Old Mayflies

Creamy pints of porter before us, I was sitting in the warm half light of the Cobweb bar on Linenhall Street with Patrick McHale a few weeks ago. We had met up to do what we always do, talk about fishing. Like a pair of old fishwives we gossiped about prospects for the season, who had a new boat, the chances of an early salmon and all the other fishy tales from around the parish. Pat asked me if I would tie a few flies for him, copies of old flies that were battered and worn out. I said yes of course but it was not until last week that he dropped by and gave me a small box containing the flies in question.

Pat does not tie much these days which is a pity, his technique was exquisite and patterns innovative. Most of the flies in this clear plastic box had been tied by himself but I recognised one that had come from my fly box! All of them were mayflies and judging by the damage they were successful ones at that. A few looked to be only a few seasons old but others were of more ancient lineage judging by the style hooks. There were 6 flies in total so let’s go through them all one by one.

  1. The first one was actually undamaged and just an example of the popular Lough Arrow Mayfly. This one had a body made of white floss silk ribbed with tarnished tinsel which had probably been gold wire. Tails were pheasant tail and the body hackle a badger cock. Two head hackles, the first one of french partridge dyed dark olive with a small mallard flank feather dyed yellow in front completed the fly. The whole lot was busked on a size 10 hook. It was the work of a few minutes to tie up some more of these. The only difference I made was to form the body from PTFE tape instead of floss. I find this is a better fly. The Lough Arrow is exceptionally popular at mayfly time on all the loughs around here where it works well when the naturals are hatching.

2. Next up was a fan wing. Red tying silk had been used to make this fly. The tails had gone completely, as had the bend of the hook! I presumed the missing tails would have been made from cock pheasant tail fibres. A simple body of dubbed light golden olive fur was ribbed with oval gold tinsel. I could see the red tying silk showing through the fur body and wondered if this was just due to wear or if it was intended. In the end I added just a small pinch of red seal to the golden olive. A pair of small teal breast feathers were tied in vertically as wings and the fly finished off with a few turns of a cock hackle dyed the same yellowy golden olive as the body fur.

3. A very badly damaged fly was next and this one had me guessing for a while. What was that body made from? Old mayflies often had raffia bodies and I thought that was the case here but I poked about at it and in the end decided the original body was thin floss silk of some olive shade. Years spent in a fly box after hard use made determining the exact olive impossible but working on the theory the silk had probably darkened I opted for a medium olive colour. A very old reel of just the shade I wanted lived at the bottom of my materials box so I used a bit of that. The red rib was made of silk, possibly rod whipping silk by the look of it. No tails of course on the old fly but some moose mane hair would do the job. Wings were a pair of silver mallard breast feathers. A ginger cockle hackle was wound on around the wings then a turn of a grey partridge hackle given a single turn in front. I could make out yellow tying silk had been used on the original so I went with the same shade. I could tell by the style of the fly this was one of Pat’s own patterns and I made up a couple of extra flies for my own box!

4. The same fly except for the wings which in this case were mallard flank dyed yellow and the tying silk which was black.

5. A Jointed Mayfly which was clearly one I had tied. The tails had been chewed off this one but apart from that it was fine. I used moose mane for tails instead of the pheasant herls. The body is in two equal halves. The tail half is plumbers tape ribbed with brown thread. the front half is olive seals fur ribbed with globrite no.4 floss. There are two hackles at the head, the first is a cock hackle, long in fibre and not too stiff, dyed medium olive. In front of that is a french partridge hackle dyed olive.

6. Lastly there was a golden olive variant. With no trace of the tail I guessed they had been pheasant tail but I could be wrong. Tippets would have looked good too. A light golden olive seals fur body was ribbed with copper wire and palmered with a light golden olive cock hackle. The head hackle was french partridge dyed golden olive. Tying silk was olive on this one. Around here we all have very similar flies to this one in our boxes, the only stand out feature on this example was the copper wire rib.

All of these flies are best used as bob flies with the exception of the Jointed Mayfly which I find is best as a tail fly. Fan wing patterns have largely fallen out of favour but do not be deceived, they still catch trout when fished properly. Hanging the fly at the end of the retrieve is important and often brings a reaction from the trout.

Many of us fly tyers receive requests to tie up patterns for other anglers based on worn out and bedraggled examples. Personally I find it enjoyable working out what materials were used and copying the old flies as best you can. If you are asked to copy a well chewed old fly for a friend then take your time when looking at the remains of the fly and really study the materials used. Be aware that colours have usually faded and make adjustments for that. As you can see from the flies above missing tails or wings are a common problem so ask plenty of questions about the fly and don’t presume all the parts of the fly are there.

I have said this before but for me the use of pheasant tail fibres as a tail material is asking for trouble. The fish tear the weak fibres off in jig time leaving an otherwise perfectly good fly ruined. I long ago stopped using PT on my own flies and replaced them with hair such as moose mane, bucktail or squirrel. My flies do not look as aesthetically appealing but they do last a hell of a lot longer. On the flies I made for Pat I used pheasant fibres so he got the look of the original. He seemed happy enough with them when I handed the finished flies over to him this week, sitting on high stools in the Cobweb with two pints of the black stuff in front of us.

I suppose you want to see what my copies look like? Here they are –

lough Arrow
the grey fanwing
yellow fanwing
teal fanwing
jointed may
the golden olive. I was not happy with the colour, mine looked at bit too green

7 thoughts on “Old Mayflies

    1. Yes, the grey fanwing looks lovely. I am sure Pat will tempt a few trout on them next month. Tying those flies has got me thinking about other possibilities. I use CDC a lot for winging mayflies but maybe the old method of using duck feathers has potential.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m into the classics so I use duck feathers for most of my dries. Here in the US I tie and fish a lot of Catskill-style flies, either with wood duck bundled wings (like march browns, quill Gordons, red quills) or hen hackle tipped fan wings (like blue winged olives, Adams). They work well for me.


  1. I guess the wood duck you use is the equivalent of the mallard we use here in Ireland. Hackle tips are used for wings here occasionally for the smaller flies but our mayflies are big and so the mallard or teal breast feathers were ideal. These days we are tending to use CDC more and even synthetics (yuck) for wings. Our flies have a ‘scruffy’ look to them but we feel that adds to their success. Even Wulff’s I have seen tied in US are wonderfully neat and tidy compared to the ones in Irish anglers flyboxes. Styles evolve over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right about our wood duck although I think the barring is finer. To me it’s more like teal only with brown bars. It’s expensive too. Natural or dyed mallard is a very good substitute. I can see what you mean about Irish flies being a little more scruffy. Dry flies here can be neat although I do like to run an ostrich herl through the thorax to give a more shaggy appearance.

      Liked by 1 person

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