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the dressings for a hundred or more additional Orvis 19th century fly patterns, including more than two dozen as yet unpublished 19th century Orvis patterns.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.

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The Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet Ibis – photo credit Sandy Cole, Wikipedia. Used by Permission. Note the black-tipped feathers are only a few of the outer primaries, so you have a verifiable position of where the quills I used for these flies came from on the bird.

Back in the 1800’s nothing restricted the types of bird plumage that could be used for fly tying. The scarlet ibis was just one of the many exotic birds whose feathers were used for fly tying. Scarlet ibis plumage was used to create the wet fly of the same name. A good number of other patterns also used the wing or body plumage of this beautiful scarlet colored bird. The color scarlet, by definition, is a red tending more toward orange. Crimson on the other hand, is a deep red, tending more to the color of fresh blood. I thought the photo of this bird would be of great aid in making this post. Thanks to Sandy Cole, who also requested me to post this link along with the use of her photo: http://carolinabirds.org/

More information on the scarlet ibis bird may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarlet_Ibis

At the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Heritage Day Event in Boiling Springs last June, a man inquired of me if I were interested in tying some Scarlet Ibis trout flies from authentic scarlet ibis feathers. Of course, I replied in the affirmative, having never seen real scarlet ibis feathers before, and I was quite excited about the prospect. We made an agreement for him to send me the feathers and that was that. It was not until the Somerset, New Jersey, Fly Fishing Show in January of this year that he stopped by my table with the feathers; two pairs of scarlet ibis wing quills as shown in the next photo. The deal was I tie two flies for him, one snelled wet on a blind-eye hook, and one 20th century version, and in return for me tying these two flies I would keep the second pair of quills. A sweet deal for sure. I tied and included the Bass Fly version as a special surprise for my customer.

Authentic scarlet ibis primary wing quills, before the barb slips were cut for these flies…

So I tied a blind-eye version, using Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories, and the second pattern was sourced from Trout, 1938, by Ray Bergman.

Scarlet Ibis – trout fly version from Mary Orvis Marbury’s book. The hook is a size No. 7, Mustad 3370 japanned, blind-eye. The gut snell is post-war Japanese. The oval tinsel tag and ribbing were wound all in one shot after I wrapped the floss body. The wing is tied tip-down as was customary during the 1800’s.

Scarlet Ibis – the version in Ray Bergman’s Trout. The hook is a size No. 6 Mustad 3399. Both the tail and wing were cut from the scarlet ibis wing quills, and the wing was tied tip-up as Dr. Burke’s paintings in Trout were accurately depicted painted from actual samples.

Scarlet Ibis – antique Orvis Lake Fly version on original 1800’s card packaging. The hook was about a size #2. Note the elaborate, ornate logo design on the packaging. The Tomah Jo is visible at left. Note all three flies have bite guards on the snells.

The above photo of the antique Scarlet Ibis fly was made possible through the courtesy of my friend and fellow tier from Sydney, Maine, Ed Muzzerol. Ed is also one of the contributing tiers for my current book project, Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892, The Whitefish Press. Hopefully the book will be released sometime in 2013. Ed and I had coffee Friday evening between my obligations at the L. L. Bean Spring Fishing Expo in Freeport, Maine, March 16 – 18, where I was one of the Featured Fly Tyers. Besides delivering his finished flies for my book, Ed had brought along some antique flies to show me because he knew I’d be interested. As I ogled the flies, I suddenly remembered I had my camera in my pocket. “Can I take pictures of these?” I asked Ed.

“Sure,” he replied.

The photos above and below are the results.

Scarlet Ibis – Orvis original Bass Fly version 1800’s. This photo was taken by me on a table in the 1912 Cafe at L. L. Bean in Freeport, Maine; hand-held, no flash.

Note the extra components beyond those of the trout fly version. This Bass Fly version has a two-part tag of tinsel and floss, a married tail, a peacock herl butt, and an oval tinsel rib (tarnished on the antique fly). The name label was on a piece of paper barely 3/16″ wide, impaled onto the hook point to designate the pattern since often different flies were mounted on these cards. The fly above the Scarlet Ibis is unknown, the other side had a Tomah Jo on it. Both the red section in the tail and the wing are authentic scarlet ibis feathers. I am not sure about the hackle.

Scarlet Ibis – Bass Fly

Tag: Flat gold tinsel and yellow floss

Tail: Scarlet ibis and white goose, married

Butt: Peacock herl

Rib: Oval gold tinsel

Body: Scarlet floss

Hackle: Scarlet

Wing: Paired scarlet ibis body feathers, back-to-back

Head: I used red wool over red thread. The antique appears to have black thread, though it looks like dark red (I zoomed it in to check, inconclusive).

Scarlet Ibis Bass Fly version – tied by Don Bastian. I placed the white strip on top of the scarlet ibis quill section in the tail; I think it looks better there than having the red strip right below the wing. The hook is a Mustad 3366 Size No. 2; a modern fly version of this historic pattern on an eyed hook for conventional fishing use. The wing is made from two paired feathers of Whiting American Hen Cape dyed red – a pretty good scarlet color for this fly. The hackle also came from the Whiting hen cape and was wound as a collar. Two strands of peacock herl (wound simultaneously) taken from near the eye were used to get long barbs of herl for the butt. A red wool head gives the fly a vintage appearance. I can’t wait to try this fly on some lake, pond, and river in Maine this spring and fall.

Group shot of Scarlet Ibis flies tied by Don Bastian – Orvis patterns, both trout and Fancy Bass Fly versions, and the version listed in Trout by Ray Bergman (bottom center).

Scarlet Ibis flies and wing quills. Note the exact perpendicular cuts of the slips relative to the barbs taken for the wings – always cut perpendicular to the run of the barbs, never parallel to the stem. This provides for better accuracy in the visual measurement of your scissors tips when cutting straight across the barbs.

Scarlet Ibis – Orvis Version

Tag: Oval gold tinsel

Rib: Oval gold tinsel

Body: Scarlet floss

Hackle: Scarlet

Wing: Scarlet

Head: Scarlet wool if desired

Scarlet Ibis – Bergman Trout Version *

Tag: Flat gold tinsel

Tail: Scarlet duck quill section(s). It was customary to use just a single quill section on tails; somewhere along the line in the 20th century tail slips from matched pairs became popular; and that is my preference so perhaps that has also influenced fly tiers in their wet fly tying.

Rib: Flat gold tinsel

Body: Scarlet floss

Hackle: Scarlet

Wing: Scarlet duck quill sections

Head: Black thread, or scarlet wool of desired.

* I wish to clarify that the “Bergman” version of the Scarlet Ibis in Trout is not Ray Bergman’s personal pattern of this fly. Like all of the more than 400 wet flies in his books, Ray merely published popular and standard pattern recipes of his day as they were commercially produced and most commonly available. Ray originated only one wet fly, the Quebec, published in his last book, With Fly Plug, and Bait, 1947. I have several Bass Fly Scarlet Ibis patterns tied up.