Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Canon Fly; or, Down-hill Fly; later, the Oak Fly; and, the Down Looker

This dressing assigns a specific thread to the pattern, substitutes ruffed grouse tail for bittern (a protected species in the United States and Great Britain) and an American woodcock covert for hackle instead of wings.


Burnt Orange

Light orange and brown barred grouse tail 

Woodcock covert 

Both versions of the Art of Angling include dressings for the Canon Fly Richard Bowlker’s dressing (1758) for the Canon Fly lists two ingredients: “His wings are made of the feather out of a woodcock’s wings; and his body of a bittern’s feather.” The natural, he explains, “is to be found on the butts of oaks, and other trees near the water-side, with his head commonly downwards; for which reason he has generally obtained the name of the Down-hill fly.” He believed that the fly was “bred in the balls that grow on the boughs of large oaks, commonly called oak apples.” 

This dressing also substitutes ruffed grouse tail for bittern.

Charles Bowlker’s Art of Angling (1774) adds a head to the two ingredients his father originally included for the Canon Fly, and he changes the hackling: “His wings are made with a feather out of the wing with the partridge; his body with a bittern’s feather, the head with a little of the brown part of hare’s fur: The hook, No. 7.” He noted that the natural “comes about the sixteenth of May, and continues about a week in June, to be found in the buts of trees, with his head always downwards.”

 A cursory survey of modern angling literature suggests that the Canon Fly is less popular with anglers—Ernest Schwiebert, for instance, does not list the Canon Fly in Nymphs (1973) as one of the Bowlkers’ more enduring dressings—so the historical dressings of the Canon Fly here chronologically follow the Bowlkers’ in ascending order. The elder Bowlker lists many flies common to contemporary angling manuals that he held in low regard: “There are many other Flies taken notice of in some other treatises of angling, which may probably be of use in some rivers; the principal of which I shall just mention to satisfy the curiosity of my brother anglers; but I never think it worth while to make any of them artificially.” His son, Charles, repeats this list, and both make mention of the Oak Fly.

In The Angler’s Manual; or Fly-Fisher’s Oracle (1836), John Turton of Yorkshire lists a hackle he calls the Oak Fly, No. 34, which seems to be a dressing of the Canon Fly that the Bowlkers describe. Like their insect, the one he seeks to imitate hatches in May and his imitation, like the one advocated by Charles, uses partridge hackle in front of a dingy, orangish-yellow body similar to the bittern body that both Bowlkers use. Turton dresses it “with yellow silk: wing, partridge’s rump feather, without moon; body, yellow silk, ribbed with a strong black horse-hair, light brown down under wing.”

This dressing of Theakston’s Oak Fly (or downlooker) uses primrose Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk thread ribbed with silk buttonhole twist – Coats & Clark’s 184 rust, size D – for a the body and a speckled hen hackle, as Theakston suggests, in place of hackles and wings.

Michael Theakston lists the “Oak Fly (or downlooker)” as the 56th fly in his List of Natural Flies (1853) that is similar to the Bowlkers’ and Turton’s patterns. Theakston’s fly also hatches in the middle of May and is “a land fly, found often on the buts of oak, ash, or other trees; generally with their heads downwards.” He explains that the artificial is “dressed with various materials: wings from the woodcock or partridge; and winged and legged with a bittern hackle, or a yellow brown freckled hen; body, yellow or pale amber silk, with open rounds of deep red brown; shoulders, tinged with water-rat or squirrel’s ashy fur.”

This dressing of Jackson’s Down Looker substitutes a dark hare’s ear thorax for the woodcock wings Jackson prescribes, and it uses orange Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk for the body, ribbed with silk buttonhole twist – Talon 120, a lead color, size D.

John Jackson’s Practical Fly-Fisher (1853) lists the Down Looker, No. 21, as an imitation for an insect that hatches near the end of April on through June. In name and coloration, it is reminiscent of the Bowlkers’ Canon Flies. He dresses the Down Looker thus:

Wings.—Feather from the inside of a Woodcock’s wing.
Body.—Orange and lead-coloured silk neatly ribbed.
Legs.—Hackle of Woodcock, or Grouse hen’s neck.
                    An excellent killer.”

Alfred Ronalds also lists the Canon Fly under its various names as No. 21 in his Fly-Fishers Entomology (1836). In Ronalds’ account, the insect is known as the “Downhill Fly, Oak Fly, Ash Fly, Cannon Fly, Downlooker, Woodcock Fly, Downhead Fly.” His description of the insects behaviors and hatch times is identical to the earlier descriptions in the Bowlkers. His dressing and Jackson’s are similar, apart from the palmered hackle:

BODY. Orange floss silk tied with ash-colour silk thread, which may be shewn at the tail and shoulders.
WINGS. From a feather of the woodcock.
LEGS. A furnace hackle, (i. e. a red cock’s hackle, with a black list up the middle, and tinged with black also at the extremities of the fibres). This should be warped all down the body, and the fibres snipped off again nearly up to where the wings are set on, leaving a sufficient quantity for the legs uncut off.”


  1. Neil
    So impressed with these patterns, I have recently starting fishing more soft hackles and are having success with them. thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you, Bill - any soft hackles you've been using lately that you'd recommend?

  2. Very nice Soft Hackles. Thanks for sharing some history with us readers. It sure is interesting to see what they used for materials back in the day.

    1. I'm always interested to see what they were using, too, but sometimes I'm left scratching my head when I try to figure out what effects they were trying to create.