Alexandra Wet Fly

The Al4exandra Wet Fly - from the 1893 Orvis Display

The Alexandra Lake Fly – from the 1893 Orvis Display in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. This fly is 120 years old. The hook size is approximately a 1/0. Note the whole light brown mottled turkey quill wing under the peacock sword. This previously unknown full quill wing is just one tidbit of actual fly pattern component discovery that I have unearthed during my research for my book, Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892. The turkey wing on the Alexandra has seemingly been missed from most, if not all fly pattern sources where this pattern was published for over one-hundred years.

Alexandra

Tag: Flat gold tinsel and red floss

Tail: Peacock sword fibers

Ribbing: Oval silver tinsel

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Hackle: Chinchilla (grizzly that is mostly white), or grizzly

Wing: Light brown mottled turkey with peacock sword topping and red splits

Head: Red or black

The Alexandra is pattern number thirty-six of the Lake Flies in Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories.

J. Edson Leonard’s Recipe for the Alexandra:

Tag: Flat gold tinsel * (see footnote)

Tail: Peacock sword fibers

Tip: Flat gold tinsel * (see footnote)

Ribbing: silver

Body: Gray floss

Hackle: Gray dun or badger

Wing: Peacock sword, red splits

* J. Edson Leonard in his 1950 book, Flies, lists the tip as a “red floss tip, gold tag,” while this is his own definition of a tip: “A tip is any winding such as floss or tinsel located immediately behind the body and may or may not be accompanied by a tag, which is always under the tail fibers, whereas the tip always encircles the tail fibers. Alternately, Leonard defines a tag as: The tag is a narrow winding of silk, tinsel or fur located at the rear of the body and under the tail fibers.” He elaborates further: “…not synonymous with “tip” which, although disputed by some authorities, is always in front of the tag winding and immediately behind the body.”

Leonard’s own line drawing, Figure 7, p. 37 in Flies, shows a contradictory labeling of “tip” and “tag.” The fly on Figure 7 shows a two-part tag and no tip, even though the front floss portion of the tag is labeled as the “tip.” I am going to go with his written definition, as it makes more sense, even though this is one of the rare occasions that I choose to place more trust in what I read rather than what I can see. I love J. Edson Leonard’s book, Flies, don’t get me wrong on that. It is very detailed and covers a ton of material. Yet there are mistakes in his fly pattern recipes taken from Mary Orvis Marbury’s book plates, that I have discovered according my visual inspection and study of the actual flies that were used for the painted color plates in Marbury’s Favorite Flies.

I listed the tag, tip, and tail on Leonard’s recipe according to his written definition of the material placement, though this contradicts further with the Marbury / Orvis published pattern, from which Leonard reputedly took his recipe for the Alexandra.

According to Mary Orvis Marbury’s writing in Favorite Flies and Their Histories; the Alexandra “was originally named by General Gerald Goodlake ‘Lady of the Lake,’ but this name was afterwards abandoned in favor of Alexandra.” The Alexandra takes its name from Princess Alexandra of Great Britain. Marbury considered that the Alexandra “may not properly be called an artificial fly, being intended as a vague imitation of a minnow, and was originally recommended to be cast and played minnow fashion just below the surface of the water.”

“The pattern was invented by Doctor Hobbs a number of years ago, and it came into great favor with English fishermen; indeed, it was believed to be so taking that its use was forbidden on some streams. The favorite method was to allow the line to run with the current, and then draw it back up stream by short, sudden jerks that opened and closed the hackles, giving a glimpse of the bright, silvery body.” (Note Leonard’s body of gray floss).

Marbury also wrote: The Alexandra is “preferred on large hooks, and is used for trout in deep, dark waters, or for black bass, for either of which it is frequently effective, owing probably to its likeness, when being drawn rapidly through the water, to a tiny minnow.”

My family and friends have found the Alexandra to be a particularly effective pattern for brook trout and landlocked salmon in Maine. My niece Emily also had success one year right over the hill from my home on Pennsylvania’s Lycoming Creek, trailing an Alexandra behind a Wooly Bugger. On that Memorial Day afternoon in 2006, Emily landed seventeen trout, and just three fish took the bugger. The remaining thirteen trout were taken on the Alexandra, Yellow Sally, and Parmacheene Belle. Guess nobody told those browns and rainbows she caught that they weren’t supposed to eat classic brook trout flies.

