Intro to Spey Flies
Introduction to Spey Flies
History, Materials & Tying Techniques
*This is an updated version taken from my class presented March 9, 2012.
What is a ‘Spey’ fly? Many use the term to describe a type of fly featuring long body hackles, but is that all there is to it? What are its origins, and how has the style changed over the years? Some confuse Spey flies with the somewhat similar Dee flies. Modern steelhead Speys look quite different than the classics, but retain a certain similarity in style. Let’s examine briefly the historical record.
The Classic Era
Origin and development: Scottish anglers along the River Spey, Scotland, early 1800s
Amongst the earliest recorded Spey flies were simple patterns listed in Thomas Tod Stoddart’s Angler’s Companion to the Rivers and Lochs of Scotland in 1846.
Alfred E. Knox – in Autumns on the Spey (1872) – popularized many early Spey patterns. These drab flies were thought to be impressions of shrimp with the long flowing hackles imitating legs. The one-piece wing represented the carapace. Knox provided pattern listings for sixteen “Old Spey Flies:”
- Gold Speal
- Silver Speal
- Gold Reeach
- Silver Reeach
- Gold Green Fly
- Silver Green Reeach
- Gold Green Reeach
- Silver Green Fly
- Purple King
- Green King
- Black King
- Gold Purple Fly
- Gold Heron
- Carron Fly
- Black Heron
General Characteristics of the Early Spey Flies:
- Drab, somber tones to the body. Made of pig’s wool, seal’s fur, mohair, or yarn.
- Usually no tail, although the Lady Caroline is a notable exception (fibers from a golden pheasant breast feather).
- Long, flowing hackles – heron or coque – the length of the body. Normally tied in at the rear of the hook by the root and wrapped forward, often counter to the rib(s).
- Multiple Ribs – wide turns (wound “not too closely”) of flat tinsel of varying colors, oval tinsels, lace, and twist. No set rules about number of turns. The second or third rib material can secure the body hackle, wrapped counter to it.
- Throat – if present, of teal or guinea
- Wings – tented slips of bronze mallard (turkey was also used). Low to the body, not extending beyond the hook bend. Top forms a smooth ‘keel less boat placed upside down.’
“The Spey flies are very curious productions to look at, it being customary to dress them the reverse way of the hackle, and to send the twist or tinsel the opposite way to the hackle.” – Francis Francis (1867)
A look at the characteristics of early Dee River flies is an interesting contrast to the flies developed on the nearby River Spey:
General Characteristics of Classic Dee flies:
- Often included a complex butt and tail assembly
- Brighter, more vibrant colors used in the body; multi-colored bodies were common
- Long body hackles (usually heron), wrapped in conventional style
- Throat of teal or similar
- Two-piece wings of a stiffer feather material (mostly turkey), split in a “V” shape; tied in flat on top of the shank
- In general terms, a bit more colorful and intricate than their Spey counterparts including multi-colored bodies of silk or seal’s fur
The Spey fly’s body materials were pig’s wool or mohair, dressed rather sparsely. There was nothing bulky to them. At some point in time, Speyside anglers increasingly relied on crewel wools to form the bodies on their flies. They would mix and match two or three shades to get the desired color, often varying it through the season as weather and water conditions changed.
In The Salmon Fly (1895), George Kelson introduced the famous Lady Caroline (an early 19th century design), the Dallas Fly, and the ‘modern’ Spey flies of Major Grant: the Glen Grant, Glen Grant’s Fancy, and the Mrs. Grant. He also popularized other fanciful Spey patterns such as the Black Dog (actually a Tay fly, but notably used on the Spey) and the Pitcroy Fancy – with brightly colored wings and exotic feathers like jungle fowl – which were quite uncharacteristic of Spey flies at the time. While Kelson introduced more fanciful elements to the style, the long flowing hackles remained a key component.
