Atherton’s Flies

Four of the top five John Atherton dry flies: No. 2, No. 3, No.4 and his favorite No. 5.

I wasn’t very long into my fly-tying adventure when I began blending dubbing materials to imitate the complex colors of the trout stream insects that found their way into my clutches. I recognized early on that a tan mayfly wasn’t simply tan, that its coloration was made up of a variety of shades, with their appearance affected by the available natural light. It seems I was a John Atherton fan before I ever knew who he was.

Atherton was known as a consummate artist and a highly skilled angler. His one contribution to our angling literature was published in 1951, just a year prior to his untimely death. I had never run across a copy in my thirty years of acquiring used angling books, though I learned a little about him in the writings of others. Fortunately, Skyhorse Publishing re-issued “The Fly and the Fish” in 2016 and I was able to secure a copy.

John Atherton’s artist eye saw a connection between the insects of our trout streams and the impressionist style of painting, blending dubbing materials to mimic the multifaceted colorations and particularly the lifelike qualities of the insects. He designed five numbered patterns of dry flies he felt confident fishing on any trout waters. Creating good imitations with an image of life is also my quest as a fly tier.

Last year I tackled my own version of Atherton’s No. 3 dry fly, the fly created for the many yellow bodied flies of late spring and early summer. I was working with pure silk dubbing, blending these to get a color I thought suitable, then ribbing the fly with the fine oval gold tinsel that is found on all five of John Atherton’s numbered dry flies. It is a lovely fly, but I wished to do more, to blend the same materials he specified to achieve my best impression of his patterns’ colors and their same lifelike effects.

My good friend JA has shared an interest in the Atherton flies. He blended the five dubbing mixes, kindly opening his stores of precious seal’s fur to me, that I might blend these colors too. It was the lack of seal that had kept me from following the artist’s recipes. Another facet of Atherton’s design was his selection of barred hackle capes, something I was well prepared to do. I too have loved barred hackles and appreciated their more lifelike appearance ever since I began tying flies.

Just a few from my hackle bins: Barred Rusty Dun, Barred Ginger, a dark Barred Dun, Dun Cree and a deep reddish bronze toned Barred Dun above a dyed Golden Grizzly.

That Dun Cree is beautifully barred with medium dun and ginger, and perfect for the No. 3 dry fly as a substitution for the specified mixture of ginger and medium dun hackles; and the barring gives it a very lively image on the water.

I have blended the dubbing mixtures for flies No. 2, No.3, No.4 and No. 5 using the artist’s specified natural furs and tied the first batch to add to my fly boxes in anticipation of the first hatches of springtime.

As with our major mayflies, these blended dubbed bodies offer a tableau of tones, and the sparkle of the seal’s fur and the speckled guard hairs of the hare’s ear fur ensure a shroud of air bubbles to produce that special sheen so like the living insect. I look forward to their time on the river.

It will be hard to allow enough opportunities for the many experimental patterns I have designed since the close of last season. The Atherton flies are new to me, though they are patterns proven before I was born, and thus deserving of a certain respect. Now that I have finally been able to reproduce these groundbreaking flies, I will find time for them at the end of my casts!

I always find joy in studying the history of angling and fly tying. Reading works such as “The Fly and the Fish” lead me to kindred spirits and like minds, making a real connection with that history. I find similar joy in angling with classic tackle, particularly a fine bamboo rod and reel made decades before my birth. It adds a little spark to present a classic dry fly with that vintage tackle; to watch them take a lovely wild trout once again.

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