This is a detective story in antiquity. Dame Juliana Berners, the 15th century nun who left to fishermen the first description of a set of artificial trout flies, bequeathed also a fascinating problem: how, precisely, did she mean her flies to be tied? Her directions are deceptively simple: did she pick her feathers from wings or bodies of the birds she named? Is "dun" a fly or a color? Is a "tayle" a tail or a tail end? Are the flies' wings down or up? And so on. In offering their solutions, the authors are presenting the results of two years of research. They may be open to argument; if so, they welcome it. Here is their story.
This is an article from the May 27, 1957 issue
The peculiarity of angling, in particular of fly-fishing, for at least the past five centuries is that it has combined two different modes of experience: on the one hand, a joyous passion for the act of fishing which endures from youth to old age and recurrently rises to make every spring the spring of life and, on the other, tradition. Passion and tradition make the art.
The historical dimension in fly-fishing separates us less from the past than that dimension usually does in other sports. Why this is so (and why angling has the vastest and greatest literature of all sports) is an intriguing question, beyond the scope of this essay. We note only this, that the hook has been constant since the late Stone Age, and the trout fly, the dainty and delectable heart of the game, goes back at least to ancient Rome and has changed little structurally since Berners, except only that hers are wet flies, and the master craftsmen of the art in the late 19th century conjured up a complementary one that would float. Having but one mandatory rule, the fly, from which everything else—the tackle, the art and the talk—follows, fly-fishers of all ages have had an identical subject—the rule of the game, so to speak—with infinite variations and possibilities for argument.
The trout fly, like other expressions of culture, is subject to a constant pull between classicism and innovation. In recorded history the score is even: three dominantly classical centuries, the 15th, 16th and 18th, and three innovating, the 17th, 19th and 20th. Berners has figured prominently in this alternation, of which we shall say more in a moment. But first, what of the centuries before Berners?
She, the first known true angling writer, speaks of having read others, now unknown. She speaks also of her flies as "the XII," and it is a fair inference from the article "the" that they were in some way established in practice in her time and that she got them from someone else. But where she got them no one presently knows. Fishing by spear, net, hook and line, and rod have been shown by William Radcliffe in his marvelous Fishing From the Earliest Times to be richly represented in antiquity, and writing about the subject begins almost with writing itself. But the record of the fly in the long measure of history is sparse. Before Berners, the artificial fly was mentioned possibly twice in literature, once for certain by Aelian in the third century A.D., and once, less certainly—depending on your scholar—by Martial about 200 years earlier.
Before Martial, fly-fishing is without record, and the 1,200 years from Aelian to Berners are the dark ages of the sport. Something went on but we don't know what until the fly turns up modern and almost complete in Berners' Treatise. The fly-fishers of antiquity had no influence in modern times, and Berners stands alone as the ancestress of the modern fly-fisher, fly dresser and angling writer. Since Berners, trout flies have been as profuse in literature as they have been upon all the variegated waters of the earth.
But the curse of classicism was on her flies from the start. By classicism in trout flies we mean an authoritative rather than an innovative spirit, a set of established flies as opposed to the creation of new ones. Berners herself implies that hers are classic—that article "the"—at the time of writing, which in manuscript was in the early 15th century. After her book was printed in 1496, she and her 12 flies ruled the world of angling literature from the grave for 157 years; that is, down to Walton, during which the Treatise went through at least 16 editions.
The record of the rule of her flies is easy to follow. During the period beginning with Berners and ending with Walton only seven known angling books worthy of note appeared in the English language. All but one have long been well known to readers of angling literature.
Berners was first.
The second is the recently discovered The Arte of Angling (1577) by an anonymous author, from whom Walton seems to have borrowed information on baits, keeping baits and the characters Viator (rechristened Venator in later editions) and Piscator. This long-lost and worthy writer mentions the trout and the fly only once and then surreptitiously: "...I dare not well deal in the angling of the trout, for displeasing of one of our wardens, which either is counted the best trouter in England, or so think-eth, who would not (as I suppose) have the taking of that fish common. But yet thus much I may say, that he work-eth with a fly in a box." Another curious avoidance of trout flies occurs in an edition of Berners' Treatise, published in 1586 and reprinted in 1614 under the title A Jewell for Gentrie, which omits her fly list. Others, however, used it freely.
The third book on angling is Leonard Mascall's A Booke of fishing with Hooke & Line, published in 1590. Mascall pirates and edits Berners' 12 flies.
The fourth book is John Dennys' Secrets of Angling, an angling treatise in verse, published in 1613. Dennys treats of the trout but not of the fly; but the second edition of the poem, published in 1620, contains a remarkable observation, written by its felicitous editor, William Lawson, perhaps the only man to have been made famous by the writing of a single footnote.
Angle with a made fly, he says, and with a line of three hairs at least twice the length of your rod; counterfeit the May fly and change his color month by month from dark white to yellow. He gives a dressing, the first new trout-fly dressing after Berners—a period of 124 years—as follows: "The head is of black silk or haire, the wings of a feather of a mallart, teele, or pickled hen-wing. The body of Crewell according to the moneth for colour, and run about with a black haire; all fastned at the taile, with the thread that fastned the hooke you must fish in...."
He then offers an illustration of a trout fly—the first in angling history—but we can't count on it. It is a monstrosity corresponding not to the dressing but to one that the engraver must have caught on his windowpane.
The fifth book on angling is Gervase Markham's A Discourse of the generall art of Fishing, with the Angle or otherwise, which is part of his larger work, the Second Book of the English Husbandman, and of The Pleasures of Princes, published in 1614. In good part this book is a prose version of Secrets of Angling; its trout flies are Berners', pirated, with revisions and additions, from Mascall. The historian John Waller Hills (A History of Fly Fishing for Trout) is inclined to believe that the editing of Markham's flies is the work of Lawson, and that by his work Berners' flies were brought to perfection, "complete and unambiguous, neither of which they originally were." Hills's high opinion of this version of the flies accounts for some of the differences between his and the conception of the original flies presented here.