This year’s Spey Plate 2012 – to be auctioned at the conclusion of the Expo – features the aforementioned Pitcroy Fancy. The framed collection contains 25 renditions of the pattern by 25 different tyers. Here is a little more information on the fly, from the tyer’s invitation:
The Pitcroy Fancy is found in Kelson’s The Salmon Fly: How to Dress It and How to Use It (1895). He attributes the pattern to Mr. Turnbull, who also originated the Duchess and the Wilson among others. Here is the dressing, as listed by Kelson:
Tag – Silver twist
Tail – A topping and strands of tippet
Butt – Scarlet wool
Body – Silver tinsel
Ribs – Silver tinsel (oval)
Hackle – Grey Heron, from centre
Throat – Gallina
Wings – Tippet (large strips), light mottled Turkey, Pintail, Mallard, and a topping
Sides – Jungle
Head – Scarlet wool
A modern Spey standard
The Pitcroy Fancy is also found in Hardy’s Salmon Fishing (1907), and the dressing is identical to Kelson’s. One reason I’m drawn to this fly is because it is a bit more complex than the early Spey flies with their long heron hackles and simple wings of mallard. Subtle brilliance of those classics aside, the so-called “modern” Spey flies often include the ubiquitous heron hackle (or substitute), but also wings built from several different feather sections. This blending of styles began in Scotland with the invasion of the more gaudy Irish flies in the latter 19th century . Derivative flies such as the Glen Grant and the Rough Grouse are well-known examples. Count the Pitcroy Fancy among them.
“There was no such thing as constant dressing for any Spey fly, for the reason that every dresser had a different rendering for each pattern, and, moreover, subjected his own rendering to considerable variation.” – Pryce-Tannatt (1914)
T.E. Pryce-Tannatt – another of the giants among salmon fly authors – wrote How to Dress Salmon Flies in 1914. He listed the standard patterns from previous works and provided detailed instruction as to the construction of the Spey fly, particular the forming of the bronze mallard wing – as the bottom of a “keel less racing boat placed upside down.”
Pryce-Tannatt noted the importance of selecting bronze mallard strips of the same length taken, if possible, from the corresponding section of similarly marked feathers. Matching opposite sides as closely as possible will help greatly in working with bronze mallard.
Eric Taverner, a student of tying and collector of patterns, helped organize and archive the work of the tyers and authors of previous eras in his 1931 book Salmon Tying & Fishing, followed with Fly Tying for Salmon (1942). His summary of the description of the classic Spey fly is a good one:
“The characteristics of this type [Spey fly] are strip wings of bronze mallard dressed horizontally, a wool body ribbed criss-cross with narrow tinsel and with wire, and a long mobile hackle and throat, which give in heavy water of moderate flow an appearance of life unapproached by any other style of fly.” – Taverner (1942)
The Modern Era
The 1970’s saw the beginnings of a Spey fly renaissance, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Author Trey Combs (Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies – 1976) was instrumental in bringing attention to the conversion of classic salmon flies to their steelhead adaptations, as well as flies created specifically for the andromadous fish of the region. These were pioneered by Syd Glasso (who started tying Spey flies in the late 1950’s), with ensuing contributions from many Northwest steelhead anglers and tyers influenced by his style. Their work continues today.
- Sparsely tied
- Bright colors
- Long, flowing hackles
- Low set wings
- Neat, tiny heads
While the classic Speys of yesteryear continue to command a loyal following among tyers, there is much more to the modern Steelhead Spey than the somber colors and basic wing of yore. The dark bodies and hackles of black or gray have been joined by many other colors to create an endless palette from which the modern tyer can choose. It seems the only real constant between the flies of the early 19th century and today is the presence of long body hackles.
Many fly tyers enjoy converting traditional steelhead flies into fanciful Spey style dressings. These conversions are revamped versions of traditional hairwing steelhead patterns that then include long body hackles and mallard, goose strip , or hackle wings. Other accoutrements may appear as well.
Today’s Steelhead Speys tend to blend the styles of traditional Speys and Dees, as well as incorporating some elements of their full dress Atlantic Salmon fly cousins. Cheeks, toppings, horns, and other adornments are common. Synthetic materials have found their way into the mix, and the blending of styles certainly continues. It seems that today’s Spey flies continue the tradition of not following many rules.
