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.

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).

 

Colonel Downman’s Fancy

Colonel Downman's Fancy
Hook: Hayabusa 761 black nickel
Tail: Teal fibres
Rib: Silver tinsel
Body: Black floss
Wing: Pair of Blue Jay with Jungle Cock on each side
Throat: Black hen
Thread: Danvilles 6/0

A traditional wet fly for which more than one tying can be found in the fly fishing literature, though it is only mentioned in a few of the common 20th Century compendiums of trout flies. The oldest reference that I can find to the pattern is that given as a loch fly by Roger Woolley [1] in 1932. Roger Woolley’s book is a collection of articles first published in the Fishing Gazette in 1930 and 1931. The pattern simply says “Jay Wing”, not specifying whether it is the blue-barred feather or primary wing feather. The rest of the dressing matches that given in later dressings by John Veniard [2] in 1952, with a blue-barred jay wing (the version tied here),  and in his later book Reservoir and Lake Flies [3]. It is also the version beautifully tied by Ken Sawada [4] in his 1995 book “Wet Flies”.

Tom Stewart [5], writing first in 1964, suggests that the pattern has been subject to many variations over the years including the version with teal tail fibres and blue-barred jay wing given here. He then goes onto describe a “usual” tie as being red-dyed hackle fibres for the tail and a blue feather from the jay for the wing. Tom Stewart’s “usual tie” is the one given by Stan Headley [6] in 1997 using a pattern supplied by Davie McPhail.

As to Colonel Downman himself, there would appear to be little mention of him beyond a comment in the French magazine “Le Moucheur” by Maurice Lewkowicz who describes the pattern as having been created by a colonel of the Indian army retired in the 1930s though no citation is given as to the source of this information.

Bibliography

  1. Roger Woolley, Modern trout fly dressing (London: The Fishing Gazette, 1932).
  2. John Veniard, Fly Dresser’s Guide (London: A&C Black, 1952)
  3. John Veniard, Reservoir and Lake Flies (London: A&C Black, 1970)
  4. Ken Sawada, Wet flies (Tokyo: Ken Sawada, 1995)
  5. Tom Stewart, 200 popular flies and how to tie them (London: A&C Black, 1979).
  6. Stan Headley, Trout and Salmon Flies of Scotland (Ludlow: Merlin Unwin, 1997)
  7. Maurice Lewkowicz, Le Geai (Le Moucheur n°46 – Décembre 2001-Janvier 2002).

Durham Ranger

Durham Ranger

Hook: Hayabusa 761 black nickel #10
Tag: Yellow floss
Butt: Peacock Herl
Rib: Oval gold tinsel
Body: Claret floss
Wing: Pair of tippet with Jungle Cock each side
Throat: Claret hackle fibres
Thread: Danville 6/0 black

The Durham Ranger is a well-known classic Atlantic salmon fly. This is a wet fly interpretation of the pattern from Ken Sawada’s 1995 book “Wet Flies”. Considerably simpler than the salmon pattern, it nonetheless retains a few of the characteristics of the classic. This is my second tying of this pattern, following some much appreciated advice, that has resulted in a significantly smoother floss body and the traditional 5 turns of gold rib on the body.