Wet Fly Wings

Yesterday’s post, the Professor, was also posted on LinkedIn. A fellow there made a comment and posed a question this morning, so in my reply, which went on more like a paragraph than a sentence or two, ended up being expanded into a whole separate post in itself. Here it is. I talk more about wet fly wings; tradition, evolution, and personal preference.

Here is “Ian’s” question:

I was interested in noting your comments on tip up and tip down wings on wet flies.
I have a copy of A Dictionary of Trout Flies and of Flies for Sea-Trout and Grayling, by A. Courtney Williams, 1973 edition. This is an updated edition, the original being published in 1949.
In the colour plates most of the wet flies appear to be tied with tip down wings. As a young fly fisher in the late 60’s and early 70’s everyone I knew tied conventional wet flies with the wing tip down.
The only exception to this as far as I am aware was winged North Country wet flies (most were tied hackled) which had wings tied in the style of a very slim dry fly. This was also the case with Clyde style wet flies.
Out of interest, North Country, Clyde, and Tummel style flies were intended for fishing upstream or up and across. Fished any other way they would just appear as a blob.
Anyway, in my simple view when fishing down and across wet fly tip down wings will tend to hug the back of the fly and appear more streamlined, much like the natural nymph that they are thought to represent.
Thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Here is my reply, with quite a bit more text and info added than what I wrote on LinkedIn:

Hi Ian;
Thank you for your comment! I do not have the book you refer to. However I do have a book by T. Donald Overfield, who wrote a forward in the new edition of the book you referenced.

The discussion of wet fly wing attitude seems to be perennial. As I noted in my blog post, Marbury’s and her father’s book, Charles Orvis, both 19th century books, illustrate the flies with wing tips down. Ray Bergman’s book Trout has the patterns, 440 in all, shown with tip up. Beyond that topic, there is the discussion of concave versus convex side in or out. Much can be said on this, I’ll try to be brief.
Dave Hughes, American author with more fishing and tying titles to his credit than any author in the world, in his book, Wet Flies, states his preference for tip down, while acknowledging most (American) wet flies were tied with tip up. Pennsylvania author George Harvey also favored tip down. Not so in the 1800’s. Somewhere along the line this changed. I wrote in Hatches Magazine print edition, 2010 issue, of 4 ways to set wet fly wings. Tip up or tip down; and concave side either in or out. Some may think this heresy; but the reality is the fishermen care far more about the attitude of wet fly wings than do the fish.

Ray Bergman’s Trout was published in England in 1950. J. Edson Leonard, his book, Flies 1950, shows a photographed plate of sea-trout flies by Gabriel-Ray, (which means nothing to me); they all have the tips up. They all sound like English patterns; (not taking time to research them): Woodcock & Orange, Peter Ross (which is the English version as I am familiar with the American Peter Ross, soft-hackle, a different pattern), Butcher, Mallard and Claret, Cinnamon and Gold, etc.
I personally prefer using the best side of the feathers facing out, as all salmon fly tiers do. The flies look better that way. The colors on the top side of the feathers are bolder, more vibrant on the top, dull side, which with a satin finish, absorbs light and reflects the color most accurately. The bottom, dull, shiny, smooth side, reflects light, sometimes giving off a glare, and often the true color of the feather barbs is muted. Depending on the feather; turkey, duck, goose, guinea fowl; and whether the wing is made from wing quills, flank feathers, or goose shoulder, tying top side out exclusively will yield either a Closed Wing or Divide Wing. The Closed Wing is generally recognized as the most popular method. Examples of fly patterns with top side of the feather section facing out and provide Closed Wings are: the Professor, Montreal, Governor, Turkey Brown, or Victoria, and Alder. Examples of Divided Wing, patterns, when tied with top side facing out are any pattern calling for wing quill slips of duck, goose, guinea fowl, chicken, and also wings made from the trailing side of brown mottled turkey secondary quills, (Commonly known to fly tiers as Oak Mottled Turkey).

J. Edson Leonard’s favorite wet fly wing style is the Divided Wing. He writes, the Divided Wing will open and close in the water when action is imparted, providing more action when fished. I agree, but I also tie a lot of presentation, collector, and framed flies. The top side of the feather, regardless of curvature, relative to it’s location on the bird, is always the best looking side, so I generally face that side out on my flies, unless I am interested in historic replication of a pattern and style.

Historically, as I’m now researching the Orvis / Marbury flies of the 1800’s and have inspected several hundred specimens of them, including the original plate flies from her book, most of them were tied tip down, concave side in.
For example, a number of current wet fly tiers have used goose shoulder for wet flies, particularly, on married wing patterns. There is technically nothing wrong with that, but it is not historically accurate. I have stated before, I see no need to use feather barbs long enough for a 5/0 salmon fly on a size #8 trout hook, in tying say, the Colonel Fuller, Split ibis, or Kineo. However, one truth my students always hear from the pulpit of my wet fly wing preaching; “Tying married wing wet flies is all about maintaining uniformity of feather texture.” I’ve said that so many times over the years, it’s committed to memory. This is the exact wording of the sentence. It’s like a broken record. If tying a trout patterns such as the Lake Edward, Silver Doctor, Ferguson, Munro, which all have brown mottled turkey in the wings, then to “maintain uniformity of feather texture” one needs to match the turkey sections with goose shoulder, this matches both texture and curvature of the barbs. Turkey and goose shoulder barbs will marry nicely, and not want to cause trouble by filing for an annulment or an on-the-spot divorce.

Here is a link to an older post on my blog with information on wet fly wings, and a photo from my 2010 Hatches Magazine article, “Traditional Wet Flies,” illustrating the four different styles. All are acceptable to me.


See also, “Married Wings for Morons.” You can type that in the search tab, and just hit enter. Sorry, that is faster than me taking time to find it. 🙂

4 comments on “Wet Fly Wings

  1. Kelly L says:

    Thank you Don for this tremendous blog article. This will help a lot of people. You are always so helpful, and giving. I love the way you share your knowledge, history, and expertise. Wonderful article!

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hello Kelly;
      Glad you liked the article and info! Me? I just do what I do because I like to, and because I can. :mrgreen:! In all seriousness, thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed the info.

  2. Eunan says:

    Hi Don, If I may add something I noticed yesterday when fishing wet flies (unsuccessfully on this trip) on the Upper Delaware – All my flies are divided wing. I was fishing two fly set up, with either a nymph or wet fly on the leader and a trailer wet fly 12-18 inches off the hook bend of the first fly.
    In both instances, after several minutes of swinging these set up (45 degrees across and downstream) I noticed the leader had become super-coiled, the result of the wet flies spinning in the water – I held them close to me in the current and observed this phenomenon. Maybe it was my fishing tactics, which it appears require a serious revision as I got ‘skunked again by the Big D’ or is this something you’ve observed when fishing wet flies with divided wings versus closed wings.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Eunan;
      Years back, I used regulation wet fly leaders with two droppers, though I never used loop-to-loop, just left long tags ends and tied onto that. Over the last 20 years on our wet fly rigs, mine, family, and friends; with either two flies, or a bugger in front with a wet fly trailer, we have never had a twisting leader problem. But we’re usually fishing nothing lighter than 3x tippet even on the point fly, 4x once in a while is slow clear water with smaller flies. Maxima or some other stiff nylon works best.
      I used to notice twisting years and years ago, when I tied closed-wing, when the wings had a lot of curve, they would cross over; that’s when I had twist issues. Thanks for your comments! Hope you have better luck fishing on your next trip!

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