Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Waterhen and Red

This dressing substitutes a coot undercovert for the hackle that W. H. Lawrie prescribes.



Red Pearsall’s marabou silk, waxed

Coot undercovert from the front of the wing

The Waterhen and Red is a simple North Country dressing that has likely been a favorite of anglers long before Scottish or Border authors mentioned it in their published works.

Sylvester Nemes includes the Waterhen and Red in Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies (2004) in relating dressings from W. H. Lawrie’s Scottish Trout Flies (1966). Lawrie notes that “It would require a dictionary to list every Border pattern used for wet-fly fishing, and, in place of attempting anything so formidable, the following dressings of old-established, favourite flies are listed. Most of these are hackled flies, as may be expected, and they are all patterns in regular use today.” He follows with a dozen soft hackles, including a dressing for the Waterhen and Red:

“Hackle: As in the Waterhen Blae. ["Spoon-shaped feather with glossy underside from inside of a water-hen wing, summer plumage"]
 Body: Dark red tying-silk.”

Lawrie also points out that Border patterns like the Waterhen and Red "have been introduced from the adjacent northern counties of England, while others have been developed to meet local conditions. In the old days, the Carlisle fishers were not averse to making forays on the trout of the Border waters, and many of their most successful patterns would be appropriated by the Scot to balance the account. There may even have been an exchange the other way round, since it take more than a century of two to tame the reiving instincts of a bold and hardy race of Borderers." (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that "reive" is the Scottish spelling of the English  "reave," both of which denote a "plundering or pillaging; making raids." It is a word connotes the sort of Border past where Sir Walter Scott sets Rob Roy and Lawrie, tongue-in-cheek, finds rapacious Border anglers.)

In print, the Waterhen and Red is at least as old as William Nelson’s Fishing in Eden (1922), which Leslie Magee discusses in Fly Fishing: The North Country Tradition (1994). Magee describes Nelson’s work as “one of the great North Country classics which may be read time and time again for pleasure. It was not written as a text book for aspiring fly-fishers although it contains the wisdom of half a century of trout fishing,” indicating that the fly’s use dates at least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. Magee also points out, significantly, that Fishing in Eden (1922) “is one of the most difficult fishing books to come by.”  He lists Nelson’s “dressings and seasons of the eight flies,” which includes the Waterhen and Red, No. 2, dressed with a “small greyish feather from the coverts of a waterhen’s wing, body and head of red silk. Summer and Autumn.”

In his List of Natural Flies (1853), Michael Theakston offers a similar dressing, but for a seemingly different insect, the Black Drake No. 59, that would begin hatching mid-May and "continue through June and July." He calls it the "darkest of the drake flies" - Theakston's denomination for a mayfly - "an altogether leaden hue." He dressed his Black Drake, "hackled, for legs and wings, with a dark, leady feather from a coot or water-hen" and with a body of "red or crimson silk." Although he does not name the fly is , R. Lakeland provides a dressing for September, "pale blue from ditto [sea Swallow] and crimson silk," in his Teesdale Angler (1858) that matches the color scheme of the Waterhen and Red. This pattern is part of a comprehensive list that Lakeland includes under the heading "List of Hackle Flies from February to November." 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Yaller Hammer; Yallerhammer; or Yellow Hammer

The origins of the Yallerhammer are so obscure they will likely never be known, yet few flies exemplify the heritage of Southern angling more. The Southern angler will insist that the Yallerhammer sprang from the rustic fly boxes of Appalachia sui generis or, as the argument usually goes, that it developed in a geographical vacuum, cut off from a larger angling culture. Armed only with conjecture and pride, Southern anglers have declared the singularity of the Yallerhammer so long that it has become more than a fly in the vise. It's a proof, the faint, lingering trace of the longstanding tradition of Southern fly dressing. And it's all there can be - where the written record is lacking, memory must suffice.

"Art is no part of southern life," William Faulkner asserted: "We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage." Thus the annals of Southern Appalachian fly fishing are in the mouths of its anglers or on the ends of their lines. And, thus, the Yallerhammer. The art of any author is lasting. A book of fly dressings as old as the fifteenth century or the nineteenth-century manuscript record of a gentleman's angling club endures intact. But the art of the fly tier must always have dissolution as its goal. If they are well-tied and serve their purpose, the best flies will ravel eventually in a trout's jaw. 

It is unlikely that the angler who first lashed a yallerhammer’s primary to the shank of a hook and wound it to the eye died proudly for having left behind an icon of Southern fly tying. It was probably a simpler satisfaction - in having substituted the hackles of a mountain woodpecker for the shorebird hackles of the golden plover, that fly tier had brought the memory of a dressing from the North Country to North America and made it Southern Appalachia's own. "It's fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die," Faulkner noted, "but it's better to have made something you can die with." It's the right sort of pride for a Southern angler and a very pleasant conjecture on the whole.

Dressed as a palmer, the Yallerhammer is not without precedent—perhaps the Scots-Irish settlers of these mountains applied the hackles from local game birds to their fly dressing traditions. In his Practical Fly-Fisher (1854), John Jackson recommended flies with dark bodies accented by a palmered, dingy-yellowish hackle: one is "A good Palmer for Spring," tied with a "body, green herl of Peacock, gold tinsel, green silk, with a greenish stained or grizzled Cock’s hackle over all." Such "greenish stained" hackle would likely take on a deep-yellow cast in a swift run. Jackson also notes that another “good general fly is a mottled hackle, from a Hen Grouse’s neck, wrapped in a body of brown Peacock’s herl and yellow silk," but its variant is more like the modern Yallerhammer: "N. B. Our local Anglers use a Golden Plover’s Hackle, and Tom Tit’s tail for the same purpose." Jackson's North Country contemporaries clearly had no qualms about substituting hackles - our Southern Highlanders were likely as quick to substitute the dingy-yellow primaries of their local yallerhammer for the dark ash-and-yellow hackles of the ocean-distant golden plover.

