Catskill Style Dry Flies
Not intended to be a complete treatise on the subject, but I thought I would share a short introduction to a fly-tying subject that I have found very interesting.
The Catskills are in New York State between the Rivers Delaware and Hudson, it is just a 2-hour drive from New York City. It is also considered to be the birthplace of the American dry fly. This area encompass the Rivers Beaverkill, Willomec, Esopus, Neversink, Schoharie and West Kill Creek.
Stock photo of the Beaverkill
In 1904 Theodore Gordon (1854 – 1915), known as the father of American dry fly fishing, described the fishing:
“We refer to the five well-known historic streams, having an almost common source, but following on widely diverging courses, three being tributaries of the Delaware and two of the Hudson Rivers. All of these are ideal trout streams and will well repay the lover of nature as well as the angler. All are cold, clear and pure”.
There are additional advantages in that the rivers are flat bottomed and easily wadeable, plus they are public waters. These rivers are home to the native brook trout as well as rainbows and browns.
As well as the rivers there is a rich history of characters that fished and tied these distinctive flies.
Harry Darbee (1906 – 1983), a Catskill fly tyer, described the flies as follows:
“A good- sized hook, typically size 12 Model Perfect; a notably lean sparse body, usually of spun fur or stripped quill of peacock herl; a divided wing of a lemon-coloured, mottled barbules of a wood duck flank feather; and a few sparse turns of an incredibly stiff, clean, glassy cock’s hackle, mostly either blue dun or ginger”.
The long bare neck reflected the fact that most of the anglers would use a Turle knot to attach the fly to the tippet. The hackles used would seem oversized to us today, being two or even three times the size of the gape. Although modern Catskill style tyers would tend to use hackles one or one and a half times the size of the gape.
Inevitably these original tyers were limited to working with the feathers available, which would often be plucked from the live birds that they kept. Birds with nice dun feathers were highly prized and were soon used to start a fledgling breeding programme which has resulted in the huge variety capes and saddles we enjoy today.
These early patterns were heavily influenced by the traditional English chalkstream patterns. Theodore Gordon, in particular, was in regular correspondence with Halford. I found it interesting that in Mike Valla’s book ‘Favourite Flies for The Catskills’ 50 essential patterns from local experts (published 2020), includes the Lunn’s Particular.
A distinctive part of these flies are the wings of lemon wood duck, which is far more readily available in the U.S. As an alternative I use Mandarin which is easier to source here, or the considerably cheaper bronzed/yellow Mallard flank feathers.
Some of the patterns such as the Pink Lady call for paired Mallard quill wings. If you have trouble with the wings splitting, I recommend the use of floo glue tying cement, with which you can apply a thin layer of clear flexible varnish to help to keep them in one piece. A particular advantage with tying these flies with oversized hackle is that it gives you the opportunity to use those feathers unsuitable for most trout flies, except possibly sea-trout patterns.
Typical Catskill patterns include the Quill Gordon, Red Quill, March Brown, Light/Dark Cahill, Pink Lady, Brown Bivisible, Queen of Waters, Tup’s Indispensable and the Quack.
Queen of Waters
Kamasan B401 S14
S14 tan Shear thread
Bronze Mallard flank wings
Tail & hackle of medium ginger
Body is orange floss with oval gold tinsel
Although tied mainly as a showpiece nowadays, I have used it very successfully at Amwell.
Kamasan B401 S14
S14 Shear thread in tan
Tail & body brown hackle
Brown body hackle & white collar hackle.
A great fly to tie if you want to practise your hackling techniques.
Kamasan B401 S14
Red Shear S14 thread
White calf tail wing
Tail brown hackle barbs
Body Peacock herl & red floss
A variation of Lee Wulf’s flies, originally tied for an angler with failing eyesight to be used in fast water.
Having described these distinctive flies, one very popular fly also used was the Adams. Tied in 1922 by Len Halliday of Michigan for his friend Charles F. Adams of Ohio. There is an excellent article by A.K.Best in the book ‘ 30 years of Tips, Tricks & Patterns, best of Fly Rod & Reel’. He lists some of the notable variations for the Adams which include 9 tail, 7 wing, 5 hackle and 13 possible body materials.
Tying Catskill Style Dry Flies by Mike Valla
Favourite Flies for the Catskills by Mike Valla
The Fly by Andrew Herd
Catskill Fly Fishing Centre and Museum (www.cffcm.com)
Catskill Fly Tyers Guild (www.catskillflytyersguild.org)