The Art of Salmon Fly Tying: A Journey Through History

With over two centuries of captivating history, the world of classic salmon fly tying has evolved into an art form. Join me, Michael Radencich, as we delve into the rich tapestry of literature and lithography that chronicles this fascinating craft.

The Allure of the Classic Salmon Fly

Whenever I sit down to tie a classic salmon fly – an endeavor I’ve passionately pursued for a quarter-century now – I can’t help but draw a parallel between this art form and classical music. Both have a storied history and continue to evolve. The legacy of the classic salmon fly spans more than 200 years, originating in the British Isles and finding its way into the pages of books since the early 19th century, with no end in sight.

Discovering these books felt like a treasure hunt, with their stunning hand-colored plates captivating my imagination. As an artist at heart, I couldn’t help but be enamored by these vibrant paintings and the techniques used to create them. Hand-colored engravings emerged in the early 19th century as the primary method for illustrating books with colored illustrations, gradually giving way to chromolithography in the 1860s.

While I don’t claim to be a historian, I’ve immersed myself in countless books on the subject of the salmon fly, particularly those adorned with the aforementioned hand-colored engravings. One such gem I had the pleasure of owning was Daniel’s Rural Sports, a luxurious, leather-bound three-volume set published in 1804. Among its many exquisite plates, one depicted a beautifully rendered Atlantic salmon alongside two classic salmon flies – possibly the first hand-colored plate featuring salmon flies ever published. While historians may verify this claim, stumbling upon that engraving filled me with excitement.

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Further exploration uncovered more books adorned with vivid hand-painted etchings – some painstakingly realistic, others embracing a more creative or stylistic approach. The finest examples were the works of the Adlard brothers, whose art graced Jones’s Guide to Norway and Salmon-fisher’s Pocket Companion (1848). The latter, in particular, showcased eight breathtaking colored plates, my personal favorite being “The Major”. Other notable works illustrated by the Adlards included Edward Fitzgibbon’s The Book of the Salmon (1850), Francis Francis’s A Book on Angling (1867-1885), and Hewett Wheatley’s charming publication, The Rod and Line (1849).

The Iconic ‘Blacker 15’ Classic Salmon Fly

Among the rare books showcasing hand-colored plates, those featuring the Adlard brothers’ engravings were unparalleled in their accuracy. However, William Blacker’s Art of Fly Making (1855) also held its own, boasting 22 engravings, 18 of which were colored, meticulously illustrating the salmon and trout fly patterns he extolled. Tying the “Blacker 15” flies proved to be both challenging and rewarding, as some pattern descriptions left room for interpretation. Nevertheless, Blacker’s earlier book, Art of Angling (1842), provided fly-tying and feather-dyeing techniques, though it was his 1855 work that truly solidified his legacy.

One of Blacker’s patterns, which left the materials for the wing open to interpretation, resembled a cadenza in a classical music concerto. It beckoned the tyer to employ their imagination and fill in the blanks, much like a soloist showcasing their virtuosity in an improvised passage. Undoubtedly, Blacker intended for us to tie this pattern with a suitably flamboyant wing.

Revd Henry Newland’s The Erne (1851) predated Blacker’s work, offering a compelling little book exclusively dedicated to the classic salmon fly. Its subtitle, “Its Legends and Its Fly Fishing,” encompassed a single plate of hand-colored engravings featuring snelled salmon flies. Similarly, just two years after Newland’s publication, Thomas Tod Stoddart’s The Angler’s Companion explored the rivers and lochs of Scotland.

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It’s worth noting that many of these 19th-century fishing books weren’t limited to the classic salmon fly alone. They often featured extensive information about trout fishing and trout fly-tying. Stoddart’s treatise, for example, included a single plate of six hand-colored salmon flies, seemingly intended for use on Tweed.

As the classic salmon fly evolved, so too did the artistry of the etchings. Later works incorporated fly plates rendered through the chromolithograph technique mentioned earlier. Fraser Sandeman’s By Hook and By Crook (1894) stands as an interesting example, showcasing stylistic chromolitho plates of classic salmon flies. While these renditions may not be highly realistic, their beauty and ethereal quality are undeniable, a testament to Sandeman providing the artist with ample creative freedom.

Of course, there were other intriguing books on the classic salmon fly from across the pond, delving into salmon and trout fishing, and fly-tying. Genio C Scott’s Fishing in American Waters (1869), for instance, featured an uncolored plate of classic salmon flies, alongside realistic insect renditions used for catching salmon – a discovery that caught me by surprise.

Another noteworthy publication is Robert Barnwell Roosevelt’s Game Fish of Northern States and British Provinces (1884), which extensively covered trout, salmon, and other game fish. While it lacked etchings of the flies themselves, pages 273 onward listed a plethora of Canadian classic salmon fly recipes. Hook makers would find the appendix particularly intriguing, featuring plates of O’Shaughnessy forged hooks, ranging from small trout hooks to 8/0 salmon irons.

No discussion of the classic salmon fly would be complete without acknowledging the monumental contribution of George M Kelson. His work, The Salmon Fly (1895), not only presented a vast array of fly patterns but also featured several chromolitho plates. These vibrant, imaginative renditions, while more realistic than those found in Sandeman’s book, left an indelible mark on the modern-day salmon fly-tying community. Moreover, Kelson’s treatise inspired a generation of talented and fearless tyers to try their hand at tying these patterns without a traditional vice.

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As with developments in classical music, the art of tying the classic Atlantic salmon fly continues to evolve. Today, modern tyers create new, highly artistic patterns that catch the eye as much as they catch fish. It’s tantalizing to imagine what these flies will look like in the next 10, 20, or 50 years. If only I could witness their evolution firsthand!

Join us at Hook’d Up Bar and Grill as we celebrate the timeless art of salmon fly tying, encapsulated in the rich history and vibrant beauty of these exquisite creations.