Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Black Gnat



Red or wine

Black silk or fibers from a crow’s secondary wing feather

Starling shoulder feather

The dressing above is follows James Leisenring’s pattern for the Black Gnat in The Art of Tying the Wet Fly and Fishing the Flymph (1941). His pattern in full calls for:

“HOOK  14, 15.
SILK  Crimson or claret.
HACKLE Purplish black feather from the shoulder of a cock starling.
BODY  Black silk or two or three fibers from a crow’s secondary wing feather.
WINGS Dark starling optional.”

Harfield Edmonds and Norman Lee include a delicate dressing of the Black Gnat as no. 22 in their Brook and River Trouting (1916):

"WINGS.-A few fibres from a light blue Hen's hackle put on as a single wing.
BODY.-Black silk, No. 9.
LEGS.-Rusty black Hen's hackle.
HEAD.-Black silk.

Middle of May to end of August.
For close days.”

The Black Gnat has been a popular fly in angling literature. In Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream (1910), G. E. M. Skues dressed it simply, in a manner that Leisenring seems to have followed:

Wings: Palest snipe rolled and reversed.
Body: Black tying silk with two turns of black ostrich herl or knob of black silk at shoulder.
Legs: Black hen or cock starling’s crest, two turns at most.
Hook: No. OO.”

John Waller Hills traces the evolving popularity of the Black Gnat in his History of Fly Fishing for Trout (1921), but he notes how hard imitating the insect is and how unsuccessful most imitations seem to be: the “fly has three characteristics; a small body, transparent wings, and, in the male, particularly short ones . . . These three characteristics are the fly: and every one of these three Cotton observed and copied. After this it is hardly necessary to trace the fly down. The commonest dressing, however, not I think the best, is black ostrich herl body, and either some sort of clear wing, or more usually wingless, with a dark or black hackle. So Bowlker dressed it: and so did Francis and many others. Nearly every writer agrees that it is a difficult fly to copy. It is a most unsatisfactory fly to fish with.”

T. Donald Overfield similarly traces the history of the fly, but tracks it through five different historical dressings to the modern day in his column “Trout Flies of Yesteryear” published in Fly Fisherman magazine. He lists a “present day version,” which is a dry fly pattern by Commander C. F. Walker in The Art of the Chalk Stream (1968). Prior to that, R. S. Austin, who tied flies for G. E. M. Skues and developed the famous Tup’s Indispensible, included a Black Gnat pattern “in his unpublished papers dated 1890.” F. M. Halford, too, tied a Black Gnat that he described in Floating Flies and How to Dress Them (1886). Overfield, like Hills, makes note the Bowlkers’ eighteenth-century dressing for the Black Gnat, as well as it's earlier precedent, the dressing that Charles Cotton includes for March in his 1676 additions to Izaak Walton’s classic Compleat Angler. He dressed it: with “the dubbing either of the fur of a black water-Dog, or the down of a young black water-Coot, the wings of the Male of a Mallard as white as may be, the body as little as you can possibly make it, and the wings as long as his body.”


  1. Looks like a nice terrestrial pattern this time of year. One I like is to use a little peacock herl for the body and a couple turns of starting. Makes a decent looking ant! It probably has a name and a history but I don't know it.

    1. Thanks, Mark. And I'm going for terrestrial patterns with the next few posts. I think I've seen the one you describe called a Starling and Herl, but I haven't seen it in any books, and Pritt has a Black Snipe that is almost identical. Coincidentally, American Angler magazine ran an article in the May/June issue entitled "Match Game" that includes a Drowned Ant, a Starling and Herl with a band of tying thread in the middle.

  2. Once again, Neil, thanks for sharing the history with us. This pattern, in whatever body material is reasonable, appears to be a fish catcher.

  3. Neil
    What impresses me about this pattern is the ting of color with the red and wine color for the body. As always your history behind this fly is excellent. Thanks for sharing

  4. Bill - I very much appreciate it! Crow and starling would make for an easier size 18 or 20 tie than some of the others. Might be fun on a tailrace.

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