This writing is a sampling of the fly pattern information that my research has turned up in my work on writing my first book, Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892. The book is in the final phase of completion.

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Lycoming Creek Stream Bank Stabilization Project

The week of July 16th was planned by the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association as a work project to stabilize a section of eroding bank on Lycoming Creek in Pennsylvania, near the village of Bodines. Originally the project was to take place last September but a couple of uninvited visitors named Irene and Lee showed up on rather short notice. They were really bad visitors; besides not being invited, they chased away the invited guests, ate all the food, stayed too long, and left a mess when they departed.

So the project was rescheduled to start on July 16th when the water level would hopefully be low enough to permit completion of the work. In addition to the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association, the project also involved the Habitat Improvement Department of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who engineered the project design, biology students from Lycoming College in Williamsport, and a local contractor, Darren Smith Excavating, of Trout Run. Isn’t that a great name for a little town? It is named for the stream that flows through the village.

My friend, neighbor, and sometime fishing partner Jim and I “volunteered” to help with the project. Volunteers were requested to bring gloves, work boots, waders, hammers, sledge hammers, rakes, shovels, etc. Fun stuff. I picked him up at 7:30 AM on July 16th. We were to report on site at 8:00 AM. The project location is on property owned by Sheshequin Campground. We arrived, parked the car, talked to Mike, the project coordinator, and met the contractor, who as it turned out, I already knew. Darren had installed my new septic system at my home in 2003; a replacement of a failed gravity system dating to 1979 when my wife and I built this place.

We eventually ended up on the creek bank under the bridge, watching the water. There were rising trout all over that pool, and no one was fishing. I have to say it was mighty tempting because I had all my gear in the car. We didn’t do too much except talk for well over an hour until the heavy equipment had a chance to start, and move ahead a bit to allow for the follow up grunt work.

The plan was to install 18 three-log vanes, upstream single-bank stabilization devices on the leeward side of the bank. Darren Smith’s equipment on site consisted of a Bobcat, backhoe, a large power shovel, and a dump truck. He had already placed a couple loads of large rip-rap rock and logs on site. As the shovel and backhoe began excavating along the bank for placement of the first couple log vanes, we continued watching those rising trout. They seemed to be cruising…couldn’t tell what they were taking.

Finally three logs were placed and we got our marching orders. The Fish Commission habitat guys had a large pickup truck filled with tools and equipment; re-bar, power drills and hammers, sledges, shovels, chainsaws, etc. They were a couple young fellows who, due to the physical nature of their work, and their stature; let’s just say I would want them on my side in a fight. One end of the logs would be buried in the bank, the other rested on the stream bed, pointing upstream at about a 60 to 70-degree angle, and they were placed at a slight angle above horizontal, higher on the bank side. This design effectively slows the force of the water which causes lighter sediments, gravel, and smaller rocks to settle out of the current against the bank and above the device. Primarily the devices are intended to divert the main thrust of the current away from the bank, reducing erosion. Each of the two lower logs was drilled and pinned in place by five four-foot long re-bars. Then the top log was pinned to the lower logs by six two-foot re-bars. Once this was done, then the equipment would come in, place rip-rap, and then rock fill and soil is used to top dress each device. A couple times Darren backed his dump truck to the bank and placed an entire load, which was actually half a load due to the weight limit on the bridge over the creek. Then the backhoe would come in and arrange the rock.

The volunteers from Lycoming College consisted of a co-ed group; four people, one man and three women, both days, different crews. I will say they got right into it, which made it easier for us “old guys.” Once the holes were drilled, the team worked starting the re-bar into the logs with small hammers. Then the hammer drill was brought into play. One of the girls, who happened to be a Trout Run native, was helping the habitat employee hoist and operate this beast. This thing must have weighed about 60 pounds. The two of them elevated it to the top of each re-bar, three feet above the top of the log, centering the roughly one-inch opening of the “hammer” over the 5/8″ diameter re-bar, which wasn’t exactly easy. Keith did most of the lifting and Laura centered the hammer over the re-bar. A good team effort. Each re-bar would be driven down leaving about 5 inches protruding, which was then bent over with a long pipe lever and then pounded down with a sledge to hold the logs in place. To give you an idea of the effectiveness of power tools, the hammer drill could pound down a re-bar in about five seconds, compared to a few we did by hand with an eight-pound sledge, twenty-five to thirty whacks taking a couple minutes. Not to mention the beneficial effect of the integral cardiovascular exercise. Keith mentioned that up until three years ago, all the re-bar on their projects was driven by hand. He remarked, “That really separated the men from the boys.” I can vouch for that.