I think noted Northwest author/angler John Shewey summarizes the situation very well:
“The steelhead angling community – beginning with Syd Glasso and his contemporaries – retooled the classic Spey flies to arrive at patterns deemed more appropriate for steelhead. By the mid-1980’s a virtual Spey fly fanaticism had gripped the Pacific Northwest. The obsession continues today and manifests itself in so many variations on the theme that many so-called Spey flies hardly resemble their progenitors at all.” – Steelhead Flies (2006)
Primary Styles of Spey Flies
- The traditional antique patterns with their subtle colors and bronze mallard wings
- Gaudy classics like Kelson’s Black Dog, the Pitcroy Fancy and Glen Grant patterns
- ‘Glasso’ style steelhead Speys using bright colors and hackle tips (4) or goose strips for wings
- Modern Steelhead ‘Speys’ with married wings, split “V” style wings, tippet and full feather wings, and other non-traditional adornments. A mix ‘n’ match of any and all styles, the only limit seems to be the tyer’s imagination!
John Shewey’s Classic Spey Fly Characteristics:
- Unique hackling: a rooster side tail or saddle, or a heron hackle wrapped counter to the ribs
- Rib material locks down the hackle
- Wings of brown mallard, set low over a somber-colored body
- Mixtures of dubbings, mohair or later, strands of wool for bodies
– Spey Flies and Dee Flies: Their History and Construction (2002)
Bob Veverka’s “Essence of the Spey Fly:”
- A body of silk and fur
- Long, mobile body hackle
- Set of low wings
- Small, neat head
– Spey Flies and How To Tie Them (2004)
Important materials used to tie Spey flies.
Wool yarns (wrapped themselves or shredded and dubbed), Uni-Yarn, seal’s fur, mohair, SLF or other coarse synthetic dubbing, silk or rayon flosses, and various tinsels are typical fare today.
The originals were almost always heron, but since it is illegal to possess such feathers in the U.S., one must find substitutes. These include blue-eared pheasant, schlappen & coque (rooster side feathers), bleached goose shoulder, marabou, ring neck pheasant rump (especially for fishing flies), large saddle hackles, and any other long hackle suitable for the size of hook.
- Bronze mallard
- Strips of dyed goose or swan; married strips of these feathers as well
- Many kinds of turkey feathers in various colors and markings
- Pheasant: Argus, Amherst, Tragopan, Golden, et al
- Waterfowl flank feathers (mallard, wood duck, teal, etc)
- Hackle tips (Syd Glasso style)
- Dyed hen feathers and specialty feathers such as the black-laced necks from Whiting Farms
There are a number of good hooks available to the Spey tyer. One of my favorites for fishing and some display purposes is the Alec Jackson Spey hook from Daiichi (daiichiflyhooks.com). It is available in sizes from #7 up to #3/0 in a number of finishes – black, nickel, gold, bronze, and blue. There is also a blind eye version (model 2091) that I like for certain display flies. These are high quality hooks that are readily available at your nearest fly shop.
Another nice hook is the Partridge CS 10/1 (or the blind eye CS 10/3). These hooks have a graceful bend, are longer than standard, and accommodate a classic Spey fly quite nicely. The Partridge HE2 (if you can find it) is a very long Spey and Dee hook available in blind eye only from #1/0 – #3/0. A big hook, quite like the early Dee hooks. From an historical perspective, it’s pretty good.
A new entry into the hook market is the Blue Heron Spey Hook from Dave McNeese (davemcneese.com). These hooks are 3xl, have a graceful bend, a black nickel finish, and a fine long-tapered low eye set. They are currently available in two sizes (2.00” and 2.50”) with a third (1.90”) to be available in the future. I am definitely a fan of these hooks for both fishing and display purposes.
The low water salmon iron from Daiichi (model 2421) and the Partridge N model are nice hooks for ‘Glasso’ style hackle wing flies in a wide range of sizes. These hooks have the more “squared off” look at the bend that I prefer for this style of fly, though any of the hooks mentioned here will work . It’s a matter of tyer preference. These hooks are widely available and won’t break the bank.
