Ripple in time - the nearly forgotten art of wet-fly fishing
"I can tie the modern flies, and I do fish them sometimes," says Bill Gray as he works the water of Rock Creek with his dog Timer. "But I prefer the old wet flies. If you go down to a fly shop, you'll see all kinds of weird-looking stuff. It's more a matter of selling it to people than selling it to fish."
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

ROCK CREEK - Effortlessly, with a flick of his 111/2-foot rod, Bill Gray roll casts 40 feet of line over a deep, swift run.

Another flick of the long, limber rod mends the line, swimming the brace of wet flies - a Coachman as an attractor and a Woodcock and Green to imitate the hatching green drakes - across the stream in a downstream arc.

Subtly jiggling the rod tip, Gray imparts a pulsating motion to his flies, simulating hatching insects struggling in the current to break through the water's surface tension.

That scene took place last week on Rock Creek. But it could have been a time warp, perhaps 150 years ago on a limestone spring creek in Pennsylvania, or 300 years ago on a chalk stream in England.

A longtime Rock Creek resident, Gray is one of a dwindling number of American fly-fishermen who carry on the almost forgotten tradition of classic wet-fly fishing that evolved over centuries in Europe, especially the British Isles, and became popular in America during the early 19th century.

"Wet fly information is hard to come by," says Gray, "because we've basically lost this. It's not because of function. It works as well as it ever did."

Then Gray proceeds to relate a brief history of fly-fishing.

The earliest recorded reference to fishing with an artificial fly, he says, comes from Macedonia around 3,000 years ago. A description of a simple fly from those ancient times, made from red wool and chicken neck feathers, could be a direct link to a wet-fly pattern still popular in Britain, the Soldier Palmer, and bears a resemblance to an old American standby wet fly, the Wooly Worm.

The first reference to fly-fishing in English literature was a book written by Dame Juliana Berners in the late 1400s.

"She was a nun, and made her own flies, rods, lines, the whole nine yards," says Gray. "And those flies actually still work today."

The classic wet flies that were commonly used in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries were generally of two types - simple "soft-hackle" flies and "quill-winged" flies.

Some were bright, gaudy, elaborate creations with colorful names like Whickham's Fancy, Coachman, Alexandra or Lady of the Lake, Greenwell's Glory, Silver Invicta, Bloody Butcher, Snipe and Purple, Mallard and Claret, Poacher, and Professor.

Other classic wet-fly patterns were simple designs with drab or somber colors, and names that described their materials and colors, like Partridge and Orange, Grouse and Green, Woodcock and Red, and Black Pennell.

Classic wet-fly patterns are still favored by many anglers in the British Isles, where traditional "loch-style" fishing with "teams" of wet flies is still one of the best methods of taking fish on the numerous lakes, or lochs, and reservoirs.

In 18th- and 19th-century America, immigrants continued the British wet-fly tradition to fish for the native brook trout. The aggressive char proved to be particularly susceptible to the bright, gaudy patterns. American anglers developed some of their own patterns for brook trout and bass, often adapting reduced versions of old British Atlantic salmon flies for the purpose, with fanciful names like Parmacheene Belle, Silver Doctor and Scarlet Ibis.

It was the era of cane poles and silk lines.

Dry-fly fishing didn't become popular until near the end of the 19th century, says Gray. And when it did, a sort of class snobbishness grew around the sport of fly-fishing. Some well-heeled anglers, or those who wanted to be, looked down their noses at wet flies as unsporting.

After World War II, Gray says, spin fishing became popular, "and fly-fishing sort of died out."

When the current fly-fishing boom started in America several decades ago, advances in the technology of rods and lines, development of synthetic fly-tying materials and sophisticated new fly patterns, and reams of popular literature about the "science" of fly-fishing and aquatic entomology relegated classic wet flies and the specialized techniques of fishing them to obsolescence.

Gray, 63, was exposed to the tradition of wet-fly fishing as a child. He was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to Niagara Falls, N.Y., at an early age.

"But we spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania in the summertime," says Gray. "I had an old uncle from Scotland, who was a wet-fly fisherman. His Gaelic was so thick you couldn't understand the old boy. I wanted him to teach me to fly-fish. But he told me 'Flies are for men. Worms are for boys.' I fished with him with worms. He wouldn't let me touch a fly. I started fishing wet flies pretty young, though, probably in my early teens. Other people showed it to me."

"Where I originally came from in Pennsylvania," he adds, "the wet-fly tradition carried on. The early immigrants were of Scotch, Irish, English descent. They were practical people. Basically, the reason for fishing was to feed the family. If they could catch more fish with a fly, that's what they were using."

A pipe welder by trade, Gray traveled around the country working on large construction projects, frequently on nuclear power plants. He lived in Mississippi for a time, but grew weary of the "hot and sticky" weather. He moved to Wyoming after seeing advertisements of 1,000 miles of trout streams there. "I didn't realize they were all private," he says.

Then, he heard about a job in Missoula at the pulp mill, and came to check it out.

"Missoula," he says, "reminded me of the mountains of Pennsylvania. I said 'This is great.' "

On his first day in town, instead of checking in at the Union Hall to apply for work, he first visited Streamside Anglers, a fly shop on Broadway.

Frank Johnson, one of the shop's owners and a nationally renowned fly-tier, recommended that he try fishing wet flies on Rock Creek.

"Right here, this is where I went after work on my first day, 26 years ago," says Gray, sitting at a picnic table outside his Rock Creek log home. "I saw a 'for sale' sign in this field. I bought it and built this house. I did some logging for eight years around here. But my trade is welding. I've been welding since I was 12. I'm still fascinated with it. I still do some commercial jobs, and metal artwork when I get inspired, and sell 'em. My most successful ones are large fish flies of steel."