Top view of one of the first log vanes of the project. In the pool below this riffle, fish were rising until the heavy equipment put them down when the power shovel pulled out a mature oak tree in the middle of the pool along the bank. The butt end of that oak tree was cut to size and used for a bank-anchored root ball device.

Darren Smith’s power shovel excavating the bank for the installation of the butt end of the logs.

Keith, from the Habitat Dept. of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PAF&BC) prepare to life “the beast” – hammer drill into position with, Laura, one of the co-ed assistants.

Close up – Keith and Laura driving down the re-bar closest to the bank side. “Supervisor” Mike rests on his sledge hammer handle as the students pound over the re-bar.

Who was the ancient philosopher-guy who said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth?” Was that Archimedes? No matter. One of the students demonstrates the principle of the lever. The length of the pipe allows this woman of small stature to gain leverage and bend over the re-bar stubs. Impressive! I can tell you because I did a few of these myself. You had to put some “umph” into it to git ‘r’ done.

Placing a top log…nothing is drilled or pinned yet.

Watching this equipment do the work, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this valley. Near the village of Ralston there was a 2300 foot incline that was used to haul coal from the mountains.

From Wikipedia:

“The Elmira and Williamsport Railroad (originally called the Williamsport and Elmira Railroad) is a historic railroad that operated in Pennsylvania.

The W&E was organized in 1832 and ran between Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Elmira, New York. It was reorganized as the E&W in 1860, and operated its own property until 1863.

The railroad originally ran north from Williamsport along Lycoming Creek as far as the village of Ralston, and was only extended beyond it to Elmira in 1854.

In 1863 the line was leased by the Northern Central Railway, and in 1910 the line was leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The line continued to operate until 1972, when it was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Agnes.”

This was along time ago. Thad S. Up De Graff in his book, Bodines, 1879, describes a place below Ralston along the creek as “the stone wall.” This was reportedly 800 feet long. The point I’m trying to make is that all this work, the mining, logging, iron ore smelting in the Lycoming Creek valley villages above Trout Run that disappeared well before 1900 was all done by teams of men working by hand along with mules and oxen. That was back when men were really men.

Thad Up De Graff and his companions rode the railway from Elmira to Ralston for their annual fishing trips.

Another top log being lowered into position. Black fabric is visible hanging above the log in the center of the image. These device-length sections of covering are four feet wide, and are placed on the upstream side. Triple-folded top edges are nailed into place on the bottom log, and then spread out full width, and covered with stones and rip rap. The bank end of the covering is buried by the fill. Eventually the current will deposit additional fill material in the area immediately upstream of the device during periods of higher water flows. Mike and one of the PAF&BC employees look on.

“The kids” working on a device. They were a great help. Energetic.

Lycoming College Students starting the re-bar. They are enrolled in classes with Mel Zimmerman, PhD., biology instructor at the college. Mr. Zimmerman and his students do many stream-monitoring projects in this area, with a focus on aquatic entomology. During the work, it was encouraging to see these students pick up rocks and say something like, “Oh look, caddis larva.” And nobody’s cell phone or pager went off during the project.

Group effort – Keith from the PAF&BC and a student run the hammer drill (that thing was loud – note their ear plugs), while a couple of the girls share a laugh, demonstrating that this was actually fun! Partially hidden at top of image are Russ Cowles, President of the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association, conferring with an unidentified Association member taking photos.

Upstream view of the project area. The flow during the project was about 25 cfs. We ended up installing 16 three-log vanes and two root-ball devices. A root ball device is where a tree butt with root ball attached is buried and anchored within the bank, taking advantage of debris in the stream bed. One large, mature oak tree had fallen over last fall and was lying in the pool that starts just at the foreground of this photo. The butt of this was used for the first root ball. Its trunk diameter was almost three feet. The uphill slope of each log vane can be seen in this photo. My friend Jim, is in the background, half-way up the stretch of water, with the white t-shirt, preparing for the installation of the sediment covering.