The sixth book on angling is Thomas Barker's The Art of Angling in 1651, the first to mention a reel and to say how to tie a fly. His fly dressings are generalized.
The seventh is The Compleat Angler in 1653. Walton does not mention Berners, though hers was the classic of the previous century and his work is modeled in part upon the literary structure she established. Walton seems not to have been much of a fly-fisher; he took Berners' flies from Mascall. But Part II of the fifth edition of The Compleat Angler, subtitled "Being Instructions How to Angle for a Trout or Grayling in a Clear Stream," written by his friend Charles Cotton and published in 1676, is a masterful specialized treatise on fly-fishing. Cotton published an original list of 65 flies with their dressings.
Three other works need to be mentioned here: The Experienced Angler by Robert Venables (1662), who, like Barker, gives generalized dressings; James Chetham's The Angler's Vade Mecum (1681); and Richard Franck's Northern Memoirs (written in 1658, published in 1694).
Thus from Berners through Walton, with the minor exceptions noted, the only flies in print are Berners' dozen. The revolution in fly-fishing, breaking this classicism-by-plagiary, was performed in the 1650s, '60s and '70s by Barker, Cotton and Venables.
A few words about the classicism and the plagiary. A considerable stir was made last year upon the publication of the long-lost The Arte of Angling (1577), which revealed a number of Walton's unacknowledged borrowings. The editor of the new issue of that work, Gerald Eades Bentley, in a letter to us, observes that the present idea of plagiarism is a modern one. He says, "Well into the 18th century students were taught in school to paraphrase and repeat earlier writers. When names were cited it was not so much for the purpose of acknowledgment as to gain the weight of authority. Imitation of great predecessors was a virtue and it is sometimes very hard for us to see now where they drew the line between imitation (good) and mere compilation (bad)." Mr. Bentley also informs us that there was a copyright "law" in the form of a regulation enforced by stationers, but that it was applied not to authors but only to publishers.
Walton's practice, however, was castigated in his own time by Richard Franck in the following celebrated (or notorious) passage: "[Walton] who lays the stress of his arguments on other men's Observations wherewith he stuffs the undigested octavo; so brings himself under the Angler's censure, and the common calamity of the plagiary, to be pitied (poor man!) for his loss of time in scribbling and transcribing other men's notions. These are the drones that rob the hive, yet flatter the bees they bring them honey." Franck, a fine fisher, though a thick writer, long ago was excommunicated from the brotherhood by Waltonians ("this despised and muddling abortion..." said the scholars, Westwood and Satchell). But scholarship has given support to the substance of Franck's remarks, and old "honest Izaak" is defended today more as an idyllist and a personal stylist than as a creator of anything new in angling.
Classicism is another matter. So long as "the XII" ruled, the art of the fly scarcely moved. When their rule was broken, fly-fishing returned to firsthand imitation of nature, and the number and variety of flies bloomed. Barker and Venables introduced the idea of choosing flies for their relationship to weather and water. Fancy flies (flies imitative only of the generality of flies) came on, beginning with Cotton, and with him, too, fly-fishers entered the infinite in imitative fly dressings, where they have been ever since. Cotton fished fine and tied fine. For example, his fourth fly for March: "There is also for this month a fly called the Thorn-Tree Fly; the dubbing an absolute black, mixed with eight or 10 hairs of Isabella-coloured mohair; the body as little as can be made, and the wings of a bright mallard's feather. An admirable fly, and in great repute amongsts us for a killer."
This killer is a simple fly, as simple as a Berners' fly, except for the color of the mohair. Sir Harris Nicolas, who edited the most scholarly edition of The Complete Angler, explains the reference as follows: "Isabella" he says, is "a kind of whitish yellow, or, as some say, buff colour a little soiled." Soiled is the point. He explains:
A generation before Cotton, in the year 1602, the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip the Second, King of Spain, accompanied her husband the Archduke Albertus on a campaign. When he laid siege to Ostend, then held by heretics, she made a rash vow that she would not change her clothes until the city was taken. This happened to take three years. So Isabella's linen came to be the right color for the cavalier Cotton's trout fly.
The revolution steered by Cotton, Barker, Venables and, perhaps in some degree, Franck ended in the 17th century. The 18th, like the 15th and 16th, with one exception, Richard (1747 edition) and Charles (1744 edition) Bowlker's The Art of Angling, went classical again so far as flies are concerned, though it was a lively century in what it did to create the modern rod, reel, line and leader. Bowlker wrote off several of Berners' flies in A Catalogue of Flies seldom found useful to fish with, and created a new list which was promptly classicized for the second half of the 18th century. The 19th and 20th centuries returned to the creation of new flies. Isabella buff indeed. Observe the dressing specified for the body of the Green Drake by Alexander Mackintosh (The Modern Angler or, Driffield Angler, 1810): "...a little fine wool from the ram's testicles, which is a beautiful dusty yellow." And a dubbing for the Hendrickson Fly by our contemporary Art Flick (Streamside Guide, 1947), which calls for belly fur of the vixen fox stained a little pink with urine burns.
The real work of the 19th century, however, was in the creation of entomologies, the decisive shift to upstream fishing and the invention of the dry fly, which together formed the greatest revolution in fly-fishing history since the origin of the sport.
With the dry fly came a new brand of classicism, an effort led by Frederic Halford (Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, 1886, and other works) to create a definitive "scientific" set of imitation flies. But no action without a reaction. G.E.M. Skues, a great angling writer of a generation ago, successfully attacked dry-fly purism and the new classicism with the weapons of the old wet fly and the new nymph, and a powerful creative spirit. In the United States at about the turn of the century Theodore Gordon introduced the dry fly and altered forever after the then American weakness for imitating not our own natural flies but the established English artificials. The tension between classicism and innovation is still with us, and, doubtless, always will be. Today in the United States, Easteners, with their perennial Quill Gordons and Cahills, usually are more classical than Westerners, with their experiments in new types as well as patterns of flies.
