Classic Spey Flies for Steelhead

Whether you fish for steelhead or just want to tie some beautiful patterns, Spey flies have a lot to offer.

[by Eric Austin]

The first Spey flies were originally designed for catching Atlantic salmon from the fast waters of the River Spey in Scotland. These marvelous patterns began appearing in the early 1800s and changed little for the first 80 years. These unique flies shared several well-defined characteristics.

Lady Caroline

Hook: Your favorite brand of salmon hook, size 1/0.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tag: Fine oval silver tinsel and yellow floss.
Tail: Golden pheasant breast-feather fibers.
Body: Olive green and light brown Berlin wool spun together. Use one strand of green wool and two strands of brown wool.
Rib: Flat gold tinsel and oval silver tinsel. Hackle: Gray Spey hackle or a substitute.
Throat: Golden pheasant breast feather. Wing: Bronze mallard.

Spey flies were tied on lightweight hooks that usually had slightly longer shanks than the ordinary salmon hooks of the day. The bodies were slender and made from wool, either dubbed or wound directly on the hook. These flies were tied in subtle shades of olive, black, and brown, and they had no tails. There were exceptions, however, such as the Lady Caroline, Green Queen, and the Grant flies, which are all contained in George Kelson’s famous book titled The Salmon Fly, published in 1895.

Spey flies had multiple ribs, usually made from a combination of flat and oval tinsels, one of which was sometimes counterwrapped over the characteristic body hackles. Hackles, made using heron or “Spey hackle,” were long and flowing. Spey hackles were saddle hackles from a line of chickens called Spey cocks, male birds specially bred to yield feathers containing extra-long fibers; curiously, it is thought that the Spey cock is now extinct. The butt ends of the hackles were usually tied in at the ends of the bodies and wrapped forward.

Spey flies had short bodies that extended only to opposite the hook point. The wings were usually fashioned from bronze mallard or teal flank feathers, and varied greatly in length. Some wings extended half the length of the body, and others went well past the end of the body, but they rarely reached beyond the end of the hook. Originally, wings were not tied quite so low as they are today, but canted up slightly and were closer to being simple strip wings. Spey flies also had small finished heads.

Orange Heron

Hook: Your favorite brand of low-water salmon hook, sizes 2 to 1/0.
Thread: Red 6/0 (140 denier).
Body: Orange floss and orange seal dubbing or a substitute.
Rib: Flat and oval silver tinsel.
Hackle: Gray heron or a substitute.
Throat: Teal.
Wings: Four hot orange hackle tips.

There were exceptions to all these features because there have never been actual rules for tying salmon flies, just well-defined conventions. In 1872, in his book Autumns on the Spey, A. E. Knox presented a list of descriptions of old Spey flies tied by Shanks, a fly dresser Kelson also mentioned in his book. Over time, however, Spey flies became more refined. Tails had been added to some patterns by the time Kelson published his book, and Spey hackles were added to full-dress salmon flies; the Delfur Fancy, Black Dog, Pitcroy Fancy, and the Eagle series are examples of these more complicated patterns.

The Evolution of Modern Spey Flies

The style of T. E. Pryce-Tannatt’s Spey flies evolved considerably between the publication of his book, How to Dress Salmon Flies, which appeared in 1914, and the pattern he exhibited as part of a collection of flies tied for The Field Annual 1952. By the 1950s, his tying was influenced by the sleek patterns of Ernest Crosfield and Capt. L. Kilroy. Pryce-Tannatt’s flies became very sparse and had very low wings; his Lady Caroline, which is from the 1950s, was sleeker and looks more like a modern Spey fly.

Pryce-Tannatt had always stripped the fibers from one side of the hackle, but now he tied the feather closer to the middle of the shank, rather than at the end of the body, to create a sparser appearance. He also pulled the hackle fibers down out of the way to help create very low wings that looked like a “keelless racing-boat placed upside down.”

Starting Syd Glasso’s Gold Heron
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