Red and/or yellow flies for Nova Scotia

I was concerned with those two trout that had fastened to my flies, the Silver Doctor and the Parmcheenie Belle ... Albert B. Paine

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I hadn't given much thought to the reasons for the colours used in wet flies and streamers until quite recently. It was enough of a thrill just to successfully tie and fish these flies. However, the more I tied and fished, the more interested I became in the history of the patterns. I started wondering why some flies work consistently well, given that they bear little resemblance to anything you'd find in nature, the Mickey Finn is a good example of this.

In his book, The Life Story of the Fish (1950), Brian Curtis notes that experiments have shown that bass and trout "have a strong preference for red over other colours, with yellow in second place." It was only after reading this that I began looking for other references to the predominance of these two colours. The following historical examples reinforce Curtis' statement and confirm that it's pretty hard to improve on experience when it comes to trout fishing.

Published in 1892, Mary Orvis Marbury's book, Favourite Flies and their Histories, contains several references to fishing in Nova Scotia. Red and yellow flies abound in many of the letters, the writers emphatically stating their preference for the Silver Doctor, Parmacheene Belle, Red Ibis and the Professor. As an example, Edward E. Flint wrote..."While fishing in Nova Scotia for brook trout, last May and early June, a red bodied Brown Hackle and the Parmacheene Belle were my most taking flies, the latter at evening."

The Parmcheenie Belle (as Albert calls it) and the Silver Doctor are two flies that also receive frequent mention in The Tent Dwellers-Sports Fishing in Nova Scotia in 1908, by Albert Bigelow Paine. The Parmacheene Belle, invented in the late 1800's, with its yellow body and red and white striped wing, makes bold use of both colours. The Silver Doctor, also invented in the late 1800's, with its red head, red tag and married red and yellow stripes included in its multicoloured wing, is more subtle in its colour utilization.

Arthur P. Silver made two telling statements in his book Farm & Cottage Camp & Canoe in Maritime Canada (1907). With reference to fishing in Nova Scotia, he wrote..."In the early part of the season the sea-trout, especially in tidal waters, prefer gaudy flies such as the Red Hackle and Scarlet Ibis, or a bright claret body with white wings." And further down the page..."Were the sportsman compelled to confine himself to one fly for both bright and dark days, clear water or turgid, he could not do better than select the Parmachene Belle, which is irresistible at almost all times to a feeding trout."

In his book, The Autobiography of a Fisherman (1927), Frank Parker Day writes about the time when he was a young boy fishing for sea trout near Boylston, Guysborough County, where..."I soon found out that a bit of red flannel tied to a hook made a better lure than a worm." And at age seventeen, whilst residing in Lockeport, he states that..."I know it now, for my favourite of all flies, a number twelve Parmachene Belle."

In How to tie flies, published in 1940, E.C.Gregg states that ... "I do believe that in the north, and especially for brook trout, a fly with a little red in it is more productive. Therefore, for northern fishing I would select Royal Coachman, Parmachene Belle, and Montreal."

None the less, John D. Robins, author of The Incomplete Anglers (1943), states that..."I have never caught anything on a Parmcheenee Belle, except an overhanging bough."

In Colonel Joseph Bates Jr's book, Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing (1950), the Colonel states that for brook trout..."when less pronounced blending hues fail, combinations of red and white, red and yellow, yellow and white, brown and white, or brown and yellow normally accomplish good results." For brown trout..."the most productive to them seem to be a combination of yellows and browns." The yellow-brown combination is present in both the Edson Dark Tiger and the Wardens Worry (both invented in the early 1900's).

Contained within J. Edson Leonard's book Flies (1950) is a letter from Joe Aucoin of New Waterford, which states that..."My six best sellers for trout are: Mickey Finn, Parmachene Belle, Royal Coachman, Black Gnat, Montreal and Silver Doctor."

In 1952, during a break in his rounds, Dr. C. Lamont MacMillan wrote in his book Memoirs of a Cape Breton Doctor (1975) that..."I parked the car, changed into my fishing clothes, put my rod together, put a Par Bell fly on, and then started down the marsh to Fisher's Brook."
Joe Brooks, in his 1966 book entitled Complete Guide to Fishing Across North America, included the following..."In New Brunswick...the old stand-bys get good results. These include the Silver Doctor, Parmachene Belle, Jock Scott, Montreal, Brown and Gray Hackle, and the Black Ghost."

