Finding wisdom in an old fishing fly

David Roper
David Roper

Up, gad an’ gaff, an’ awa’!

Cry ‘Hurrah for the canny red heckle,

The heckle that tackled them a’. — From “The Canny Red Heckle.

Some years ago I stumbled across a bit of fishing lore in a 2nd Century B.C. work by an obscure Greek writer, Aelian, in which he describes the “Macedonian way of catching fish.”

Aelian writes, “Between Boroca and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astracus, and in it there are fish with spotted skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians (brook trout?).” He then describes a “snare for the fish, by which they get the better of them. They fasten red (crimson red) wool round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers that grew under a cock’s wattles... Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes up, thinking to get a dainty mouthful...” (On the Nature of Animals).

In the 15th century, Dame Juliana Berners, the prioress of the Benedictine nunnery of Topwell, near St. Albans, England, wrote a book on fly fishing entitled A Treatyse of Fysshyng Wyth an Angle in which she covered all aspects of flyfishing, from stream technique to flytying. In the course of Dame Juliana’s kindly discourse, she advises the angler “how to make his tackle,” and gives minute instructions for dressing flies, and the months in which to use them. Her instructions for the month of May read:

“In the begynning of Maye a good flye, the body of roddyd wull (red wool) and lappid (wrapped) abowte wyth blacke silke; the wynges of the drake of the redde capons hakyll (red rooster hackle).”

In 1653 Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler instructed his pupil Viator in the use of 12 special flies. The fourth, the “ruddy fly,” is to be used in May.

The body made of red wool wrapt about with black silk, and the feathers are the wings of the drake; with the feathers of the red capon also, which hang dangling on its sides next to the tail.

In 1892 Mary Orvis Marbury concluded:

Empires have risen and fallen; cities been built, lived in, and crumbled to dust; continents discovered, populated, and grown old in wealth and culture; human ingenuity has conquered space, and the knowledge of new inventions has sped round the world to the aid of all men; unknown forces have been made familiar, and now light our ways, warm, feed, speak for us, and convey us where we will; but in all these strides we who fish have carried with us, and handed on and on down through the ages, the “bonny red heckle” (Mary Orvis Maybury, Favorite Flies and their Histories).

Thus we have the chronicle of the Red Hackle (in its various spelling variations through the years), a pattern almost all of us have in our fly boxes today. First tied over 2,200 years ago it still catches “troughte” in Idaho in the month of May.

As I considered the Red Hackle an idea came to mind: Not all old things are passé — namely, you and me. If through contented and cheerful old age we show others the fullness and deepness of God’s love we’ll be useful to the end of our days. Old age does not have to be weakness and wrinkles and spectacles and arthritis and forgetfulness. It can be tranquility and mirth and courage and kindness, the enduring legacy of men and women who have grown old with God.

“Those who are planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall stay fresh and flourishing...” (Psalm 52:13, 14).

David and Carolyn Roper co-direct the work of Idaho Mountain Ministries, a ministry of clergy care. David is the author of 14 books. The most recent: Teach Us To Number Our Days. His musings are archived on

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