Guest Blogger: Clay Cunningham, Cody WY, Former National Park Superintendent

There is a fine article in the Spring issue, 2017, of Fly Tyer magazine by Ed Van Put, entitled The Legend of Dan Cahill. Dan Cahill, it is alleged in stories, created the Cahill fly. But, the author’s extensive research, and he did an admirable job of research, could not find any contribution or source that confirmed Dan Cahill was a real person, or that he originated the pattern for the Cahill fly at all. Nevertheless, someone created the famous Cahill fly, but it appears the originator is absent in written historical references other than stories which the author could not find written references for corroboration. Quite possibly it was one of the famous Catskill fly tiers who was experimenting with derivations of Theodore Gordon’s famous contribution, the Quill Gordon. I guess we will never know. I readily admit I tied a lot of light and dark Cahill flies as a young beginning fly tier in Pennsylvania from 1948 through the 1950s. All those flies were as described in an old pattern book which I passed on to another beginning fly tier in 1994 along with my Herter’s $3.95 fly tying vise that I had been using for the previous forty-six years and it was still entirely functional.

Well done research is required for success and advancement in science, engineering, history and all industries. I love to hunt Ruffed Grouse. Their loud and rapid flight when flushed is a challenge. As a teen-ager, I collected the contents of grouse crops I shot and keyed out the plants they were eating. Then I focused my pursuit of grouse in my hunting area, approximately 14 square miles behind my house in SW Pennsylvania, to areas that contained many of the plants the grouse preferred as food.

From 1951 to 1958 the government was detonating above ground atom bomb explosions at the Nevada Test Site approximately 65 miles from Las Vegas. The fallout of radioactive Strontium 90 was carried across the United States in prevailing winds. Strontium 90 is a deadly poison that collects in the calcium of bones in humans and animals, which could lead to various cancers. I collected white-tail deer antlers from the same 14 square mile hunting area during 1951 through 1954 and 1958 through 1963. When looking for a graduate thesis problem, I intended to measure the quantity of Strontium 90 in those antlers. But the equipment required to do the measurements was occupied on some other research topic. I eventually wrote my thesis on The Environmental Effects of Clear and Acid Mine Water on Muskrat Pelt Quality. During my working career, I conducted research in coyote population analysis, ageing bison by tooth wear and eliminating avian botulism and grizzly bear behavior, but this is about fly fishing research.

In my youth as a fly tier and having caught my first trout on a Quill Gordon original pattern I was convinced the Catskill guys had developed the secrets to catching trout on top of the water. I tied and fished mostly the Catskill style patterns of dry flies exclusively for years though my fly boxes contained many, way too many, other patterns that never got wet. Experience and observation led me to write about Experimental Fly Tying, The Minimum Fly Box, Pseudo Hatch Matching, and Prominent Wings and High Floating Dry Flies. All those articles are on this web site.

I believe it is possible to be well prepared for any dry fly hatch with the following patterns in the sizes listed. All are tied in the traditional Catskill style, but with a few changes to increase floatability and substituting poly pro wings for wood duck.  They are Quill Gordon, Dark Hendrickson, Light Hendrickson, Black Gnat, March Brown and Adams. Each tied on hook sizes 18, 14, 12 and 10. That is a total of 24 dry flies plus some spares. I added the Royal Coachman to my box as an attractor. No, this doesn’t “Match the Hatch,” but it is darn close enough in size and color to fool a lot of trout. See the other articles listed for high float and other slight changes to improve the listed style of patterns.

7 Comments

  1. Great tip on the fly patterns, so not to carry every fly that flys. How can I find the other articles that you mentioned in this article.. The ones for high float and slight changes to improve the listed style of the patters you listed. Good article and good tips. Thanks for your time.

    1. Go to the Stockard blog. Click on the word blog. On the right side of that opening click on the name Clay Cunningham. Then scroll through all of my articles to locate and read the articles I mentioned.

  2. Clay,
    I enjoy reading your wonderful posts here and I find myself relating to some of your stories! I guess that is because our bios are somewhat similar. We are about the same age, both attended high school in a PA coal mining town, (you in Cambria county me in Dauphin county), began tying flies in 1948, were addicted to hunting Ruffed Grouse, still have Herter’s materials in our fly tying inventory and probably have fished many of the same streams here in the United States. My brief bio is seen below.

    I’m Joe Nicklo. I grew up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania where I was fortunate to have an older gentleman neighbor who took me under his wing, purchased my first fly tying vise and spent numerous hours instructing me on the fine points of fly fishing, fly tying, rod wrapping and rod repair. I am 79 now, 69 years have past since I tied the first over-hand knot on a hook. I can honestly say there is no standard I could use to measure the amount of pleasure fly fishing and fly tying have brought to my life. Whenever I find stress in life, I know I can find comfort at my vise!

    I have been fortunate to live in some rather wonderful, scenic places, like Colorado, Montana, Utah and Texas. And, my under water photography hobby has taken me to many beautiful places around the world.

    While living in Colorado, I obtained an under graduate degree at Colorado State College and a masters degree at Colorado State University. I had my first experience in retail ownership when Dan Byford and I opened the Dan Byford Fly Shop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Dan invented the still famous Zonker fly while our fly shop struggled with the poor economy. My creative interest in fly tying continues as a former fly designer for the Rainy’s Fly and Supply Company (www.rainysflies.com) and my innovative online HMG Fly Systems business http://www.hmgflysystems.com

    Now retired, most of my time is dedicated to the pursuit of my many interests, fly fishing, fly tying, rod building scuba diving and skiing. I teach both beginner and advanced rod building classes. I am a member of and actively participate in the Texas Fly Fishers, a 250 member club here in Houston, Texas. I conduct HMG Fly Systems demonstrations and instructions at various functions including the annual Sow Bug Round Up in Arkansas.

    Clay, I know you area busy; however, if possible I would enjoy conversing with you. My e-mail address is seen below.

    Tight Lines!

    Joe

  3. I enjoyed your article, Clay. Your mention of Dan Cahill got me thinking, so I did some research of my own. I’m not sure I found the most authoritative opinion about the Cahill family of flies, but I’m pretty sure I found the oldest. Mary Orvis Marbury originally published her book “Favorite Flies and Their Histories” in 1892. I own the 1988 reprint. On page 260, Marbury cites information she received from one of the many correspondents she used to compile her book: “The Cahill. Mr. John Shields writes to us that ‘the Cahill was named after a Dublin fly-maker of that name, who would occasionally, after making a fly, put it to the writer’s ear and inquire if I heard it buzz.’ This fly is claimed as an American pattern, but we are confident that Mr. Shields is correct in his statement of its birthplace.” What I don’t know is, was the Dublin fly maker’s first name Dan?

    1. Thanks for your research effort. From what I have read of the Catskill fly tiers apparently they frequently communicated and exchanged patterns with fly tiers in the UK and other countries. Thus, Mary Orvis Marbury may be quite right.

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