This project was estimated to take four or five days. We completed it in two, except for the remaining rip-rap and fill work that needed to be performed by the heavy equipment. I imagine Darren and his employee remained later that day and into the evening to finish the work.

While working on this project, Mike mentioned that the village of Ralston, a few miles upstream, had just celebrated their 125th Anniversary. His remark made me think of the Ralston area and its native daughter, Elizabeth S. Benjamin, commercial fly tier from Ralston, born in 1829, who according to additional research I discovered started selling trout flies at age the age of 16. That was in 1845. Some of Elizabeth’s flies are displayed in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. She was quite possibly the first woman commercial fly tier in the country, since Sara McBride, who currently has that distinction as currently listed in several sources, born in 1844, would have accordingly still been in diapers when Elizabeth sold her first flies. Sara became more famous as an author and was also mentioned frequently in Mary Orvis Marbury’s book, Favorite Flies and their Histories, 1892.

And also, looking at the beauty of several beautiful surrounding mountains, with the Pleasant Stream valley to the east, my mind wandered to the thoughts of Thad S. Up De Graff and his book; Bodines; Or Camping on the Lycoming, written in 1879. What was it like back then? He wrote an account of a day spent where he and a companion walked ten miles up Pleasant Stream, their intent being to fish downstream part way, secure overnight lodging at a family log cabin and fish to the mouth the next day. At that time, Lycoming Creek was a brook trout stream. His book speaks of brook trout that averaged a pound, pound-and-a-half, with occasional larger ones being caught. His book is excellent reading, recounting ten years after the Civil War, of month-long annual trips in June spent camping and fishing on the banks of Lycoming Creek. Sometimes the good old days exert a significant pull and influence on our thoughts.

Rattlesnake Bites

I was on my way back from town – Williamsport – early this afternoon, driving the detour on St. Michael’s Road from Old Rt. 15. I am forced to make this two-mile longer trip due to my usual route of Rt. 973 being closed due to replacement of an old metal overhead truss bridge on Lycoming Creek. I had not driven a quarter mile on the road, I was going maybe 25 mph, when I saw something with my car and I immediately recognized it as a snake. I straddled it, not figuring it was anything other than a road-killed black snake. Then I remembered my neighbor and Lycoming Creek fishin’ buddy, Jim, telling me that our other neighbor, has seen a few rattlesnakes in that area of St. Michael’s road. It’s little more than a mile from my home. In this section the road passes along the base of a wooded mountainous area, rather steeply-sloped toward the south-east. That exposure combined with the dappled sunlight created by a partially open tree canopy and lots of rocks creates perfect rattlesnake habitat.

I no sooner passed over it when the thought occurred to me – was that a rattlesnake? I stopped and put the car in reverse. Not much traffic on the road, usually. When I got beside it and opened the door, sure enough, it was a rattlesnake, a smaller one about two feet long. Apparently a vehicle that passed by not long before me had hit it in the rear third of its body. No details but it was still alive, almost appearing dead, but not quite. I looked at it for a minute, wishing I had my camera with me – the eastern timber rattlesnake is not that common, and then I drove on.

The last one I saw was five years ago right here at my house, in my driveway. I never saw it until I got out of the car one morning, opened the trunk, got something out and with my mail in one and hand and whatever in the other, I started toward the back door. Then I heard the “buzz.” It was five feet from me, right on open gravel beside my patio. Startled I was! As I instinctively backed up it slithered into a corner landscaped area of shrubs and flowers between the patio and garage. Skipping the details of the next minute, (I usually have loaded firearms in the house); it was a large black rattlesnake that measured 44″. The mid-section of its body was as large as my forearm.

My father-in-law had lived in this area all his life, then at age 82, and he said it had been decades since a rattlesnake was seen where we lived “in the valley.” In the mountains a mile distant, another story, not common, but if one were to go looking for them one could probably find one.

In 2004 my wife and I encountered another rattlesnake while biking one evening on the Pine Creek Rail-Trail just above the village of Blackwell. Prior to that, I was still in high school when I had last seen a rattlesnake.

