Some writers seem fond of theorizing that the popularity of hairwing designs in the West came about as the result of the unique demands of “big, brawling Western freestones”, holding “big trout”, & the need to imitate “big Western insects”. Sounds good, at first, yet just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It is true that a clump of hair exhibits more action & will take more abuse than a paired quill wing, & that is a thing that was known before flyfishing arrived in the West. But, if hair has more action than quill, then wouldn’t it follow that hair is not a necessity of swift freestones, & in fact might even be a better choice than quill for quieter water as well? And isn’t it true that there are big freestones in the East & upper
& baitfish & large insects as well? Nope. Not buying the ‘big brawling
As one who has lived quite a few years in a remote region of the PNW, beyond the power lines for a time, I’m fairly convinced the hairwings came about out of necessity & convenience. Sure, there are wood ducks in the West, but they are elusive & seldom around when you need one, & the West is a big place. However, the country abounds with cow tails, buck tails, pine squirrel tails, ground squirrel tails, skunk tails & the tails of hairy critters of all types. In 1900 there were no cars & few roads in the West & even fewer places to buy exotic feathers shipped from
London & . Sure, rich
sports from the East visited the Far West, but the pioneer Western flyfisher
had to make most of his own gear, & I’m fairly certain there were few who
could afford to spend money on fancy quills &, instead, worked from the
lush indigenous palette regarding toppings – fur was near to hand, easy to tie
with & most importantly, effective, & the hair wing eventually became a
distinguishing feature of the Western style. New York
The 1973 edition of the old Veniard’s Fly Dresser’s Guide (already more historical than current at the time of the 1973 revision) lists twenty hairwing wetflies as trout flies, & out of that number about half might be considered steelhead flies, though at the time of original publication most trouting in America was done using #6 wetflies, so there probably wasn’t much distinction in the old days, the attractor-style patterns used for both sea-run & landlocked trout in the Far West. Most of the patterns listed are hairwing conversions of old favorite quill-winged wets, & most are of the fancy attractor type; yet there are a few drab patterns representing flies originally meant to fish for specific insects, & among these the Cahill, & the recipe given in Veniard’s not in the least resembling the original tied by Don Cahill of Port Jervis, New York, in 1887, to simulate the Pale Morning Dun & Pale Evening Dun mayflies of the Catskill region. Yet the pattern given in Veniard’s exactly matches a variant I found in a Colorado fly shop in 1973 – which I think is interesting, as Veniard does suggest that hairwing trout flies are mainly indigenous to the American West, & I now suspect that all the hairwing patterns given in the Fly Dresser’s Guide are actually patterns that were in general usage for trout fishing in the West in the early through mid-1900’s, as that appears to be the case.
I can see the possible genesis: The original Don Cahill pattern, with its characteristic wing & tail of lemon wood duck, became very popular in the East, so popular that a version with dark tan body, the Dark Cahill, soon joined the original tied with a light cream body, & then there were more offspring, including variants with gray or pink bodies. Pioneer flyfishers carried these patterns west, fished them, & morphed them to the Western hairwing style.
The Dark Cahill with its universally buggy coloration is one of those nondescript patterns that mimics a broad spectrum of insects, add a wing of squirrel tail & it serves to simulate both emergent & drowned mayflies, a stillborn or drowned stonefly, or an egg-laying sedge, or maybe a terrestrial. This pattern, with its natural coloration, may have filled an important niche in the West during an era dominated by fanciful attractor patterns, & worked well enough to remain in general usage in the Rocky Mountain region into the early 1970’s, an era when the old wetflies were increasingly replaced with evolving, species-specific type nymphs & dryflies. The ones I purchased in
Colorado worked well on the small mountain streams west
where I spent one year. And also turned the trick on an incredible stream that
we crossed in the wasteland of Denver Wyoming
traveling from Colorado to Washington,
& then again on the Clearwater in during that same
trip. Later, the Dark Cahill hairwing proved useful during upper Idaho spotted sedge
Veniard gives the instructions thus:
Tail. Brown hackle fibres.
Body. Grey fur.
Hackle. Brown *cock.
Wings. Barred brown squirrel tail.
*Most of the old wetfly patterns called for cock hackle, & it should be noted that the cock hackle of the old days was not the stiff, spiky dryfly hackle that we see today from birds bred for the purpose. The cock hackle of the old days was more similar to the bred hen necks available today. Winged wetflies were meant for fishing freestone streams, & the cock hackle was thought to be superior to softer hen. Theoretically, it would maintain its flare in faster water. But the problem I have with barnyard cock is that it often has a soft webby center which causes the hackle to hinge at the base, laying back over the fly while otherwise maintaining its stiffness. To my mind not as good as a soft hackle undulating & flared over a short thorax of dubbing. I’ve found the Whiting Hebert Miner hen to be a better choice for hackling winged wets.
The example featured here is tied as Veniard describes it – with hackle installed in-the-round, same as the ones I found in 1973
A #12 is as small as I generally go. The previous posts in this hairwing series
have featured some of the larger patterns I tie & fish for trout, so now
I’ll post some of the smaller ones. I found some old Mustad 3906B wetfly hooks that
I bought back in 1973, which is what the Dark
Cahill is tied on. Denver
Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com