Ray Bergman: Designer of Timeless Trout Flies
"No one ever lost his breath examining a
   collection of rubber-bodied ants, but open a box brimming with classic wet flies, and an angler will stop in silent reverence.”
by Dick Talleur

In northern New York, under the shadow of Whiteface Mountain, flows a river which has influenced the piscatorial thoughts of many eastern anglers. Starting somewhere along the northern slope of MacIntyre, it gradually swells in volume as numerous tiny tributaries join it, and by the time it comes to an opening where the average fisherman sees it, the stream has become quite sizeable. It pauses a while, after descending from the really high places, and meanders lazily through wilderness meadows, gouging out deep holes close to grassy banks where large trout like to lurk, and presents problems that tax the angler’s utmost skill and ingenuity. Then it gathers together all its strength, and with a roar dashes and rages through the Wilmington Notch. It pauses momentarily here and there as obstructions or level spots slow its advance and provide ideal locations for fish, and then it tumbles wildly through the flume where once during my lifetime a man lost his life while fishing. Finally it reaches the valley near Wilmington, where it becomes more dignified, and provides some easier wading. After reaching the Wilmington bridge on the old road en route downriver, it changes into a stream of expansive riffles and large pools, with an odd still-water pool here and there to add interest. At Hazelton it flows at excellent fishing speed, and spectacular are the rises I saw there. After a time it reaches the sand country—named, as far as I know, by Don Bell, where it again does some fancy stepping as it batters the tremendous rocks in its bed. Then comes Slant Rock Pool, where many things have happened of which some tall tales are told.

What stream is this? You who have been there guessed it at the first. It’s the west branch of the Ausable—a river rife with fishing legends, the home of numerous trout; a stream wildly fascinating, capable of giving you both a grand time and a miserable one; a stream possessing a Jekyll and Hyde temperament, and a character strong enough to spread its fame from one corner of our country to the other.

My words? Don’t I wish! This is just one of many enchantingly eloquent passages contained in the book Trout, written by the legendary Ray Bergman. This particular excerpt is from the chapter titled, “Some Experiences with the Dry Fly.” I read it before my first trip to New York’s Ausable River, and the excitement it aroused in me was rivaled only by my first look at the stream cascading through Wilmington Notch, and catching my first Ausable trout on a classic Leadwing Coachman wet fly.

ImageGrizzly King
Hook: Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 14 to 6.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Red (scarlet) feather sections.
Body: Green floss.
Rib: Flat gold tinsel.
Throat: Gray (light or silver) badger hackle fibers.
Wing: Barred gray mallard flank.

 

Ray Bergman was truly an all-around fisherman who excelled with both the fly and spinning rod. Allow me to put that into perspective. Like many of us, when spinning tackle became popular shortly after World War II, he was intrigued by the versatility that method of fishing offered; in fact, Bergman included a substantial amount of information about spin fishing in the revised edition of Trout, which was published in 1952. (The first edition of Trout was published in 1938.) He made it very clear, however, that fly fishing was his preferred method of catching fish.

An Angler All His Life
Ray Bergman was born in Nyack, New York, in 1891. His early years were spent fishing the streams and lakes near his home around Rockland County, in southern New York. In 1914, he opened a sporting goods store in Nyack. Unfortunately, with the poor state of the economy after the First World War, his business fell into bankruptcy in 1921. Ray still needed to work, and he found employment with William Mills and Sons, the famous sporting goods store in New York City.

ImageHolberton
Tip: Flat gold tinsel.
Tail: Married sections of yellow, crimson, and barred Mandarin (tipped wood duck), topped with peacock sword.
Body: Orange floss and peacock herl.
Rib: Oval gold tinsel.
Hackle: Crimson.
Wing: Married sections of yellow, crimson, and
 barred Mandarin (tipped wood duck), topped with peacock sword.

