Tinned midges

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about a very special sort of fly

Finlay and I were discussing trout fishing and provincial politics in the coffee shop. He told me he’d driven to the Kitimat the day before. Not having much time or energy, he’d decided to park at the orange bridge and make the short walk upstream to run the span crosses.

There was nothing hatching, he told me, taking a peppermint tin from the pocket of his Cowichan sweater and popping it open, so I tried one of these.


And, he said, I must have hooked two dozen cutthroat. A few of them were really big.

Finlay never exaggerated the numbers of fish he caught or their size. When he said some of those trout were big, I knew they were the 18 to 22 inch cutthroat that were common in the Kitimat then.

I picked a fly from the container. A clump of its brethren came with it. Plucking the fly from the tangle, I placed the clump back in the tin. The fly was tiny and sparsely dressed.

That’s it?

That’s all there is to it, said Finlay.

What’s it called?

Syl’s midge. I got it from Nemes’ book.

Finlay had ordered a copy of The Soft Hackled Fly, by Sylvester Nemes a few months earlier. He read and reread it. It was the ideal book for a frugal Scot whose own flies were nothing if not austere.

The template for a soft hackled fly is simplicity exemplified. It has no tail and no wing. The body covers three quarters of the hook shank and is made of real silk in almost all of the many variations.

At the front of the fly, just behind the hook’s eye, where its thorax would be if the hook was an insect, is a pinch of fur, and in front of that there is a sparse hackle made from body feather of bird. Partridge, waterhen, starling, snipe, woodcock, snipe, jackdaw, grouse, and golden plover were some of the species preferred by the English anglers.

The use of real silk on the body of the fly, rather than floss made from rayon or some other plastic, is important because once soaked through the color of the silk, be it yellow, orange, red, or green, it darkens and turns to hues with an uncanny resemblance to those of aquatic insects.

The body of the Partridge and Green, for example, turns the colour of cow dung. This, along with its swept back grey hackle, which mimics the dangling legs of an emerging nymph, makes the unassuming little pattern as good an imitation of the ubiquitous green caddis fly as has ever been hatched.

Similarly, the silken body a Partridge and Orange, turns a rusty brown magically capturing the cast of so many types of brown caddis flies.

After reading Nemes’ treatise, Finlay embraced those two patterns, stripping them down even more by leaving off their fur thoraxes, thought essential by the creators of the fly since the tuft of fur propped up the hackles.

In his trials, Finlay caught many fish, convincing him that original flies were overdressed. On some of the darker patterns he dispensed with the floss, making the body of tying thread and still hooked more than enough fish to please any trout fisher.

Syl’s midge, two turns of herl and one of partridge on a size 18 hook was singularly appropriate for Finlay. He fished the midge almost exclusively after that afternoon below the orange bridge.

I followed his lead until one night on the Lakelse River in the spring of 1999.   Finlay had succumbed to lung cancer eight months before.

Cataracts were growing in my eyes then. In the fading light, I couldn’t tie a Syl’s midge to my three pound tippet. Frustrated but not beaten, I went home and tied short lengths of nylon to half a dozen midges then tied a loop at the end. After that I wound them up and placed the coils in an empty shoe polish tin separating each one with piece of wax paper cut in a circle just smaller than the diameter of the tin.

I slipped the tin in my vest anticipating another low light situation when I would then simply connect the loop at the end of the coil to a loop at the end of my leader, a feat much easier then trying to thread a 3 pound test leader through the eye of a tiny fly. As it turned out I didn’t have the opportunity to try out my looped midges until last week when a daytime situation arose when only a midge would do.

Did I still have that tin? I patted my vest and felt a circular lump on the inside. I pulled out the tin, twisted the lever and there were Syl’s midges, pristine, sandwiched between waxed paper. I took them out, knotted one on, and caught six trout with it.

On the path from the river to my truck, I stopped at Finlay’s cairn. I picked up a twig, clipped the midge from the line, then stuck it in the twig and placed it on one of the rocks jutting from the cairn in lieu of flowers.


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