Where does that fit in with fishing? Well, some area streams keep the more timid anglers among us away just by the word that a number of rattlesnakes have been seen. Slate Run, possibly Cedar Run, both tributaries  to Big Pine Creek, to name a couple. Just ask Tom Finkbeiner, owner of The Slate Run Tackle Shop, and he’ll show you plenty of rattlesnake photos.

This also ties in with my recent posts and discussions of Elizabeth Benjamin, a 19th century fly tier from Ralston, Pennsylvania; my recent evening fishing trips to Lycoming Creek, and from referencing the 1879 book, Bodines or Camping on the Lycoming, by Thad S. Up De Graff, which I pulled off my bookshelves to see if any information on Elizabeth Benjamin was in his book. I discovered a paragraph on the treatment of rattlesnake bites. That, combined with my encounter yesterday have spurred me to write this post.

I wanted to conclude by presenting the paragraph written by author Thad S. Up De Graff, MD., from Elimra, New York; the author of Bodines, who gives his “medical” advice for treatment of a rattlesnake bite. The guy should know, right? He was a doctor, and had spent ten years, camping and fishing for a month each time on Lycoming Creek below the village of Ralston.

Quoting the good doctor Up De Graff:

“Rattlesnake bites are best treated by applying a cloth saturated with liquor ammonia over the bite, and immediately administering large doses of whiskey. Let the patient (I love how he refers to the bite victim as the patient ), drink all he will hold, or until intoxication is induced. Many physicians doubt the efficacy of this treatment, but I have seen it employed in several instances and am confident of its success. It acts upon perfectly scientific principles, sustaining the nervous system under the shock induced by the poison.”

I’d say it might be better to watch your step while fishing or traveling on foot along streams or to and from the stream when in areas of rattlesnake habitat, and never place your hands in an area you can not see. Otherwise you might have to get drunk.

Kids: Don’t try these perfectly scientific principles at home.

I drove back up a half hour later to hopefully get a decent photo I could use here; rattlesnakes are beautiful in their own way, but the poor snake had been de-rattled and run over a few more times.

Fishin’ Three, No, Make that Four Days Straight

Fishin’ three four days straight. Not all day, but every evening. It’s tough, but someone has to do it.

When I first wrote this post, I thought I had it right. Fishing’ three days straight. Then I remembered yesterday that as soon as I got home from the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Heritage Day Event last Saturday, I was all hyped up and had to have a quick “fish fix.” So over the hill I went to Lycoming Creek. Jim was fishing on Penn’s Creek, so I went alone. I took 9 – 1 0 trout last Saturday evening. Now, continuing with my original post:

It was funny, yesterday afternoon about 4:00 PM, I was outside exercising Abigail, my Cocker Spaniel, while taking down laundry from the clothesline. I noticed that my neighbor and sometime fishing partner, Jim Latini, was in his yard. About 160 yards distant. Nevertheless, I hollered, “Hey!”

“What?” Jim replied.

“Are we fishin’ tonight?” I asked.

“Sure,” Jim answered.

“I was thinkin’, since it’s been cloudy all day that we should go earlier than seven o’clock.” Most of the neighbors within a half-mile could probably hear our voices, but we don’t have that many close neighbors.

“OK,” Jim agreed. “What time?” He asked.

“How about I pick you up at six?” I queried.

“Alright,” Jim answered back.

The evening fishing was on my heritage stream, Lycoming Creek, two nights in a row. Last Saturday I had gotten an e-mail from another friend, Mike, who lives below Trout Run, right on the banks of Lycoming Creek. This friend had taken two twenty-inch browns last Friday evening, not sure on what stream, but both fish were hooked on flies that had been part of his annual spring fly order from me; one on my Floating Caddis Emerger pattern, and the other on a Cornuta BWO Para-emerger. In Mike’s message, he noted, “Slate Drakes are the gift that keeps on giving on Lycoming Creek.” Indeed. I replied to him that since June 10th, my six trips to Lycoming Creek had been Slate Drake fishing exclusively except for a few trout taken on my Floating Inchworm pattern on June 14th.