 

Ray began writing articles about fishing in the mid-1920s, and eventually became the fishing editor of Outdoor Life magazine. He also opened a successful mail order fly tackle and tying materials business, and personally made a great many of the flies he sold. He worked at these pursuits until his death in 1967.

My connection to Ray consisted of only a couple of phone calls. I started tying flies in 1961, and like all addicts, was constantly in search of better materials. A couple of years later—I can’t recall the exact date—a friend gave me some superb dry-fly hooks. The label on the box read: R. B. Sinfalta Gold Label. These hooks were imported from Redditch, England, and were made to Bergman’s specifications. I fell in love with these hooks, and wanted more. From somewhere—I forget the source—I got Ray Bergman’s phone number and called him. We talked briefly about hooks, and I bought several boxes of Gold Labels.

A few months later, I called Ray again. He said that he was in the process of closing his business, and had only a small stock of remaining hooks. I bought eight boxes of Gold Labels in a variety of sizes. These became my favorite dry-fly hooks.

Some years later, I was invited to a private sale of the estate of a commercial fly tier named Herb Howard. He was best known for having developed a method for waxing silk thread on the spool. Among the treasures was a stash of Ray Bergman hooks: Gold Labels, Red Labels, and Blue Labels. I bought them all, and tied with them for many years.

Trout is still a great book to read. Despite a lack of higher education, Ray writes lyrically; the prose flows with a voice that is warmly conversational and with the knowledge of a master angler. And regardless of the era in which Bergman fished, his wisdom is timeless and comes through clearly. There is much in Trout that a contemporary fly fisher would do well to adopt. For example, here’s another excerpt that applies to many of us.
“Fish slowly and thoroughly. Haste never paid dividends. Don’t worry about the fellow ahead of you. If you start racing to get ahead of him, he’ll probably try to beat you, and from then on it will be nothing but a foot-race instead of a contemplative and inspiring recreation.”

Ray loved fishing the local waters of his youth, but he also did a great deal of traveling. There are many accounts in Trout of fishing in the Rocky Mountains, California, and Oregon. There is also a full chapter in Trout devoted to fishing for steelhead on the North Umpqua.

Silver Doctor
Hook: Regular salmon hook, sizes 8 to 4.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Tip: Flat gold tinsel.
Tail: Golden pheasant crest feather.
Tail veiling: Blue kingfisher or a dyed substitute.
Butt: Red yarn.
Body: Flat silver tinsel.
Rib: Oval silver tinsel.
Throat: Light blue hackle and guinea fowl fibers.
Wing: Married strips of feather: yellow, blue, teal, 
    and mottled turkey.
 

Beautiful Flies
The wonderful, full-page color plates of 575 individual flies, each painted in watercolors by Dr. Edgar Burke, are perhaps the most incredible aspect of Trout. Plates 1 through 9 contain wet flies, and plates 9 through 15 feature more wet flies plus nymphs, streamers, steelhead flies, and dry flies. The 1952 edition of Trout has an additional four color plates, also painted by Dr. Burke. One plate depicts new wet flies, one depicts new dry flies, and the last two feature spinning lures. These add an additional 101 color paintings, raising the grand total to 676!

The number of flies depicted in Trout is mind-boggling, and when you recognize the exquisite detail in each painting, you really come to appreciate Dr. Burke’s staggering effort. Some of the flies are fairly simple, but a number are very complex and required many intricate brush strokes. Even more awesome is the fact that Ray Bergman actually tied all these patterns as models; I’ve confirmed that fact with Mr. Gus Aull, III, whose father was a close friend of Bergman. I should point out one curious mystery about the flies depicted in Trout. In the plates, the flies all face to the left, not facing in the traditional direction to the right. I’m not sure why this is so; perhaps Dr. Burke was simply left-handed and this came natural to him.

Not many people tie the Bergman’s classic flies these days. Mr. Don Bastian, of Cogan Station, Pennsylvania, is one of the few tiers specializing in these types of flies. Don both fishes with these patterns and frames many for sale. He usually has a table at the winter fly-fishing shows around the Northeast, where you can watch him tie, admire his flies, and possibly acquire one of his framings.

