Carrie Stevens Streamer Deconstruction – Who Was First?

This article is sub-titled with an old adage: “You can’t believe everything you read.” There is a very easy answer to that question, but first this: The current issue of “Fly Tyer” magazine states that a new book, just published this month by Stackpole Books, on tying streamers by a newly published female author from Maine, with barely six years of fly tying experience to her credit – not that there’s anything wrong with that 😉 – was the first person to perform and write about the process of deconstructing a Carrie Stevens streamer. In this instance the pattern was the Blue Devil. I don’t know what other information was given (fabricated) about this “deconstruction”, or exactly how this information was presented, because I no longer read that magazine, but I do know this: That statement is totally false. Reference to sub-title. 😉 The first person to deconstruct a Carrie Stevens streamer, as far as we know, AND write about it in some fashion, and record the information, was Austin S. Hogan. Hogan was written about in “Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing” by Joseph Bates in 1950, as the originator of a number of streamer patterns. Hogan was also the first Curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing (AMFF) in Manchester Vermont, a position he assumed in 1970. Austin was a noted angling historian, and a personal friend of Carrie Stevens. Hogan had acquired a number of the prepared pattern sheets similar to the ones she sold to Wendell Folkins in December 1953 when he bought her business. A number of these are photographed and shown in the Hilyard “Carrie Stevens” book.

In 1967, Hogan and a young fly tier in his learning years, Mike Martinek, Jr., of Stoneham, Massachusetts, both members of United Fly Tyers, deconstructed not one, but four Carrie Stevens streamers in Hogan’s apartment. A Big Ben, a Gray Ghost, and a couple other patterns. These flies were all damaged. One was missing a jungle cock cheek, another had a broken hook point, etc. They might be named in another article on my blog, but I’m going from memory here in the interest of getting this written. I have a lot to do this week. Mike was taken under Hogan’s wing, and lucky he was, and how fortunate for the rest of us fly tiers interested in tying streamers, and not only tying them, but also being interested in the historical accuracy of tying them correctly AND tying the patterns true to the style of the originator. Mike observed intently as Hogan did the work, each fly in a vise, and extensive notes were taken during the process. These notes were later copied and made onto poster board images. As recently as 2012 when the AMFF had the display titled “A Graceful Rise” featuring fifty women who made significant contributions in the history and rise of fly fishing and fly tying, Hogan’s set of notes were included in the display on Carrie Stevens. I took photos of those notes, downloaded them to my hard drive, and learned first-hand the exact process of Carrie Stevens streamer construction. From these notes, it can be ascertained how the “deconstruction” would go. The “secrets” of Carrie Stevens’s methods of assembly are revealed in Hogan’s notes, so one could say there is nothing new to discover. But to anyone who does not know any bit or volume of information on any subject, the unveiling of such information is always a “discovery.”
This includes the “elusive” white throat that is part of the Gray Ghost, though it was mysteriously omitted from the recipes of at least five books containing the recipe for the Gray Ghost. For the info on that, go to the search tab here, type in “Gray Ghost White Ghost” and hit the “enter” key. Here is a macro of one page of Hogan’s notes:

Copy of Austin Hogan's notes on the construction of Carrie Stevens streamers.

Copy of a part of one page of Austin Hogan’s notes on the construction of Carrie Stevens streamers. This instruction specifically refers to her Gray Ghost. Don Bastian photo.

Of course the obvious observation is this: Since Hogan made these extensive notes, diagrams, and type-written text on Carrie Stevens’s unique, self-taught methods of streamer construction, it goes without saying that he would have had to deconstruct her streamers to discover and reveal her methods. I have several images of these notes, the complete set that was on display at the AMFF, which at some point I will publish here. More recently, Graydon and Leslie Hilyard, authors of “Carrie Stevens: Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies,” also published an article including the photographic step-by-step deconstruction of a Carrie Stevens Blue Devil. This was done in 2002, in The American Fly Fisher, the journal of the AMFF. Martinek also informed me that Robert Warren, who recreated the 1800’s Rangeley Region Lake Flies in the “Carrie Stevens” book, was present during the Hilyard / Blue Devil deconstruction. Here is a link to that volume with their article: http://www.amff.com/american-fly-fisher-2002.html