The tradition of Southern fly fishing, however old it may be, has been best documented recently, in books that include Don Howell and his son Kevin’s Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies (1999), L. J. DeCuir’s Southeastern   Flies (1999), and Roger Lowe’s Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains (2001). For all of these anglers, the Yaller Hammer, Yallarhammer Nymph, or Yellow Hammer, respectively, is a palmered nymph dressed on a standard nymph hook: a down eye, 2X long, 2X heavy hook with a perfect bend. 

This dressing of the Howell's “Yaller” Hammer uses yellow dyed bobwhite quail undercoverts rather than the primaries more typical of the dressing and does not use a clipped palmer hackle. As a concession to the size and type of hook and in keeping with the established patterns of the blog, I have used a size 14 dry fly hook rather than the heavier nymph hook these fly tier prescribe




Golden pheasant

Black floss or wool

Imitation “Yallar” Hammer feather palmered

Much like the North Country’s Dotterell soft hackle, the Southern Appalachian Yallarhammer is now almost impossible to tie authentically. Its namesake hackle comes from the primaries of a protected bird, the yellow-shafted flicker. Don and Kevin Howell give an extensive treatment of the fly and the hackle in Tying and Fishing Southern Appalachian Trout Flies (1999), which is available from the Davidson River Outfitters. They note that the plumage of the yellow-shafted flicker has a “yellowish/black cast," so that local anglers know it alternately as a “Flicker, Yellow-Shafted Flicker, Golden-Winged Woodpecker, High-holer, Yellow Hammer, or ‘Yallar’ Hammer (the local pronunciation).” Don Howell suggested substituting yellow-dyed bobwhite quail or mourning dove primaries to simulate the distinctive "yellowish/black cast." The traditional dressing for the “Yallar” Hammer is the one he calls the “Yaller” Hammer Wooly Worm.

“THREAD: Black uni-thread
WIRE: .010 - .020
TAIL: Gold Pheasant
BODY: Black floss or wool
HACKLE: Imitation “Yallar” Hammer feather palmered through body.”

Mr. Howell notes that the black-bodied dressing was the only dressing he knew, though he “did see some variations in color, including white, yellow and black. All versions seem to produce well, but the black one has always been my favorite.” He describes having had some success dressing the “Yaller” Hammer like a Woolly Bugger: “Instead of using Golden Pheasant for the tail, I’ve substituted maribou to match the color of the body. Also, at times, I add four to six strands of Crystal Flash to the tail.”

Mr. DeCuir notes that the “most common substitute for the original feather now is the Yellow Dyed Grizzly Hackle,” a much easier hackle to obtain already-dyed. It is reminiscent of Jackson's dressings. This fly is also dressed on a size 14 dry fly hook.

L. J. DeCuir nods to the tradition of Southern Appalachian fly tying in his Southeastern Flies (1999). While some anglers suggest the Yallerhammer is a child of Cherokee angling tradition, no record exists to support the supposition. DeCuir, on the other hand, suggests that the pioneers who settled Southern Appalachia in the western migration, beginning as early as the eighteenth century, “were not English gentlemen” who were “carrying with them the traditions of the dry fly developed on the Test and the Itchen.” Those dry fly traditions would not be codified in Great Britain until the mid-nineteenth century, and the settlers of the American Southeast were more often Scots-Irish than English anyway, more given to recollections of North Country and Highland fly dressing than chalk stream tactics. Mr. DeCuir notes his “suspicion that the nymph/wet fly pattern is closest to the original,” a suspicion that recalls a fly dressed hacklewise with a yellow-shafted flicker's hackle, much like a traditional soft hackle. DeCuir dresses his Yallerhammer on a hook from 4-14 with

Thread: Black
Weight: “Lead” wire or substitute
Palmered Ribbing: Yellow Dyed Grizzly Hackle
Body: 2-5 strands of Peacock Herl depending upon size of the hook”

In addition to this dressing, Mr. DeCuir includes five others, traditional (including yellow-shafted flicker hackle) and modern. As a “Classic Wet Fly Pattern,” he dresses the Yallerhammer on a wet fly hook:

Thread: Black
Body: Peacock Herl
Hackle: Split feather of Yellow Shafted Woodpecker (Flicker) tied on as a wet-fly collar”

This “Classic Wet-Fly Pattern” that Mr. DeCuir lists uses yellow dyed bobwhite quail as a substitute, like the Howells suggest, and is dressed on a size 14 dry fly hook.

In his Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains (2001), Roger Lowe offers a similar dressing to those of the Howells and Mr. DeCuir, but he recommends grouse dyed yellow as a substitute for the split primaries of the traditional dressing, like Jackson's recommendation to use hen grouse on the palmers he recommended. Lowe lists two dressings. The first, the Yellow Hammer Nymph, is the more traditional and dressed thus, with black thread as Lowe illustrates it:

“Tail: Long side of Grouse feather
Body: Peacock herl
Hackle: Dyed yellow Grouse feather”

And the second:

“Thread: Yellow silk
Tail: Wood duck
Hackle: Dyed yellow Grouse feather
Body: Golden yellow floss

The most common way of tying the popular Yellow Hammer pattern, can be fished wet or dry.”

This size 14 dressing of Mr. Lowe’s Yellow Hammer substitutes a yellow dyed bobwhite quail hackle for the yellow-shafted flicker hackle, rather than the yellow dyed grouse that Mr. Lowe suggests.