But the issue between the schools is mild. Two emphatic innovators, Lee Wulff in the East and Dan Bailey in the West, who have given us a galaxy of new flies for our time—especially for fast rough water—may often be found fishing the old flies; and the traditionalist Sparse Grey Hackle ("angling is tradition"), who has given us eloquent idylls on old meadows, rods with feel and sympathetic if fishless streams, will try any new fly so long as it is a May Fly. And the collector C. Otto von Kienbusch recently demonstrated the inestimable value of his addiction when he dug up from an English bookseller The Arte of Angling (1577) and saw to its publication by the Princeton University Library, a truly remarkable event for the second book on angling to be first acknowledged and made available for reading after 380 years of oblivion.
In the wars between classicists and anticlassicists in times past, poor Berners was sometimes held up as the bad example. Hewett Wheatley (The Rod and Line, 1849), a brilliant advocate of the fancy fly, "Water-Witches" and other new artificial baits, in the course of assailing all forms of classicism, said of Berners: "That the 'Jury of a dozen flies,' written about by our ancestors, may have condemned a few fins to death, I cannot dispute; but I believe they were mercifully pleased to acquit 49 out of every 50 that were arraigned before them. The moderns are not so merciful."
And Skues says, "The famous 12 flies for trout and grayling are described as if they were the laws of the Medes and Persians and altered not...."
That Berners and her flies were classicized to the absolute limit for perhaps two centuries is clear from the evidence; but this must be remembered, that classicism is not the fault of the classic. It was an important moment for fly-fishers, deserving of her solemnity, when Berners wrote down the 12 dressings in the first treatise of the art. The great defense of Berners is Hills's history which traces 11 of the 12 down to the present. Our work in constructing these flies would have been more difficult but for Hills, though we are forced to disagree with him in some important respects.
So much for the historical setting. We turn now to the business at hand, which is the actual tying of Berners' trout flies. We present our argument (and travail) first as regards the general elements as they relate to all the flies, and then as regards each fly in particular.
The general elements:
Berners tells us the ingredients but does not tell us how she tied the flies, nor does she give a hint as to their general appearance. There is no known description of the act of tying a fly until Barker, Cotton and Venables, and we have searched them and the other early writers for clues.
Markham, a little over a century away from the printing of the Treatise, said this about their style: "Now for the shapes, and proportions of these flies, it is impossible to describe them without paynting, therefore you shall take of these severall flies alive, and laying them before you, try how neere your Art can come unto nature by an equall shape, and mixture of colours."
The assumption that Berners' flies were modeled on nature is our clue to size, but this only shifts the difficulty to one of identifying the naturals represented by these artificials. In only two of her flies is there certainty, namely, the Stone Fly and the Wasp Fly; these are the same today and there is no reason not to take fish with them now on the Beaverkill or the Madison. The Dun Fly No. 1 could be either the February Red or the March Brown. The coloration of the Shell Fly makes it acceptable as a caddis; the Shell Fly and Grannom are identified by Alfred Ronalds in The Fly-fisher's Entomology, 1836. For the rest we know of nothing better to do than to present the often contradictory intuitions of Hills and Skues, two fly-fishers of one sensibility who spent their lives observing both English stream insects and their imitations. Our policy is to dress the fly to the size of a possible natural proposed by either or both of these masters.
It is not surprising that Berners does not give us a word picture of the appearance of her flies. Modern fly dressings do not usually specify style in this respect, and most professional fly tiers today are not particularly conscious that their "exact imitation" imitates no fly in hand but is a convincing impression of the fly on the water—as edible, say, as one of Cézanne's apples. We have concluded from her fur-and-feather materials that Berners' flies too are impressionistic, but that they were slightly rougher than modern flies; for her equipment was cruder, the professional was unknown and the flies were tied by hand. To some extent her style is fixed by reverse wings. The most noticeable difference from the modern style is dictated by the shape of the hooks illustrated in the Treatise. The shanks are so short and the bite of the hook so deep that the fly bodies must have extended well onto the bend.
The Berners' flies illustrated here vary in the "set" of the wings. This is partly intentional, partly chance, in the feathers used and random variations in the tying of each fly. We wished to avoid making a case for a uniform style.
Berners gives no directions. But in one instance, the Dun Cut, the wings are bound on with barked hemp, indicating that a dark effect was desired. A possible inference is that, unless, as in this case, something was done about it, tying off the fly ordinarily left a light or neutral effect. Venables says: "First, I begin to set on my Hook...with such coloured Silk as I conceive most proper for the Flie...." Hence we suppose the rule for Berners was merely to pick a harmonious silk.
Here the most obvious departure from most modern flies is in the absence of tails. The word "tail" is mentioned in two Treatise flies (Dun Fly No. 2 and Stone Fly) but each time as a reference point. In the Stone Fly, the reference is unmistakably to the insect; in the Dun Fly No. 2, the reference may mean part of the bird.
The argument for tails is this: 1) The Treatise and later books counsel the fly maker to copy nature. Tails are conspicuous on many insects. 2) Venables specifically gives instruction on the point: "Let me add this only, that some Flies have forked tails, and some have horns, both which you must imitate with a slender hair fastened to the head or tail of your Flie...and in all things, as length, colour, as like the natural Flie as you can possibly." 3) Cotton dresses one of the Treatise flies (the Stone Fly) with tails. 4) The earliest illustration of a fly (Secrets of Angling) has a tail, although the text doesn't specifically ask for one.
The argument against tails is this: 1) No directions to this effect are specifically given, and if one construed tails to be implied, what material should be used? 2) Neither Mascall nor Markham adds tails in their several changes of the Treatise dressings. 3) In Cotton's list of 65 patterns, tails are specified in only three: Green Drake (the whisks of the tails of long hairs of the sable or fitchet), Gray Drake (the whisks of the tails of the beard of a black cat) and the Stone Fly (place two or three hairs of a black cat's beard on the top of the hook). The Dun Cut calls for horns. Since many of Cotton's flies must have simulated May flies, they should also have been tailed, but this does not seem to have been the fashion. Of one fly that is definitely a May fly he says: "...the Little Yellow May fly; in shape exactly the same with the Green-drake [our italics], but a very little one, and of as bright a yellow as can be seen, which is made of a bright yellow camlet, and the wings of a white-grey feather dyed yellow." No tails.