It was overcast all day yesterday, and cloudy half the day today. I checked the flow rates on Big Pine Creek, the water temperatures are in the 60’s there, current flow at the Cedar Run USGS gauge is about 434 cfs, and we’re supposed to get a couple days with temps in the 90’s. That could warm the water in Big Pine Creek into the upper 70’s, putting an end to the practical trout fishing there for the summer. But, one never can predict the weather…

I just phoned Jim and explained to him that my thought of giving Big Pine Creek a shot this evening might be a good idea. He was in agreement, so I’ll be picking him up about 5:30 PM this evening. I still have a whole series of photos and a fishing report to post here from my best ever day on Big Pine Creek of May 17th, and the last two evenings on nearby Lycoming Creek. And two or three trips to Spring Creek.

19 inch Big Pine Creek brown, one of two large browns taken on May 17th on my Extended Body Slate Drake Thorax Dun pattern. The possibility of hooking into trout like this is why Jim and I decided to head to Big Pine Creek this evening. It’s a longer drive than going over the hill to Lycoming Creek, but sometimes you just gotta give in to the lure of more exotic fishing than your home waters.

Last Night’s Fishing

Last evening my neighbor Jim and I went over the hill again to fish Lycoming Creek. It’s nice because it is only a four minute ride from where we live. He picked me up at 7:00 PM. I had developed an extended body floating inchworm pattern about a month ago, and had not had a chance to fish with it until last night. In fact until yesterday, only the prototype fly was in existence. In a word, success! My Floating Inchworm pattern will eventually be listed for sale on MyFlies.com. Some tying information and photos will be placed here on my blog after that time, but until I get the pattern officially on the site these images of the pattern in the jaws of a trout will have to do. The same goes for these pictures of my Extended Body Slate Drake Thorax Dun. A five-pattern Slate Drake series will also be placed on MyFlies.com, featuring a Thorax Dun, Parachute, Comparadun, Hackled Comparadun, and Spinner. Take your pick, they all catch trout. Er, I mean fish, as noted by the accompanying photo of a smallmouth bass that inhaled one during last night’s fishing.

A Lycoming Creek brown trout that ate my new Extended-Body Floating Inchworm pattern last night. The fly is tied, or finished, rather, on a Tiemco size #16 – 2488 short shank, wide gape hook. Overall length is 3/4″ so officially the pattern in not quite an inchworm.

Jim and I arrived at the water’s edge to find a spin angler in “our spot,” but there’s plenty of good water here so we just moved up a little. I had tied the inchworm on at the car and was soon in position, making short casts into the current. We were there barely a minute when I spotted a rise. I worked this spot to no avail, but downstream a few feet from that section there was a good-looking lie beside an exposed rock. I made three drifts, just inches away, right past that rock when on the fourth cast I saw a trout turn to follow the fly downstream, actually chasing it, and take it without hesitation. I set the hook. Jim was still tying on a fly when I hollered, “Fish on!” There would have been a photo of that rainbow but he threw the hook close in before I could bring it to hand. No matter. I landed three of several more that I rose on the inchworm, and Jim also took at least one trout on it too. In fact his first trout on it was about a 15″ brown, but it was rather uncooperative for a photos so rather than stress the fish, we released it. At about 8 o’clock I decided to tie on the Slate Drake. Thinking the highly visible chartreuse inchworm would act as a “sighter” as darkness set in, I tied an Extended-Body Slate Drake Thorax Dun onto the bend of the inchworm hook with about 18″ of 5x tippet, fishing a tandem dry fly rig. That worked well. It really helped me see the drake, but after tying on the Slate Drake the trout selectively homed in on that fly exclusively for the remainder of the evening.

A nice Lycoming Creek brown taken on my Extended Body Slate-Drake pattern. The hackle is clipped on the bottom. Brown closed-cell foam abdomen. Wing post of dun E. P. Fibers. Moose body hair tail. Rusty dun dubbed thorax. That’s about it. It lands right side up every time. No exceptions.

A seven inch smallmouth bass also took the Slate Drake.

Another brown on my Slate Drake Extended-body Thorax Dun pattern.

It was a lovely evening. We were again serenaded by the veery. There was no wind. It was cooling off very nicely. Several different mayflies, caddis, and stone flies were about. There was no abundance of flies but starting around 8:30 the trout began rising fairly well. I landed about a dozen trout in the evening. Jim also did well. But not until after I gave him a couple of my Slate Drake patterns. What are friends for?

Right before we finished for the evening, I took one last photo, a downstream view toward the west.