In 1969 Harold F. Blaisdell, in his book The Philosophical Fisherman, questions our choice of old patterns..."It has long been accepted as gospel, for instance, that brook trout, particularly wilderness brookies, are especially fond of gaudy wet flies such as the Parmachene Belle, Silver Doctor, Montreal, Royal Coachman and the like. Yet I suspect there is little in fact to substantiate such notions, and that if the truth were known it would indicate that the choice of pattern matters far less than fishermen are pleased to believe."

The Mickey Finn, as well as the Parmacheene Belle, the Silver Doctor and the Professor, occur in the patterns section of H.E. (Ted) Parker's book, Nova Scotia's Speckled Trout versus the Angling Novice (1973). Making bold use of both red and yellow in its bucktail wing, the Mickey Finn, invented in the early 1900's, can be found in most Nova Scotian fly boxes. It is a prominent fly in the history of trout fishing in Nova Scotia, and I suspect has caught more trout and salmon than any other fly. In fact, in his book The Mysteries of Trout Fishing (1987), Nova Scotia resident Foster Ainsworth says..."never leave home without a Mickey Finn."

To quote his father Brett, Gary Saunders wrote in Rattles and Steadies: Memoirs of a Gander River Man (1987) that..."About the only time brightly-coloured flies were used was for trouting, usually in May or June month when the sea trout came in. For this such lures as the red and white Parmachene Belle, the white and brown Royal Coachman with its peacock body windings, and the red and yellow Mickey Finn streamers are among the best."

The Parmachene Belle pops up in James R. Babb's book Fly-Fishin' Fool (2005) when he asks the question..."And what famous fly pattern did a studious angler create to tempt our precious eastern brook trout? Henry P. Well's Parmachene Belle, a garish red-and-white fish-fluffer that looks less like a proper trout fly than a scrap of naughty negligee from Victoria's Secret."

Doug Roy, in his book The River Runs Deep (published in 2012), states that ... For fishing in the Middle River, grandfather taught me to use a leader with two flies, usually a Parmachene Belle and a Dark Montreal.
And later on in the book ... There (Baddeck River), fly fishing with a Parmachene Belle, I hooked and landed a three pound silvery sea trout.

Now, open your own fly-box (or that of another) and notice how many of your wets or streamers contain either or both red and yellow. Look at the throat, the tag, the body, the underwing. I'd happily wager that at least a quarter of the flies have one these colours. Furthermore, most of these wets and streamers are old patterns or modifications of old patterns.

My seventy-one year old fishing buddy Muddler called the other day and started reminiscing, as he is wont to do, about the fact that he only had three flies when he was a kid fishing the Mersey. As far as he remembers the Professor and the Silver Doctor accounted for two of the three.

History repeats itself in Bob Boudreau's log book where it is noted that for the past twenty years the Parmacheene Beau has been one of his most productive trout flies, particularly during the spring and fall on the lakes that are in close proximity to his camp.

Gary Corbett is a fan of the Mickey Finn, he considers it to be one of the most potent fish takers ever invented for the waters of eastern Canada. As a matter of fact, my twelve-year-old son caught his first trout, a big fat thirteen-inch brookie on a Mickey Finn.

Tom Lee, a totally dedicated trout man, includes the Edson Dark Tiger amongst his most effective flies for Nova Scotia.

And listed under salmon fly streamers, the Red Eagle, with its bright red body and yellow deer hair wing, is a favourite of Morgan Biggin when fishing the Middle Musquodoboit area.

As for me, there's no doubt that for the past couple of years a zonker version of the Edson Dark Tiger has been my most taking fly. Bob and Tom consider the success of the Edson Dark Tiger may be due in part to its similarity to the small perch found in most of our waterways and to young brown trout.

With all this literary knowledge and local lore in mind (which, if you're like me, you'll forget about as soon as your waders hit the water), you might want to think about carrying a couple of these red or yellow flies in your box. When nothing else works give one a try, it'll take you back in time to the days of cane rods and silk lines. While you're at it, enjoy your day on the stream, and always remember what C.B. Burnham said..."If a trout will, he will; if he won't, he won't, and that's all about it, except he may or will take this when he won't take that."

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Pat Donoghue, Canada, ©1997