The Gray Ghost is unquestionably the most famous streamer fly ever created. Contrary to popular belief, according to the account presented in Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies, 2000, The Stackpole Press, by Graydon and Leslie Hilyard, the Gray Ghost was actually not the pattern that Carrie Stevens caught her record-breaking six pound, thirteen ounce brook trout on at Upper Dam, Maine, on July 1st, 1924. The entry in Carrie’s own handwriting in the record book at the Upper Dam House records the successful fly as “Shang’s Go Get-um.” There is no modern record of a Carrie Stevens pattern called Shang’s Go Get-um. And the mounted record brook trout Carrie caught was presented to her friend, Charles E. “Shang” Wheeler. Shang Wheeler is responsible for getting Carrie started and interested in fly tying in 1920. The fly in the jaw of the mount is a Shang’s Special. Perhaps this is a courtesy to her friend, or perhaps it is the same pattern with a name change, as Hilyard suggest as a possibility. We will never know.
I tied my first Gray Ghosts while still in high school, back in the late 1960’s. Over the years I bought and acquired different books that included the Gray Ghost. I first saw the pattern at age twelve in 1964, because in 1938, the already popular pattern was included in Ray Bergman’s book Trout, written in that year. I started reading Trout on that first day after I caught bluegills on a Yellow Sally wet fly in a Pennsylvania farm pond. I bought the first Gray Ghost I ever fished for seventy-five cents at a local sporting goods shop in my home town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Like many commercially tied Gray Ghosts, it had yellow bucktail substituted for the golden pheasant crest.
Ever since that time I have tied and fished the Gray Ghost. It was successful for trout in my home state of Pennsylvania, but in more recent years I fished it primarily on my trips to Maine starting in 1986. My brother heard from other anglers and reported that gray marabou makes a great Gray Ghost variation; we tied them and caught trout and salmon on them too. even a little pearlescent Flashabou added makes it fish. 😉
My brother Larry and I, also collaboratively originated the Gray Ghost Wooly Bugger, back in 1987. That pattern was included in Gary Soucie’s book, Wooly Wisdom, 2005, but listed as origin unknown. I can clarify its origin dating to 1987, and I plan to eventually get that pattern up on another post.
Back in the early 1990’s, after taking salmon fly tying lessons with my Canadian friend Rick Whorwood, who hosted guest instructors Rob Solo from Newfoundland, and Bob Veverka, author of Spey Flies, at his home, I learned to focus on more exacting proportions and ways to improve my fly tying. I transferred what I learned about tying salmon flies to all my flies, particularly classic wet flies that I began tying with renewed passion in 1993. These lessons, more or less caused me to become more detail-oriented in my fly tying. Another factor in this development was that I had gotten a jump start on detail orientation by commercially tying trout flies in the fall of 1989. I tied more flies in that first year that I did in the previous twenty-five years combined tying mainly for myself. I wore out the 25-year old set of jaws on my Thompson Model-A vise in the first year. Tying commercially; if you can do it, is very good discipline.
After all these years, a good number of Carrie Stevens streamer patterns have turned up among the collections of anglers, estates, and happenstance, and they continue to do so. A story I can personally relate; I met a man while demo tying at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine last fall in 2012. In 2009 he received a “bag of streamers” from an elderly man in his nineties who had lived in the Rangeley Lakes Region. The man who received the flies was new to fly fishing. He used some of these streamers, lost some in trees, lost some in fish, and lost some on rocks and logs. One day while fishing with a licensed Maine guide, the guide noticed the streamer fly on his tippet and took a closer look at it. It was a Carrie Stevens original. The guide asked, “Do you have any more of these?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I have a streamer wallet full of ‘em.”
The guide was struck as he examined the streamers therein. “Where did you get these?” The man told him that they had been given him by an old man who said he was no longer fishing and would not need them.
“Do you know who tied these flies?” the guide asked.
“No,” the man answered.
“These are Carrie Stevens’ flies!” the guide declared.
“Who’s Carrie Stevens?” the man queried. The interesting thing is that when enlightened by research to their value and the significance of Carrie Stevens, the man donated the nearly forty remaining original Stevens streamers to the museum in Oquossoc, Maine.
In more than seventy-five years, one would think there is nothing new to discover about the Gray Ghost. However, I recently discovered this fact: The White Ghost, a Carrie Stevens companion pattern to the Gray Ghost, shares the same components and is identical to the Gray Ghost except for the wing color. At first I thought it curious that the White Ghost had an added white hackle throat, while the Gray Ghost did not. It is not noticeable on most of her originals, but it can in fact be seen on several of the Gray Ghosts on the back cover of the previously mentioned book, Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies. Like the White Ghost, the Gray Ghost does indeed have white hackle fibers as part of the throat. They are an integral part of the pattern. However, I and a few thousand other people never knew that until recently. Here is what I discovered: It is interesting, even amazing, to note regarding the white hackle portion of the throat on the Gray Ghost; the written recipes in these six books, in order of their publication:, Trout, 1938, Ray Bergman; Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing, 1950, 1966, Joseph D. Bates; Flies, 1950, J. Edson Leonard; Trolling Flies for Trout and Salmon, 1982, Dick Stewart and Bob Leeman; Forgotten Flies, 1999, Complete Sportsman; Carrie Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies, 2000, Graydon and Leslie Hilyard; have this fact in common: the component of the white hackle throat on the written Gray Ghost recipes is missing!
It is included in Austin Hogan’s notes and drawings that he made in the 1960’s on Carrie Stevens’ tying methods; it is included in the written text of Bates book, it is included in the text devoted to Carrie Stevens tying methods in Trolling Flies for Trout and Salmon, and it is shown on the photographic step-by-step tutorial of the Gray Ghost in Hilyard’s book.
