How to Look at a Silver Doctor
Trout flies have fascinated me from the beginning, and salmon flies, with their complexity and beauty, filled me with wonder from the first.
In order to have flies with which to fish during the good old days of the Great Depression, I had to teach myself to tie them. Long ago, before this great age of fly-tying today. Only after years of tying the simpler trout fly, did I get up the courage to try a full-dressed, Victorian, Imperial salmon fly. The results may have been good enough to fish with but far from good enough to show off to anybody.
And so, excusing myself from the considerable expense of the rare and exotic materials for the salmon dressings, not to mention the skill and plain hard work to tie them decently, I gave up the idea.
And now, here we are today: many are the brilliant young tiers who tie them well, some nearer and nearer to perfection, along the asymptotic curve that arrives infinitely closer and closer to perfection, but can never, ever, quite make it.
I think now that I am glad to be rather low down on that curve, happy and content to be a keen appreciator of the work of those talented strivers after perfection that their extravagance deserves.
I love trout and salmon flies because they have a life of their own above and beyond their power to lure fish. They live as beautiful objects with an intimate bonding to the idea of running, fresh waters, lovely lakes, and to the dreaming of anglers.
And they have quite settled their claim on us as, if not as works of imaginative art, then at least as an important, artful craft. Today, one might just find them shown in a gallery.
Is there a champion among them? Is there one grander, more lovely than all the others? Is there a favorite among the favorites?
Perhaps. In the hierarchy of fishing flies-- and there is a hierarchy, as in all things-- among those claiming pride of place in our imagination, there is one. And I would argue, that the champion is the Silver Doctor.
I run on while trying to find a first sentence for what I really want to do, the idea behind this preliminary palaver. I want to conduct a museum-like tour, on a wall on which hangs….
Ladies and gentlemen, if I may direct your attention, here at my right hangs a framed photographic image of a Silver Doctor fishing fly designed for fishing for Atlantic salmon. It is a highly traditional pattern of English, nineteenth century, origin. The tier or dresser, as he or she might like to be called, is unknown. This image is unusual because it is gigantic, over six inches from the eye to the bend of the hook-- 3x enlarged. It feels quite solitary and chaste in its presentation.
Look at it for a moment, and, surprise! It appears to be a “real” fly, in all its three dimensions. It is in fact a spontaneously occurring Trompe l’oeil. Somewhere, somehow, between the tier, the photographer, the printer, the glass, and the one who framed it, this thing leaps into a faux life of real depth. It looks like a real fly framed!
Staring at it now, we can experience the excitement and pleasure of watching a synthetic reality striving for actuality in three dimensions.
So, in this sense of excitement, I would like to tell you about this picture of this Silver Doctor as it hangs before us.
I would like to tell you about it, not in the way of a fly tier, but just for you and me, for whom it hangs here as an object of artful design and composition. Shall we look at it?
The fly is tied on a classic salmon fly hook hugely enlarged, almost seven inches from stem to stern. Note that the steel wire of which the hook is forged, though hard to see, is oval, the finish, Japaned; that is, flat black. The eye of the hook is a graceful loop of the oval wire turned back upon itself and bent upward. Note the all important bend of the hook, as it turns down and around to its point is a classic. (Surely the hook is one of the most fundamental and symbolic of tools.) And this one is perhaps the most beautiful of all the many hook bends, the Limerick. Irish? Yes. Ireland, where these salmon flies originated. It is the Limerick bend that allows the fly’s body its graceful and living descent to the hook’s point and barb.
Are you with me? Shall we go on?
See how the fly’s “tail” emerges from the fly’s body at that point where the hook begins to turn down toward the point. But before we speak of the tail, there are these ceremonial elements on the upper-most bend of the hook, tiny bits of preparation and respect for what is to come. The first element, then, in the fly’s dressing are three or four turns of the finest silver tinsel rope of French manufacture followed up with a 1/8 inch “tag” of bright yellow Japanese raw silk floss, wound closely to the hook. Then, look to the “butt” which is a single closely wound turn of bright red fur. Salmon flies are nothing if not of richly structured details, like these, all in a harmony.
And now to the tail proper and one common to most salmon fly dressings, a single feather from the golden crest of the golden pheasant. Glistening, sparkling gold; every feather in the bird’s crest bending in such a way as to remind the angler of how his fly rod bends to the power of his cast. As we shall see, nature has had greatly to do with the gestalt, the essential form, of the salmon fly.
I may as well speak of it here and now. When the feather of golden pheasant crest is tied in properly at the tail position and later, another and larger one at the eye of the hook, we will see a characteristic and memorable space or form, enclosed by the careful meeting of the two tips of the golden crests. It is within this defining space that the wing must eventually fit, every bit of it, and exactly. This shape of this enclosure, determined by the stubborn natural curve of the pheasant crests, more than any other single factor, defines the full-dressed Atlantic salmon fly. Though this form is not quite clear in the image before us, I think we will agree that it is an enclosure of the loveliest shape and proportion. It is a true emblem.
Before we pass on to the “body”, I might add that I have seen the fly’s tail made of more than the crest feather, with a touch of a blue chatterer feather of electric blue. The chatterer, a rare and now forbidden African bird, rides atop the crest. We must speak more of this color blue later.
