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.

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)

Peter Ross – The Barber of Killin

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Hook: Hayabusa 761BN #12
Tail: Golden pheasant tippet
Rib: Silver wire (note: original pattern used oval silver tinsel)
Body: Rear silver tinsel, front red seal’s fur
Hackle: Black hen
Wing: Teal
Thread: Danville 6/0 black

Peter Ross
Peter Ross [4]
One of the classic loch flies named after its originator, Peter Ross (1873-1923), who owned a shop in Killin, Perthshire. According to a history of the village he was the local barber [1]. It’s a fly that has proven to be a long-lasting pattern and has given rise to several modern variants. The original has a reputation as both a loch fly and a pattern for sea trout. Early dressings tend to use red wool rather than the seal’s fur used here.

History, it seems, is somewhat unclear as to whether Peter Ross actually tied the fly himself or merely suggested it. Alfred Courtney Williams, writing in 1949 [2], suggests that Ross did not tie his own flies though acknowledges that he was nonetheless responsible for suggesting this variant on the Teal and Red. Similarly, Bruce Sandison [3] writes:

Another butcher, Peter Ross of Killin, Perthshire, gave his name to a successful brown trout and sea-trout pattern. Ross was not an angler, he simply enjoyed tying flies.

However, an article in the Killin News [4] from 1996 describes how Peter Ross, in his capacity as a tackle dealer:

…was a skilled fly-tier. He sent flies all over the world and his fame was such that many a visiting angler bought flies so that he could say ‘tied by Peter Ross himself’. His variant of the Teal-and- Red, now known as the ‘Peter Ross’, was so successful that he had to take legal advice to protect the name.

The article, which cites a former angling companion of Peter Ross and his nephew and which includes a photograph of Ross complete with rod and fish, suggests that Ross was indeed an angler and that he may well have tied this famous fly himself.

IG190205-223813Teal feathers are not the easiest of materials to work with when it comes to constructing a winged-wet fly. They can also vary quite a bit, as this version with a darker wing shows. The ‘perfect’ fly for framing would have all the bars neatly lined up in the wing! For smaller flies it’s feasible to take matching pairs from a Teal flank feather, for larger, seems easier to take a flank feather, fold it in half, and tie it on.

 

  1. Ella Walker “A village history – Killin”. Killin.info, 19 Feb. 2014, www.killin.info/blogs/village-history-killin (accessed February 2nd 2019).
  2. Alfred Courtney-Williams, A dictionary of trout flies and of flies for sea-trout and grayling (London: A&C Black, 1949, 5th ed, 1973).
  3. Bruce Sandison Lies, dammed lies and anglers (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2011).
  4. Killin News Issue No 30, Jan. 31 1996 www.killinnews.co.uk/issues/issue030.pdf (accessed February 2nd 2019).

 

Claret Parachute Emerger

Claret Parachute Emerger
Hook: Tiemco 2487 #12
Rib: Pearl mylar
Body: Claret seal’s fur
Wing post: Globrite yarn
Hackle: Grizzly claret rooster
Thread: Danville 6/0 claret

Parachute style (horizontally tied) hackles take up several pages in Ted Leeson’s and Jim Schollmeyer’s [1] massive compendium of fly tying techniques as they discuss the varied ways of both tying in the parachute and tying it off so as to not trap too many fibres. Must admit, most of mine tended to look pretty scruffy until a tip from a tyer at last year’s British Fly Fair International. Looking forward to this year’s show next weekend at the Stafford Show Ground and learning even more from some world-class fly tyers. As for the tip, it’s the same approach expertly demonstrated by Barry Ord Clarke in his video.

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William A Brush’s Parachute hook US Patent granted in 1934

The origin of the parachute style seems less certain, Paul Schullery [2] indicates it goes back to the 1920s and Alfred Courtney Williams [3], writing in 1949, suggests it may have originated with a “well known Scottish tackle firm” though notes that a Mr William Brush of Detroit applied for a patent for the idea in 1931, the patent was indeed granted in 1934 (US Patent #1973139). It is worth pointing out that the patent relates to a projection on the hook (the wing post), around which the hackle is wound, not the style itself, so a licensing fee might have been difficult to collect for other approaches to forming the wing post. Courtney Williams admits to being something of a purist and that his enthusiasm for the type of fly had never been that great – how times change, today it is one of the most widely used style of flies on both rivers and stillwaters. The tackle firm in question appears to have been the Glasgow firm Alexander Martin and one of their employees, Helen Todd, is credited with having come up with the concept of tying on the hackle horizontally. An example of an original Alex Martin parachute fly, with its UK patent slip still attached was donated to the American Museum of Fly Fishing by Joseph Spear Beck in 1980 [4] who notes that Alex Martin’s 1938 catalog identifies the date of introduction of the style to the UK as 1933. However, finding solid historical references to the young female fly tyer who may have originated the style is decidedly problematic. Joseph Spear Beck [4] conjectures that William Brush only decided to pursue a patent once it was evident that the style was commercially successful since a note from the successor firm to Alexander Martin, John Dickinson and Son Ltd, from 1970 suggests an earlier attempt to market the style in the US in 1928 was unsuccessful.

  1. Ted Leeson and Jim Schollmeyer The fly tier’s beachside reference to techniques and dressing styles (Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications, 1998)
  2. Paul Schullery American Fly Fishing (New York: Lyons Press, 1987)
  3. Alfred Courtney-Williams, A dictionary of trout flies and of flies for sea-trout and grayling (London: A&C Black, 1949, 5th ed, 1973)
  4. Joseph Spear Beck Parachute Pioneers. American Flyfisher, 7, 21 (1980)