Bates writes about Carrie Stevens tying methods, detailing her construction of the Gray Ghost: “Now the throat was tied in. A small bunch of white bucktail extending beyond the barb of the hook was tied in under the rearward part of the white underbody. This surrounded the white underbody and was applied here so it would point backward, rather than backward and downward. Immediately ahead of this a small bunch of white hackle (all of approximately the same length) was tied in, in the same manner, to hold the bucktail up and to extend the whiteness of the throat forward.” P. 175.
I first noted the addition of the white hackle throat on the White Ghost in the summer of 2011 when I tied my first specimen of that pattern. It was not until I photographed Austin Hogan’s notes at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, this past June of 2012, brought them home, downloaded them to my computer and began reading and studying them at a later date.I did not remember the white hackle throat on the Gray Ghost from these listed books, but comparing this new information from Hogan’s notes to the books, that I discovered this omission of decades. It is fascinating that this missing component was inadvertently perpetuated through multiple publications. I am not finding fault with any of these distinguished authors, I merely find it interesting. It’s almost as if there was a conspiracy of sorts, or perhaps a curse of secrecy. All kidding aside, here is the photo and text from Austin Hogan’s notes on Carrie Stevens tying methods from the American Museum of Fly Fishing Display:
Photo caption: No. 6 – White, lustrous, stripped saddle hackle or cape hackles are tied in next (to) the white hair. The underside of the shank may be lacquered if necessary to blend the fibers to the hair. The advantage of the white thread now becomes evident. No. 7 – More white fibers are added in the same way until the bare shank is covered to a point where the throat (a golden pheasant crest) is to be placed. It’s probable Mrs. Stevens had the underbody of a minnow in mind. The fibers are to flow backward and are proportionate in volume and width to the bucktail. Too long and too heavy helps turn the streamer on its side.”
Austin Hogan was the first Curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and he actually deconstructed, wrap by wrap, Carrie Stevens’ streamer patterns to make his notes on her methods and techniques. Hogan’s star streamer pupil, Mike Martinek, Jr. of Massachusetts, was also involved in some of these deconstruction sessions. Austin Hogan’s notes are currently in the possession of Mike Martinek, Jr. Mike has been the standard-bearer of carrying on and teaching Carrie Stevens tying methods for decades.
Note that Mr. Hogan’s deconstruction of Carrie’s Gray Ghost revealed that she layered the white hackle in with multiple applications of small bunches of fibers. Leslie Hilyard covers this method of tying in the throat of black and orange fibers on the Hammerhead pattern in his book. However, the presence or absence of a bucktail underbelly, golden pheasant or silver pheasant crest underwing, peacock herl underbelly or underwing, all changes the process of material placement for tying streamers in authentic Carrie Stevens style. Until a few months ago, I had been tying Carrie Stevens streamers in traditional Eastern fashion, as Hilyard states, like many other people, as are the reproductions of Carrie’s patterns in Forgotten Flies, attaching everything at the head. Even H. Wendell Folkins of Tamworth, New Hampshire, who purchased Carrie’s business in December 1953, tied her patterns in normal fashion, and did not use her methods. There is a difference, and I now have dozens more representations of the same pattern that I tied before and after my recent determination to tie Mrs. Stevens patterns accurately and in her traditional style. (Except for the fact I’m not tying in hand, folks).
I personally believe if we find out that any original and historical information is discovered to be wrong or incomplete, then if possible, we need to correct it. Perhaps I’m being extremely detail oriented about this, but I also feel it’s important to get things right. I am making the same effort on my current book project on the Orvis / Marbury flies; the title is Favorite Fishing Flies – 1892.
I try to write nothing other than the truth and facts to the best of my ability. I do appreciate those of you that have called out my mistakes, whether they are omissions or incorrect information. Mike Martinek, Jr. has been aware of the white hackle throat for decades, in fact, as I noted it was published in Bate’s book as far back as 1950, though I can not say that for certain since I do not possess a first-edition copy of his book.
I believe the white hackle throat on the Gray Ghost is part of the pattern, as it is on the White Ghost. Of course most commercially available Gray Ghosts don’t have the white hackle throat, and it fishes. otherwise it would not have become and remained the most popular streamer in history. Depending on your reference source, Carrie Stevens created more than one-hundred streamer patterns, and there are none of the rest of these patterns that I know of with components that are included in the dressing but intentionally not “listed” as part of that pattern. As meticulous a tier as Carrie Stevens was, the loss of the Gray Ghost white throat hackle fibers on published pattern recipes that lasted for seventy years was through no fault of her own because she never made a serious effort to publish her patterns or recipes.
It makes perfect sense that Carrie’s two Ghost patterns are identical in every way except for the wing color. I cannot explain why all these books did not include the white hackle throat on the Gray Ghost recipe. Some of them had the information and yet, somehow it was overlooked in the pattern recipe. Perhaps some authors took pattern recipes from commercial fly tying houses, or just accepted popular dressings, but I know for a fact that Carrie Stevens was a personal friend and corresponded with Joseph D. Bates, Jr., and she also wrote and sent flies to J. Edson Leonard for his book.
This is interesting! My study of her tying methods regarding material placement has given me a renewed interest in tying her patterns. I shall continue. And please folks, if ever I error in my statements or presentation of facts feel free to point that out to me.
And in my edit this post I decided to and these new Gray Ghost images:
A pair of Gray Ghosts. A Carrie G. Stevens streamer pattern, first found listed on one of her invoices in 1934. No argument here; the Gray Ghost is the most famous streamer pattern ever created, and not likely to ever be surpassed in that distinction. Note the different markings on the silver pheasant shoulders. Personally I prefer the fine barring, while many of Carrie’s original Gray Ghosts sport the heavier barring of the shoulder feather.