Hand-made blind eye models range widely in price but are available from Gaelic Supreme (belvoirdale.com), Heritage (castlearms.com), and independent hook makers like Ronn Lucas, Sr (ronnlucassr.com).
I have to admit that I am quite partial to the Gaelic Supreme line of hooks. I discovered them as the maker of the excellent Mike Martinek streamer hooks many years ago. Since then, they have brought along a nice line of affordable hand-made blind-eye hooks. The Harrison Bartleet series is very good for classic atlantic salmon flies, including Speys, but with the addition of the long and x-long shank Dee versions of these hooks, I think they have set a high standard in blind-eye options for the presentation fly tyer.
In short, there are plenty of hooks available that are quite suitable for Spey flies. You’ll probably want to experiment to find the models that suit your style(s).
Working With Bronze Mallard
A few tips on working with this important winging material
1. Get good quality bronze mallard. Long fibers with grey roots (it’s a softer part of the feather and easier to mount) and tips that tend to stick together (you don’t want the tips to fray or splay out). You must bind the mallard to the hook over the grey part of the feather to avoid it splitting and/or rolling out of position.
2. Use two matching quills when selecting your mallard slips. Your slips will meld together much easier that way, and look good too. Otherwise, it can be a battle to get them to work together. Use fairly thin feather sections to start with (⅛” – ¼” per section). It will make the material less likely to bunch up or roll and ruin your wing. This width of the mallard slips can be increased as you get more comfortable with your techniques, if desired.
3. Try to keep the head area free of any other materials where you will apply the wing. It’s really tough to set mallard on top of another material. Careful tying of the throat materials is important so as not to create a “bump” at the head that must be overcome when applying the wings. You can, if needed, create a nice platform with your (flattened) thread, if necessary, snug up against your throat material.
4. One method of mounting is to use a left side slip for the near side, and a right side slip for the far side. I align the ends and “hump” them together as a single unit (remember tip #2?). Then apply it to the hook as one wing, using a soft loop to hold it in place and then tighter wraps to secure. The key to this method is to have these slips of mallard hold against one another and retain the shape of your wing.
5. You can also apply the wing slips one at a time. I’ve started using this method more and more as of late where I apply the far side and hold it with a wrap or two. Then apply the near side slip using that far side section as a brace. You can slide the near side wing right up to your brace and then use your fingers to adjust the final position. It’s amazing how you can sometimes just squeeze the wing sections into proper alignment after applying them in this manner.
6. Both of the methods described will also work if you want to reverse the mallard slips and work with a right side feather section for the near side wing. This will give a distinct downswept appearance to the wing.
I happen to prefer the upswept appearance at the end of the wing, and the left side = near wing follows how I apply married strips on full dress salmon flies. So it keeps it consistent for me. But many tyers go with the right side = near wing, so feel free to experiment to see what looks good and works for you. Either will perform just fine.
7. A final method of applying a bronze mallard wing is also probably the simplest: using a single slip of feather and folding it in half before tying it on. Select a ½” – ¾” or so width of mallard. Pull it out so that it is perpendicular to the stem. Strip it off with a quick pull – do not cut it, as you want a bit of the stem to remain to help hold it together. Alternately, you can snip the section (including the stem) with scissors, but then you will have to work around the stem section itself (sometimes a trying proposition, as it can get in the way).
Fold the slip in half and give it a bit of curve so that it will hug the body of your fly, and attach to the hook with a soft loop of thread to hold it. Position it with your fingers and then follow with a couple of snug wraps to set your wing in final position. Voila! You can also align a strip of a Left side and a corresponding strip of a Right side on top of one another. Then apply as for the folded version.
So there are a few thoughts on the most intimidating aspect of dressing traditional Spey flies. For tyers who find it challenging, with a little practice I think you will find that bronze mallard is not all that difficult to work with.
Quick Tips For Marrying Wings
While not associated with traditional Spey flies, the incorporation of married wings on modern steelhead flies spurs me to offer a brief list of hints in building a good married strip wing.
Remember: LEFT side slips of feather = NEAR side wing. The RIGHT side feather slips = the FAR side wing.
