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The Essential Kelson

By Marvin Nolte

In August of 1984 I tied my first classic salmon fly. It was a rather crude Thunder & Lightning. It and two additional patterns (Silver Doctor and Green Highlander) were tied at a workshop conducted by Messrs Wayne Luallen, Dave McNeese, and John Van der Hoof in West Yellowstone, Montana. That event began an ongoing quest to learn the skills to improve my tying, and for references that would aid in that quest. The former is never ending, the latter more attainable.

But not at first. When I started there were few reference books available, and many which were available cost more than I could afford. The one book that was both readily available and affordable was Salmon Flies by Poul Jorgensen. Published in 1978 by Stackpole Books, Salmon Flies was the impetus for the revival of classic salmon fly dressing in the late 70s and early 80s, especially in America.

Jorgensen was a modern master, but what about the old ‘masters’, how did they dress salmon flies? Many of us wanted to, if not emulate the master salmon fly dressers of the ‘Golden Age’, at least learn their techniques so we might incorporate them into our flies. (I set the Golden Age of salmon flies, arbitrarily, from the mid-19th century to the First World War.)

In 1977, AC Black did the salmon fly dressing world a huge favour by publishing a reprint of How to Dress Salmon Flies by TE Pryce-Tannatt. To this day many of us choose Pryce-Tannatt’s over other authors’ patterns because of our early exposure to his work. But Pryce-Tannatt wrote toward the end of the fully dressed salmon fly’s glory. I wanted to learn from someone whose work was written at the height of the Golden Age. That meant one author.

The most coveted reference in those early days was The Salmon Fly by George Mortimer Kelson. The Salmon Fly came as close to being the ‘bible’ of salmon fly dressing as we could think of. I am uncertain why that was. Other works, for example Major JH Hale’s How to Tie Salmon Flies (1919), contained more patterns and equally lucid instruction. Yet those works were equally difficult to obtain, and Kelson exuded a manner of authority – even a century later. Usually when a debate arose as to the preference of a pattern or technique, the response was, “Well, Kelson says ...”

A first edition Kelson was awfully dear if it could be found. Then, in 1979, The Angler’s and Shooter’s Press in Goshen, Connecticut, USA published a reprint of The Salmon Fly. This reprint was not inexpensive, but far less costly than the original.

So now we had our Kelson.

Through his book I learned many of the essential techniques used to make almost any classic salmon fly – from nipping the gut loop, to forming the body, wing, and head. And the heads were a challenge. Unlike other authors, herl and wool heads predominated in Kelson’s patterns. The choice was clear: either learn to tie herl and wool heads, or look in another book for your patterns.

Naturally, I learned from other sources, such as Jorgensen, Hale, and Pryce-Tannatt, but Kelson was the oldest and that was the direction I sought. As important as technique was, Kelson also taught me finesse. During workshops teaching others to dress classic salmon flies I have stressed that there are two ways to approach an obstreperous material: brute force and finesse. There are times when you can force a material to behave in the fashion you wish; but most often in a battle with a feather, you will lose. The feather will decide where it wants to go. Letting it go there is finesse.

Kelson also emphasised neatness in every application. Precise placement with a minimum of thread-wraps are the only sure ways to manage fastening 20-30 materials to one hook. I have held a married wing fly, with unquestioned provenance, which was tied by Kelson. Most obvious is how neatly the fly is dressed. Nothing was applied haphazardly to the hook. The head was plain thread (no wool or herl), quite small, and beautifully shaped. The modern trend to small, bullet-shaped heads on salmon flies is not so modern after all.

Kelson’s step-by-step instructions took a bit of adapting to a modern style of fly dressing, as Kelson tied in hand – without a vice. Much of his instruction was not applicable to dressing a fly held in a vice. Steps which were applicable could be easily adapted or modified to fit modern tying techniques.

While I was learning to dress salmon flies I was often asked, “Whose style are you tying in.” In other words, was I fashioning my flies after Kelson, Pryce-Tannatt, or some other source? For a while I did try to emulate Kelson’s style. It was hopeless. One of the most liberating moments I’ve experienced was when I realised that I couldn’t imitate Kelson – or anyone else for that matter – and I shouldn’t bother trying. Only Kelson could tie like Kelson. I have my own style.

Many other editions of Kelson’s works have been published since the 1979 Angler’s and Shooter’s Press edition of The Salmon Fly. In 1995 – the centennial of The Salmon Fly – the Fly Fishers Classic Library (then at Bovey Tracey, now part of Coch-y-Bonddu Books in Mid Wales) issued a limited edition reprint of The Salmon Fly; and John Culler & Sons of Camden, South Carolina, USA reprinted The Salmon Fly. The Fly Fishers Classic Library also published The Land and Water Salmon Flies in 1993; and Kelson’s Tips in 2001.

Today’s salmon fly dressers have no difficulty finding or using Kelson as a reference. In June of 2011 Coch-y-Bonddu Books published a compilation of Kelson’s The Salmon Fly, Tips, and his four series of salmon fly plates produced for the journal, Land and Water, in a single volume titled The Essential Kelson. We now have all Kelson’s patterns and techniques under one roof, if you will. A necessary disclaimer: I wrote the annotation for and dressed 78 flies which appear in The Essential Kelson. Its publication confirms the status of The Salmon Fly as the ne plus ultra of salmon fly references.

Factfile


The Essential Kelson. Compiled by Terry Griffiths; flies by Marvin Nolte.
COCH-Y-BONDDU BOOKS; £35

The Essential Kelson has been published in three different editions. A de-luxe limited edition (75 copies), hand-bound in Nigerian goatskin, has a fly by Marvin Nolte inlaid into the front cover. Signed by Terry Griffiths and Marvin Nolte it retails at £575.

The Fly Fisher’s Classic Library limited edition (100 signed copies) – bonded in leather – retails at £125. The standard edition retails at £35. All three editions are available through Coch-y-Bonddu Books.

Tel. 01654 702837
www.anglebooks.com

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