NORTH — Something about fishing flies and their history just lured North resident Michael Hughes Jr. in.

Hughes is an avid fisherman, collector of fishing flies, researcher on the history of salmon flies and creator of reproduction flies.

An Edisto River runs through it

Hughes grew up in the town of North and lived there from birth to age 22. He then moved to Northern Virginia and the D.C. area for 30 years and worked in computer security (which was eventually called cybersecurity) for the federal government. Hughes returned to North two years ago at age 50 and will be 53 later this year.

A fisherman for over 45 years, he fished in the Edisto River, farm ponds and rivers in other areas for most of his life. He has caught bream, bass and catfish locally and trout in other areas. From what he said, he did rod-and-reel and pole fishing in the region before getting into fly fishing in his late 20s and beyond when he moved away from the region.

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“I did not fly fish here. When I moved to the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, I would go fly fishing there, in the mountains.” Hughes said. He elaborated that the mountains were those of the Shenandoah Valley region and the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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He has been collecting flies for 25 years. For 20 years, he has created reproductions of salmon flies that he said he would not fish with.

Lured in by antiquity

What drew him to collecting and eventually creating flies was the beauty of the antique flies.

“I saw a box of old flies like this one,” Hughes said. He purchases and collects these boxes of flies.

The box of flies he showed were from Great Britain and dated back to circa 1880-1910.

“I thought to myself, ‘They look like art.’ I actually wanted to reproduce them.”

Another part of his collection of flies is from the late Belarmino Martinez, who owned a fly-making business in Spain. Many of the flies in Hughes’ collection inspired him to make his own.

His collection itself does not have flies that all look like insects.

Hughes addressed one misconception about flies. Modern flies for fishing are made to look insectoid, and people buy them for this reason. Old salmon flies were not, though they were said to look like butterflies and dragonflies. He said that salmon are not attracted to the insect-like appearance of the flies but to the shininess of them from light and their movement in the water.

From a book published in 1853, Hughes has found patterns for some of the flies he has created as observed during a recent interview.

He said, “I have also used books from the early 1800s through the 1920s. The early books described at most a few flies. In the 1840s and 1850s, the authors listed dozens of flies grouped by the rivers on which the flies were fished.”

“By the 1880s and 1890s, the fishing weeklies in the UK were listing patterns for general and river-specific fishing for Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Canada, and by the turn of the century, the books had lists of several hundred flies,” Hughes added.

He noted that the components of a fly are called a pattern.

“Usually a fly is composed of a tip, tag, tail, body, rib, hackle, throat, wings, side, cheeks, horns and head,” he added.

Hughes said, “The book (from 1853 he showed during the interview) had instructions on how to tie the flies, what feathers were used for each step and how to assemble them.”

He shared some of the bird feathers used in creating the flies, including golden pheasant, dyed turkey feathers, waterfowl (mallard, wood duck, pintail, etc.), and dyed chicken and guinea feathers.

He said he even uses moulted macaw feathers.

Hughes noted that fly tiers also used silk, mohair and gold and silver tinsel.

For classic fly patterns, he said the book actually dictated the arrangement of colors and the overall design. However, an artist can choose how to arrange colors for their own designs, which he has done. These flies are called freestyle.

“The ones in the book are all classics. They follow a pattern. The colors in the bodies and wings are all laid out,” Hughes said.

He said that historically, back in the 1700s and 1800s, that it did not take long to tie flies because those fly tiers were not tying them for aesthetic reasons or the sake of art.

“A skilled fly dresser, with everything prepared, could probably tie a fishable fly in as little as 10 to 15 minutes,” Hughes added.

No fly-by-night operation

He added that the many of the modern flies he and others have done are done in a freestyle fashion.

Hughes said, “They use the same components as the classics, but the patterns are not written in a book anywhere.”

One fly he created for his father took him six hours, and Hughes said his father has a large set of framed flies on his office wall – gifted to him by his son.

“My father has a dozen or so classics, freestyles and fishable flies that he has been given by me as gifts,” he said.

Hughes does not sell his flies framed but will have them framed if somebody wants one framed. A simpler pattern runs for around $40. A more intricate pattern might sell for $150. Hours are put into the creation of these flies.

He also does non-decorative, fishable flies using standard materials for practical use for salmon fishing in Canada or for flies for trout fishing in the United States.

“If people want me to tie modern flies for use in Canada, I will.” He said those are a lot less expensive.