Keep track of your LEFTS and your RIGHTS! Trust me; you’ll save yourself time and aggravation if you don’t mix ‘n’ match the two sides.
Use just a few fibers of each color and/or material. You can always marry a little bigger strip and simply pare it down before moving on to the next component, though, if that helps you work with the material. I would not recommend this, however, for your best rare bustard feathers! Total number of fibers to build your wing depends on the components (turkey fibers are thicker than say, goose fibers) and the overall height you are after.
Align the tips of each material and “zip” the slips together by carefully drawing your fingers over them as you gently squeeze them together. It doesn’t take much pressure to make this work. Some feathers marry easier than others, so take your time and don’t give up. It is important that the feathers be clean and devoid of oils and whatnot. Steaming can help prepare feathers for marrying; hold them over a low steaming tea kettle for a few moments to get them ready to mesh with one another. You can also reinvigorate strip wings with this method if you have failed to successfully mount them to your satisfaction. Rather than starting all over, try steaming them first.
I like to build my wings from the bottom up; that is, I start with my lowermost material and work my way to the top of the wing. You may prefer to work from the top component down, but I would recommend doing it the same way each time you build a wing to keep confusion to a minimum.
It’s important to keep the wings balanced. You don’t want to have a near side wing that is twice as wide as the far side or vice-versa. Use the same number of fibers for each component of your wings on either side. This seems simplistic, but it can get tough to track when at times you may be including multiple colors or materials (and duplicates of them) into the wings.
Goose shoulder is probably the easiest material to marry; golden pheasant certainly one of the toughest. Turkey generally marries pretty well. You might want to practice with some goose and assorted turkey feathers to work on building married wings. Both can be had fairly cheap, and will give you very good practice for moving on to the more exotic feathers you may harbor to tie with at some point. If not, goose and turkey are key components of many flies and will serve you plenty well as they are. Plus, they are available in a wide range of dyed colors to suit the whims of the modern Spey tyer.
I hope the class and these notes will help you with your Spey Fly tying. Good luck and enjoy!
Bibliography – Recommended Reading
Combs, Trey. Steelhead Fly Fishing. Lyons Press, 1991.
Combs, Trey. Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies. Salmon Trout Steelheader, 1976.
Francis, Francis. A Book On Angling. (1867) John Culler & Sons, 1995 <reprint>
Helvie, H. Kent. Steelhead Fly Tying Guide. Frank Amato Publications, 1994.
Kelson, George M. The Salmon Fly. (1895) Flyfisher’s Classic Library, 1995 <reprint>
Knox, Alfred E. Autumns On The Spey. John Van Voorst, 1872.
Pryce-Tannatt, T.E. How To Dress Salmon Flies. A & C Black, 1914.
Shewey, John. Spey Flies & Dee Flies: Their History & Construction. Frank Amato Publications, 2002.
Shewey, John. Steelhead Flies. Frank Amato Publications, 2006
Taverner, Eric. Fly Tying For Salmon. Seeley Service & Co. Ltd., 1942.
Veverka, Bob. Spey Flies: How To Tie Them. Stackpole Books, 2004.
Traditional Spey dressings
The Grey Heron (as per A.E Knox)
Body: First third lemon Berlin wool, remainder black Berlin wool
Ribs: Flat silver tinsel, oval silver tinsel and gold tinsel
Hackle: Grey heron
Throat: Speckled guinea fowl
Wing: Bronze mallard
The Lady Caroline (originator unknown, early 19th century)
Tail: Few strands of red fibers from golden pheasant breast feather
Body: Brown and olive-green Berlin wool mixed together in proportion of one part olive, two parts brown.