I close with clarification of rumors, or glowing false statements being published: Mike Martinek is the current expert on the history, tying, and information of Carrie Stevens streamers, and her methods of tying. He was present when four Carrie Stevens streamers were deconstructed 48 years ago. Mike has been a fly tier all those years, and he has been teaching her methods for many years. A number of Mike’s students are also very knowledgeable and skilled streamer fly tiers,  and they have been  tying flies for decades. No to discredit anyone accomplishments; but some new kid on the block with less than six years experience is not suddenly the new reigning expert on Carrie Stevens, it just does not happen. Nor does being a woman from Maine and a fly tier suddenly make her or any other female resident of Maine, or any state for that matter, the next Carrie Stevens. Experience can only be earned with time and perseverance, it cannot be achieved without the actual time it requires, or bestowed or gifted by a magazine editor, or self-proclaimed by anyone who simply has not gained experience for themselves. It comes as a badge of Honor to anyone who works hard and stays at their craft for years and years. Having talent is a great help, it makes one become good at their craft, but rapid development and growth of talent can occur whether one is an athlete, musician, academic student, wood-carver, etc., but development of talent in a short time span is still no substitute for experience. The information a magazine / editor / newspaper states / presents ought to be thoroughly vetted and fact-checked before publication. That’s good journalism. Fly Tyer magazine needs to publish a correction (at least) and even apologize to their readers, and to Graydon and Leslie Hilyard, and to Mike Martinek for this misinformation as far as I’m concerned. Don’t hold your breath folks.

As noted in the “Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892” article, the “dramatic” true-life experience narratives and comments have been removed. Those of you who were part of that, I thank you sincerely for your support. I am moving on. Life is good!

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Carrie Stevens – Silver Doctor

Not too long ago a friend sent me this picture of a streamer. At first we were not sure what it was, though we were both pretty sure it was a Carrie Stevens tied fly. My friend sent the image to Don Palmer, of the Rangeley Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc, Maine, and he identified it as a Silver Doctor, though sans a few parts.

It’s pretty well beat, missing both cheeks, and the shoulder is gone as well on one side. The significant part of this image is that you can see evidence of Carrie’s use of cement / varnish, in the interior section of the wing. In addition to pre-assembling and cementing her wing components in advance; hackles, shoulders, and cheeks, she applied cement to the inner portion of the wing to help hold the fly together, and also used it to help set the wings. Here you go:

Silver Doctor Streamer, tied by Carrie Stevens.

Silver Doctor Streamer, tied by Carrie Stevens. The jungle cock cheek is missing. The normally red head has oxidized and changed color from rusting of the hook.

And here is the revealing image that most of us never get to see:

The inside of a Carrie Stevens streamer fly - look closely, you can see residue of cement that held the shoulder in place. This also bears witness to how much cement she used, and how long of the stem portion of the feathers she applied it to.

The inside of a Carrie Stevens streamer fly – Silver Doctor, missing both the gray mallard shoulder and jungle cock cheek. Look closely, you can see residue of cement that held the shoulder in place. This also bears witness to how much cement she used, and how long of the stem portion of the feathers she applied it to. You can also see more of the throat fibers exposed, revealing a bit of her unique, self-taught, layering method of applying the throat to her flies. The copy of notes I have that were made by Austin S. Hogan, angling historian, and the first curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, reinforce all that I have described here.

Don’t forget, you can click on the pic, enlarge it, and be better able to view the cement residue. Remember, Carrie Stevens was a milliner by trade, so when she started tying flies in 1920 when she was already in her forties, it was only natural for her to apply what she learned in her trade to her new profession of fly tying.

The other thing that is noteworthy; you can also see the slight up-angle of the wing, the stems are not in perfect parallel alignment with the shank of the hook, as I’ve seen some tiers do, but are at a slight angle above the horizontal line of the hook shank. I mean to me, if you’re gonna tie Carrie Stevens patterns then I think they ought to be done as she did…that is, if you know the facts and have the ability to tie the fly in “true Rangeley Style.”

Thanks to my friend, Lance Allaire of Maine, for sending these pics to me.

