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Old Master re-mastered

During the long winter lay-off an old TE Pritt pattern is discovered and found to be remarkably effective on the Tees

The Old Master from Pritt's book.
The Old Master from Pritt's book.
The author's 'new' Old Master.
The author's 'new' Old Master.

The 2018 season has got off to a stuttering start following a long winter lay-off spent reading and tying, followed by re-reading and re-tying. One fly in particular seems to have taken up far more time than it probably warrants. But it is an old pattern and old patterns have always fascinated me – they are the culmination of hundreds of years of trial-and-error and I cannot help but suspect that much has been lost in the retelling, because there are few, if any, books from antiquity giving what we would regard today as detailed tying instructions. More usually, only the materials and hook sizes are given, leaving it up to the reader to piece the pattern together. The Old Master is a perfect example. 

According to Yorkshire Trout Flies, written by TE Pritt in 1884, the hackle is a feather taken from the inside of a woodcock’s wing and the body is ash-coloured thread (while the colour of ash depends entirely upon what has been burnt, I think it is safe to assume it is a shade of grey). Then the mystery begins. The body is “wrapped” with heron herl. Most modern tyers seem to rib the body of the fly in open turns, but if Pritt meant “rib”, why did he say “wrap”? This cannot be a case of modern usage causing confusion either. In the tying instructions for the Sandfly, the body is “ribbed”. So is the body of the March Brown. So “ribbed” is a term that Pritt uses elsewhere. “Wrapped” is used elsewhere too, when describing the way the Red Palmer is hackled, and the illustration of that fly shows tight, touching turns. So the evidence (such as it is) points to the body of the Old Master, as it was originally tied back in the day, being solid heron herl*.

Then we come to the head of the fly. In other recipes, for the Red Owl, Spanish Needles and Brown Watchet to name but a few, the fly has a head. It is present in the image and the materials used noted in the description. This is not the case with the Old Master. Admittedly, the watercolours in the book are maddeningly unclear, but what is clear is that the fly has a bold head. Yet Pritt makes no mention of this. In the accompanying image it is far too large to be the tying thread and cannot simply be a smudged drawing of the eye of the hook, since eyed hooks were not in common use at the time; line was attached directly to the wired hook. This head can only be heron herl.

So putting all this together – “wrapping” rather than “ribbing” and giving the fly a bold, heron herl head – we arrive at a pattern that is quite different to conventional tyings; looking very similar to a Griffith’s Gnat, only sleeker. Pritt adds further confusion by stating that it “bears a close resemblance to Greenwell’s Glory”, but I suspect he may be referring to its effectiveness.

And it certainly is effective. In an hour on a chilly, blowy evening on the Tees, the remastered Old Master accounted for two modest trout and two out-of-season grayling and there were plenty of nips and tugs and splashes. Fish certainly showed more interest in this fly than anything else I threw at them and, according to Pritt, it is “a capital killer from April to the end of August”. But as we all know, one swallow does not make a summer, so it has some way to go before earning its place in the Wheatley fly box.

The Swale has been less generous. Apart from the rogue trout patrolling beneath the bridge at Great Langton (I suspect he has gone cannibal since he ignores all offerings) there have been no signs of life. Determined to adopt a more scientific approach this season, I made several visits to the river at the tail end of March equipped with a tea strainer and some plastic pots intending to collect nymphs and insect samples to use as a guide to patterns and hook sizes.

However, this experiment with common sense did not go well. Back home, the nymphs I had so carefully captured did not look like anything in the reference books. Internet searches shed no further light. The river Swale, it seemed, contained insects unknown to science. Studying the images later, it dawned on me what had happened. During the several hours between their capture in the tea strainer and arrival beneath the lens, the nymphs, having been removed from the water, struggled to change into their adult form and expired mid-metamorphosis. Sitting on the river-bank with a pad and pencil would probably have produced more useful results and the whole wasted enterprise made me think a little more kindly of Pritt’s efforts with a paintbrush. Perhaps the old ways are still the best…


* as a substitute for heron herl, use grey goose herl.

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