Ribs: From separate starting points; gold narrow tinsel, gold twist, silver twist
Hackle: Grey heron
Throat: Red breast feather from golden pheasant
Wing: Bronze mallard
The Carron Fly (as per A.E. Knox)
Body: Orange Berlin wool
Ribs: Bars of silver tinsel
Hackle: Black feather from the breast of a heron
Wing: Bronze mallard
Gaudy Classic Spey dressings
The Black Dog (as per Kelson)
Tag: Silver twist and canary silk
Tail: A topping and Ibis
Butt: Black ostrich herl
Body: Black silk
Ribs: Yellow silk, and silver oval tinsel running on each side
Hackle: Black heron from third turn of rib
Wings: Two red-orange hackles – back-to-back – enveloped by two jungle cock; lemon wood duck,
Light bustard, Amherst pheasant, swan dyed scarlet and yellow, and two toppings
The Glen Grant (as per Kelson)
Tail: Golden pheasant yellow rump (point)
Body: Yellow wool for three turns, black wool for balance
Ribs: Silver lace and silver tinsel (usual way)
Hackle: A black Spey coque hackle from end of body, but wound from root the reverse way crossing over the ribs
Wings: Two long jungle cock (back-to-back), two reaching half way, and two still shorter, and teal
Head: Yellow wool
The Pitcroy Fancy (as per Kelson)
Tag: Silver twist
Tail : A topping and strands of tippet
Butt: Scarlet wool
Body: Silver tinsel
Rib: Silver tinsel (oval)
Hackle: Grey Heron, from center
Wings: Tippet (large strips), light mottled Turkey, Pintail, Mallard, and a topping
Sides: Jungle cock
Head: Scarlet wool
Syd Glasso Steelhead Spey patterns
The Orange Heron (as per Combs)
Body: Rear two-thirds orange silk, hot orange seal’s fur for the balance
Ribs: Medium to wide flat silver tinsel and overlay with narrow oval silver tinsel
Hackle: Grey heron, one side stripped, palmered along ribs
Throat: Teal flank
Wing: Four hot orange hackle tips, short and close to body
The Black Heron (as per Shewey)
Body: Silver flat tinsel overlaid at front third with black dubbing
Ribs: Silver oval
Hackle: Grey heron (or substitute)
Wing: Gray or black goose shoulder strips or hackle tips
Courtesan (as per Shewey)
Body: Rear 2/3 orange silk, front 1/3 hot orange seal dubbing or substitute
Ribs: Flat silver
Hackle: Soft brown schlappen; long fibers
Throat: Widgeon, merganser or none
Wing: Four orange hackle tips
Sol Duc Spey (as per Combs)
Body: Rear half fluorescent orange silk, front half orange seal
Rib: Flat silver tinsel
Hackle: Long, webby yellow hackle, palmered, widest part toward the rear
Throat: Black heron
Wing: Four matching hot orange hackle tips
A few Modern Steelhead patterns
The Icy Blue Spey (Monte Smith)
Body: Rear half flat silver tinsel, front half black seal’s fur
Rib: Medium oval silver tinsel
Hackle: Kingfisher blue schlappen from seal
Throat: Blue phase peacock body feather
Wings: Married strips of navy, white, and kingfisher blue goose shoulder
The Mahoney (Dec Hogan)
Body: Rear third red floss; balance hot red seal fur or substitute
Rib: Flat pearl mylar followed by medium oval silver tinsel
Hackle: Black rooster schlappen; one side stripped
Collar: Hot red schlappen followed by red guinea
Wing: Four matching hackle tips from a hot red rooster neck
The Stormy Morn Dee (Monte Smith)
Tag: Flat silver tinsel
Tail: Golden pheasant crest veiled with light blue hackle fibers
Butt: Black ostrich herl
Body: Rear third flat silver tinsel, remainder claret/purple seal
Rib: Medium oval gold tinsel
Hackle: Purple schlappen (or marabou), from seal
Throat: Light blue hackle and blue phase peacock body feather
Cheeks: Jungle cock, drooping (optional)
Wings: Two strips of Amherst pheasant, divided
D.C. Cutthroat Spey (Rich Youngers)
Tag: Flat silver tinsel
Body: Rear 2/3 orange silk; front 1/3 orange dubbing
Rib: Small flat silver and fine oval silver tinsel
Hackle: Dyed orange blue-eared pheasant from fourth turn of tinsel
Wing: Whiting American hen cape; black laced white dyed orange
Collar: Orange dyed gadwall