Black Witch – Unknown Austin S. Hogan Original Pattern

Last winter, around February I suppose, a friend from Maine, Lance Allaire, sent me a photo of an unknown streamer fly tied by Austin Hogan. Lance asked me if I knew the pattern, but I did not. In fact I’d never seen it before. I checked several sources but came up empty-handed. He sent it to me thinking I may be able to help. The long story made short is this: I finally thought that Mike Martinek, Jr., of Stoneham, Massachusetts, would be the best person to ask the question of the origin of this unknown streamer. Mike was mentored by Austin Hogan in the late 1960’s, and Mike knows more about Carrie Stevens and Austin Hogan, and many other streamer tiers, both living and dead, of the New England states than probably anyone else alive. Mike thought the pattern was called the Black Witch. I came up with nothing else in a name search, except for some fly pattern of that name in England that is much newer in origin than 1973, as this fly is dated. So I give credibility to Hogan’s Black Witch.

I wanted to tie this fly, and in asking Lance via e-mail one day about the dressing of this pattern, since from the photo he sent me I could not ascertain the presence or content of tail, tag, body, and ribbing, if in fact all these components were present on the fly. I requested if he could check the fly out for me, but Lance did something even better. “How about I send the fly to you?” Lance asked me in his e-mail reply.

“Perfect!” I replied. So I finally got around to tying the pattern a few weeks back, and today I photographed the Black Witch, both Austin’s fly and mine as well, separately and together. Here is the Black Witch:

Black Witch streamer fly -

Black Witch streamer fly – originated and tied by Austin S. Hogan, formerly of Fultonville, New York. The hook is a #6 – Mustad 94720 8x long streamer. The dark stain is where scotch tape was used over the bend of the hook to secure the fly in place. The adhesive of course, degraded over time. Austin’s original signature and date can be seen. The date is 1973, forty years ago.

Black Witch streamers -

Black Witch streamers – above by Austin S. Hogan, originator, and Don Bastian. My streamer is on a Mustad size #4 – 94720 8x long. In tying my first replica of Hogan’s pattern, I wanted to use the same manufacture of hook as his original.

Black Witch tied by Don Bastian, on Mustad #4 - 94720 8x long.

Black Witch tied by Don Bastian, on Mustad #4 – 94720 8x long.

Black Witch

Hook: Standard streamer hook, 6x to 8x long, sizes #2 to #8

Thread: Danville 6/0 Flymaster #100 Black

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Underbelly: Four to six strands of peacock herl, then white bucktail

Throat: Orange hackle fibers

Wing: Four white hackles

Shoulders: Lemon wood duck flank featheras

Cheeks: Jungle cock

Head: Black

I assembled this fly in authentic Rangeley style, cementing the hackles, shoulder, and cheeks together, and I also layered the throat in sections, starting well behind the head as Carrie Stevens did. It was Austin S. Hogan who first deconstructed some of Carrie Stevens flies to see how they were made. He made extensive notes and diagrams of Mrs. Stevens’ methods. Hogan was the first curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. Much of Hogan’s personal collection of fly fishing memorabilia is stored there.

Black Witch tied by Don Bastian.

Black Witch tied by Don Bastian.

Black Witch - tied by Don Bastian.

Black Witch – tied by Don Bastian.

Head, shoulder, and cheek macro image of Black Witch, tied by Don Bastian. I used clearPro Lak cement, several coats, and a final coat of black Pro Lak.

Head, shoulder, and cheek macro image of Black Witch, tied by Don Bastian. I used several coats of clear Pro Lak cement and a final coat of black Pro Lak.

The Black Witch is similar to another of Hogan’s patterns, the Grizzly Prince, except that pattern has an orange tail, and grizzly hackles over the white, but the lower barbs of the grizzly hackles are stripped off on that pattern. That was one of Hogans rather unique techniques, as also expressed on his Black and White Streamer. See Joseph D.  Bates, Jr., book, Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Hogan created about a dozen original streamer patterns. They are all listed in the 1996 edition of Bates book.

Elizabeth Stairing Benjamin – Lycoming Creek 19th Century Fly Tier

Lycoming Creek is my home stream. Even as a young man before I was old enough to drive, I was honing my fly fishing skills on chubs, smallmouth bass, and rock bass in its waters within the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, city limits. On rare occasions we would catch a trout, but this was the lower end of the creek, not two miles from the Susquehanna River. The creek was right over the concrete dike wall from where I lived during the years 1965 to 1971. Much water has passed under the bridge since those years.

