Fishing the Quill Gordon
“The delicate Quill Gordon has fairly been described as one of the first truly American dry fly…Theodore Gordon, could be – and has been – called the father of dry fly fishing in the USA.” Ian Whitelaw
The name Quill Gordon has become forever burned into fly fishing history, even to the point that the insect becomes the fly. Most anglers when they see the Epeorus pleuralis hatching will simply say, “I saw Quill Gordons hatching”. Few flies reach this status level, but this fly deserves nothing less. The fly’s inventor, Theodore Gordon, was searching for a solution for catching the more difficult brown trout. Streams at the time were evolving from brook trout to brown trout fisheries. Until then, most American anglers were wet fly fishermen, a technique that proved challenging to catch the elusive brown. Mr. Gordon was an observant man, he noticed that brown trout were more likely to eat the wet fly before it sank. He desired to come up with a fly pattern that floated and worked for the Epeorus pleuralis hatch. In 1892, product of his efforts yielded the Quill Gordon dry fly, a fly that was one of the first American fly to be imported to England, and some say started dry fly fishing in America.
The original pattern had a body of stripped peacock quill, wings of wood duck flank feather, and medium blue dun hackle with a tail of the same. The sparse pattern would ride high in the broken waters of Appalachia. Modern variations still owe respect to the invention that birthed the entire technique of dry fly fishing. My variation uses different materials. Peacock quills are fragile and difficult to prepare. They also lack floatation, a problem solved by using stripped rooster quills instead. I prefer to use a combination of pale yellow and grey, which is closer to the natural coloration found locally. The original fly was slender, much more than the natural. Epeorus pleuralis is a meaty mayfly, some of the largest of the season, and I tie the Quill Gordon with three quills to get the bulk needed to match the profile. For the wings I use a grey or dun hen feather for a broad profile and more accurate color. Not only does this match the naturals more closely, but wood duck fibers are difficult to obtain. Finally, I dub the thorax with a particular blend of fur and palmer the hackle through it. The final outcome is a durable fly with excellent floatation, a good profile and colors to match the naturals. I hope Theodore Gordon would approve.
The Quill Gordon was a successful attempt to match the Epeorus pleuralis, a mayfly. There are over 570 species of mayflies and of those, there are a dozen species that are important to anglers up and down the east coast. The E. pleuralis is one of them, if not in the top three. What makes this insect so important is not just the size, which is rather large, or the wide distribution, but the time of the year trout start seeing them. It’s usually one of the first major hatches after a long winter.
In the winter, our rivers can get quite cold…cold enough to slow the trout’s metabolism down to the point where eating is more of an option. Cold run off from the Blue Ridge, cold rain and even snow all contribute to the low water temperature. But as the winter lingers on, the sun begins to reach higher in the sky and the rivers gradually creep up into the upper forties. The combination of sun and water temperature will trigger the E. pleuralis nymphs to become agitated and hatch. The trout are agitated too, the warmer water has kicked their metabolism into gear and they need to eat. A big mayfly floating down the river in front of a trout is like a thru hiker stopping in town and heading to the steak house. Combine a starved appetite and a big meal and you will see a feeding frenzy. I have seen over fifty Quill Gordons get eaten by trout during a hatch. At times, one will wonder if any of the insects survive. They must, because they will be back the next year.
Hatches can start in February and will typically last through March. But years are different and that is only a guideline. Some years it can be earlier or later. Once the hatch starts, it is generally predictable and you will see it each day. Typically, it occurs during the warmest part of the day.
Some anglers ask what the insect looks like so they can identify it. E. pleuralis are the easiest mayfly to identify. They are the only big mayfly on the water this time of year and can be seen from 20 yards away, which is a welcome relief to anglers who are tired of straining their eyes fishing micro small flies. At times they can be very active on the water, fluttering and causing a commotion: attractive to a hungry trout. Even big trout will surface to eat an E. pleuralis. However, they can be described as a large mayfly, 9-12mm long from head to the tip of the abdomen. The body color when viewed from above is dark grey, however the belly is a pale yellow. The insect has grey legs with dark brown bands and dark grey wings. They will have two dark tails. If you catch one, notice that from above the insect appears distinctly grey. However, look at the insect from the trout’s perspective and you will see a pale yellow belly, a sharp contrast to the back, legs and wings. Due to the size of the insect, you will be using flies sized 10 or 12, with 12 being the most common.
They are a clinger mayfly, which means they like fast water…really fast. If you look closely at the nymph, it’s legs look like air foil on a formula racing car. The body is also shaped this way. The shape actually puts a down pressure on the insect to help it hold the rock. Combined with the robust legs, these mayflies are happy in fast water with blocky substrate. I have found great hatches in the wave train of a rapid, with fish eating them. Hatch locations will change location from year to year. Some locations that had an abundance now are seeing less, while other areas seem to be increasing. Move around until you start seeing the hatches, if the trout aren’t eating them yet…they soon will be. Just keep checking fast water with blocky substrate.
Dry fly angling means dead drifts, and the Quill Gordon should be fished the same. Imagine the fly drifting down the river like a leaf that fell on the water…currents pulling this way or pushing it that way. That is the same way your fly needs to behave, moving naturally with the current. To help this, use a long leader; this will give you slack to let the fly drift. With a large fly, 10 or 12, 4x tippet is fine. If the trout are being picky, one may use 5x, but I wouldn’t go any smaller. Clean and grease the leader down to the fly to keep it slick on the water surface. Finally, pick your spot to get the best drift.
Picking your spot will be easy if they are feeding on the Quill Gordons. You will see the fish rise and at times, see the fly go down the gullet of the trout. Move into position to make your cast, usually across from the fish and slightly upstream, but you may have to go with what works. Check your back cast, after all you want to catch a trout not a tree. After the cast be ready for the take. If the trout are quick and greedy, set normally. However, sometimes they rise slowly and deliberately. If they do, wait until they go down to set the hook. When they rise slowly, they eat slowly and will need extra time to swallow the fly deep enough to hook properly, count to three and set the hook. Enjoy the fish on the line. This time of year, they have is plenty of fight and you should have a great time landing them. Be sure to wet your hands, even though it is cold, to release the trout. You want to keep them healthy and your dry hands could damage their protective slime coat.
Each season when I am out looking for the Quill Gordons, I think back about how Theodore Gordon not only created a fly, but a whole new way of catching trout…on the dry. As with most breakthroughs, he was trying to solve a problem, a fly that would work better on browns. He not only did that, but inspired generations to seek trout on the top with a dry. Maybe that’s why this is my favorite time of the year to fly fish. Or it might be the years spent working on subtle changes in the fly and how effective it is. Either way, it’s pure joy to catch a trout on a Quill Gordon…especially the browns. Be sure to get out this season for some early spring fishing. If you are lucky or diligent, you’ll find a Quill Gordon hatch and rising trout.
Good Fishing and tight lines
Ref: The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies, Ian Whitelaw, 2015