Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Quill Gordon

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 4/8/22

In the last three or four years, the years I’ve written about fly fishing for the River Reporter, there have been columns about most of the important mayfly species that hatch from Catskill …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Quill Gordon

Posted

In the last three or four years, the years I’ve written about fly fishing for the River Reporter, there have been columns about most of the important mayfly species that hatch from Catskill rivers. But not quill Gordon.

Thinking back, I have to wonder why, because of all Catskill mayflies, quill Gordon is perhaps the most significant species of all, for three important reasons. First, the fly itself is named after Theodore Gordon, who is considered the father of American fly fishing. Second, and although he did not know it, Gordon is credited as the founder of Catskill school of fly-tying. Third, quill Gordon is the first of the major hatches of the season.

According to the historic record, Theodore Gordon was a frail little man, who left the compromised air of Manhattan due to respiratory problems, and retreated to the cleaner environs of the Catskills. Gordon found refuge in the Anson House, along the upper reaches of the Neversink River, sections, now consumed by the Neversink reservoir. That’s where Gordon spent his time tying flies and writing for Forest and Stream, a magazine.

Then around 1890, Gordon began corresponding with Fredric Halford, a prominent British author of fly-fishing books and a fly-tyer. The two men exchanged dry flies. Gordon realized that while Halford’s flies, although fine for English chalk streams like the Rivers Test and Itchen with their gentle flows, would not do for the swifter waters of the Catskills. So Gordon tied his dry flies with much stiffer hackle, which allowed them to float better on his beloved Neversink. That prompted the invention of the quill Gordon dry fly.

Frankly, I do not know if he named the fly, or if that occurred after his passing. Sometime later, in the middle to late 20th century, Gordon was followed by several prominent fly-tyers, including Harry and Elsie Darbee, Art Flick, Ruben Cross and Walt and Winnie Dette, all disciples of the Catskill School.    

The literature indicates that quill Gordons (Epeorus pleuralis), begin to hatch in the Catskills around the third week of April. The nymphs leave their nymphal case at the stream bottom and struggle to the surface, at which time they are extremely vulnerable to trout on the lookout for an easy meal. The gold-ribbed hare’s ear, a wet fly tied in size 12 and 14, is reported to be an extremely deadly pattern during hatching, especially when fished across and downstream, dead drift with a twitch. That technique is supposed to emulate the emerging duns on their way to the surface.

Hatching begins once river-water temperature reaches 50 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’ve seen duns on the upper East Branch as early as noon, or a little before. Because air and water temperatures are often fairly cool in mid- to late-April in the Catskills, quill Gordons may ride the water for an extended period before flying off. That makes them, like the hatching nymphs, easy prey for trout—although temperatures in the low 50s often retard trout feeding.

As with most mayflies, males are slightly smaller than females, but appear identical in color. The duns have slate-colored wings, with dark bodies perfectly matched by stripped peacock herl, which is used for bodies, on the dry fly. In the spinner stage, males can be distinguished from females because males have large, reddish/orange eyes.

I tie quill Gordon dun imitations on a size 14 light-wire Mustad hook, although most tying instructions call for a size 12. I’ve always found that one size smaller is better when it comes to dry flies. The standard quill Gordon dry fly represents both the male and female dun. A number 14 rusty spinner would be the perfect pattern for the spent imago stage.

Anglers fishing during late April need to be aware that quill Gordon hatches frequently overlap Hendrickson hatches. So it is not uncommon to find the species on the water concurrently. Quill Gordons are slightly smaller, darker and have two tails. Hendricksons (female dun) and red quills (male duns) are lighter in color and have three tails. If trout are surface-feeding, I believe a quill Gordon, Hendrickson, or red quill dry fly would be equally effective patterns, even though I know that there are those that disagree.

I remember one cold, blustery day along the East Branch of the Delaware River upstream of Margaretville. It was mid- to late April, with an unfriendly downstream breeze, making it uncomfortable to be on the water. I had been fishing the head of a pool with two nymphs and a split shot, to get the flies down, with absolutely no success. Then about noon, the first quill Gordons appeared and soon the trout began to rise. I had good sport, landing several 10- to 12-inch browns before the hatch ended and it was time to call it a day.

If you are the type of angler inclined to venture forth in mid-April, are on the water around noon, and if the weather is on the warmer side for that day, keep an eye out. You might just find a nice hatch of what my friend Rog called “Gordons” and have a great day of fishing! Just remember, if you find quill Gordons, think about that frail little man and the impact he had on what is now American fly fishing.

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