All content © Robert Williamson

All content © Robert Williamson

Friday, October 10, 2008

Woven-body Fly History by Robert Williamson ©

Charles Brooks in his book, The Living River, a profile of the Madison River states that "writers and editors of history and science works are largely working with opinions. This in the case of history is because it is based largely on someone's opinion of what happened, and quoting several "authorities" as reinforcement does not automatically make something true." Based on this statement as a prologue to this article, I have reached conclusions and opinions based on my research and I take responsibility for what is presented here. The idea of weaving trout flies can be traced back to the 1920s when the late Franz Pott of Missoula, Montana, was producing his Mite series of trout flies. The Mite flies were made of woven-hair bodies and woven-hair hackles. The Pott weave created a fly with a belly strip (usually orange), and the flies were neat and durable. Many fly fishers have used the Pott flies and feel they are a good caddis imitation for both the caddis worm and the emerging caddis pupa. Pott liked to use certain types of hair for his weaving process and hackles. His Sandy Mite was tied with sandy-colored hair from Chinese ox. Many of his other patterns were made with woven badger hair. Many contemporary tiers who have seen the Pott flies believed they were tied with horse hair, but this was not the case, at least not in the original patterns. Pott was a barber or wig maker by profession, and learned to apply his talents to the creation of artificial flies. His flies were very popular for up to 30 to 40 years. Many fly fishers in the Montana area used nothing else but the Pott flies. The hair-flies popularity spread and found favor in fly fishers' fly boxes in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and other areas around the West. I was introduced to the Pott flies in the early 1970s by my dad. He used two patterns exclusively in his fly fishing. The Fizzle and the Rockworm were his favorites. These two patterns did not have the woven-hair bodies like the Mite series, but they did have the woven-hair hackles. I learned to tie the Sandy Mite and use it regularly with wet fly techniques. I have found it to still be effective fished down-and-across on a tight line. Most trout will hit it on the swing and some trout will hit it as it is worked upstream with a slow hand-twist-retrieve. Almost all fly fishers are familiar with George Grant of Montana. Grant is another one of the pioneers of weaving techniques. Grant created a process for making a woven hackle similar to Pott but slightly different. He also created a weaving technique for his Black Creeper fly. This fly was all black except for an orange interwoven or interlaced belly stripe. The tying instructions can be found in Grant's book, The Master Fly Weaver. One of Grant's greatest accomplishments is his writing. His two books, The Master Fly Weaver and Montana Trout Flies, record for us the history and techniques for many of the woven fly patterns. It has been through the writing of Grant that many of us modern fly weavers have learned our craft. Dan Bailey was creating a woven fly in the 1930s. His pattern was an imitation of the stoneflies found in many of the Western rivers. His woven artificial was called the Mossback and was originally tied with monofilament or horse hair. Later versions tied by other tiers were tied with different colors of nylon hair. The Dark Mossback had a black nylon hair back and a olive nylon hair belly. The Light Mossback had a dark olive nylon hair back and a cream underside. Other fly tiers have used the Bailey weave to create such flies as the Bitch Creek (woven black and orange chenille) and the George's Brown Stone (woven brown and cream yarn). The woven Polish Nymphs which are gaining in popularity look like they are created with the Bailey weave and the Pott weave. The history of the overhand-knot weaving technique is a little sketchy. Hank Roberts of Colorado popularized the technique. Hank gives his wife credit for coming up with the technique, but also claims to have received a package in the mail from Dan Vercellino and Al Ross, that had fly patterns tied with this technique, on the very day his wife came up with the idea. Dan Vercellino lived in Idaho and was tying flies with the overhand-knot technique. He and Al Ross obtained a patent for the process around 1947 and formed a company called, Century Products. As far as can be ascertained, Dan and Al sent the package of flies to Hank and asked if he wanted to by the patent rights. Hank bought the rights and added the woven flies to his catalog. The overhand-knot weave as performed by most tiers involves tying in two colors of material along each side of the hook shank. A dark color for the back and light color for the belly. After these materials are secured to the shank, the tying thread is removed after a whip knot or couple of half-hitches are tied. An overhand-knot is formed out in front of the shank and then pushed over the eye of the hook with the dark color on top light color on bottom. The knot is pushed into place and cinched down snug. The process is repeated until the desired length body is formed. In 1987, I began using the overhand-knot weave with hand and finger movements that allowed me to form the body without having to remove the tying thread. This technique allows tiers to create extended-body dry flies with this weaving method. It would be almost impossible to tie an extended-body with the overhand-knot technique without using this method. Torill Kolbu of Norway performs the same weaving method by using crotchet hooks. Some fly tiers may find the use of hooks helpful but if you learn the hand and finger movements crotchet hooks are not needed. It seems that the woven-body fly is gaining in popularity again. It is fitting that we remind ourselves about the true pioneers and developers of these techniques. Thanks to Pott, Grant, Bailey, Roberts, Vercellino and Ross we have the ideas, techniques and tradition of the woven fly. ©


c said...

I just tried posting a comment, but I think I messed up. So if two of these pop up--oops, sorry!

Robert, Great little history lesson there. Thank you! I tie because it saves me a couple of bucks, but that's about it. I have almost no clue about any of the history or tiers of note (who is George Grant?). I really need to be a little more aware.

Just curious, but do you weave/chain-stitch because they catch more fish, are easier/quicker to tie, are more enjoyable to tie, or for some other reason(s)?

cutthroat stalker said...

I must have finger dyslexia or something, I'm hitting all the wrong buttons. That last post (and any other weird random things going on with your site) was my fault.

-scott c

John said...


Periodically, I've seen woven flies and wanted to give it a try. I saw your post, and got inspired. Check out my simple attempt: Woven stonefly

Wildnative said...

I don't think the woven flies catch more fish. There is a whole group of fly tiers/anglers who actually feel they are less effective than some of the more impressionistic flies. (Most of those critics can't tie their own shoelaces either). It's more of a creative urge satisfying endeavor for me. I have caught a lot of fish on the woven and chain-stitched patterns myself. How many more fish would I have caught if I used an impressionistic fly? I'll never now. I can only catch so many fish per hour just like anyone else. The chain-stitched mayflies ahave been very effective for me. I think they create a great silhouette on the water. During mayfly hatches, when the fish are on the duns, I can say, I have great success. Would I have just the same success as a standard pattern? Again hard to say. I've fished the chain-stitched mayflies over some pretty selective trout and have had my share of success. So, I don't think they catch more fish, they are not easier to tie, I guess they are more enjoyable to tie because they satisfy a creative urge. And I like to think I'm fishing something that at least in my head,is somewhat of an innovation I came up with, even though that's debatable by some.

George Grant tied some amazing bugs in his day. I think he is still alive and over 100 years old now. he used to fish the Big Hole in Montana during it's heyday in the 30'40's and on. I would say he is one of the most celebrated western tiers we have. A true original and innovator. he tied some pretty time consumming bugs, but they are true works of art. Several modern tiers are now reproducing his flies more for the historical significance and as works of art.

cutthroat stalker said...


Thanks for the reply. I appreciate the "creative urge" reason for tying them.

Also, thank you for the info on George Grant.

I noticed the copyright symbol. Is this in publication elsewhere? If not, do you plan to do so? You definitely should.

-scott c

Wildnative said...

A close version of it was published as a letter to the editor in "Fly Fisherman" magazine a few years back, and it appears on Vlad Markov's web site. Both had use permission.

Brian said...

Hi, Robert i have your book Creative Flies innovative fly techniques and I am weaving patterns using other material. I am trying to use ultra thread but I just can not get it down so I need some advice.