Monday, February 16, 2015

Native New England Salmon Flies - Part I: Northern New England

Historic Atlantic Salmon Rivers of New England
(courtesy of NOAA)

At one time, all six New England states had runs of Atlantic salmon. The northernmost U.S. salmon river is Maine's Little Madawaska River, a small tributary of the Aroostook River. The Aroostook is a tributary of the once ultra-prolific St. John River. The southernmost river with a (long extinct) salmon run is Connecticut's Housatonic River. As far as I know, a recreational Atlantic salmon fishery never existed in any New England state other than Maine. Most stocks of New England salmon were either heavily depleted or extirpated before sport fishing became a popular pastime in North America. As such, sport fishers had to travel to Maine or Canada to pursue Atlantic salmon. However, the lack of New England salmon did not stop fly tyers from experimenting with flies or developing new patterns. In this series, I will feature one Atlantic salmon fly created in each of the six New England states.

Despite a lack, or absence, of Atlantic salmon in rivers with historic runs, there are viable landlocked salmon fisheries in all but two New England states (Connecticut and Rhode Island do not have runs of landlocked salmon). While investigating native New England salmon flies and fly tyers, I noticed a common theme. Many flies were designed for trout or landlocked salmon, but have been repurposed for Atlantic salmon fishing. Ultimately, several flies became more popular with Atlantic salmon anglers than with trout or landlocked salmon anglers. Of the six flies featured in this series, two fit this description, both northern New England patterns.


Atlantic Salmon Flies From Northern New England 

Maine: "The Chief" (Chief Needabeh)

The fly we now know as "The Chief" is a reduction of a Rangley-style streamer created by Chief Roland Nelson, also known as Chief Needabeh. Chief Needabeh, a member of the Native American Penobscot Tribe, was the proprietor of Needabeh's Shack, at tackle shop at Moosehead Lake in Greenville, Maine (Bates, 372). The original fly was called the "Chief Needabeh Streamer." This streamer fly was originally intended for brook trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass. Atlantic salmon anglers discovered its value when fishing for autumn salmon. It is particularly deadly on territorial male salmon, who likely consider the fly a potential intruder. Though its still effective when used for its original quarry, the fly is more commonly seen on Atlantic salmon rivers nowadays. In recent years, the fly's dressing has been simplified and its name shortened. Like many Atlantic salmon flies, the dressing constantly changes and evolves. Below is a composite dressing for "The Chief."

The Chief

Hook: Daiichi 2271 (sz. 2)
Tag: Oval silver tinsel
Rib: Oval silver tinsel
Body: Chinese Red Uni-Stretch
Wing: A pair of yellow saddle hackles inside a pair of red saddle hackles
Sides: Jungle cock (optional)
Collar Hackles: Red over yellow
Head: Black

New Hampshire: "Dragon" (Fran Stuart)

Like many other salmon flies conceived in New England, the "Dragon" was tied for the Atlantic salmon of Maine's Penobscot River. In terms of a sport fishery, the Penobscot has always been America's top Atlantic salmon river. Fran Stuart, creator of the Dragon, is from Peterborough, New Hampshire. The fly was first tied in summer of 1988 during a long, hot, dry spell on the Penobscot. Stuart first tied the fly "In a tent, by the light of a Coleman lantern." (Stewart and Allen, 42). It is a very simple, minimal fly that is most effective in low water. The Dragon is more of template than a rigid fly pattern. Though black, green and silver is the most common combination, floss and wire colors can be easily changed to suit the whim of the tyer. Unfortunately, the Penobscot is now closed to Atlantic salmon fishing. Hopefully, the Dragon will once again have the opportunity to swim in its native river. 


Hook: Sprite Low Water Double (sz. 10)
Tag: Fine silver wire
Underbody: Flat silver tinsel
Overbody: Fluorescent green floss
Rib: Black ostrich herl, counter wrapped with fine silver wire
Hackle: Webby black hen saddle

Vermont, via Massachusetts: "The Notion" (Shields & Marbury)

A very unique fly concludes Part I of this series. The "Notion" was created by John Shields of Brookline, Massachusetts. However, if not for Manchester, Vermont's Mary Orvis Marbury, the Notion would have been lost in time. Marbury's greatest contribution to fly fishing was her book Favorite Flies and Their Histories (1892). The book was written based on submissions by North American anglers of the era. Each angler submitted a list and description of his favorite flies for the fish species found in his respective region. Marbury showed no preference for flies tied for a certain species, as flies for salmonids and non-salmonids get equal representation. 

There are no formal fly recipes in Marbury's book, however there are 32 color plates which show 291 different fly patterns. There are three plates of salmon fly illustrations. All but two salmon flies shown in the plates were created in Europe. Most were the standard salmon flies of the era (i.e. Jock Scott, Silver Doctor, etc.). The Notion was one of the two American flies included in plates of salmon flies. Like the Chief, the Notion was a repurposed fly which happened to be quite versatile.

The Notion was first made and named by John Shields, the veteran fly-maker of Brookline, Mass. It was intended for land-locked salmon, but we hear of it as also successful for salmon, trout, and black bass. Dressed on a large hook it is very beautiful, the gilt and golden brown harmonizing perfectly; it can also be adapted to a small hook. It is a fly that many anglers "take a notion to," and value for the good it does as well as for its beauty. (Marbury, 63)

Technically, the Notion is a Massachusetts creation, however, I've never seen the Notion mentioned anywhere Marbury wasn't also mentioned. Since the fly has been so closely associated with Mary Orvis Marbury all these years, I've decided to use it for the Vermont fly in this piece. Marbury is the certainly the most iconic fly tyer to come from Vermont as well as one of the most iconic of all American fly tyers. The dressing below is approximate, as no complete salmon fly dressings are listed in Marbury's book.

The Notion

Hook: Mustad 3370 (sz. 2/0)
Tag: Oval gold tinsel
Tail: Golden pheasant crest (long) and blue/yellow macaw
Body: Rear half-embossed gold tinsel; Front half-fiery brown seal fur
Hackle and Throat: fiery brown
Wing: Pair of golden pheasant tippets, back to back; veiled with strips of yellow and blue swan, dark turkey, and teal
Cheeks: Kingfisher
Head: Black ostrich herl


Bates, Joseph D. and Bates Richards, Pamela. Fishing Atlantic Salmon: The Flies and the Patterns. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1996. Print.

Orvis Marbury, Mary. Favorite Flies and Their Histories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1892. Print.

Stewart, Dick and Allen, Farrow. Flies for Atlantic Salmon. Intervale: Northland Press, Inc. 1991. Print. 


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, John! So much for getting out for sea run browns this winter, huh?

  2. I would love to have been around back in the glory days. I can't imagine how good the fishing must have been.

    1. Our life expectancy would have probably been in the low 40s, but it would have been worth it! ;)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.