There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the later Victorian period for the development of the Salmon fly with suggestions that the use of colour originated from Ireland. We now go back to 1790 on the Royalty Fishery, River Avon in the county of Hampshire. On this famous stretch of water, bequeathed to the 1st Earl of Wessex in 1540 by Henry VIII following an act of treason by the two sons of the Countess of Salisbury and where Oliver Cromwell presided over a poaching incident in the “Parlour Pool” in 1657, this stretch of water was leased by George St John, 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke
Born in March 1761, the son of a politician, George St John attended Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, which he graduated from in 1777. In 1782, at the age of 21, he entered the House of Commons and following the death of his father in 1787, he succeeded him in title.
Bolingbroke enjoyed success with his fly on the Royalty for Salmon and the dressing, with fiery brown wool, real gold lace and Pheasant toppings, tied in upside down, was a simple but effective pattern, which, in a modern iteration, still produces fish on the river today. Detailed in Barrington’s “70 years of Fishing” which accounts for the dressing. Also, the following extract from the Field 1863;
Golden Pheasant Toppings for Salmon Flies – I beg to enclose some old salmon flies made by my father; and as he died in 1823. 1863 cannot be the year when the crest of the golden pheasant was first used for salmon flies. I also send you an old fish bill which I paid Sir J Rose’s agent in 1828. I always make my own flies, and never use any other, therefore I am quite certain every one of those fish were caught in the Avon, at Christchurch, with “the charmer” and wings made from the crest of the golden pheasant.
Sir J Rose gave me permission to fish for salmon on condition that I paid him market price for the fish I caught.JS
The flies sent, though rather roughly tied, would be killers even in the present day, on many rivers that we know of. They have wings almost entirely composed of the golden pheasant toppings, four being the largest number in either fly. The bodies are almost identical with those used on the Usk and Wye, save that they are not quite so stout. The most striking point in them, however, is the tinsel, which appears to have kept its colour with very little tarnish, for forty years, proving that tinsel must have been pure gold, or remarkably well are carefully kept.
Bolingbroke is also mentioned in Francis Francis “Book on Angling” 1867 on page 345 in respect of the Parson, which is generally regarded as an “Avon” fly. An example was given to the Rev Arthur Meyrick from Ramsbury. A fly with two large toppings, yellow body, yellow hackle and thin twist.
Sir Humphry Davy (inventor of the patented miners the “Davy Lamp”) was also an acquaintance and mentions Bolingbroke in his book Salmonia or Days of Fly Fishing 1828.
So, a pioneer of early Salmon fishing with the fly on the River Avon, the Bolingbroke Fly, which I feel predates the commencement of his lease on the Royalty Fishery in 1790, which is also known as the Christchurch “Charmer”. I feel that the prospect of two identical flies, originating from the same area bearing different names is highly unlikely. Probably known as the “Charmer” due to the fly’s capability to catch Salmon, therefore charming them from the water or maybe after the owner, due to his numerous sexual conquests which saw him moving around Europe and America due to his many indiscretions.
Bolingbroke died in December 1824 at the age of 63. As a dedication and at 230 years from the introduction of his Salmon fly, the one detailed in on an antique blued “Kerbed” Sneck bend, wool, real gold twist, hackle and four toppings.
Another fly that owes its origins to the Avon and Bolingbroke is the Erne fly (Parson), which is often mistaken as an Irish pattern with Blacker as its creator. Again, Francis Francis details the following letter which offers an insight into the history of this fly:
“My dear sir, I send four Parsons I borrowed from Mr Hobson and I will send you a couple make with summer duck in the wing. The first “Parson” and called from him was used by the Reverend Arthur Meyrick of Ramsbury, it was two large toppings, a yellow body, yellow hackle, a very thin twist run close together up the body, I mean half as close as in any of those flies I send. He said he got it from Lord Bolingbroke at Christchurch”.