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The luck of the Irish

Don MacLean
Don MacLean

Outdoor World by Don MacLean

With everyone celebrating all things Irish today, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the significant contribution made by Ireland to sport fishing, and fly tying. Many of the trout and salmon flies we use today are patterned on flies developed by Irish fly tiers many years ago.

The standard reference book on contemporary, and historic, flies developed in Ireland is E.J. Malone’s Irish Trout and Salmon Flies, first published in 1984. I am fortunate to have a copy in my angling book collection and it is a great reference on Irish flies and fly fishing. Malone doesn’t confine himself to just flies and fishing as he provides a fascinating account of the development of sport fishing in Ireland as a recreational activity for British military officers.

He also provides a poignant picture of the hardships Ireland endured over the years. Malone writes: “Hunger was a familiar companion, and when the potato crop failed in 1845, thousands died of starvation; despite all hopes, the following year proved no better, and the potato blight persisted until 1849. In these four years over one million died, and another million emigrated, mainly to America.”

Malone’s book contains 800 trout and salmon flies so one could spend a lifetime tying, and fishing these patterns. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Irish fly tiers is the original feather wing fly for Atlantic salmon. Traditional feather-wing Atlantic salmon flies have a long and interesting history. They were developed during a period in the second half of the 19th century which saw the Atlantic salmon fly become the most complex and challenging aspect of the fly tier's craft.

The development of what became known as the gaudy salmon fly is attributed to Irish fly tiers who were pioneers in the development of bright and complicated salmon patterns. These Irish tiers took advantage of silk, silver and gold tinsel and rare feathers imported for the millinery or hat making trade. By the end of the 19th century there were thousands of salmon fly patterns.

Like many aspects of life in Victorian England, flies were required to be complex, overdressed and tended toward excess. Atlantic salmon were considered to be the king of fish and only the most elaborate fly was deemed suitable to fish for them.

The natural history of salmon was not completely understood so many naturalists believed that salmon continued to feed when they re-entered fresh water. As a result, many early patterns were created to imitate items which anglers believed salmon would feed on while in the rivers such as dragon flies, wasps and butterflies.
Ireland was also an originator of an important component of trout and salmon flies, the hook. Limerick, Dublin and O’Shaughnessy were all famous hook designs created in Ireland, and still in use by some fly tiers today.

I share Malone’s thoughts regarding the selection of hooks for fly tying. He wrote: “Quality however, cannot be over-stressed and it is false economy to purchase cheap or inferior grade hooks which are invariably over-, or under-, tempered, and which generally commence rusting after use.”

Many present-day anglers continue to fish traditional feather wing flies because of their effectiveness or their love of salmon fishing history. So, as you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day give a thought to the important contribution Ireland has also made to the world of sport fishing. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.

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