John Atherton’s Inspiration

My own rendition of John Atherton’s iconic Catskill dry fly, the Atherton No. 3

I received a comment the other day mentioning John Atherton’s dry flies, another bit of fly fishing history that gentleman and I share an interest in. Atherton the artist conceptualized the color and lifelike appearance of trout flies with the paintings of the impressionists, an intriguing and insightful revelation presented in his classic “The Fly and The Fish” published in 1951.

I have been leafing through the book recently, thinking about some of the ideas that have bounced around in my own head, and some of the commonalities with John Atherton’s impressionistic style of fly tying. We both appreciate flies that give an appearance of motion, and share a preference for barred hackle. Translucency is important to the image of life concept, and so of course is color. Examining natural insects reveals a mixture of colors in their wings, legs, tails and bodies. Atherton blended multiple materials and various shades to achieve a natural effect, something I have done since my earliest beginnings as a fly tier.

I finally sat down late this morning to bring some of these thoughts together at the vise. I enjoy a great deal of fishing to hatches of the various yellow mayflies: the March Brown and Gray Fox, sulfurs, invarias, etc. so I set out to design my own tribute to John Atherton’s No. 3 dry fly.

During my quest for enhanced translucency, I have been working with a material I carried in my fly shop twenty-five years ago: Kreinik’s pure silk dubbing. I was pleased to find it still available, and have supplemented my own supply with additional colors. This morning I set out to blend some silk dubbing for Atherton’s No. 3. His original blend used natural seal’s fur in bright yellow and natural tones, thus I blended bright yellow silk with pale yellow, cream, and pale tan.

My silk blend and two of Charlie Collins’ gorgeous barred dry fly capes provide my own touches to honor the artistry of the late John Atherton.

The classic recipe calls for medium Cree hackle fibers for the tail, which I honored, though I modified Atherton’s choice of medium dun and ginger hackle in accordance with our shared love of barred feathers. From my store of Charlie Collins wonderful capes, I chose a subtly barred medium dun, and a striking barred ginger with both light and medium ginger tones. I really like the result, finished with the characteristic gold oval tinsel rib.

Come May I plan to offer these flies to some outsized and wary Catskill brown trout. They will be properly presented with a fine bamboo rod and a classic reel, and chosen when the time is right for something both classic, and decidedly different from the flies they are used to seeing. I believe it will prove very effective, as the original has been for many anglers.

I offer this fly to honor the tradition of a fine angler and artist who was called away much too early in life. The Fly and The Fish is an excellent book, one that belongs in every serious angler’s library, and I feel certain that John Atherton had much more to contribute to the sport he loved, had he not been called to fish around the bend so soon after its publication.

2 thoughts on “John Atherton’s Inspiration

  1. Great piece,I’m glad I was able to offer a spark of interest. Getting my second vaccine shot in three weeks and looking forward to fishing together this spring if possible.


    1. NO shots available here they say, even though I finally become Cuomo Eligible MOnday. He finally recognized those of us who have serious health issues but they are not sending any vaccine up here it seems.Someone suggested I try Sullivan Co. I signed up on their list and got a system test email saying more vaccine was supposed to be coming, so I’ll see what happens. Hell, I’m worried about anchor ice as both tailwaters have dropped extremely low during this extended cold: roughly 100 cfs East and 140 West.Glad you got some!


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