Don also wrote a book titled Tying Classic Wet Flies, which contains detailed information on the materials and techniques used for making Bergman’s flies. You can also see Don tie on the DVD Advanced Classic Wet Flies, which is part of the Hooked On Fly-Tying series from Bennett-Watt Entertainment. Don is a master of the fly-tying art, and you’ll learn a lot from him about dressing these flies.

The Fontinalis is a pattern that epitomizes early-20th-century fly tying. Trout actually contains two such patterns, the other being the Fontinalis Fin, which was the brainchild of a prominent Michigan angler and tier named Phil Armstrong. Here we’ll tie the Bergman version of the Fontinalis.

We all want to know about the newest flies and tying materials, but we shouldn’t be in a rush to discard the classic patterns. Creating these flies requires an ability to manipulate materials and demands exact tying techniques. No one ever lost his breath examining a collection of rubber-bodied ants, but open a box brimming with classic wet flies, and an angler will stop in silent reverence. Whether you fish with these flies or not, spend at least a couple of evenings tying a few of the classics. What Mr. Bergman said about fishing also applies to tying: it should be “a contemplative and inspiring recreation.”

We struggle to think of some type of fly Dick Talleur cannot tie: he seems to be a master of them all. Dick has shared his vast knowledge about fly fishing and tying in more than a dozen books and several videos and DVDs, and he is always traveling to teach at fly-fishing clubs and shows across the country. Although he was raised in the Northeast, Dick now lives south of Mason-Dixon line.
The author would like to thank www.raybergmanonlinemuseum.com for the use of the photo of Mr. Bergman.










Parmachene Belle
HOOK: Regular salmon hook, sizes 8 to 4.
THREAD: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Tail: Red and white strips married together.
Butt: Black ostrich herl.
Body: Yellow floss.
Rib: Flat silver tinsel.
Throat: Mixed red and white hackle fibers.
Wing: White and red strips married together.

Bergman Fontinalis
HOOK: Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 14 to 6.
THREAD: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
tail: Married strips of orange, gray, and white goose or 
    duck feathers.
body: Orange and gray yarn.
hackle: Medium gray hen cape or saddle feather.
wings: Married strips of orange, gray, and white goose or 
    duck feathers.
tying notes: I start tying the fly using 70 denier Uni-Nylon. 
This thread is very strong for its diameter, and it lies flat and smooth to form a neat underbody with no bumps. I switch to black 8/0 (70 denier) thread for finishing the fly.
Dyed goose body feathers, also called goose shoulders, are my first choice for making married wings. I use these for fashioning wings on classic Atlantic salmon flies, and they are perfect for tying smaller wet flies. Strips from these feathers marry well, and they are sufficiently pliant to bend and create the desired wing shape.
I have experimented with duck and wing quill and body feathers for fashioning wings; all work well when carefully selected. The strips used to create married wings must be 
fairly soft without a lot of natural curve. With wing quills, 
you’ll find the best material in the lower portion of primary 
flight feathers, especially secondary and tertiary feathers.
I used goose body feathers for the orange and white 
strips on the tail and wing for the fly in the tying photos; the 
gray strips came from a Canada goose wing quill. (I used 
Canada goose because I have no gray goose body feathers.) Canada goose feathers are soft enough to marry with 
domestic goose body feathers, and some of them have 
centered quills so you can take strips for making both 
wings from the same feather.
And finally, let’s talk about hackle. In the photos, I’m 
making what the salmon-fly guys call a “true hackle,” 
meaning that it’s a wrapped feather rather than just a wisp 
of fibers. For a true hackle, the feather must have a very fine quill and fibers that easily fold. Both cape and saddle hen 
hackles are ideal, but my preference is for saddle feathers.
Now let’s tie Ray Bergman’s version of the classic Fontinalis!