Our conclusion is that by tail Berners means the hind or tail end of the fly. This is justified by the usage of the day, according to the great Oxford English Dictionary. But we must admit that the word could mean tails, period.
The basic body material for all flies is wool. Six of the patterns call for black; the others call for dun, ruddy, yellow, tawny, dusky and green, respectively. To get ruddy, yellow, green and perhaps tawny colors, natural wood must have been dyed. It could have been used as yarn or spun on as dubbing. The only problem is the black. Black could have been dyed or used natural. It seems strange that so many dressings call for black, as this is not a particularly common color for naturals. Natural black sheep's wool would be an off-black, even a dun, especially when held against sunlight, and so, we surmise that perhaps when dark hues were wanted, natural wool from the black sheep was used in the old flies.
In modifying the basic hue of the wool body, two flies call for ribbing of black silk, one for ribbing of yellow thread. Two call for peacock herl "lapped around" the body. The Dun Cut has a black body with a yellow stripe down either side. The Stone Fly has a bicolored body with yellow under the tail and wings of an otherwise black body. The problem lies in techniques for achieving mixed body colors.
Venables and Cotton give detailed directions on the techniques for tying some types of multicolor bodies, and these directions are clues. Venables says: "if your Flie be of divers colours, and those lying longways from head to tail, then I take my Dubbing, and lay them on the hook long-waies one colour by another (as they are mixt in the natural Flie from head to tail) then bind all on, and make it fast with silk of the most predominant colour."
Cotton's method was different: he spun his different furs first on the thread (as it is usually done today); for example, the Stone Fly: "the dubbing, of bear's dun with a little brown and yellow camlet very well mixt, but so placed that your fly may be more yellow on the belly and towards the tail, underneath, than in any other part."
There is no knowing how Berners dubbed but it is plausible to suppose that she did it like either Venables or Cotton. Cotton's method gets more blending and is more suited to the Stone Fly than the Dun Cut, for the latter suggests a precise yellow stripe along the body.
As to the Stone Fly, we are indifferent between the two techniques, except for intuition that Venables' technique is the older. We therefore tied this fly more or less along his lines. For the Dun Cut, the mechanics of the operation make Venables the only reasonable one to follow.
The plumage from at least seven birds is specified for dressing Treatise flies: partridge, jay, the red cock (rooster), capon, drake, buzzard and peacock. All except the peacock are given as fly-wing materials. Two birds, the drake and the buzzard, need explanation.
In 15th century England and since then, the word "drake" has the special meaning of the male of the common waterfowl (and domesticated duck), the mallard. The word was also applied to males of waterfowl in general, but it is most likely that the word "drake" in the Treatise is used in the restrictive sense, the male mallard. In two flies, Maure and Tandy, there is no contention. She specifies for them "the wild drake," which unquestionably is the male mallard.
In another instance she specifies "black drake" (Drake Fly), but is not explicit as to whether she means feather color or species of bird. We conclude feather, and give our reasons under the fly heading below.
"Buzzard" means the common hawk (and closely related species) in Great Britain, whereas in the U.S. the term is often used for another group of birds, the vultures. The buzzard members of the hawk family were considered inferior because they were useless in falconry (suggesting why it is uncomplimentary to be called one). The red-tailed hawk is the closest North American species to the common European buzzard. The plumage of juvenile hawks differs from the adults in being lighter on the breast and parts of the feathers. This increases the range of feathers that could be used in dressing the Treatise flies. (The specimen used here—a juvenile—was provided by the well-known British angling writer, Major Richard Waddington.) Two types of markings are found on the flight feathers, white mottled with dark, and dark mottled with darker. The various effects are illustrated in the flies tied.
The problem of the specific feather to be used in Treatise flies is more often than not difficult to decide. Only three specific types of feathers are clearly mentioned: 1) herl of the peacock's tail, 2) mail or light and dark breast feathers from the drake, 3) hackle feathers from the red cock or capon. These feathers are easily recognized. The distinction between rooster and capon hackles, however, is puzzling. Capon hackles would of course be softer; but we do not know how meaningful such subtle distinctions were to Berners.
In eight of the 12 flies Berners mentions no specific feather (at least by present-day usage). These all take the form of "wings of the partridge" (i.e., wings of the fly to be made from the partridge), wings of the buzzard or wings of the drake. She makes qualifications in two cases: "wings of the blackest drake" and wings "of the drake dyed yellow." The problem: what specific feather of the bird is intended for the fly wings in these eight patterns?
It is exasperating, and interesting, that the Treatise should be vague on this point and so specific on the others. Perhaps in the language of the day this phrase was meaningful as it stands. Aside from breast feathers, wing or flight feathers are the common mallard feather called for in fly dressings since the 17th century. But even Cotton is vague on this specification. He says, for example, "...the wings, of the pale grey feather of a mallard." It was apparently understood to be a flight or wing feather; only one of Cotton's dressings specifies mail: "...the wings, of the male of a mallard as white as may be." [In the English of this period, "mail" and "male" were both used to designate "breast feathers."] Hills concludes as regards Berners' mallard feather: "...I think [that the fly had] wings from the quill feather of a drake: not the dark mottled feather, usually called dark mallard; for I think (though it is only a matter of opinion) that when the mottled feather, light or dark, is intended, the Treatise uses the word 'mail,' which would be an appropriate word for a body feather." Hills consistently follows this interpretation, except for Dun Fly No. 1 where he assumes that the direction, "wings of the partridge," means hackle or body feather.
