Autumn On The EB

Autumn On The EB

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Is A Catskill Dry ?

"I wish you could see them! I never saw so many rotten flies in my life. I was literally astounded. You know the stuff - Mills'Best and a bunch of English flies. Of all the miserable soft hackle, lathered on in bunches! It is no wonder that he became such a magnificent caster. If he hadn't learned to put those flies down so carefully they would not have floated". A fellow angler critiquing the dry fly selection of the GREAT dry fly fisherman George LaBranche from Catskill Rivers by Austin M. Francis

It seems that I've been seeing,in print,and hearing the proclamation that a dry fly that has hackles wound around the front of the hook shank is a CATSKILL style dry fly. The great Catskill tiers, Gordon, Christian, Steenrod, Cross, Jennings, the Darbees' and the Dettes would have all objected to such a simple minded statement. They developed and refined the Catskill style but were not the first to tie a dry fly that way. Here's the story:

Theodore Gordon communicated via letter to the great English fly tiers of the day, Fredric Halford in particular, (early 20th century) and was able to secure instructions AND materials to tie English dry flies. Their dries, created decades before American dries, had hackles would around very close to the eye of the hook and Gordon copied that but objected to the poor quality English hackles and the fact that these flies copied English insects. The other great tiers mentioned above changed everything. First, they insisted on the stiffest hackles. Second, they moved everything BACK from the eye of the hook and Third, they tied a slim, sparse dry fly much different from the English style. That is the Catskill style as seen in the photo above of a  Light Cahill which, as the story goes, was first tied by Dan Cahill, a brakeman with the Erie Railroad. Cahill has another claim and that is that he was the brakeman on a train that had a load of rainbow trout from California. The train broke down and he convinced the crew to save the trout by dumping them into Callicoon Creek, a Catskill stream, where they established themselves. The rest is history.

God only knows how many trout have been taken with this style. We do know one thing and that is that this imitation of an adult mayfly is not as popular as it was decades ago. That's probably because we know now that the rises that we see are rises for the emerging insect and not the adult. Also, this fly will get beat up after a fish or two. I switched over to the comparadun over 30 years ago because it represents the adult and, with it's body stuck in the surface film, the emerging insect too. It will float forever! It also survives riffles and fast water very nicely, a fact that is still not accepted in dry fly circles.

I fish comparaduns but love the look of a traditional Catskill Dry!!!



Adam said...


The new space age hackles make tying those traditional dries a breeze. You probably started tying with Indian capes like I did. It was a chore.

Adam B.

Hibernation said...

Ken, isn't the "Catskill" reference to a style, v group? In other words, when I hear catskill, I'm thinking of flies created by the likes of Gordon Et Al, but also with some simple stylistic points - head finished about an eye behind the eye - leaving some bare hook for example.

Sort of like "Wulff's", also being palmered hackle flies, but bushier and with deer or calf hair for tails and wings vs the dainty look of "Catskill" flies... Or how the "Rangely" streamer has become the stylistic name for anyt streamer tied in similar style.

I guess, over time, it's sort of like calling a sony or cannon copier a xerox machine :)

All that said, I'm 100% with you on the compraduns - they work, awesome. Ill still do some palmer flies, mostly for small streams where the romance of fishing a wulff, bomber, EHC etc just feels good... but beyond that, it's pretty much comparaduns for dries, or CDC "shuttlecock" style emergers...

Love your points there.


Brendan Mackinson said...

I think it was Peter Hayes in Fly Fishing Outside the Box who offered the interesting theory that these Catskill-style flies were actually poor imitations of adult (dun or subimago) insects... the tails are too thick and heavy and the way the fly is designed to float, perched on the tip of its tail and its legs does not imitate the way an actual dun floats (with its body curved up so the tails do not touch the water). According to Hayes, thankfully for us fishermen, the design does a rather poor job of floating on the tail and hackle tips, and soon rolls over and/or breaks through the surface, where it does a decent job of imitating an emerger or a cripple, which the fish prefer anyways. The poor quality hackle of the past may have actually aided in the fish-catching ability of the fly by causing the fly to float lower in the film. Though Halford would certainly roll in his grave to learn he was actually fishing emergers, not pure dries, the rest of us can learn a valuable lesson about fly design (or mis-design). Patterns like parachutes, comparaduns, and emergers are effective in part because they intentionally behave in the way the Catskill flies accidentally behaved, like vulnerable insects stuck in the surface film.

Millers River Flyfisher said...


I believe that's what I said: a slimmer profile with the "head" moved back.




Gary Cranson said...

Another EB dry fly morning, fooled 3 saw many, 1st & 2nd with a #10 hi float attractor, 3rd with a #14 parachute, as the sun got higher switched to wets but no luck. This in the same spot 3 weeks in a row fish and no competiton, only saw 1 guy headed up river, Water level is dropping wading and positioning is getting easier.

Ken I will be in touch.

Millers River Flyfisher said...


Guided a guy this evening who caught his first trout on a dry. Fished the EB. A BIG chunky rainbow that fell for a elk (deer) hair caddis. 16 inches or better. It was a thrill!!

Cady Lane awaits you!!!!


Anonymous said...

While I mostly fish parachutes, and Ususals, its still important to have a few "Catskill" styles in your box when the fish want some movement. Love the Dark Varient for the ISO!

Anonymous said...

I agree that this style is nice to look at but there are so many other "schools" of tying that produce a more effective fly.


Parachute Adams said...

For a change of pace I tried the Quaboag this evening in hopes of tangling with smallmouth bass there, but nothing doing. Though flow was very good, water temperature must have been 80 degrees or higher.

They stock this stream plenty with trout and I wonder how many can summer through with temps that high? Not many I imagine unless they can find a spring seep or feeder brook to run up into. There was one trout rising, but I let it be not even wanting to hook it in water this warm.