A couple months ago I remember someone I had a conversation with speaking about a woman in the upper Lycoming Creek area of Pennsylvania, in the village of Ralston, to be specific, who tied flies in the mid-1800’s. This person did not know her name, and I was completely unaware of this woman. That changed on Wednesday, June 13th, upon my visit to the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. While returning home after a visit to the Wantastiquet Lake Trout Club near Weston, Vermont, I stopped at the museum to photograph the original fly plates from Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories, for the purpose of my current book project, The Favorite Flies of Mary Orvis Marbury. That part of my visit was successful, as well as being a great privilege to hold, view, and study these antique flies. My book will include replicated fly patterns, along with the recipes for all 291 flies in Marbury’s book, plus the dressings for a hundred or more additional Orvis 19th century fly patterns, including more than two dozen as yet unpublished 19th century Orvis patterns.

While at the museum I came across a small feature in the present exhibit titled, A Graceful Rise, a tribute to women in fly tying and fly fishing. Near the 1893 Orvis display I was studying, I discovered a small display with the name of Elizabeth Benjamin, with a few of her flies included as well. The location listed with Elizabeth’s name: Lycoming Creek, PA. This instantly piqued my interest, and sparked a memory recall from a conversation with someone about a woman fly tier from Ralston. Ralston is only about fifteen miles from my home, and it is the first “big town” above the village of Trout Run as you travel upstream, or north, along Lycoming Creek on PA Rt. 14. A brief internet search turned up a Federation of Flyfishers 2011 photograph of a fly plate that contained more flies tied by Elizabeth and some additional information about this unknown 19th century commercial fly tier.

I love this fly tying and fishing history stuff, and I thought on the heels of my recent post on Lycoming Creek that I would share the photos I took at the museum, and the information I wrote from the display notes, as well as the photo of the FFF fly plate. Here they are:

Elizabeth Staring Benjamin was born in 1829 and according to the FFF fly plate, she died in 1903. However a friend in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, has been researching her genealogy and has determined she passed away in 1907. Here are the notes from the museum display card:

“Little is known about the mid-nineteenth century woman who created some of the most popular fishing flies ever seen in Ralston, Pennsylvania. Angling historian and researcher Austin S. Hogan of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was the first curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing 1970 – 1978, found a letter written by her son Joseph in the 1930’s. Benjamin describes how his mother watched a successful Ralston angler and conducted her own informal studies to create a fly for the local waters:”

“My mother got so interested in Mr. Conley’s success she waded out into the creek unnoticed by Conley, and observed that the largest trout would always jump for certain kinds of flys…believing she could imitate the kinds of flys the trout were taking, she mentioned it to my father and they worked nights making nets and would wade out in the creek and catch the flys…”

“In order to make the imitation flys resemble the genuine ones, it was my job to procure certain kinds of feathers obtained from roosters, chickens, ducks, pigeons, and bird nests, the feathers were shaped by my mother; fastened by hand to fishhooks with different colored silk thread;…when they learned of the success of others who had purchased my mother’s hand made flys, they paid her fabulous prices for all she could make.”

An edit, June 15th, added after additional research:

Fly tier Sara McBride, daughter of John McBride, both of Monroe County, New York, has been credited as being the first female commercial fly tier in the United States. However, since Sara McBride was born circa 1844, this makes her fifteen years younger than Elizabeth S. Benjamin. Considering the documentation that Elizabeth Benjamin was tying and selling flies as early as 1853 when Sara was only nine years old, it is almost a certainty that Elizabeth Benjamin was “in business” prior to Sara McBride. Sara’s accomplishments, however, have given her a higher profile than Elizabeth. Sara created the famous brook trout fly, the Tomah Jo, first recorded in Fishing With the Fly, authored by Charles F. Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney in 1883. Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories, 1892, presented more historical information on the Tomah Jo. According to Ed Van Put and his book, Trout Fishing in the Catskills, Sara was the one of the first women to write about fly fishing entomology. Quoting from Mr. Van Put’s book: “In the spring of 1876, she wrote a series of articles in Forest and Stream titled, ‘Metaphysics of Fly Fishing.’ The following spring she published another article, ‘Entomology for Fly Fishers’ in the Rod and Gun and American Sportsman.” Sara also operated a fly fishing shop in New York City, which she opened in 1878. But a year later, Sara returned to Mumford, New York.