The immediate successors of the Treatise offer little assistance in this area, possibly because they too had trouble in interpreting Treatise dressings and thus improvised; or they were drawing on the experience or practice of their times that would not necessarily correspond with those of the Treatise.
Reading flight feathers into the vague Treatise instruction, as we do, is purely deductive, but there is no strong argument against it and no satisfactory alternative.
Dual wings follow from one interpretation of three Treatise flies (Dun No. 2, Ruddy and Yellow Fly). Venables makes it clear that multiple-winged flies existed in his time: "Flies made for the Salmon are much better being made with four Wings, than if of two onely and with six better then them of four...."
Hills, in his analysis of early fly construction, points out that in the first description wings made of quill feathers were not matched slips of feather cut from right and left quills as they are today. Rather a section from one feather was folded over or rolled into a tube and then attached to the hook.
In the matter of attaching wings, one is completely at the mercy of writers after Berners. Barker, Walton and Venables are consistent in that they attach the wings in reverse fashion; that is, they put on their wing materials with the ends of the feathers pointing away from the end of the hook. Then when the body was completed, they pulled the wings up and bent them back—how far back is not specified—and wedged them into place with a few turns of the working silk. Hills at best is obscure in his interpretation of the way Barker bent back his wing.
Barker is the first writer in history to provide any instruction on attaching wings, and we would have appreciated more lucidity from him. Read for yourself what he says: "...Cut so much of the browne of the Mallards feather as in your owne reason shall make the wings, then lay the outermost part of the feather near the hook, and the point of the feather next toward the shank of the hook, so whip it three or four times about the hook with the same silk you armed the hook with [instructions for adding body and hackle, palmer-tied, given here].... Then you must take the hook betwixt your fingers and thumb in the left hand, with a needle or pin part the wings in two, so take the silk you have wrought with all this while, and whip once about the shank that falleth crosse betwixt the wings; then with your thumb you must turn the point of the feather towards the bend of the hook, then whip three or four times about the shank of the hook, so view the proportion."
The rule of imitation suggests offhand that some wings should be up and some down, as they are in nature. But we do not assume that the rule is literal, and here we are stymied by our decision on other grounds, mentioned above, to tie reverse wings, and therefore up wings. Conceivably reverse wings could be shaped down, but it would be a difficult and a backward way to get down wings. An argument against down wings is given by Venables: "...If you set the points of the wings backwards, towards the bending of the hook, the stream (if the feathers be gentle as they ought) will fold the points of the wings in the bending of the hook, as I have often found by experience...."
We expect this to remain a controversial subject, but the act of tying the flies forces a conclusion. Venables' disapproval of down wings, and the logic of reverse-wing tying, lead us to conclude Berners' fly wings took on a more or less upright form.
To HACKLE OR NOT TO HACKLE.
The Treatise seems to regard hackle feathers as wings. The phrasing of both dressings is alike. She says "wings of the drake and of the red capon's hackle." She does not say wings of the drake and hackle of the red capon. In two patterns (Ruddy and Yellow Flies) where hackle feathers are mentioned, the literal interpretation would be wings composed of two different wing materials. The alternative is that hackle feathers were wound on in the conventional modern way but were still classified as a sort of wing. Hills and Skues both apparently make this assumption.
There is no clue in Mascall or Markham that the hackle should be wound on, but Barker and Venables both describe the tying of palmer-type flies. In Cotton's list there are two types of flies, palmer and winged. Hills quotes without comment Franck's ambiguous directions to hackle: "And among the variety of your Fly-adventurers, remember the Hackle, or the Fly substitute, form'd without Wings, and drest up with the Feather of a Capon, Pheasant, Partridg, Moccaw, Phlimingo, Paraketa, or the like, and the Body nothing differing in shape from the Fly, save only in ruffness, and indigency of Wings."
Has he hackled only at the throat of the fly or all along the hooks, palmer tie?
It appears that, a century and a half after the Treatise was printed, there is still no certain evidence of flies hackled only at the throat, as they are today. The first definite evidence of conventional hackling that we have found is Bowlker in mid-18th century.
When Bowlker wants a palmer tie he is explicit; for example, his Black Palmer: "The body is made with the black ostridge's feather, ribbed with silver twist, with a black cock's hackle over the body" [our italics].
When he wants hackle around the neck of the fly, he says "hackle...for the legs" or "hackle wrapt twice or thrice under the but of the wing...."
We conclude that the Treatise flies should be unhackled, Hills to the contrary notwithstanding.
One Treatise direction (Black Leaper) ends "with a blue head" and another (Drake Fly) "with a black head." These could refer equally to the head of the bird or to the head of the fly.
We know this much, that fly heads of different colors were known to later writers. Lawson gives his fly a head in the famous footnote. Cotton gives us flies with brown, black and red heads. And Venables is clear on the subject: "The Head is made after all the rest of the body, of silk or hair, as being of a more shining glossy colour, than the other materials, as usually the head of the flie is more bright than the body, and is usually of a different colour from the body...."
Mascall and Markham give us both interpretations of the Treatise's ambiguity as between head of fly and head of bird. For the Black Leaper, Mascall modifies the text from "wings of the red capon with a blue head" to "...the winges are made of the winges of a browne capon, with his blew feathers in the head," an intent even less clear than the Treatise's. And Markham changes the dressing further to "...his wings with the browne feathers of the Mallard, and some of his blew feathers on his head...." Thus Markham inexplicably changes the bird, and, furthermore, implies a dual wing (the metallic iridescent green head feathers could be construed as blue). Neither writer gives us this fly with a blue head.
In the Drake Fly, Mascall inconsequentially adds a comma to the Berners text, but Markham makes a drastic change: "...wings of the under mayle of the Mallard, and his head made blacke...." So here we have a black-headed fly.
Note how one gets out of trouble if the interpretation of "head" is as head of the fly: two knotty ornithological problems are neatly solved. 1) The wings of the Black Leaper are from a red capon rather than an uncertain blue mongrel chicken. 2) The wings of the Drake Fly are brown mallard breast instead of some aberrant color phase or another species. The interpretation—fly head—is simplest and clarifies both dressings. It makes sense, and we adopt it.
