On this Sunday morning, I am currently tying two Black Ghost streamers, in the process of tying two sets of the streamers from my DVD, Traditional Streamers and Bucktails. I am sending one set to Darren MacEachern of Canada, author of the Daily Fly Paper Blog, for inclusion in his Streamers365 Project. The other set is for Kevin McKay of http://www.maineflyfish.com. I donated a copy of my DVD to the forum for the site’s monthly raffle (this item is set for the August prize) and I told Kevin when I had breakfast with him last March in Brewer, Maine, that I’d also send him a set of the six flies from the video to go along with my donation.
Last night I tied two each; Mickey Finn and Footer Special. I’m using the Mike Martinek Gaelic Supreme hooks, #2 8x long. The first Black Ghost is done except it is patiently waiting for its cheeks. As I held a somewhat used jungle cape in my hands, I suddenly got an idea, which resulted in a diversion. Turns out the diversion was, shall we say, time consuming to say the least. (‘Bout time I wrote a new post here anyway, something with some substance). This idea started with my post on www.classicflytying.com Then the idea morphed into something larger which is manifested here. I ran across these packs of jungle cock nail feathers, in the photo, the other night while rummaging through my fly tying stuff, looking for something else. Isn’t that the way it is? At the time I just returned them to their little place in a drawer.
I decided that I’m actually going to use these feathers up, but I’ll probably save the pack intact with the price tag on it, because I have some other vintage fly tying stuff too. It would be nice to preserve these historic artifacts “as is.” One item in my possession is really cool – I have two unopened cellophane packages from E. Hille Co. – marabou feathers with hand-lettered labels, written in ink, clearly done in a woman’s handwriting, or perhaps a man with extremely delicate penmanship. It could happen, but I’m sticking to my assumption that it is feminine handwriting. Definitely a woman. These packages belonged to my dad, Donald R. Bastian, and were in his fly tying stuff that he gave to my brother, Larry, and me after a brief tying lesson when I was twelve years old. My dad stopped tying altogether before I was born. These packs date prior to 1950. Imagine the labor involved of hand-lettering and stapling labels to packages back then.
Anyway, I’m writing a longer story about this topic that I think is interesting – these packets of jungle cock nail feathers shown here are vintage stock from E. Hille – The Angler’s Supply House, formerly of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 1936 – 2011. I bought them myself, years and years ago.
Memories of the good old days…
E. Hlle Angler’s Supply House was started in 1936 by Ernest Hille. He was from Germany, and spoke English with a thick accent. His wife also worked in the shop. Their daughter, Doris, and son-in-law, Bill O’Connor, also worked there. Ernie died back in about 1978, and his wife passed some years after. Bill and Doris ran the place until he sold it in the early 1990’s I think.
One of the local fellows in my home area, Robert M. Rinn of Muncy, Pennsylvania, and along with Ernie Hille and others, co-founded the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited back in the 1960’s. This is in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, near my hometown of Williamsport. The Susquehanna Chapter was the first Trout Unlimited Chapter in Pennsylvania. Bob knew Ernie and occasionally fished with him. He once told a group of us at a TU meeting how Ernie would take his wife along fishing. She would follow along the banks and wait on her husband hand and foot. Ernie would call her by name (which I can’t remember), and then instruct her; “Would you please bring me my pipe,” or some other menial task.
Hille’s was one of the first fly tying shops in the country to prepare fly tying kits for World War II veterans who needed “therapy” to help them recover from the devastating effects of the War.
At one time, Hille’s was the only place within a 75 mile radius where one could buy fly tying materials. Vince Marinaro, author of Modern Dry Fly Code and In the Ring of the Rise, for one, used to make the two-plus hour (at that time – the 1960’s roads), drive from Carlisle, PA, on occasion to buy fly tying materials at Hille’s.
Also interesting, the Carrot dry fly in the second edition of Ray Bergman’s book, Trout (1952), was submitted by Ernie through a local (Williamsport area) man who at the time was a young tier. His name is Albert Eschenbach, he was a contemporary of Bob Rinn, and also member of the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited for many years, I’m not sure if Al is still living. Nevertheless, I recall a few years back on the Catskill Flies Forum, someone started a thread about the Carrot. Someone posted how they had tied some up. In desperation one fishless day on the Delaware, this person tied on the Carrot, where it was summarily taken by a large trout, which was lost because the strike so surprised the hapless angler that he struck too hard and broke the tippet knot.
Ernie’s submission of the (Bergman renamed) “Emergent Dry Nymph” (Dry Fly Plate, New Dry Flies, No 17, second edition of Trout), may well have been the first “no-hackle” dry in history. Surely predating Swisher / Richards…you can read the story from Ernie Hille’s letters, published in the second and subsequent editions of Trout.
