Parmacheene Belle – Revisited

Here is another Parmacheene Belle wet fly. This dressing is correct according to the original recipe written by the originator, Henry P. Wells, in the 1883 book, Fishing With the Fly, co-authored by Charles F. Orvis and Albert Nelson Cheney.

One of the commenters on my last post of this pattern on, of several weeks ago now, correctly observed that the hackle was a little full, and perhaps too long. (That fly was posted here a couple-three weeks ago). It may have been, especially a tad long, but generally, in the traditional tying style of the period (19th century), hackles were longer rather than shorter, and they were more full, rather than sparse. Tying styles and preferences can change over time, but I am a firm believer in tying and replicating flies in their original dressings and style if possible.

For example, many tiers use goose shoulder for wet fly wings, particularly married wings. My belief is: you have to use goose shoulder, but only for married wings in patterns that also call for turkey. Technically, this does not change the pattern correctness, but in actuality, goose shoulder was not used much for primary wing construction on commercially-tied wet flies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Otherwise, the Parmacheene Belle, for example, and nearly all other married wing wet fly patterns use goose or duck wing quills for the wing. There were some exceptions, as in a married wing pattern like the Munro, Silver Doctor, Lake Edward, and Ferguson, because these patterns also use turkey, which does not marry well to duck or goose wing quill sections. Hence my comment above about marrying goose shoulder to turkey. This is the Prime Directive of Married Wings – “always maintain uniformity of texture as much as possible.” The 19th century “married” wing, or more correctly named, “mixed wing” version of these patterns was generally tied with a full wing of turkey mounted first, then followed with “splits” of other colors; usually of goose shoulder, laid over the wing.

My thought is this: A Black Prince Lake Fly, for example, is properly tied and historically correct with a wing of goose wing quill. When tied with a wing of black goose shoulder, it may look good, but it (goose shoulder) generally gives the fly a “too-low” wing profile, at least when considering it as an accurate representation or rendition of a 19th century classic pattern. The low-swept wing makes it look more like a contemporary  steelhead or salmon pattern, rather than a 19th century fly, which would have the wing at a sharp upward angle of forty-to-fifty degrees. A quick glance at the color plates of the Lake Flies, Bass Flies, and Trout Flies in Marbuy’s book confirms this.

So in my case, until just a few years ago, my personal representation and tying of wet flies was in the 20th century style, with wing-tips up, melded with the divided wing style (formerly my favorite) preferred by J. Edson Leonard, author of Flies, 1950, and opposing Bergman’s method (and the generally accepted traditional method) of mounting wet fly wings with concave sides together. My 2010 wet fly article in Hatches Magazine presented the four different methods or styles of setting wet fly wings. All are correct in my view. More recently I have been somewhat converted to the older looking, more traditional, and more historically correct method of setting the wings with the tip down, giving the wing a slightly lower profile, and a perhaps more pleasing to the eye, sweeping natural curve that starts right at the base of the wing at the tie-in point. This is the result of my observation and study of the display flies from the 1893 Orvis Exhibition in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, and my good fortune to have been granted access to, and held (while wearing white cotton gloves), examined, and photographed the “holy grail” of the thirty-one actual fly plates that were used for the artist’s paintings for Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 epic book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories. There were thirty-two original plates in Marbury’s book, but Plate Z is missing from the museum collection.

The angle and mounting style of the wings was also different in the 19th century. Nearly all wet flies, whether using single or married quill feather sections, whole “spoon wing” feathers, or tips of gray mallard, barred wood duck, bronze mallard, or quill wings with splits, were all tied “reverse-winged.” That is, with the wing tied down, butt ends to the rear, tips pointing forward over the front of the fly, then pulled back over and lashed in place with a half dozen or so wraps. The bulky head of the fly included the visible folded-over butts of the stems or quill sections. This also gave the wings a higher angle relative to the body. This technique was used on blind-eye and eyed hooks, that became increasingly more popular just one year after Marbury’s book was written. John Betts wrote an article about the reverse-wing method in a 1996 article in The American Flyfisher, the magazine of the American Museum of fly Fishing. Well, I’m getting carried away, or free-lancing my thoughts on this topic…

More of this type information will be in my upcoming book, Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892, which includes all 291 of the patterns published in M. O. Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories, 1892, plus more than 200 additional patterns from the Orvis archives.

Here is the Parmacheene Belle, original pattern version; this is tied on a  size #2, vintage Mustad 3399 wet fly hook.

Parmacheene Belle -

Parmacheene Belle – this version is tied divided wing, “tip-up.” The yellow rabbit dubbing substituted for the original yellow mohair does a reasonable job of imitating the original material. Some later 20th century commercial versions of the Parmacheene Belle eliminated the silver tinsel tag, and changed the butt to black ostrich herl, and the body to yellow floss.

The only recipe change I made is I used yellow rabbit dubbing in place of Wells’ original yellow mohair specified on the body.

In March of this year, I taught an extended weekend fly tying class for Wilson’s Fly Shop of Toronto and Fergus, at a Bed and Breakfast in the lovely town of Fergus. We covered traditional wet flies, Carrie Stevens streamers using her proprietary methods, and on Sunday morning, flies from Marbury’s book. When the subject of reverse wings came up, it was unanimous that the students wanted to try this. The only problem was that the instructor, yours truly, had never done it. Their desires prevailed against my hesitation, so it was agreed that attempting the reverse-wing tying method would be a learning experience for everyone. We tied at least three patterns using this method, and everyone did fairly well with the process, despite it being a totally new experience for everyone.

One of my Canadian friends, John Hoffmann, of Fergus, tied a few patterns for my book. John works part-time for the Fergus location of Wilson’s, and also guides and does some teaching of fly tying and fly fishing for the shop. Besides the bed and breakfast stay where the class was held, John, his wife Cathy, and their Airedale, Gracie, were my hosts for a few extra days. Thanks John, Cathy, and Gracie!

I intend to make the posting of those patterns, my first effort at reverse-winged flies next on my blog – hopefully later this week. Thanks to everyone for your subscriptions and devotion to my writings!