In the present stage of knowledge, secure conclusions cannot be made on several critical points. In instances where it is impossible to render a logically strong judgment between choices, we present our first choice as the most likely, and alternatives as possible but less likely. The alternatives are presented in the illustrations and the table of our dressings.
Now look at the flies.
We now give our argument for the dressing of each fly.
NO. 1 DUN FLY (March)
Berners: "The donne flye the body of the donne woll & the wyngis of the pertryche."
Does "dun" imply May fly? The Oxford dictionary indicates that dun was a descriptive adjective in her time. Reference to "dun" meaning subimago May flies seems to have come later in history through association with the fly's general hue. Our assumption is that "dun" refers to color only and does not imply a life stage of a May fly.
"Partridge" we assume to refer to common (Hungarian) partridge. Is a wing or body feather intended? Markham specifies "male," and Hills must thus have got his body feather from Markham, and not the Treatise; Hills further suggests that the feather was tied on as hackle. Since we assumed that a wing feather is implied if mail (breast) is not specified by Berners, we make the partridge wing feather first choice.
Hills believes that this fly is an imitation of the February Red, a stone fly; Skues says March Brown, a May fly. Either of these insects could readily be the prototype. Hills seems to have been influenced by the connotation of the modern fly "Partridge and Orange," a hackle fly, even though the use of partridge as hackle in the Treatise fly is not apparent.
NO. 2 ANOTHER DUN FLY (March)
Berners: "A nother doone fly the body of blacke woll: the wynges of the blackyst drake: and the Jay und the wynge & under the tayle."
"Wings of the blackest drake" we construe to mean a dark section of flight feathers.
Two interpretations can be made of the phrase, "and the Jay under the wing and under the tail." One is that the reference means Jay feathers placed under wing and tail end of the fly. If this is followed (as Hills recommends) what feathers from the Jay are used (blue feathers?) and how are they placed? There is no answer to this.
The alternative is that the text refers to the bird and not to the fly. That is, the fly wings are to be made from feathers from under the wing and tail of the Jay, as well as from the drake. Thus, a dual- or multiple-winged fly would result. This makes more sense in terms of construction. Mascall changes the bird but understands the meaning to be "feathers under the winges of his taile."
We conclude to stay with the Jay and take a feather from under his wing, and so make a dual-wing fly.
Both Hills and Skues believe Dun Fly No. 2 is the Olive or Blue Dun.
NO. 3 THE STONE FLY (April)
Berners: "The stone flye. The bodye of blacke wull: & yelowe under the wynge. and under the tayle & the wynges of the drake."
This fly and its dressing have an unbroken history to modern times. It is one fly that is unmistakable in identification and one where the directions show the Treatise to be clearly imitative of nature.
Making the black wool body yellow under wing and tail pinpoints a conspicuous feature in the color pattern of some of the larger stone fly adults. This interpretation seems inconsistent with our interpretation of the text of Dun Fly No. 2; if it is, in fact, inconsistent, then the error lies with Dun Fly No. 2 rather than here; for this fly is known without question. However order of directions differs: in the case of the Stone Fly the phrase "and yellow under wing and tail" follows "body" and hence should be related to the body in some way. In the case of Dun Fly No. 2 the phrase "and the Jay under wing and tail" follows the wing instruction and so seems to call for jay feathers in the fly wing.
"Wings of the drake" we again construe to mean sections of flight quills. The wings of the stone fly (in flight) are large and conspicuous. They could have been dressed large. Cotton gives this specific instruction, and we follow it.
NO. 4 RUDDY FLY (May)
Berners: "In the begynnynge of May a good flye. the body of roddyd wull and lapid abowte wyth blacke sylke: the wynges of the drake & of the redde capons hakyll."
The archaic word "roddyd" escapes the Oxford dictionary. According to Duggan, "it is normally found only as a description of streaky bacon." But for anglers, the word is presumably clarified by Mascall, who gives the fly the title "Ruddy Fly."
"Wings of the drake and of the red capon's hackle" can be interpreted as a dual wing, and "wings" could be conventional wings of hackle wound on. If they are hackle wings, they could be conventional hackle or palmer. Hills does not say so outright, but implies a conventional hackle for this fly as well as for the others where hackle is mentioned: "...the basis of the fly, red hackle, is the same in both: the wings are not different."
This is a critical point. If the fly is tied with a conventional hackle, this must be done without specific instruction from the Treatise to do so. If it is a hackle fly, it seems more likely to be a palmer, since the palmer tie appears to be the only known hackle fly in the 17th century.
If, on the other hand, it is a dual-wing fly, the order of placing the materials is important. It makes sense to veil the mallard quill sections with red hackle points.
Hills considers the Ruddy Fly to have a modern counterpart in the Red Spinner (imago of the Blue Dun); Skues in the Great Red Spinner (imago of March Brown).
NO. 5 THE YELLOW FLY (May)
Berners: "The yelow flye. the body of yelow wull: the wynges of the redde cocke hakyll & of the drake lyttyd yelow."
The instruction, "wings of red cock's hackle and of drake dyed yellow" again presumably refers to a dual wing. Some of Cotton's flies call for this dyed quill. The order of hackle and quill is reversed from that of the Ruddy Fly, but we assemble the materials as before: dyed quill veiled by hackle points. Hackle points on the inside are useless since they would be obscured by the more opaque mallard quill.
NO. 6 THE BLACK LEAPER (May)
Berners: "The blacke louper. The body of blacke wull & lappyd abowte wyth the herle of ye pecock tayle: & the wynges of ye redde capon wt a blewe heed."
Does "with a blue head" refer to the bird (red capon) or the fly? As noted previously, if it refers to the fly an ambiguous direction becomes quite clear.