Now, back to the jungle cock photo and topic; I learned tying largely through trial-and-error and from Bergman’s Trout, E. C. Gregg’s How to Tie Flies, Ray Overton’s Tactics on Trout, and other books. I tied traditional streamers and bucktails. My favorite list of these flies in the early 1970’s included the Gray Ghost, Mickey Finn, Black-nosed Dace, Black Ghost, Edson Tigers Light and Dark, Sam Slaymaker’s baby trout bucktails, the Yellow, White, and Black Marabou streamers, and one of George’s Harvey’s favorites, the Black and Yellow Bucktail.
To dress these flies, I bought packages of jungle cock nail feathers as in the photo from Hille’s. At that time, as illustrated here, ten to a package was the only way they were sold. At least that was Hille’s decision, because they knew some well-to-do fly tiers would buy the remaining stock of capes and there would be no more. Jungle cock feathers from existing stocks within the US borders at that time were legal to sell.
In the 1970’s I played drums in a rock band, having restarted this a year or so after I got married. Playing gigs most weekends, no kids yet, I always had $50 to $100 discretionary cash in my wallet. Our rent was $60 a month. One day I walked into Hille’s shop during an afternoon break from my truck-driving job. That dates this account after 1975 because I was driving for a now-defunct firm in Williamsport called E. Keeler Company. Keeler’s was established in Williamsport in 1865, and I worked for the supply division which sold plumbing, heating, electrical, and industrial supplies. When I walked into Hille’s that day I was amazed to see several jungle cock capes lying in the glass display case. This was the first time I had ever laid eyes on one, other than “the one” mounted in one of many of Hille’s two-by-four-foot glass-front display cases on the shop wall that contained one of every item in their inventory. What was even more amazing was the price tag – they were for sale at $20.00 each. That sounds really cheap now, but that was a lot of money back then. The yearly national average price of gasoline was $.69 cents a gallon in 1977.
Bill O’Connor, Ernie’s son-in-law, told me that the ‘Feds’ had recently announced that after the upcoming January 1st, (in just a few months) it would be illegal to sell any jungle cock whatsoever, single feathers or capes. A total ban on the sale of jungle cock feathers was the easiest path for efficient law enforcement. That is why the whole capes were for sale. Bill said, “Vince Marinaro just left, he bought five of these.” There was a bit of hesitation on my part; remember that at this time, the days predating the genetic hackle of Metz, Hoffman, & Whiting, the best grade capes were Chinese and sold for eight dollars. Temptation ruled the day and I bought four of those jungle cock capes for a total of $80.00.
A couple years later, while delivering in the State College area, I stopped at Flyfisher’s Paradise (when the shop was still located in the little village of Lemont), and co-owner Dan Shields was there that day – and this is the first time I ever saw Metz dry fly capes. He had some, grade #2, priced at $12.00each. I still had band cash in my pocket, but I was so used to paying $8.00 for dry fly necks, and this seemed like a lot of money for feathers. I remember Dan’s comment that sparked me to open my wallet – “Sure they’re a little expensive, but let me ask you this: Have you ever seen a better dry fly neck anywhere?”
No, I hadn’t so I bought a light dun and a ginger for twenty-four bucks. Those were the days…pardon the slight digression from the jungle cock story, but I felt this account was relevant to the topic.
Unfortunately, Hille’s had a fire this past year in their new South Williamsport location on March 4th. They were asked by the owner to move out almost immediately, because the man who owned their building was freaked out by wanting to get the insurance settlement and renovate the place as soon as possible. I guess he thought Hille’s business would be in the way. Hille’s was really thrown a curve by this tragic turn of events. Fortunately, it occurred on a Friday morning rather than at night, or the loss might have been total because the fire would have had more time to burn. One of their employees was in the shop at the time, smelled smoke, found the fire in an overhead ceiling area in their office, called the fire department, and in the interim used a fire extinguisher to quell the flames. Computers, office supplies, and inventory were affected by the fire extinguisher chemicals.
I have been informed that Hille’s is eventually going to relocate to Chester County, PA, and operate mainly as an internet business from a private residence. This is the end of an era, and sad to say, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, my home town, no longer has an active fly shop.
I can still recall old Ernie Hille, white hair, always dressed in a white shirt and a black tie as he waited on his customers; a large man, tall, and me as a teenager going in the shop; I was always a bit intimidated by him, but that’s another story.
Note the price – the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – these packs of 10 jungle cock nails were sold for $.75 cents each. I remember when these packs were $.50 cents, before the price increase as the one is labeled in the photo. L. L. Bean currently sells ten jungle cock nails in a pack like this for $10.95. They went from 7- ½ cents a piece to over a dollar each, an increase of about fifteen times the 1970 price.
Ah, the good old days…
Packets of Jungle Cock nail feathers from E. Hille Co., Williamsport, PA, circa 1970's
Cover of Hille's 1950 catalog. Photo taken through display case glass at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York. The address here was before my time, though this location would have been conveniently located within walking distance of both homes I lived in as a boy and young man. At this address I could have stopped by the shop on my way home from high school, though, perhaps that might have had unintended consequences. I knew Hille's at their Railway Street location, in the east end of Williamsport.