Bergman Fontinalis
HOOK: Regular wet-fly hook, sizes 14 to 6.
THREAD: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
tail: Married strips of orange, gray, and white goose or 
    duck feathers.
body: Orange and gray yarn.
hackle: Medium gray hen cape or saddle feather.
wings: Married strips of orange, gray, and white goose or 
    duck feathers.
tying notes: I start tying the fly using 70 denier Uni-Nylon. 
This thread is very strong for its diameter, and it lies flat and smooth to form a neat underbody with no bumps. I switch to black 8/0 (70 denier) thread for finishing the fly.
Dyed goose body feathers, also called goose shoulders, are my first choice for making married wings. I use these for fashioning wings on classic Atlantic salmon flies, and they are perfect for tying smaller wet flies. Strips from these feathers marry well, and they are sufficiently pliant to bend and create the desired wing shape.
I have experimented with duck and wing quill and body feathers for fashioning wings; all work well when carefully selected. The strips used to create married wings must be 
fairly soft without a lot of natural curve. With wing quills, 
you’ll find the best material in the lower portion of primary 
flight feathers, especially secondary and tertiary feathers.
I used goose body feathers for the orange and white 
strips on the tail and wing for the fly in the tying photos; the 
gray strips came from a Canada goose wing quill. (I used 
Canada goose because I have no gray goose body feathers.) Canada goose feathers are soft enough to marry with 
domestic goose body feathers, and some of them have 
centered quills so you can take strips for making both 
wings from the same feather.
And finally, let’s talk about hackle. In the photos, I’m 
making what the salmon-fly guys call a “true hackle,” 
meaning that it’s a wrapped feather rather than just a wisp 
of fibers. For a true hackle, the feather must have a very fine quill and fibers that easily fold. Both cape and saddle hen 
hackles are ideal, but my preference is for saddle feathers.
Now let’s tie Ray Bergman’s version of the classic Fontinalis!

1Tie the tail using two sets of married feather strips. Here’s how the strips of one set appear before being married together.

2
 As mentioned in the tying notes in the pattern recipe, I use a Canada goose secondary or tertiary wing feather for the gray segments in the tail and wing. If the feather has a centered quill, like this one, you can clip matching strips for the front and back tail and wing from the same feather.

3
 Start the white thread on the hook. Tie the two 
sets of married strips to the hook with the concave sides facing together, exactly like a married wing but much slimmer.

4
 Tie the butt ends of the tail along the hook shank to form a smooth underbody. Trim off and clip the excess butt ends behind the hook eye.

5
Tie the orange and gray yarn to the front end of the hook shank; be sure not to crowd the hook eye.

6
 Wrap the thread down the hook, binding the yarn to the shank. This method creates a smooth, level underbody.

7
Spiral-wrap one piece of yarn up the hook; it doesn’t matter which one you wrap first. Tie off and snip the surplus yarn.

8
 Spiral-wrap the second piece of yarn up the hook; place these wraps between the first strand of yarn. Tie off and clip the excess yarn.

9
Tie off and clip the white thread, and start the black thread. Tie on a gray soft hackle by the tip.

10
Wrap the feather with the dull side to the rear, stroking back the barbs to form a neat collar. Tie off and clip the remaining feather tip.

11
 Stroke the hackle fibers down the sides of the hook; pluck off any fibers that refuse to lie in position.

12
 Here’s the finished hackle, with the thread positioned ready to tie on the wings. So far, so good!

13
 The two wings are married strips of feather; note that the orange strip is much larger than the white and gray strips. Align the wings with the concave sides facing together. Lightly hump or curve the wings. Continue grasping the wings, and proceed to the 
next step.

14
 Pinch the base of the wings to the top of the hook. Tie the wings in place. Snip the excess butt ends of the wings. Adjust the wings until you are pleased with the appearance of the fly. Complete wrapping the head, whip-finish, and clip the thread.

 
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