Taking the alternative interpretation, that it is the red capon that has the blue head, what feather and what color feather is implied? Both Hills and Skues take this alternative (without explanation), and both adopt hackle feathers. They do not specify the color of the hackle, although Skues implies red (Red Palmer). The argument could be advanced that a blue feather was intended. But the case for any hackle feather is weak in the absence of the word "hackle" in the directions. It is specified in two other dressings, so why not here, too, if it is actually intended?
All in all, a blue feather interpretation is very subjective and seems to be tinged with wishful thinking from the fly tier's point of view. A blue-headed fly is not the most satisfying creation for a purist to contemplate. But a blue-headed fly is not much more startling than a yellow stripe down the side of a body, yellow under wing or tail, or wings tied on with brown hemp.
NO. 7 DUN CUT (June)
Berners: "The donne cutte: the body of blacke wull & a yelow lyste after eyther syde: the wynges of the bosarde bounde on with barkyd hempe."
The yellow stripe down the side and wings wrapped with barked hemp are, doubtless, clues to the identity of this fly. The bodies of many insects give the impression of being divided by a lighter line in the distribution of the back and belly color patterns.
"Wings of the buzzard" we take to mean sections of flight feathers. These are specified in both Mascall and Markham as wings of the wings of the buzzard.
"Barked hemp" is a rope cord steeped in a dye made of the bark of certain trees (for the preservative action).
Hills thinks the Dun Cut is a May fly, the Yellow Dun; Skues "beyond question" the sedge fly or Welshman's Button of Halford.
NO. 8 MAURE FLY (June)
Berners: "The maure fly. the body of dolke wull the wynges of the blackest mayle of the wylde drake."
"Dolke" does not appear in the great Oxford; Duggan thinks this could be a misprint for "doske." Dusky is the interpretation evident or implied in Mascall and Markham.
Maure, for them, becomes "moorerish" and "morish." Hills believes Mascall misread "maure." Actually, maure and moor are legitimate synonyms in 15th and 16th century English. The Oxford gives "maure" and "moure" as obsolete forms of "moor" and the connotation of the word was dusky, as in the 1489 example of usage "...he became as blacke as a moure." Maure also meant "ant," but elsewhere in the Treatise the word "pysmire" is used for ant.
Hills seems to make a good case here for the subimago of the May fly (Green Drake, Ephemera) as the natural meant by the Treatise. Skues thinks it is the Alder.
NO. 9 TANDY FLY (June)
Berners: "The tandy flye at saynt Wyllyams daye. the body of tandy wull & the wynges contrary eyther ayenst other of the whitest mayle of ye wylde drake."
"Tandy" becomes "tawny" in Mascall and Markham.
This is the only fly with directions for the form, or forming, of the wing. The literal translation would be "wings opposite, one against the other." This Hills interprets as meaning feathers set "back to back" and this seems reasonable. The implication of these instructions seems to be that the identity of the two light mallard breast feathers should be preserved after they are set on the hook.
As with the Maure Fly, Hills makes a case for the imago of the May fly (Grey Drake, Ephemera). Skues thinks it is the Oak Fly.
NO. 10 WASP FLY (July)
Berners: "The waspe flye. the body of blacke wull & lappid abowte wt yelow threde: the winges of the bosarde."
This fly's name and dressing are obviously related and provide another example of the Treatise copying nature. (Skues says "probably a crane fly.") Great Oxford gives only a primary meaning of wasp as referring to the insect.
Should the body be formed in an hourglass shape? It would not take much ingenuity or imagination to tie it that way. Perhaps the wings would also have been tied flat. We have presented an alternate Wasp Fly tied this way. This fly and the following Shell Fly will give the reader examples of the down-wing interpretation which generally we have rejected.
"Wing of the buzzard" is presumed to refer to flight feathers. By Markham's time the directions called for "wings of the downe of a Buzzard."
NO. 11 SHELL FLY (July)
Berners: "The shell flye at saynt Thomas daye. the body of grene wull and lappyd abowte with the herle of the pecoks tayle: wynges of the bosarde."
This fly has a history that may be associated with the present Grannom. The color and material fit this insect rather well. As Hills points out, the Treatise date of the fly (July) is late for the actual emergence dates but many of the caddis would be grannom-like in general appearance. Skues says the Shell Fly is "probably one of the green-bellied sedges."
The name Shell Fly is curious. If it is the grannom, or other caddis, could this refer to the case or "shell" or the larvae?
Wing of buzzard flight feathers would be tied down wing if the fly were a strict imitation, but we have not assumed such strictness, and, as we said above, we find that the weight of the evidence is for uprights.
NO. 12 DRAKE FLY (August)
Berners: "The drake fly. the body of blacke wull and lappyd abowte wyth black sylke: wynges of the mayle of the blacke drake with a blacke heed."
"Drake" (like "dun") has a specialized meaning in fly-fishing. It refers to adult May flies. As in the case of "dun," it seems likely that "drake" in the entomological sense was not intended in the Treatise. The earliest Oxford dictionary example of this usage is in 1658 (Franck's Northern Memoirs): "It was only with dracks that I killed these trouts." Oxford also gives "Drake-Fly," meaning "an artificial fly dressed with breast feathers of a drake" and cites the Treatise as an example.
Cotton gives another plausible reason for the association of ornithological and entomological meanings: "...and his [Green Drake] tail turns up towards his back, like a mallard, from whence, questionless, he has his name of the Green-drake." "Drake" as synonymous with the May fly, or May flies in general, was evidently well established by the mid-17th century.
One has to dispose of precisely what is meant by "mail of the black drake with black head." There seem to be at least four possibilities:
1) As proposed by Hills: "some specially coloured dark mallard feather, only to be found on a black headed drake."
2) Also by Hills: "black head refers not to the bird but the feather, and means one with a black or dark base."
3) The reference was to the drake of another species of duck that had a black head.
4) "With a black head" refers to the fly, not the bird (the interpretation spelled out in Markham: "...and his head make blacke").
