Classic Bass Flies
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Written by Lee Schechter and Mike Boyer   

Legends In American Fly Tying. These flies are beautiful to behold, and they also catch fish.

It was the mid- to late-19th century: the transcontinental railroad had just been completed; fishing rods were made of greenheart, lancewood, and bamboo; reels were handmade of brass or nickel silver; fly lines were varnished gut.


European fly tiers created beautiful salmon flies out of exotic feathers imported from Africa, Asia, and other far-flung regions. American tiers learned about these patterns from European anglers and through books such as Ephemera’s The Book of the Salmon (1850), William Blacker’s The Art of Fly Making (1855), Francis Francis’s A Book on Angling (1867), and George M. Kelson’s The Salmon Fly (1895). Beginning in about the 1870s, American tiers began creating a new set of flies based on European salmon patterns. Their new creations were designed to catch North American trout, salmon, and even bass. Charles and Mary Orvis Marbury wrote about these flies and made them an important part of American fly-fishing history.

The Orvis Connection
In 1856, Charles Orvis opened a tackle shop in Manchester, Vermont; that store exists today as the Orvis Tradition. In the early years, Charles’s business specialized in over-thecounter and mail-order items for fly fishing. Filling orders for flies was a part of the business, and although he offered many patterns, there appeared to be inconsistencies among flies because tiers changed the recipes to suit their needs but kept the names of the originals.

Almost 30 years later, in 1883, Charles Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney published Fishing the Fly, a book containing articles written by many famous fly anglers, including James Henshall. Although Fishing the Fly was not a fly-tying book, it did feature color lithographs of salmon and trout flies, including five pages featuring 31 bass flies. Fishing the Fly was very popular and was reprinted several times during the 1880s. Charles Orvis had three sons and one daughter named Mary. She, coincidentally, was born the same year Orviopened his tackle shop.

Mary eventually became interested in fly tying, and Charles hired an instructor, John Hailey, from New York City, to teach her the finer points of dressing flies. In 1876, Mary became supervisor of the Orvis flytying shop and its six female employees. By 1890, Mary and her assistants were tying the 434 different patterns listed in the Orvis catalog. (Both Charles and Mary Orvis were elected into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in 2006. —editor)

As the interest in fly fishing and tying expanded west, anglers became increasingly confused by the multitude of patterns bearing the same names. In 1885, Charles Orvis, presumably with Mary’s help, decided to create a standard reference of American fishing flies. Orvis sent a questionnaire to a variety of anglers—customers, professionals, and friends—asking about their favorite patterns. More than 200 anglers replied. Mary used this information to compile her book Favorite Flys and Their Histories. This well-known volume, which was published in 1892, is a major reference of fly patterns from 38 states and Canada. Favorite Flys and Their Histories is a classic in fly-fishing literature and contains 32 color plates illustrating 290 flies; 10 pages depict 58 bass flies. Mary included most of the bass patterns mentioned in Fishing the Fly but also lists many new flies.

Although Mary’s book became more popular than her father’s, both volumes are important references for understanding the development of older bass flies. (During a recent search on the Internet, we discovered a used-book dealer selling a first edition, fourth printing of Favorite Flys and Their Histories for $650; the Lyons Press, however, offers a much more affordable modern paperback edition. Sorry, but Orvis and Cheney’s Fishing the Fly appears to be out of print. —editor)

In the first chapter of Favorite Flys and Their Histories, Mary wrote that these were American “fancy flies,” not the insect imitations known in Europe. Unfortunately, the book does not contain recipes for the flies but letters from anglers describing the names of patterns, hook styles and sizes, and fishing comments about using the flies. And although the color reproductions are fairly detailed, it is difficult to determine the exact materials used to tie some of the flies. For example, it is hard to tell if flat or oval tinsel was used to tie a rib or tag. This leaves room for personal interpretation, and it is more important tie these flies in the “spirit” of the intended patterns rather than worrying about using the exact materials. If you would like specific recipes for these old-time patterns, be sure to get a copy of J. Edson Leonard’s book Flies.

This book was first published in 1950, and was reprinted many times and is widely available; it pops up in many used books stores. And finally, Forgotten Flies, by Paul Schmookler and Ingrid Sils (The Complete Sportsman), is an amazing reference containing a wealth of classic patterns. Forgotten Flies contains a photograph of every fly illustrated in Mary’s book, each expertly tied by Paul Rossman. And best of all, Forgotten Flies contains the recipes for all these patterns. (To learn more about Forgotten Flies, go to Finally, you can see the original plates of flies used to create the illustrations in Mary Orvis’s book at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. If you are interested in classic flies, you must make this pilgrimage to enjoy this important piece of fly-tying history.

The Patterns
It wasn’t a big leap from tying salmon flies to creating the new family of bass patterns. Salmon flies, however, were governed by rules determining the correct proportions of the wings and other parts; there were few guidelines for tying bass flies, and the size of the wings and tails were left to the tier’s discretion. Many of the materials used to tie salmon flies were also used to create bass patterns: tinsels, silk floss, whole feather wings, and married strips of feathers. Golden pheasant crest feathers were used primarily as tails on bass flies, but not as toppings like on many salmon patterns. Check out the various flies accompaning this article; we selected patterns that illustrate different tying styles and materials. Let’s examine these materials and learn a little about what was used to tie bass flies more than 100 years ago.