He added that most anglers go to Canada to fish for Atlantic salmon. Salmon fishermen can also go to Alaska for Pacific salmon.

Hughes said he does not actively pursue selling the flies at events and does not have a brick and mortar or online store for them, though he is thinking of putting some in on consignment at regional businesses.

“It is a hobby. It’s not a business, though,” he added.

Researching and fishing

Hughes has done plenty of research into the classic methods and history of flies, however. In fact, beyond a stack of 10-20 books he brought to the interview to show his references, Hughes said he, through interlibrary loan and Google searches of scanned sources, has read hundreds if not thousands of books on the subject of fly fishing and creating flies and even microfilmed British newspapers devoted to the subject. He said that the number of people who research this history only number in the hundreds or maybe only thousands worldwide.

“If it were not for these people, the history of classic salmon flies would just be a footnote in history,” he added.

There are several Facebook groups devoted to the subject. Hughes said some Facebook groups are dedicated to “classics,” and others are dedicated to artistic, freestyle flies.

“There is even a group for hook makers, now that the commercial blind-eye hook makers are no more. There are also several websites that are dedicated to regional tying groups,” he said.

Hughes has, through shared research and his discussions, demonstrated that he has a historical perspective on flies.

“Most of the old classic salmon flies do not have eyes,” he explained.

By eyes, he meant eyes which are comparable to the eyes of needles, not decorative insect-like eyes for the flies.

He said, “The early hook makers used to make hooks out of needle blanks.”

He said they would heat and bend the needle blanks and cut and file the barb and point to create the hooks out of them, and that only a couple of places existed that still made them out of wire in this way.

Hughes said there are not any manufacturers who make blind-eye hooks any more, but some hobbyists are still making them.

“Partridge was a UK firm (that made blind eye hooks). It still makes eyed hooks for trout and salmon, but does not make blind-eye hooks that are used for classic salmon flies. Belvoirdale was the name of the firm in Pennsylvania. Their hook line was Gaelic Supreme. They had and used equipment from the UK, but Mr. Maisey (Belvoirdale’s) no longer manufactures hooks,” he said.

Hughes added, “Ronn Lucas, in Oregon, was manufacturing hooks non-commercially, but he has stopped/is stopping, and I haven’t heard if his equipment is being sold. There are hobbyists who tie flies who are doing small batches of hooks that we are all using, if we don’t rework modern hooks ourselves.”

How people in past centuries tied a line without eyes on the needles may seem like a mystery to modern readers.

“They would wrap silk gut around the shank of the needle blank, binding it to the horsehair line or to a loop of silk which could be attached to the line” Hughes explained.

According to Hughes, the first salmon published flies date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s.

He added that most of them were made in the United Kingdom then.

He also has a few flies from Massachusetts which date back to the turn of the last century circa 1900.

He said, “They (people in past centuries) did not fish with the ones that looked like mayflies. They were small salmon flies. Salmon are not fished for with mayfly-looking flies.”

“Charles F. Orvis was one manufacturer of salmon (and trout) flies here in the United States. William Mills and Sons were another. Some U.S. firms imported their flies from the UK,” Hughes added.

He mentioned that the upper and middle classes in the United Kingdom were the ones who did a lot of the fly fishing in the 1700s through to the early 1900s – individuals such as barristers, vicars or others who had a higher station in a culture that had clearly delineated social-economic boundaries.

“Salmon fly fishing started as a middle class or upper class hobby,” Hughes said.

He said they even had people called ghillies, assistants to the fishermen, who were more like servants.

He added that ghillies often tied the flies for their lords and helped them land the salmon, which at the time could weigh up to 40 to 50 pounds, to the shore when they were caught.

Ghillies were a lot like caddies are in golf, and there are modern equivalents.

Hughes said, “We now hire guides to do what a ghillie would have done, to recommend flies, to tie flies, to show us the best spots to fish, to row the boats, etc. Since the (manor) houses are no more, the folks are now commercial, not servants.”

He also said the largest documented salmon ever caught on a fly was approximately 74 pounds and was caught in 1921.

Hughes, an avid researcher and historian, has been observed using the North Public Library as a patron and said he often assists his fellow patrons with the computers and advanced copier there, utilizing his background. He said he has applied to be an official volunteer there. $1 for the first 26 weeks

“They have asked me to complete the volunteer paperwork, but, until it’s approved, I can’t officially say I volunteer,” he added.

Hughes has also submitted some articles to various fly-fishing publications and is awaiting news to see if they are going to be accepted.

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