Of these, No. 2, favored by Hills, seems a farfetched interpretation. Hills apparently intuitively assumes that "black Drake" means "black mail of the drake," and this would not be unreasonable if one could dispose of "with a black head." The fourth alternative above can be considered on the same basis as "red capon with a blue head" (Black Leaper), and we have followed it with a black-headed fly. Alternatives 1 and 3 are in effect the same except that Hills held to a variation of the mallard rather than a different species of duck.
The problem with changing the species of bird is that "drake" has the special meaning of male of the mallard, and it does not seem reasonable that the Treatise would expect breast feathers from a different duck to be used. Drake does have the more generalized meaning of males of any species of duck. In British fauna the choice of alternative species is not great, and narrows to two alternatives, and of these, the tufted duck is an easy first choice. But because the fly is named Drake Fly one needs to be cautious about going against the primary connotation of the word as used elsewhere in the Treatise.
This concludes the discussion of Juliana's trout flies, which we hope has been "of interest to gentle and noble men"—and women—and not idlers.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dwight A. Webster and John McDonald are both passionately dedicated fishermen and students of the literature of angling. In engaging themselves to bring to life Berners' trout flies for publication, they took on a venture never before attempted. At first they divided the work. McDonald, author-editor of The Complete Fly Fisherman, was to organize the research in the U.S. and England, and draft the story. Dr. Webster, professor of fishery biology at Cornell University, was to analyze the entomology, real and fanciful, and tie the flies, in all of which matters he is one of the nation's foremost experts. But, as often happens in a successful collaboration, before they got through exchanging drafts and talk, neither was able to say who had done what.
ABOUT THE PAINTINGS
John Langley Howard, who pictures the Berners' flies in such meticulous detail on the following pages, is an artist known for his extraordinary, almost three-dimensional realism. Because the minute details of these reconstructions are of primary importance, the flies are here shown in enlarged form—a departure from tradition for the sake of clarity. All have been enlarged to precisely twice their actual size. Alternative flies are shown in those cases where the original Berners' directions could not be interpreted with complete reliability.
THE BERNERS TROUT FLIES
Tied by Dwight A. Webster—Painted by John Langley Howard
DUN FLY (March)
The donne flye the body of the donne woll & the wyngis of the pertryche
ANOTHER DUN FLY (March)
Another doone flye. the body of blacke woll: the wynges of the blackyst drake: and the Jay und the wynge & under the tayle.
THE STONE FLY (April)
The stone flye. the body of blacke wull: & yelowe under the wynge. and under the tayle & the wynges of the drake.
RUDDY FLY (May)
In the begynnynge of May a good flye. the body of roddyd wull and lappid abowte wyth blacke sylke: the wynges of the drake & of the redde capons hakyll.
THE YELLOW FLY (May)
The yelow flye. the body of yelow wull: the wynges of the redde cocke hakyll & of the drake lyttyd yelow.
THE BLACK LEAPER (May)
The blacke louper. the body of blacke wull & lappyd abowte wyth the herle of ye pecok tayle: & the wynges of ye redde capon wt a blewe heed.
DUN CUT (June)
The donne cutte: the body of blacke wull & a yelow lyste after eyther syde: the wynges of the bosarde bounde on with barkyd hempe.
MAURE FLY (June)
The maure flye. the body of dolke wull the wynges of the blackest mayle of the wylde drake.
TANDY FLY (June)
The tandy flye at saynt Wyllyams daye. the body of tandy wull & the wynges contrary eyther ayenst other of the whitest mayle of ye wylde drake.
WASP FLY (July)
Alternative (down wing)
The waspe flye. the body of blacke wull & lappid abowte wt yelow threde: the winges of the bosarde.
SHELL FLY (July)
The shell flye at saynt Thomas daye. the body of grene wull & lappyd abowte wyth the herle of the pecoks tayle: wynges of the bosarde.
DRAKE FLY (August)
The drake flye. the body of blacke wull & lappyd abowte wyth black sylke: wynges of the mayle of the blacke drake with a blacke heed.
THE BERNERS FEATHERS AND HERL
DRAKE MALLARD Dyed Yellow
JAY (From Under Wing)
PARTRIDGE BODY FEATHER
BLACKEST MAIL OF MALLARD
WHITEST MAIL OF MALLARD
RED CAPON'S HACKLE
RED COCK'S HACKLE
FEATHERS IN TOP AND BOTTOM COLUMN ON OPPOSITE PAGE ARE ONE-THIRD ACTUAL SIZE, THE SNIPS TWO-THIRDS ACTUAL SIZE. IN MIDDLE COLUMN THEY ARE SHOWN ONE-QUARTER AND ONE-HALF ACTUAL SIZE, RESPECTIVELY
DAME JULIANA'S LEGACY
Surveying the vast field of angling literature since Berners, John McDonald shows how her Treatise has influenced the growing sport of fishing for 500 years and left its imprint on everything that has been written by later authorities.
SUMMARY OF THE BERNERS FLY DRESSINGS
WINGS AND/OR HACKLE
Dun Fly No. 1
a) Wings: Section of partridge quill feather
Dun Fly No. 2
Olive Dun—Skues & Hills
Wings: Dual, section dark mallard quill veiled with feather from under wing of Jay
Stone Fly—Skues & Hills
Black wool made yellow under wing and tail
Wings: Section mallard quill
Ruddy wool ribbed with black silk
a) Wings: Dual, section mallard quill veiled with red capon hackle
Little Yellow May Dun—Hills; and, with some uncertainty, Skues
a) Wings: Dual, section mallard quill dyed yellow veiled with red cock's hackle
Black wool ribbed with peacock herl
a) Wings: Red capon quill feather
Black wool with yellow stripe down side
Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill whipped with barked hemp
Wings: Brown mallard breast
Wings: Light gray mallard breast tied back to back
Black wool ribbed with yellow thread
a) Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill
Green wool ribbed with peacock herl
a) Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill
Black wool ribbed with black silk
Wings: Brown mallard breast feathers
Key: a) first choice; b) alternative one; c) alternative two.