The body of this Doctor is of silver French tinsel. Note closely that it is not flat, but oval and embossed, wound over a silken core, a sort of flatish oval rope of silver. Once laid on, The same oval tinsel is spiral wound up the body as its “rib”. The body might as readily be done in a flat tinsel with the oval rope spiraled over it. Such are the nice differences in salmon fly dressings.
The “throat” hackle or “beard” comes next. Note that it is of two parts, first the dyed blue rooster hackle with the black and white spotted guinea foul feather next on top and up front. See how nicely the beard is confined under the hook and how it sweeps back so nicely, just far enough, like a beard, toward the bend of the hook. One thinks of the word “swimming” in connection with these flies: they want to swim, or to stream through or against the water.
We can put it off no longer, the matter of this blue color, this special, one and only, Silver Doctor Blue that is so difficult to describe, yet so exacting. It is hard to come by, hard to find in the shops, and difficult for those who dye feathers to get just right. Even fly tiers find it hard to describe; though they know it for sure the instant they see it.
It is a blue softer than the sky or my shirt. It might be closer to “baby” blue. Certainly it’s a springtime blue-- maybe closer to the blue in the Swedish flag. But it is this delicate blue, this touchingly lovely tint of blue, that promotes the defining idea of silver in a Silver Doctor.
Because, my friends, I now direct your attention to the glorious wing with that dominant strip or “slip” of blue running along its side back to the tip where those crests should meet perfectly, all contained in the curving jointure of the two crest feathers. But in the fly before us, they don’t quite fit…. Is it "studied imperfection", or is this a fly tied not for a museum like this, but for the working day on the river? In any case,
Atlantic salmon fly wings are highly complex structures, layered up from the inside with a darker stronger, supportive feather first, often from the bustard, sometimes brown turkey. This is commonly combined with that basic feather of these flies, the dark brown, flecked with black, “bronze” flank feathers from a mature mallard drake. This plumage is laid onto the side or rolled over the top of the bustard. Then comes a bit of the black and white marked flank feather of our mallard, or even a teal to complicate and enhance our image.
You say that you cannot see all this darker under-wing? Well, you must trust me: it is there, hiding, until water it works its magic and can come alive to jar a salmon’s memory of his glory days of feeding at sea. With that vision before him, he may just rise to take a whack at it-- this thing of feather, fur, tinsel, and steel.
But back to the wing. We notice that the blue strip isn’t alone along the surface of the wing. Look and see an equal slip of yellow. We ought to see another of red, the three “married” into one. This “marrying” is done by holding the slips side by side and stroking them until their edge barbules, hook together and they become one. The finest, and traditional, feather for this work is the flank feather of a swan, contraband now and so substituted for by domestic geese.
But, I can hear you muttering that you can’t see the red strip. Well, neither can I. In this photograph, the red strip has divorced itself from the blue and yellow and is hiding somewhere deep in the under-wing. This tectonic shift of material is not uncommon, alas, even in the finest of salmon flies. They are easily roughed up.
We are not done with that wing, however. Note yet again how it fits in the embrace of the two golden crests. This shape is downright beautiful, don’t you agree? It has become an archetypal form containing as it does the married strips of swan, in that ineffable Silver Doctor blue, yellow, and, too shy to be seen, the red.
I have seen Silver Doctors that carry an even fuller wing, with, for instance, a ray of golden pheasant tippets, a surprisingly lovely accent in orange with black tips. Or with more guinea foul back and white. Fly tiers will do what they must in order to set their personal mark on this highly traditional pattern-- as long as the tradition remains in tact and what they tie looks to us all like a true Silver Doctor.
In any case, we see the wing topped off with the golden pheasant crest feather that we spoke of earlier. It is the very essence of grace.
“Enough”, you say? Not yet. This Silver Doctor will not be dismissed with its jungle cock “cheek” unnoticed. This strange, plated feather is from the neck of a south-east Asian jungle foul, rare and expensive. It, of course, is the “eye” of the fly. It is what sees and is seen. For anglers have long understood this mystery of the eye: that we live with all our fellow creatures eye-ball to eye-ball. And fish are no different. Surely they, too, look first to the eye of their prey. Any fly, plug, spinner, any lure whatever, will be more effective if it carries the representation of the eye.
And so, the penultimate touch is that cheek of a jungle cock “nail”. Elegant, rich, exotic, glamorous.
Here we are now, at last, up against the eye of the hook where all these materials are tied in and down with the finest black silk thread. It is the fly’s “head”. Note how nicely it is tapered and ready to swim out ahead, bearing behind it all the riches of its dressing , daring any salmon that swims to come and have a look and just maybe take it.
And, note that the head is lacquered bright, blood red!
And so, we have it, this high-craft object of artful design and composition. It is defined and identified as a “Silver Doctor” by its lightning-like silver and blue. It is enriched in brown, touched with black, and stunningly flagged in complementary blue and yellow. All of it, accented in blood red. And, to our wondering eyes, it becomes in its frame, on this wall, an amazing trompe l’ oeil.
Shall I trouble the waters of this experience more by calling your attention to this fly’s being pointed the “wrong” way? It is customary to show a fly with its head facing to the right. We can only wonder why the fly before us is reversed…. Could it be that this side is its better profile? Now we must wonder about the other side… would we find that red slip hiding there?
With that, thank you for hearing me out. I hope you enjoy this picture as much as I do-- every time I see it. And if there is a salmon fisher among you, or, heaven forfend, a fly tier, I hope I may be forgiven any shortcomings in my remarks. I hope I need not run for cover.