body moving through the river gives some idea of the gleam of a minnow. Long ere this its use should have been prohibited in every stream frequented by the bona fide fly-fisherman, as it is a dreadful scourge to any water, scratching and frightening an immense proportion of the trout which are tempted to follow it. It certainly would have been prohibited, too, but for the fact that experience shows that in any stream in which it has been much fished the trout soon become quite alive to its danger, and not only will not move an inch towards it, but when worked close to their noses will not so much as turn at it, but at times, on the contrary, even fly in terror from the dread apparition.

Alexandra
The Alexandra from Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and their histories, 1892

The Alexandra’s reputation quickly crossed the Atlantic. Writing in Favorite Flies and Their Histories [4], published in 1892 and documenting many of the wet flies used in North America at the time, Mary Orvis Marbury noted that it was used for trout in deep, dark waters, or for black bass, for either of which it seems to have been effective. Marbury attributed the invention of The Alexandra to Dr Hobbs, though also notes that it was originally named ‘Lady of the Lake’ prior to its regal renaming. Marbury considered that The Alexandra…

…may not properly be called an artificial fly, being intended as a vague imitation of a minnow, and was originally recommended to be cast and played minnow fashion just below the surface of the water. This pattern was invented by Dr. Hobbs a number of years ago, and it came in to great favor with English fishermen; indeed, it was believed to be so taking that its use was forbidden on some streams.

The Alexandra was obviously hot stuff.

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  1. Courtney-Williams, Alfred. 1973. A Dictionary of Trout Flies and of Flies for Sea-Trout and Grayling. 5th ed. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  2. Herd, Andrew. 2016. “The Alexandra.” Retrieved March 10, 2019 (www.fishingmuseum.org.uk/alexandra).
  3. Halford, Frederic. 1994. Dry Fly Fishing – In Theory and in Practice. London: H. F. and G. Witherby Ltd.
  4. Marbury, Mary Orvis. 1892. Favourite Flies and Their Histories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co.

Hot-orange Muddler

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Given that the original Muddler Minnow pattern devised by Minnesota angler Don Gapen back in the 1930s to tempt the big brook trout of Ontario’s Nipigon River has its own wikipedia page, it’s not really surprising that there are so many variants. Paul Schullery [1] writes that the fly is thought to have been a modification of patterns used by native Americans and J. Edson Leonard [2] writing in 1950 remarks that:

Records, although very incomplete, show convincingly that North Carolina Indians had been making deer-hair flies long before the civil war.

Schullery also notes that the pattern gained such legendary status with North American fly fishers that it was the subject of satire in 1971:

The Flyfisher published a delightful historical parody about a mysterious Ludwig Moedler, said to have originated the fly in the 1800s.

It’s a pattern that has endured for so long because it’s successful, and more than a few anglers would place muddlers at the top of their list of most effective flies in almost any conditions. This is an adaptation of Rob Denson’s Redneck Muddler pattern, using hot orange rather than claret but keeping the ‘mirage’ body. There are limitless material and colour variations, however the essence of a Muddler pattern is the spun deer hair head and no true muddler would be complete without it. The more densely spun and tightly clipped the deer hair, the more buoyant the Muddler, and the more water it displaces when pulled below the surface as a lure.

Despite being invented in the 1930s, it seems to have been some time before the fly acquired a reputation in the UK. Tom Stewart [2] mentions that it had been used on the River Tweed by an American angler, residing in Edinburgh. However, it seems to have been on reservoirs and lakes that the pattern had its greatest success in the UK, John Veniard [3] writing in 1970 remarks

The American fly known as the “Muddler Minnow” achieved a remarkable list of successes in this country during the latter part of the 1967 season.

IG190309-160452
Hook: Hayabusa 761 #10
Tail: Orange hen
Rib: Gold wire
Body: UTC Mirage Opal
Body hackle: Grizzly hen dyed orange
Shoulder hackle: Orange hen
Head: Deer hair
Thread: Danville 6/0 black

He notes that the use of deer hair was an old-established North American custom describing the method of creating a spun head as unusual and that the adaptation of hair as a body material called for what was then a little-known tying technique in the UK.

Muddlers can be fished in a number of ways on stillwaters. This particular pattern is an obvious top dropper fly for a bright day.

  1. Shullery, Paul. American Fly Fishing – A History. New York: The Lyons Press, 1987.
  2. Leonard, J. Edson. 1950. Flies. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company.
  3. Stewart, Tom. 200 Popular Flies. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1979.
  4. Veniard, John. Reservoir and Lake Flies. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1970.

