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.

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