Dusk on Lycoming Creek. The Powy’s Curve on Rt. 15 is straight down the stream corridor, over a half-mile distant. A serene view to close the day.

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.

Lycoming Creek

My friend and neighbor, Jim Latini, and I just returned from an evening fishing trip, just over the hill to Lycoming Creek. We went above the Delayed Harvest Section upstream from Powy’s Bar, along a section known as “Powy’s Curve.” The name originated from a curve on US Rt. 15 north of Williamsport, and back in the days of the old three-lane section on the hill to Summit Lodge or the curve below that, it was an area known as being potentially dangerous to travelers due to the number of vehicle accidents over the years. Now there is a four-lane that is destined to become part of the future Interstate 99.

Lycoming Creek, downstream of this area, inside the Williamsport city limits was where I fished as a teenager with my fly rod before I was old enough to drive. That was mostly catching smallmouths, rock bass, and chubs. But those fish helped me learn how to cast and play fish on a fly rod. On a very rare occasion we would catch a trout.

Lycoming Creek is not a known fly fishing destination. But parts of it are very picturesque and just plain beautiful. Historically, it had some great trout fishing, and it still has good fishing to offer. Presently it has a decent head of stream-bred browns, scattered brook trout, and the rainbows are stocked. A good diversity and healthy population of stoneflies, caddis, mayflies, and midges feed its residents. State trout stockings are augmented by plantings of larger, two and three-year old fish from a co-operative nursery near Marsh Hill called the Lycoming Creek Anglers Club.

In the late 1800’s a man named Thaddeus Updegraff, a resident of Elmira, New York, who had also been an officer in the Civil War, wrote a book titled, Bodines, Or Camping on the Lycoming. I have a reprinted edition of that book, and it describes his fishing trips here, where they often stayed at a stream-side camp for a month or longer. One of these days perhaps I’ll see if I can post some excerpts from it. It makes for mighty interesting reading.

Fast-forward to this evening. Jim called me this morning to see if I was interested in some fishing. You bet! He picked me up at 7:00 PM, even though he lives so close I could have walked to his house, wearing my hat and vest, carrying my rod and wader bag. This section of the creek is barely two miles from my house. These photos represent a nutshell version of our evening. This is primarily a photographic post. I hope you enjoy it!

Jim tying on a fly.

Cross-stream view where we entered the stream channel. There were a couple trout rising right away. Sweet!

Upstream wide-angle view. No one else was fishing. And it stayed that way. We could see 3/4 of a mile of the stream.

Upstream view again, zoomed in a little bit. Jim moved up into this water above me and before too long…

Fish on!

Playing it in. Jim has his FFF Certified Casting Instructor Certificate. He used to work for me when I was guiding.

Turned out to be a decent sized rainbow…

…that, once in hand, cooperatively posed for this portrait. Nice plump fish. As the evening progressed more trout started feeding.

One highlight of the evening was that two veerys came within 60 feet of me and were singing their territorial call. This was the first time this year that I have heard them. Their call is very beautiful, quite different from many other birds, and has an ethereal quality to it; they are in the thrush family. Here’s a clip of their song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQSd-SjcDKo

Extended Body Slate Drake Thorax Dun – my own design / pattern version. The hackle is clipped half-way between hook shank and point. It lands right side up every time. I rose 8 – 10 fish on it this evening, and brought three to hand on this dun pattern. The abdomen is closed-cell foam, so floatation is supreme. I designed the fly about 7 years ago. It’s a good fly. I’ll try to get the pattern on here in the next week or so. I am also going to be offering a series of five Slate Drake patterns of this design on MyFlies.com. Look for them soon.

This is the first trout that took my Extended Body Slate Drake Spinner pattern. Sorry, I do not have a photo of that fly…yet. The fly is still in his jaw, you can see the leader, 5x.

The last fish of the evening. I caught eight altogether; three on the dun and five on the spinner. The hook is a size #14, but the construction of the fly with the extended body makes it about a size #8. Jim caught 5 – 6. He held this brown for a photo…it’s about a 15″ fish – there’s a better picture below. It was dark by this time, so I couldn’t see too well to pose the image.

We didn’t make another cast after this fish was netted. It took less than five minutes to drive home. We are very fortunate to have good trout fishing so close to home. Nice!

And we didn’t stop at Powy’s for a cold one. Maybe next time.