Corixa

IG190303-175933A pattern for fishing the shallow margins and weedbeds, often best fished along a quiet bank in early evening. The corixa or lesser water boatman is typically 6-12 mm in size, so patterns are typically tied on a size 12-14 hook. As they don’t have gills corixa make repeated journeys to the surface for oxygen that is then held on the underside of their body, appearing like a tiny air bubble. Not surprising, therefore, that they live in relatively shallow water.  The body on this pattern is tied with Madeira metallic thread, which gives it a rather nice transparency, simulating the air bubble that these insects use to breath underwater. Alfred Courtney-Williams [1] gives an early pattern for corixa, attributing it to T.J. Hanna. That ‘Water Bug’ pattern is decidedly a more complex pattern than we might routinely use today, involving stripped hackle stems, Plymouth Rock hackle and speckled hen wing feathers.

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Hook: Hayabusa 761 #12
Rib: Silver wire
Wing case and legs: Pheasant tail
Body: Madeira metallic Col. 300
Thread: Danville 6/0 black
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Dr Bell’s Blagdon Corixa

However, this particular pattern has its roots in a pattern attributed to Dr Howard Bell of Blagdon by John Veniard [2] who cites an article in the Fishing Gazette of April 1958 where this and several other of Bell’s flies are described by Col. Esmond Drury. Dr Bell’s pattern uses a body of white or cream floss ribbed with brown tying thread and a wing case of woodcock wing fibres using a white or cream throat hackle to imitate the legs. Given Dr Bell’s reputation for developing a meticulous, scientific approach to the study of his catch, regularly examining the trout he caught for evidence of what they had been eating, it is not surprising that he came up with this simple and rather close imitation of corixa.

  1. Alfred Courtney-Williams, A dictionary of trout flies and of flies for sea-trout and grayling (London: A&C Black, 5th ed, 1973)
  2. John Veniard, Reservoir and Lake Flies (London: A&C Black, 1970)

The Fly Box

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The trout are rising, a choice has to be made. From a pocket in your vest you pull out a small box. Be they commonplace plastic or expensive artisan, the simple fly box is often one of the more personal items the fly fisher takes to the water. Populated either with shop-purchased flies or those tied over many hours during long winter evenings. As anglers, we tend to find other angler’s fly boxes just as fascinating as our own, an insight into how they like to fish and perhaps even a glimpse of their personality.

IG190301-211654Of course, we could get by with storing our flies in almost anything that comes to hand from a cheap plastic fly box, a tobacco tin (if you smoke that is), to Chinese knock-offs of expensive Japanese fly boxes. All perfectly good, and inexpensive ways of  storing and carrying our flies. However, we often choose to opt for something that bit more special. For the most part, that’s simply because a better fly box will let you organise your flies, often offering better protection from the elements. However, for some, a fly box that entails a certain amount of craftsmanship in their making holds a special appeal.

IG190301-211748-EditAround £30 – £40 gets you an aluminium fly box steeped in the history of fly fishing. Richard Wheatley and Son began as a leather work and fishing tackle company in 1860. They started making fly boxes around 1890, originally from tin plate, using aluminium from 1908 [1]. The long history of Richard Wheatley almost came to an end when original company went into liquidation in 2013, until Alan Gnann of R.E.C. Components, Wheatley’s US agents, and Clive Edwards, owner of the Richard Wheatley reference collection purchased the assets of the old company and formed Richard Wheatley Partners. Today, the Great British Fly Box Company builds and supplies Wheatley Boxes from their Somerset workshops. Of course, aluminium fly boxes have two other advantages: they’re not made of plastic and boy do they last. My oldest Wheatley fly box is 50 years old this year.

  1. Clive Edwards ‘Richard Wheatley Museum’ flyboxfan.moonfruit.com (Accessed February 2nd 2019)

Dr Bell’s Grenadier

IG190219-213120Dr Howard Alexander Bell (1888-1974) of Wrington, Somerset, is generally regarded as one of the pioneers of reservoir fly-fishing in the UK and someone who left an indelible mark on the development of modern stillwater trout fishing.  He fished Blagdon Lake in Somerset regularly for over 40 years, at the same time studying its aquatic invertebrate life closely and tying flies to imitate. While reservoir trout fishing began around the 1870s, initially mainly bait fishing, early fly fishing on reservoirs tended to use attractor patterns or salmon flies. Conrad Voss Bark, in his History of fly fishing [1], says of Dr Bell:

Dr Bell of Blagdon had the greatest formative influence of any man on the development of reservoir fishing in the first half of this century.