The information from the letter by Joseph Benjamin would seem to indicate that Elizabeth began tying flies while she was young, still living at home as evidenced by her working with her father and her brother; a family affair in fly tying. It is plausible from this information to assume that Elizabeth did the actual fly tying, while her father helped capture insects and her brother procured feathers. Elizabeth’s flies dated on the museum display were tied when Sara McBride was only nine years of age.

Flies tied by Elizabeth Benjamin in 1853. From a display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Manchester, Vermont.

Brad Gates, a friend, fly fishing historian, and researcher for the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum, and I were discussing Elizabeth Benjamin last Saturday at the 10th Annual Heritage Day Event for the PFFM. He remarked that the leader snells on Elizabeth’s flies seemed quite heavy. I replied to him that in the mid-1800’s, the Lycoming Creek brook trout were probably not leader shy.

Elizabeth Benjamin fly, 1853, bearing a strong resemblance to the Queen of the Waters. Perhaps that is what this pattern is.

A small dark pattern, tied in 1853 by Ralston, Pennsylvania, fly tier, Elizabeth Benjamin. From exhibit at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Manchester, Vermont. The body appears to be a claret color. A few stray hackle barbs remain.

This fly appears to be a Coachman. My apologies for the poor quality image, but I felt it is important to show the pattern. Peacock herl body and a white wing; perhaps the hackle was eaten by bugs, or was entirely lacking in the first place. This and the other flies shown here are almost 160 years old; tied nearly forty years prior to the 1892 publication date of Mary Orvis Marbury’s book. Note the trimmed ends on the wing feathers.

Elizabeth Staring Benjamin Fly Plate, flies tied between 1858 – 1860. Photograph from Federation of Flyfishers flickr website.

Handwritten notebook caption: “My mother Elizabeth Benjamin made these flys by hand in Ralston, Pennsylvania, in the year of 1860.” — J Benjamin – 1919

Snelled wet flies made by Elizabeth Benjamin, courtesy of FFF fly plate.

When I get the chance I want to read through my copy of Bodines, Or Camping on the Lycoming, 1879, by Thad S. Up De Graff, of Elmira, New York, to see if Elizabeth was mentioned at all in the text by Elmira, New York resident and author, Thaddeus Updegraff. This is fascinating stuff!

I did check the text of Bodines, there is no mention of Elizabeth Benjamin in its pages.

Elizabeth Benjamin wet fly, tied in 1853. Photo from website of American Museum of Fly Fishing. (My image of this fly was too blurry to publish). Born in 1829, Elizabeth was fifteen years older than Sara McBride, originator of the Tomah Jo, who is credited with being the first female commercial fly tier in the United States. While not famous like Sara McBride, it is almost a certainty that seniority in years gives the distinction of the first commercial female fly tier to Ralston, Pennsylvania resident, Elizabeth S. Benjamin. This fly was tied by Elizabeth Benjamin at age 24, when Sara McBride was only 9 years old.

On June 20th, I located additional references to Elizabeth Benjamin from these two sources:

According to an article by North American Travel Journalists Association writer Judy Florman, written in September 2002, Lyla Foggia wrote in WomensFishingOnline.com (which web address did not presently exist), “In 1858, just prior to the Civil War, Elizabeth Benjamin, of Ralston, Pennsylvania, became a legend in the area by ingeniously creating a series of wildly successful fly patterns that caught the fancy of wealthy city anglers…”

In the 2000 book, Fly Fishing for Sharks – An Angler’s Journey Across America, written by Richard Louv, this passage is written: “Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Benjamin was famous for her inventive and realistic flies, made from feathers from roosters, chickens, duck, pigeons, and bird nests.”

In conversations with Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Association (PFFMA) members and Directors, Elizabeth Benjamin is unknown in her home state fly fishing museum. I am encouraging the PFFMA to embrace the heritage of its native daughter, and earliest-known woman commercial fly tier in the United States, Elizabeth S. Benjamin. I hope others will do the same. Anyone having information of any type on Elizabeth S. Benjamin is encouraged to please contact me.