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The Lore of the Featherwing

Sharon E. Wright tells you everything you need to know to make these historic flies.

[by Morgan Lyle]

THE FEATHERWING STREAMERS OF THE RANGELEY LAKES REGION of Maine enjoy a special place in American fly fishing. Fancy and elegant, yet made for the jaws of trophy brook trout and landlocked salmon, they embody the romance of the North Woods.

The fact that some of the most famous patterns were designed by a woman in a humble cottage at the end of a lonely gravel road only brightens their aura. Carrie Stevens, who popularized the classic Maine streamer as we know it today, is a bona fide hall-of-famer.

But despite their fame, there’s an element of mystery to Stevens’s flies. It has been rumored that she didn’t show anyone how they were made; after all, Stevens made her living selling flies, and we’ve assumed that precise construction was a proprietary secret. As a result, there have been conflicting theories about the proper way to tie a Rangeley-style streamer.

featherwing-1aSharon E. Wright spent two days disassembling a Blue Devil tied by Carrie Stevens.

It has fallen to another woman from Maine to set the record straight. Sharon E. Wright, an artisan descended from one of the families that introduced fly fishing to the Rangeley region, has written a groundbreaking book about these fascinating patterns. Tying Heritage Featherwing Streamers even includes a study never published before: the complete dissection of a fly Stevens actually tied.

Wright located an authentic Stevens Blue Devil, then “bit the bullet and paid the money. I bought the fly just to take it apart.” Using a razor, a ruler, a magnifying glass, and good lighting, she spent the better part of two days cutting and unraveling the streamer, meticulously documenting the process with sharp, vivid photos and complete notes. We see for the first time exactly how Carrie Stevens tied her flies. Sharon titled this section of her book “Unraveling the Secrets of the Blue Devil,” and unravel them she did.

“I decided I was going to settle some of the confusion and speculation once and for all,” she said. “It wasn’t about proving anybody wrong. It was about, ‘Let’s take a look. Let’s discover and document it, and let’s share it with other people who want to learn.’”

Fly tiers, even aficionados of the classic feather wings, will be fascinated by the detail with which Sharon describes the inner workings of a Carrie Stevens fly, and you will be startled by some of the things she discovered. This breaks ground not only in describing how Stevens really tied her famous streamers, but also in how we study classic flies and share that information with fellow tiers.

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Sharon meticulously photographed and recorded what she discovered, including how Stevens really made the legendary red bands on the heads of her flies.

A Quick Study

Wright’s sojourn through the pre–World War II heyday of the Rangeley streamers began when a friend wanted her to fish with him, so he gave her a rod and reel, and took her to the water. She was a very quick study.

“After losing many flies, I looked at one and confidently said, ‘I can make these,’” she recalled.

Pricey vises were out of reach for a humble artisan from Maine, so Sharon picked one up at a yard sale for three
dollars. It was a Thompson Model A, a tying tool as historic as Rangeley streamers themselves.

Sharon learned much of what she knows about basic fly tying from the “regular guys” at the Friday night
fly tying sessions at the L.L. Bean store in Freeport.

“Allan, a fellow who worked at L.L. Bean, showed me how to tie my very first Gray Ghost,” she said. “That was where my passion for Rangeley streamers began. I fell in love with them, and my interest blossomed from there.”

Thanks to her background in the arts and in industrial production, Sharon found herself well suited to tying flies. She soon began designing her own patterns, such as the State of Maine Streamer, a gorgeous yellow-bodied, blue-winged number that expresses her home-state pride. She has become an accomplished tier, author, and photographer. (Sharon is a regular contributor to this magazine.) She also appears at major East Coast fly fishing shows, and has led tying classes at clubs across the United States.

As her knowledge of Rangeley flies increased, so did her curiosity about the right way to make them.

“I was reading everything I could find and was looking at the flies online. Learning how to tie them was a struggle with only scattered pieces of information,” she said. “Half of what I found would contradict what others said. I live in the state where these flies were popularized. Over the years, I tied more, learned more, and gathered more information. Since I’m from here, I take a lot of pride specializing in these flies. I consider it a privilege to document these methods and carry on the tradition. Readers will no longer get it piecemeal the way I did.”

A common ring-necked pheasant skin contains hundreds of feathers suitable for tying heritage featherwing streamers.

A common ring-necked pheasant skin contains hundreds of feathers suitable for tying heritage featherwing streamers.

It’s About Much More Than Carrie Stevens

It’s easy to get stuck on Carrie Stevens. When discussing the famed flies of the Rangeley Lakes region, many authors discuss solely her contributions to this craft, but Stevens plays only a small role in Wright’s book. Sharon spent considerable time seeking out other tiers from that period, which is no easy task because so many have passed away over the years. But Sharon is a Maine original: she knows the people and she speaks their language. Happily for us, she did uncover senior Maine tiers who are supremely knowledgeable in the art of tying heritage featherwings.

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