Adrian Freer’s excellent website recording the life and legacy of this pioneer of modern reservoir fly fishing [2] reveals that he was a private man who looked to his time spent fishing on Blagdon Lake for its quiet and solitude. However, he developed a meticulous, scientific approach to the study of his catch, regularly examining the trout he caught for evidence of what they had been eating. As a result, he realised that, by imitating insects that the trout of his beloved Blagdon expected to see and eat, and by presenting them in a manner that mimicked their progression through the water he had developed a significantly better approach to catching trout.

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Dr Bell’s Blagdon Buzzer

He was responsible for the design of several fly patterns that were significant innovations at the time, representing the advent of modern imitative reservoir flies. Amongst them The Grenadier, the Blagdon Buzzer nymph and the Amber nymph. His buzzer pattern is the forefather of countless modern buzzer imitations that fill the rows of the reservoir angler’s fly box. Ironically, when it comes to The Grenadier it is less clear what he was seeking to imitate, not helped by Bell’s lack of published material. In Nymph Fishing – A history of the art and practice [3], Terry Lawton writes of Dr Bell:

He hated and never sought publicity and was reputed never to have written anything about fly fishing although notes for an unpublished article, dated 1941, were published in The Buzzer in 2003.

Tom Stewart [4] mentions an earlier article in The Fishing Gazette of 1958 by Colonel Esmond Drury that seems to have brought Dr Bell’s patterns to a wider audience and gave the particulars of the Grenadier as using hot orange seals fur or floss of a similar colour for the body.

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Hook: Tiemco 3769 #10-14
Rib: Gold wire
Body: Seal’s fur, dyed orange
Hackle: Ginger cock
Thread: Danville 6/0 brown

Today, it is more common to tie The Grenadier with a palmered body hackle and short tail.

Grenadier Special
Hook: Tiemco TMC 3769 #10-14
Tail: Globrite #7
Rib: Gold wire
Body: Seal’s fur, dyed orange
Hackle: Ginger cock, palmered
Thread: Danville 6/0 brown

Adrian Freer’s website, link below, is an excellent and long overdue recording of the life and legacy of this pioneer of modern reservoir fly fishing.

  1. Conrad Voss Bark A history of fly fishing (Ludlow: Merlin Unwin Books, 1992)
  2. Adrian Freer ‘Dr Bell of Wrington’ webdatauk.wixsite.com/dr-bell (Accessed February 23, 2019)
  3. Terry Lawton Nymph fishing – a history of the art and practice (Shrewsbury: Swan Hill Press, 2005)
  4. Tom Stewart, 200 popular flies and how to tie them(London: A&C Black, 1979)

Doobry/Wickhams Variant

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The Doobry is a fly that is a cross between two classic loch-style wet flies: The Zulu and The Dunkeld. Writing in Trout and Salmon Flies of Scotland [1] its originator, Stan Headley, notes that while the original Doobry was created for a specific purpose on a specific loch, it didn’t really work that well as originally conceived. However, it has become a modern standard on both lochs and reservoirs throughout the UK serving as a general purpose loch-style pattern. This variant has more in  common to the colours of the classic Dunkeld (brown, orange and gold), with none of the black of the Zulu and might equally as well be referred to as a Wickhams variant, as it shares the classic combination of brown and gold of that pattern. For some reason, I’ve never tied or fished the Doobry, so have tied up a few of both the classic and this variant for 2019.

Doobry Variant (Stan Headley)
Hook: Tiemco 3769 #10-12
Tail: Globrite yarn #6
Rib: Gold wire
Body: Gold tinsel
Body hackle: Brown rooster
Collar hackles: Brown hen over fluorescent orange rooster
Thread: Danville 6/0 black

The Doobry

The original Doobry uses a slightly different dressing than the one shown below, which substitutes globrite #4 for the tail, as opposed to red wool.

Doobry (Stan Headley)
Hook: Tiemco 3769 #10-12
Tail: Globrite yarn #4
Rib: Gold wire
Body: Gold tinsel
Body hackle: Black rooster
Collar hackles: Black hen over fluorescent orange rooster
Thread: Danville 6/0 black
  1. Stan Headley, Trout and Salmon Flies of Scotland (Ludlow: Merlin Unwin, 1997)