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THE TYING OF THE FLIES
John McDonald
May 27, 1957
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.
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May 27, 1957

The Tying Of The Flies

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SUMMARY OF THE BERNERS FLY DRESSINGS

'TREATISE' NAME

POSSIBLE IDENTIFICATION

BODY

WINGS AND/OR HACKLE

Dun Fly No. 1

March Brown—Skues
February Red—Hills

Dun wool

a) Wings: Section of partridge quill feather
b) Wings: Partridge body feather
c) Hackle: Partridge body feather (Hills)

Dun Fly No. 2

Olive Dun—Skues & Hills

Black wool

Wings: Dual, section dark mallard quill veiled with feather from under wing of Jay

Stone Fly

Stone Fly—Skues & Hills

Black wool made yellow under wing and tail

Wings: Section mallard quill

Ruddy Fly

Red Spinner—Hills
Great Red Spinner—Skues

Ruddy wool ribbed with black silk

a) Wings: Dual, section mallard quill veiled with red capon hackle
b) Wings: Section mallard quill
Hackle: Red capon, tied palmer
c) Wings: Section mallard quill
Hackle: Red capon, under wing only (Hills)

Yellow Fly

Little Yellow May Dun—Hills; and, with some uncertainty, Skues

Yellow wool

a) Wings: Dual, section mallard quill dyed yellow veiled with red cock's hackle
b) Wings: Section mallard quill dyed yellow
Hackle: Red cock, tied palmer
c) Wings: Section mallard quill dyed yellow
Hackle: Red cock, under wing only (Hills)

Black Leaper

Caddis

Black wool ribbed with peacock herl

a) Wings: Red capon quill feather
Head: Blue silk (or wool)
b) Hackle: Palmer-tied dun

Dun Cut

Yellow Dun—Hills
Sedge Fly—Skues

Black wool with yellow stripe down side

Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill whipped with barked hemp

Maure Fly

Green Drake—Hills
Alder—Skues

Dusky wool

Wings: Brown mallard breast

Tandy Fly

Gray Drake—Hills
Oak Fly—Skues

Tawny wool

Wings: Light gray mallard breast tied back to back

Wasp Fly

Wasp—Hills
Crane Fly—Skues

Black wool ribbed with yellow thread

a) Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill
b) Tied natural

Shell Fly

Grannom—Hills Sedge—Skues

Green wool ribbed with peacock herl

a) Wings: Section mottled buzzard quill
b) Smaller, like a Grannom, down wing

Drake Fly

Alder—Hills

Black wool ribbed with black silk

Wings: Brown mallard breast feathers
Head: Black silk (or wool)

Key: a) first choice; b) alternative one; c) alternative two.

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.

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.

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