Ray Bergman – Some Clarification and Edification

I recently noted a comment on line regarding the history of a wet fly pattern called the Francis Fly; someone thought perhaps that it was first tied by Ray Bergman. My memory started telling me otherwise so I did some research. This in turn prompted me to write this post, primarily to put some thoughts I have had in mind for some time into action, that is to clarify what I believe are some growing misconceptions about Ray Bergman.

For clarification regarding the Francis Fly, it was published (possibly not for the first time) in Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories. At that time, Ray was one year of age. The notes in Marbury’s book give no date for its origin.

I am a Bergman fan, not solely of course, but like many anglers and fly tiers I was influenced early on because his book, Trout, was my one and only source with illustrated fly patterns when I was still young. And as noted below, no other previously published book contained more flies to look at. With the popularity of Ray Bergman currently on the rise, there is a corresponding proliferation of concepts, stories, and information about him that is misleading. Ray Bergman was a fly tier, a writer, a businessman, and a fisherman. He was also a plug fisherman, spin fisherman, and bait fisherman, for all species of fish. His favorite angling method was dry fly fishing.

His book Trout when published in 1938, contained more illustrated flies than any book in previously published, I am fairly certain it retained this distinction until Forgotten Flies was released in 1999. Trout is the most popular fishing book in history, and it is the only fishing book ever published to remain continuously in print for over 50 years.

The main misconception of Bergman is that he seems to be getting undue attention and credit for fly patterns he never created. In my research, and this is confirmed by his great-grand nephew, Ray originated over 30 patterns, mostly drys, but among almost 500 wet flies published in Trout and his other books, Bergman originated only one wet fly, the Quebec. It is a pretty unassuming pattern.

While conducting research for my Bergman biography in Forgotten Flies I was informed by his niece that Ray tied the patterns for the color plates of Trout. She was in position to know; she and her husband – Ray’s nephew Buddy Christian, lived in Nyack, New York, the same town as Ray. The Bergman’s had no children; growing up, Buddy was like a son to Ray and his wife Grace. I have no reason to dispute this. Footnotes in Just Fishing – 1932, Ray’s first book, states: Flies painted by Dr. Edgar Burke from samples provided by William Mills and Sons. It is not indicated in the text that Ray or anyone else tied the flies for the paintings. Next question, Burke’s paintings are still around, but whatever became of all these flies?

There has been discussion on other forums about Dr. Burke’s renderings of these flies, even questioning his ability (which is subjective) as an artist relative to the way Bergman’s flies were actually tied. I think that notion is somewhat irrelevant and not very important. This is interesting to ponder perhaps, but not significant. Dr. Burke was an artist, and as such, individuals have a choice to express their artwork through their personal style, and observers may choose to like or dislike his or any other artist’s style or subject matter.

Ray was a production tier, because he sold his flies through his mail-order business, which was essentially a mom-and-pop operation. Ray Bergman did not produce what we today seem to crave as presentation flies from tiers posting our work on the internet. Bergman’s remaining original flies are valued because of who he was, and because of his popularity, not particularly because of their quality as perfectly-tied flies. I have a special feeling when looking at Bergman’s flies – the historical significance of them, even if certain elements lack perfection, this does not detract from their value.

Dr. Burke was very detail oriented, as noted by Eugene V. Connett IV, whose father founded the The Derrydale Press and was a boyhood friend of Edgar Burke. In the forward to My Friend the Trout, by Eugene V. Connett III, his son relates that he recalled stories his father told him how Burke’s mother would become upset at him for keeping dead game birds and waterfowl in the family freezer, even while still in high school. He did this to measure feathers with calipers to get proportions correct in his paintings. Yes, besides his fly artwork, Burke is also well known among collectors of waterfowl and upland bird art. Accordingly, I place well-deserved faith in Dr. Burke’s paintings as to the placement of components and proportions, but he most likely painted the flies, if in fact they were tied by Ray Bergman, for his color plates according to standard pattern proportions. Who tied the flies for John Alden Knight’s Theory and Technique of Fresh Water Angling, 1940? They were painted by Dr. Burke in the same style as the flies in Bergman’s books. This is perfectly understandable and acceptable.

Some have stated the fly heads on Burke’s paintings look too shiny, polished, and smooth. Too perfect and it’s not historically correct. That may be true, but the problem with that is what? Why not? Why would Edgar Burke or any other artist have to paint the heads as they may in fact have been – rough, dull, uneven, and lacking uniformity? To me smoothly finished, well-shaped heads are a hallmark of the quality of a well-tied fly. Ray most likely used head cement or varnish, so then there would be some shine to the heads. The heads on production flies in the 20th century were improved over 19th century, especially comparing the large Lake and Bass flies where reverse winging was necessary to keep the wing from pulling out when fished. Heads on the 19th century Orvis and other company flies look pretty bad in some instances, others look good. I think even then this was a product relative to the skill and preference and detail-orientation and level of achievement of the individual fly tier. Nevertheless, Burke’s artistic interpretation of fishing flies expresses his individuality and may never be fully understood other than for what it is: his personal creative style. He passed away in the early 1950’s not long after completing the new flies for the second edition of Trout (1952).

To me, improving details of flies is the ability and choice of our current generation, there is nothing wrong with tying a historic pattern and making it look a little better than an antique fly, even when replicating blind-eye patterns. That’s my view, as an artist. Again, individuals may choose to appreciate and agree with me or not.

Through my study and preparation for the Bergman Collection on Hatches Online I found 54 variations between the paintings and written recipes. With that many flies and the book produced with a typewriter, Ray wrote on tablet in pencil, and Grace did the typing, so there are bound to be inconsistencies.

Another topic: Through his popularity, and the recipe component listings in Trout, Bergman proliferated and because of my education on wet flies mostly through his book, so did the I, for many years, the erroneous misconceptions that still exists concerning tags, tips, and butts. Also, Ray never mentioned this term, tail-tag, which I believe, according to J. Edson Leonard in his book, Flies – 1950, is the correct one. A tail-tag clearly describes the tail on the Zulu, and Brown Palmer-Red Tag, a short stub of wool or other material.

The way the recipes in Bergman’s books are set up, with the blocked graph listings, and the little boxed spaces for each ingredient, may have had something to do with that. In some cases Bergman made some notes on the recipes, but without the illustrations, these can create more questions.

A result of my continual education and enlightenment on fly components, speaking on just one topic, is this: I believe that these five components: tail, tail-tag, tip, butt, and tag, should all be easily identifiable and certified as to their correct placement by their name alone. They are all different. One ought not to have to consult a photo or illustration to be able to understand their placement.

Leonard is clear on this in the written text of his fly nomenclature chapter in Flies, yet he was an artist, did his own illustrations for his book, and his own written definition conflicts with his illustration of tip and tag. He labeled a part of the “tag” – the floss section ahead of the oval tinsel portion of the tag as the “tip,” even though by his written definition, a tip “always encircles the tail.” The illustrated fly on Fig. 7, Fly Nomenclature, in Flies, technically does not contain a tip. The tip on Leonard’s illustration could be correctly illustrated in place of the butt, at the end of the body, or to illustrate the butt as well, then immediately ahead of the butt, though usually tips and butts do not occur together. None of this is of any concern to the fish, yet I feel that there is benefit in clarification to interested fly tiers.

My hope is to present more of this type of information in the future to resolve questions like this about Ray Bergman and any other fly tying topic for clarification and posterity, if for no other reason. Thanks for your time in reading my words.