The Evolution of Flies by Stevie Munn

As I constantly research the history of old fly patterns that my late father George Munn and I used when fishing our local rivers and loughs I am often uncovering links between the flies and the great names of angling past and present. Names include a few of my personal fly fishing heroes among them men like Skues Halford Francis Francis Kingsmill Moore Blacker Gordon Wulff and many many others. This is one of the things that makes the old and classic fly patterns great and to me fabulously interesting and shows that our fly fishing and fly tying history is linked and very importantly has evolved and I am happy to say flies and fly fishing is still evolving to the present day. Coincidently I have just watched a TV documentary about Charles Darwin (1809-1882) the famous English naturalist whose theory of evolution is perhaps one of the greatest contributions ever made to science. It was Darwin that came up with the term ‘Natural Selection’ which is one of the cornerstones of modern biology. The great man introduced this term in his groundbreaking 1859 book - On the Origin of Species. It is a term that could be easily applied to great fishing flies as they are survivors of time due to the process of natural selection by the angler and more importantly the natural selection of our quarry the fish. It’s simple if the flies are good they survive and if they are not they fade away. Let me show you what I mean about patterns being linked.

The Hackled Coachman (dry)
Hook: 10-18 Partridge dry fly
Thread: Black or red
Tag: Flat gold tinsel
Body: Peacock herl
Rib: Very fine copper wire (this is just to make to fly more durable)
Hackle: Brown with a white hackle in front

This version of the Coachman is a fly that I used a lot as a kid on the river. With its dual coloured hackles it's a fly that is easy to spot in fast water. It’s taken well by Trout feeding on caddis and moths in the summer evenings and when it’s dressed on smaller sizes on rivers and stillwaters it’s great for Trout feeding on Caenis or as it’s sometimes called the fisherman’s curse. I think Trout may take it as an emerging Caenis as it sits with its arse (excuse my French) in the surface film of the water. The original Coachman is around 200 years old and is the same dressing as above but instead of a white hackle at the front it sports a wing of white duck or swan feather and there are both wet and dry versions. There is also the lead wing coachman which instead of the white wing is dressed with a blae wing. This version is a good general purpose lough fly. The origin of the fly in most books is accredited to Tom Bosworth who was a coachman to three English monarchs; George IV William IV and Queen Victoria. However I have also read that it was a coachman called John Hughes who first used this fly on rivers in Kent England. Either man may have invented the fly as with a lot of old fly patterns sadly the origins are often lost in the mists of time. What we do know is that this pattern was around in the early 1800's as it appeared in a book called the ‘Anglers Guide’ by T.F. Salter (1814) and also appeared in a list of flies in the ‘Young Anglers Companion’ a publication that was in print between 1810 and 1825. No matter who was the first to dress this fly it has become a classic Trout fly that is still used today in many countries all over the world.

The Royal Coachman
Hook: 8-16 Partridge dry fly
Thread: Black
Tail: Golden pheasant tippets
Body: Peacock herl with red floss in the middle
Hackle: Brown or natural red game
Wing: White duck or swan wing

The Royal Coachman is a pattern from the USA that is related to the Coachman. It is perhaps one of the best known flies in the USA and there are many companies that have been named after this great pattern. This is how it came to be. When the original Coachman (which was almost certainly a wet fly) crossed the Atlantic the great American fly angler of his time Theodore Gordon adapted it as a dry fly. Gordon was probably sent this fly by one of the great English fly anglers G.E.M Skues or perhaps F.M Halford who were both in correspondence with Gordon in the 1800’s. The adapted fly then found its way to John Hailey around 1876. Hailey was a professional fly dresser living in New York and was asked to dress some more durable coachmen as the peacock herl body of the fly would often unravel after it had been taken by a few Trout their teeth cutting the fragile herl. So Hailey added the red silk band which creates the distinctive body. It seems he tied a band of red silk in the middle just to prevent the peacock bodies from fraying. Hailey also added a tail of barred wood duck feather as this helped the fly float and was more like the standard dry flies of the time - apparently he thought it looked handsome latter the wood duck tail changed to tippets from a golden pheasant and so a classic fly evolved. The name of the fly was given by an angler with also a great fishing name as it was a Mr L.C. Orvis that christened it while discussing with other fly anglers what it should be called. He said "It's easy enough call it the Royal Coachman. It is so finely dressed."

Although the Royal Coachman may look to some modern fly anglers as a gaudy fly believe me it is an excellent general purpose up winged dry fly that can be used to represent many other large winged insects as well as mayflies and olives. There are also many flies that have evolved from the Royal Coachman among them being the Royal Trude the Royal Coachman Bucktail a hair wing streamer pattern the Royal Wulff and a hair wing dry fly dressed by the great angler Lee Wulff as a dry fly for Salmon.

The Quill Gordon
Hook: 12-18 Partridge dry fly
Tail; Medium blue dun hackle fibers
Body: Stripped peacock herl
Hackle: Medium blue dun
Wing: Wood duck flank upright & divided.

The Quill Gordon is a truly excellent fly which I often use on fast rivers during an olive hatch especially a blue wing olive hatch. Although dressed in different sizes it can be fished to represent many of the upwing flies. Named after Theodore Gordon (1854 -1915) who is was the great American fly angler that I have mentioned in the Royal Coachman pattern Gordon visited the Catskills regularly to fish and the Quill Gordon is regarded as a Catskill style fly pattern. In 1890 when Gordon was in his mid thirties American fly fishermen were mostly still only wet fly fishing. Gordon fished wet as well but unlike many of his fellows anglers he fished upstream and he started to notice he would take better Trout in the few moments that his fly floated before it sank. A lot of this would have had to do with the fact that he was standing below the Trout as they faced upstream and not in their vision or window but this was the fact that prompted him to write to F.M. Halford in England who responded kindly to him by sending him a packet of dry flies. Gordon soon discovered that there were problems with Halford's flies - one being they imitated English insects and secondly and perhaps most importantly they were designed for the smooth glides of English chalk streams rather than the fast free stone rivers that he fished. He also had some help from G.E.M. Skues who we know sent him hackles. Gordon began to evolve his own dry fly patterns using stiffer hackles with more turns than the English flies so they could ride the faster riffles and runs of the fast Catskill rivers. Among these was his most famous pattern that bears his name - the Quill Gordon - a classic dry fly that should be in most river anglers fly boxes today.

Hardy ProTeam member and Game Angling Consultant Stevie Munn works full time as a fishing guide writer and qualified game angling instructor in fly casting and fly tying. He has also appeared in many angling books magazines and DVD's and given casting demonstrations at angling events all over the world. Stevie has fished many places and grew up fishing on the rivers and loughs of Ireland where he often guides. Stevie runs teaching courses in Ireland and hosts groups to fish in BC Canada Norway Argentina and other parts of the world.