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A Better Way to Tie Mayfly Wings

By Theodore Rogowski

Theodore Gordon began fishing dry flies on the rivers of the Catskill Mountains — the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Delaware, Esopus, and Neversink—in the 1880s. Dry flies were already used in England, and those patterns became the subject of correspondence between Gordon and English anglers Frederic Halford, G.E.M. Skues, and various fishing magazine publishers.

In 1890,  Halford generously mailed to Gordon a selection of flies he was using on his native English chalk streams. Gordon rejected tying copies of those samples, however, declaring they were too small for matching the mayflies hatching on his American rivers; he favored imitations tied on hook sizes 14 and 12 that could ride high on the surface of his fast-moving, sometimes turbulent, local waters.

The Quill Gordon, designed to match Ephemerella mayflies, was chief among his patterns for early spring fishing. This fly features a stripped peacock quill body, lemon wood duck flank feather wings, and a dun tail and hackle. To achieve the correct color of dun, Gordon arranged to have poultry bred black on white; occasionally, he plucked feathers from the necks of live birds. (To see a Quill Gordon, click The Historic Quill Gordon).

Gordon died on May 1, 1915. Herman Christian and Roy Steenrod, both friends of Gordon’s, adopted his tying style and fly patterns. Other Catskill tiers—Rube Cross, Art Flick, and the Dettes and Darbees—also adopted his tying methods, forming what became known as the Catskill School of fly tying. For the past century, these fly dressers have followed Gordon’s decree to “tie the wings straight up,” and they have typically tied the wings on their flies at a 90-degree angle to the hook shanks. But is this the best way to imitate the wings of a mayfly dun?

Hackles Make Better Wings

Except for the fact that flies tied with upright wood duck flank wings do catch trout, I see little reason why the fish mistake these patterns as real mayflies; the wings make those flies look all wrong. Slips clipped from matching duck quills are also used for the wings of some classic patterns, such as the Whirling Blue Dun. These opaque wings, also tied at a 90-de- gree angle to the hook shank, are equally poor imitations of real mayfly wings.

To better match the appearance of a real mayfly, I prefer making the wings us- ing hen hackle tips cocked at a 45-degree angle to the hook shank. Light dun poultry hackle is close in color to the wings of a newly hatched mayfly dun. The tips of these feathers are generally shaped similar to real wings and are almost transparent. Compared with flank feather and quill wings, paired hackle-tip wings are far more imitative of real mayfly wings.

Simple Tips for Better Mayfly Imitations

Tying the flank feather wings is the first step when making a classic Catskill pattern such as the Quill Gordon. In my method, however, I tie on the hackle-tip wings right before wrapping the hackle collar; this step occurs near the end of tying the fly. Here are some tips for creating better mayfly imitations.

• I prefer using 2X-long dry fly hooks. The slightly longer shanks accommodate the fly bodies better than standard-length hooks.

• The length of the tail matches the length of the body. Make the tail using stiff hackle fibers; a Whiting Farms Tail- ing Pack is an ideal source for this material. Pull 5 to 10 fibers from a feather, and tie the tail to the hook just before the shank turns into the bend. Secure the tail in place using two or three firm thread wraps. (Tip: Porcupine quills are a good substitute for making tails on larger patterns.)

• Dubbing is ideal for making the bodies of these flies, but doing it right is both a science and a craft. I have two rules: First, use the fur of water animals—muskrat, beaver, otter, or mink—because it is naturally water repellent. Second, it is almost always best to use less dubbing on the waxed, sticky thread. Spin a very small pinch on the thread and start wrapping the abdomen. Spin a small pinch more on the thread as you wrap up the hook shank to create a gently tapered body.

• For fashioning  the wings, use grade B hen neck and saddle hackles. The tips of these hackles have the natural shape of mayfly wings, and you will find them in colors to match almost any mayfly.

• Select two feathers of the same size, color, and shape. Place the feathers together with the convex sides touching and the tips aligned. Pull down the fibers on the base of each feather until the remaining tips are the correct length for the wings; the length of the completed wings should equal the length of the abdomen plus one-half the length of the tail. Clip away the excess pieces of feather, leaving 1/8-inch-long stems to tie the wings to the hook. Next, snip away the fibers from the excess stems.

• Tie the wings to the hook directly in front of the abdomen using two gentle thread wraps; the dubbed body should force the wings into a 45-degree angle. Continue holding the wings in place us- ing your fingers. Pass the thread between your thumb and the base of the wings. Wrap over the top of the hook, and pass the thread between your index finger and the base of the wings. You have now made a total of three wraps

• Continue holding the wings in position, and pull the thread tight. Now you may release and examine the wings. If they twist or move out of position, unwrap the thread and try again.

• Prepare a hackle for wrapping the collar of the fly. Tie the butt end of the feather to the hook at the base of the wings. Wrap the collar, tie off the surplus piece of feather, and clip the remainder. Now you may wrap a neat thread head, whip finish, and snip!

I think the appearance of the wings on these mayfly imitations is a distinct improvement over the wings found on most classic Catskill patterns. The feathers are widely available, and making them requires no new tying skills. I’ve simply tweaked my patterns to better match the mayflies I find in the Catskills and on all trout rivers.

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Ted Rogowski has lived a varied and amazing life. He got his first job in 1949, managing 18 commercial fly tiers for the George Phillips Fly & Tackle Company, in Irvona, Pennsylvania. Later, he signed Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams to a contract with Sears, Roebuck, and Co. when the Hall of Fame slugger retired from baseball. Eventu- ally, with a deep concern for the environment, he worked as an enforcement attorney of the Clean Water Acts of 1965 and 1972 for the Environmental Protection Agency. Ted has been tying flies for more than 80 years