He's sold his metal animal sculptures all over the world.

"But I'm pretty much retired," he says.

Fly-fishing and fly-tying are his other passions. He's a fixture at the winter "roundtable" fly-tying sessions on Saturday mornings at the Rock Creek Fisherman's Mercantile. He has put in a stint as a commercial fly-tier, creating whatever patterns the customers ordered. Several years ago he was featured in a Field and Stream magazine article about his wet-fly fishing.

"I can tie the modern flies, and I do fish them sometimes," he says. "But I prefer the old wet flies. A lot of the fancy new modern stuff comes from commercialization. If you go down to a fly shop, you'll see all kinds of weird-looking stuff. It's more a matter of selling it to people than selling it to fish."

"Look at this," he says, picking up a tiny fluff of feathers on a hook, a soft-hackle wet fly. "This would never sell in a fly shop. Nobody would buy that. There's nothing to it. But that thing works great for the Mother's Day caddis hatch. I know some guys who make some of these modern flies. They call it junk on a hook."

Gray's favorite fly pattern is a soft-hackle, nothing more than a body the color of a natural insect, and the soft hackle of a chicken or game bird to match the mottling and movement of the wing.

"And I do like to tie some of the quill-winged flies just because of the challenge of learning how to tie them," says Gray. "And just for fun, I'll tie some of the old gaudy patterns, and create new ones."

He and his wife, Ginger, are avid students of the aquatic insect life in Rock Creek, collecting the bugs and observing them in a neighbor's aquarium. He's learned the Latin names of many of the insects. He experiments with tying various wet-fly versions of the naturals to match specific hatches. Sometimes, he says, he'll devote a whole year or two to fishing only two or three patterns to test their effectiveness on Rock Creek's trout.

The beauty of a soft-hackle wet fly is its versatility, according to Gray.

"A soft-hackle can be anything," he says. "If you tie soft hackles on fine wire hooks, they hang in the water like an emerger. That's the modern term for a wet fly - an emerger. And you can drag 'em deep and they work as well as a nymph. I've done a lot of nymph fishing. If you take a wet fly and put a piece of split shot above it, and dink the bottom with it just like you would a nymph, it seems to work just as well."

Sometimes, he says, he'll grease wet flies and fish them right in the surface film.

The technique of fishing wet flies is as important to success as the patterns, he adds. The classic method of fishing wet flies is a downstream-and-across cast, pretty much the opposite of most accepted modern methods of fishing nymphs and dry-flies.

"That's not the same as a fly that's dragging," he says. "When you do it right, the fly traverses the stream slowly. By mending line, you can slow its progress, so instead of swinging, it traverses the stream straight across, rather than in an arc. At some times, I'll work them upstream like a nymph."

Old-time wet-fly fishermen generally used extra-long cane rods to aid in manipulating the line on the water. Gray has made a concession to technology by using graphite rods. His two rods - custom-made by himself and Doug Persico, owner of the Rock Creek Merc - are 11 1/2 and 13 1/2 feet long. They both have the soft action of cane, however. The extra length also helps in the traditional roll-casting technique, which requires no tiring back-casting.

Traditionally, wet flies were fished in "teams," usually three at a time. When he first started fishing Rock Creek, Gray typically would follow that practice. In recent years, fishing regulations on Rock Creek restricted anglers to using no more than two flies at a time.

"Before they put the restriction on," he says, "I always used three flies. They called it the holy trinity of wet-fly fishing. I used a Partridge and Yellow, a Partridge and Orange, and a Partridge and Pheasant Tail. All three worked throughout the season. As the season changed, the trout's preference changed. You could put 'em anywhere on the leader and they would select by color."

Original materials of the old wet-fly patterns can be difficult to obtain today, he says. And he prefers natural materials to new synthetic ones.

"Some of the game birds, like woodcock, you have to rely on friends who hunt them," says Gray. "And I've got road kill and everything else around here. Partridge, you can get by with nothing but. And it's available. It's the most useful bird there is. Starling, at one time was the highest rated fly-tying material. For a blue-winged olive, a little bit of starling hackle and a pheasant tail body is as good as it gets, I think. A quill wing collects air bubbles better than any synthetic material. It takes on the chromy sheen you get on a natural emerger."

His technique of tying quill wings shiny side down "makes them look more like a nymph than any of the modern techniques," he says. "The silver air bubbles simulate the body of an insect filling with gas to bring them to the surface and hatch."

One key to tying successful wet flies, Gray says, is to tie them sparsely.

"All tiers have a tendency to wrap too much stuff on there," he says. "You should tie them sparse, especially partridge."

The late fly-tying innovator and author Gary LaFontaine of Deer Lodge was the first to write about the gas-bubble phenomenon in hatching caddis flies. His articles and books about it and the fly patterns he developed to imitate it have become famous.

"The thing was," says Gray, "they were doing this for hundreds of years" with wet flies.

One of LaFontaine's creations, however, a soft-hackle wet fly in the classic tradition called the Firecracker, is one of Gray's favorites.

On numerous occasions, he says, fishing exclusively Firecrackers in green and orange, he's dramatically out-fished other anglers using modern dry flies and nymphs on the same stretch of Rock Creek at the same time.

"Mainly," he says of his love of classic wet flies, "it's their effectiveness. If fish are feeding, and I know what they're feeding on, like a PMD (pale morning dun mayfly), I'll put on a little yellow soft-hackle, a Partridge and Yellow, and it seems like I'll catch every fish in the creek. I think it's a more relaxed way to fish, too, rather than wear your arm out. I'm sort of a traditionalist. But if it's dry flies they want, I'm glad to oblige 'em."

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com

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