Monthly Archives: March 2013

Partial to Partridge (Me, and the Trout)

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, October 25, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

Partridge-hackled flies are best choices

Fly-fishing

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I think just about any fly will catch fish at one time or another.

But I’m starting to think that flies made with partridge hackle would catch trout in the Crossgates Mall parking lot during a snowstorm. On Black Friday.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But this is not: Unless there was a compelling reason to use another kind of fly, my first choice on any trout stream in the world would be a simple, yarn-bodied Killer Bug with a brownish hackle of vividly mottled Hungarian partridge.

This is an ancient kind of fly, usually referred to as a soft-hackle, sometimes called spiders in the U.K. The simplicity of it appeals to me — it has the parts a fly needs and nothing else. But the main reason I like these flies is that they work so well.

Back in 1924, John Waller Hills wrote in “A Summer on the Test” that “one of the softest, most compressible patterns is partridge hackle, and, whether this be the reason or not, I consider it the best sunk fly on the Test.”

In recent years, I’ve been fishing soft-hackles much of the time, and I’ve experimented with a few different kinds of hackle feather. There are several good choices for this kind of tying.

Starling, for example, has an iridescent, greenish sheen that (I’m guessing) appeals to trout much the way peacock herl seems to. Flies with peacock herl bodies have serious mojo — the micro-movement of the herl’s fibers and its ever-shifting green, brown and purple colors.

They give an impression of life, at least to human eyes, and apparently to fish eyes, too. Starling is similar. Its very soft hackle fibers wiggle and wave around easily in the water like the flailing legs of a struggling insect. It also has the advantage of being available in small sizes for size 16-20 softies.

Hen is cheap, widely available in many dyed colors and easy to work with. You can make flies that range from tiny to jumbo, and the hackle fibers are nice and uniform, which may or may not impress the fish, but looks nice to the fly-tyer.

Hen pheasant, another popular choice, has an appealing brownish tan color and nicely tapered barbules, and it, too, is very soft, with lots of movement. It’s not quite as easy to find as starling or hen, however, and isn’t much good for flies smaller than size 12.

Red grouse also is less commonly stocked in fly shops, and it too tends to be for larger flies. Its best feature is its beautiful mottling.

But partridge is by far the most popular choice for soft-hackle flies. On a natural skin — and if you want to use this stuff, you must buy a skin, rather than the little packs of individual feathers, most of which are too big or otherwise unfit for use — you’ll find good hackles for sizes from 14 or 16 up.

The pale gray breast feathers with the sharp, fine mottling tend to be the best to tie with, but there are brown feathers on the back, in the middle of the skin, that look great with any generally brown fly, if you can find them in the right size.

The mottling is key. The hackle on these things looks like the banded legs of the kind of spiders that make your kids scream. In the water, drifting and tumbling and darting around, it’s utterly insect-like.

It may look to the fish like a caddis fly pupa, or an emerging mayfly, or a drowned adult mayfly or cranefly or spider. It probably looks like all of them, and trout love to eat them all. Partridge-hackled flies did right by me again just this past weekend. I hooked seven or eight fish on the East Branch of the Croton River in the lower Hudson Valley, and almost all of the ones I landed were at least 12 inches or better.

It was midday under a bright sun, the water was a bit shallow and there wasn’t an aquatic insect to be seen except an occasional midge or tiny olive mayfly. But the trout grabbed that fly with no hesitation, and that’s been my exper­ience much of the time.

So I’m with Hills. Soft-hackle wets tied with partridge hackle are the best sunk flies on the rivers I get to fish, here in New York.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

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Remembering John Merwin

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, February 28, 2013
http://www.dailygazette.com/
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By Morgan Lyle

John Merwin

John Merwin, founder of Fly Rod & Reel magazine and author of “The Battenkill,” was remembered as a consummate writer and editor. He died Feb. 20 at age 66. (Photo courtesy the Merwin family)

 

John Merwin was a private guy. You didn’t see him on TV, or hosting seminars at fly-fishing shows, or liking and commenting on Facebook.

But he had friends and fans, and in the week since his death, they have remembered him as an expert angler, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and one of the most important fishing writers and editors of his time.

Merwin — founder of Fly Rod and Reel magazine, longtime fishing editor at Field & Stream and author of 15 books, including the definitive history of the Battenkill River — died Feb. 20 at age 66 after a brief illness.

“Gruff, erudite, opinionated, tireless, and constitutionally candid, he was a force on the angling scene, pulling the levers of the industry from a lawn chair in rural Vermont,” wrote Merwin’s friend Dave Hurteau of Saratoga Springs, dep­uty editor and columnist at Field & Stream, who wrote an obituary on behalf of Merwin’s family.

Merwin’s “The New American Trout Fishing,” published in 1994, is a superb book — “the best modern book on trout fishing, period,” in the words of Merwin’s Field & Stream colleague, Kirk Deeter.

You could read nothing else on the subject and live a happy life as a trout fisherman.

It’s an ambitious, literary how-to book that treats readers to history, science and commentary along with instruction.

But for Capital Region anglers, Merwin’s most important book was “The Battenkill: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Trout River — Its History, People and Fishing Possibilities.”

There’s never been anything remotely like it written about the Battenkill, or most trout rivers, for that matter. It’s a richly detailed history of the river, and to an extent of trout fishing itself in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one might expect, Merwin writes about the Battenkill’s most famous fisherman, the legendary Lee Wulff. But “The Battenkill” also covers Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and “the half-mythical (Ethan) Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who were in fact a handful of arrogant tavern drunks, bullying New York settlers along the border both before and shortly after the American Revolution.”

It’s not a how-to book, but anyone who reads it will learn how to fish the Battenkill. Merwin will warn them he sometimes takes an hour to wade 100 feet, which drives some of his friends nuts but avoids frightening the big trout. And you can almost see him wag his finger when you read, “use a three- to four-foot-long tippet of 6X [or lighter with ultra-small flies] for everything except streamers, even if the book you’ve read says to use 4X with your size-14 Hendrickson dries.”

Hurteau, who fished with Merwin often, heard lots of stuff like that.

“I met John in 1995,” he recalled in an interview. “I was a young, new punk editor from the wilderness at Field and Stream. John was already a legend. I had no idea who he was. The first words John ever spoke to me in person were, ‘You talk too much.’ ”

But under the grumpy New England veneer, Merwin was a softie. “He showed you in no uncertain way that he cared about you,” Hurteau said. “He went way out of his way to take a lot of us young editors under his wing and take care of us. It’s something that has been lost a little bit in editing circles these days — people are just too busy.”

And Merwin, a Connecticut nat­ive who began his career as a newspaperman after attending the University of Michigan, “was the standard bearer for integrity in fishing writing,” Hurteau said. “We really looked to John for the right way to do things, and he was just adamant about that. He insisted that things be done the right way.”

Hence the great books, and the many great articles and blog posts, and the overall quality of the mag­azines he led.

Merwin wasn’t afraid to show his sentimental side in his writing, at least when he was writing about the Battenkill.

“After about 40 years of chasing trout from Maine to California and beyond, I know that the Battenkill is my favorite place,” he wrote. “The Battenkill is more like Bach; with green hills, covered bridges and white-clapboard villages forming the gently repeating steps of a sweetly insistent fugue in which rising trout play an occasional part. Perhaps you’ll develop a taste for it. As I have.”

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.