HOOKS Older hooks had straight wire “blind eyes” and Sproat, Limerick, and O’Shaughnessey bends. Tiers added loops of twisted gut to the ends of the bare wire to create eyes. Modern blind-eye hooks are available, but you may use similar hooks with contemporary looped eyes. The Mustad 3366 is a close modern substitute of the classic blind-eye hooks. The Kensey or Kinsey hook (there are two spellings depending upon the original maker, Allcock and Mustad, respectively) is considered the classic bass hook and was used by many tiers. The Kensey had a wide gap with a straight shank that had indentations at the blind-eye end. The indentations helped the gut eye stay attached to the shank.

Suppliers who specialize in materials for tying classic salmon flies still carry twisted gut, but you may substitute with twisted monofilament. The thickness of the silk gut or twisted monofilament is a matter of personal choice; some tiers like thin gut loops, while others prefer thicker strands that match the diameter of the hook shank. If you like thin loops, twist together two strands of clear monofilament; if you prefer thicker loops, use three strands. Experiment with different diameters of monofilament until you are pleased with the results.

THREAD There were few alternatives to silk thread in the 1800s. Today, you may use your favorite brands of 8/0 (70 denier) or 6/0 (140 denier) tying thread. Danville’s Flat Waxed Nylon is a favorite for tying underbodies. In general, it is best to use a slightly thinner thread and the “five wraps on, three wraps off” tying technique described in an article by Stack Scoville in the Spring 2006 issue of Fly Tyer. To quickly review that method, tie on a material using five careful wraps of thread. Next, unwrap three turns of thread, and tie on the next material using five wraps. Repeat this procedure every time you add another material. This method of thread management reduces the total number of thread wraps used to tie a fly, but the pattern is still very durable.

TAILS Tails were generally started in front of the tinsel tags; some patterns had bands of silk floss between the tags and tails. Tails were made of feathers including golden pheasant crests and peacock sword fibers. The tails on many flies were made of married strips of goose or swan. Some patterns featured combinations of these ingredients, and included wood duck and macaw—usually green macaw—but green goose or turkey are good substitutes. As a general rule, the tag should start opposite or slightly behind the hook barb and extend to opposite the hook point, but again, this depends upon the pattern. Some patterns also had butts of peacock herl or wool tied at the base of their tails.

BODIES Berlin wool and silk floss were common body materials. Crewel wool, which is used for embroidery, is a nice substitute for the original Berlin wool; you can still purchase silk floss, but nylon floss is an acceptable substitute. Some bodies were composed of flat tinsel, dubbing, or peacock herl. Today many tiers use Mylar tinsel, but real metal tinsel makes a much nicer fly and is especially recommended for dressing presentation flies. Most bodies were tapered from the wings to the tails.

WINGS The wings of classic bass flies consisted of either whole feathers or married strips of goose or turkey, with a few strands of peacock sword. Whole-feather wings commonly came from a variety of birds such as grouse, mottled hen, duck (black-tipped mallard, for example), goose, and guinea fowl. On some patterns, a hackle was spiral-wrapped up the body and then the wings were tied in place; on other flies, the wings were tied on before the feather was wrapped up the body. To do this, tie the wings to the top of the fly upside down and pointing forward over the hook eye. Wrap the body hackle up the fly, and tie off and clip the surplus feather. Next, fold the wings back into position on top of the body and finish tying the fly. This unusual construction method was used to make patterns such as the Tipperlinn.

Important Tying Tips
There are a few points to remember when tying a classic feather-wing pattern. First, a matched pair of wings fits together naturally; the completed wings will be flat and perfectly symmetrical in every respect. Flatten the feather stems at the tie-in point using smooth pliers. Place a small drop of hot glue at the lower end of the stems near the attachment point to position the feathers; the wings should be straight and aligned parallel to the hook shank. Some tiers prefer to tie on each wing individually; it is a matter of preference whether you start with the near or far wing, so do what works best for you. And, it is also preferable, based upon the original patterns, to keep the wings on top of the body of the fly, even if it means trimming a few fibers from the hook side of the feathers close to the tie-in point. Practice making a few wings, and try to get the bottom edge of the feathers to lie along the top of the hook shank. If you are making a fly with married wings, prepare the strips from matched feathers so both wings are equal length.

Schlappen, strung Chinese hackle, and saddle hackle are the most common feathers used for “palmered” or spiralwrapped body hackle. Schlappen is perfect because it has long fibers throughout the length of the feather, but choosing the right feather depends upon hook size; save the schlappen for tying larger flies. The Green and Gold, Academy, or Knight Templar have palmered hackles; the Maid of the Mill and Artemis have only throat hackles.

The head of the fly is tying thread, peacock herl, or wool. Red was a popular color for making the heads on classic patterns. The head should be nicely finished to fit the fly and match the taper of the body. When using thread, the head of the fly can be finished using a number of cements: fly-tying head cement, nail polish, or cellire. Cellire is hard to get and dries slow, but was a classic finish on salmon flies. These all produce a hard, clear, smooth surface over a thread head.

Classic bass patterns are beautiful and fun to tie. They have been an American tradition more than 100 years. You may tie these flies for framing and for fishing. Read the letters in Mary Orvis Marbury’s book, and you’ll learn that they do indeed catch fish. We recently fished some of these flies in Maine, and a pattern of our own design, called Belgrade #2, caught several nice largemouth bass. We will definitely tie more classic patterns for bass fishing in the future.

Lee Schechter and Mike Boyer are masters at tying classic American flies. It's hard to read an article like this and not get excited about making some of these beautiful patterns. Lee lives in New Jersey, and Mike resides in Oregon. 

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