Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What does Impressionism have to do with fly tying?

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with North Country spiders. Some anglers find that these flies are so sparse that they have little confidence that they will actually catch fish. In particular, since these flies do not strive to present an ideal imitation of a natural insect, there is an inherent reservation about their effectiveness in the minds of many modern fly fishermen. These reservations harken back to the “English school” of fly fishing in the 19th century that strove for accuracy in the imitation of the natural insect. In contrast, the “North country school” was coming from an opposite direction that spawned a somewhat cantankerous debate. The North Country perspective was articulated by T. E. Pritt, in his book North Country Flies published in 1885. He wrote ”It is far more difficult to imitate a perfect insect and to afterwards impart to it a semblance of life in or on the water, than it is to produce something which is sufficiently near a resemblance of an imperfectly developed insect, struggling to attain the surface of the stream. Trout undoubtedly take a hackled fly for the insect just rising from the pupa in a half-drowned state; and the opening and closing of the fibres of the feathers give it an appearance of vitality, which even the most dextrous fly-fisher will fail to impart to the winged imitation. “
What Pritt was expressing has a parallel to the movement in art between1870-1890 known as Impressionism. The impressionists were attempting to capture the essence of a subject rather than its details. Perhaps the best known of these works is Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise”. The impressionists were striving for an accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities and the inclusion of movement as crucial elements of human perception just as the North Country tiers were seeking to impart movement rather than detailed imitation.
Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise
The storied past of these creations has proven this hypothesis effective if not completely accurate (after all who knows why a trout really takes a fly?) So this season, I’ll be fishing these more often and hopefully learning more about these elegant flies. For those interested you can find digital copies of three of the classic works on the subject from

The Practical Angler – W. C. Stewart
Brook and River Trouting – H.H. Edmonds and N. N. Lee
North Country Flies – T.E. Pritt


  1. Nice tale Mark. I like the connection. And I sure am ready to cast some wet flies....

  2. Excellent post today! I enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks Jon and Kiwi, it was a fun subject to think about. Fran Betters also used this impressionistic approach.

  4. Wow! I have felt there was a very strong connection between impressionism and fly tying for some time but have never run across anyone else who shared my views. To me it is so clear.

    Look at an impressionist's painting and you know exactly what he is trying to portray - and what's more it looks just right. Look at an unskilled artist's attempt at realism and you can easily see that it's just not right - even if you can't quite put into words what's wrong with it.

    At mimicing insects, we are all unskilled artists, and a trout can't put into words what's wrong with a realistic tie, but he knows something isn't right. However, just a bit of thread, a turn of hackle and maybe a pinch of dubbing will easily create the impression of an insect.

    Great post.

  5. Cstewart35 - glad you enjoyed it and your to unskilled "realist" is very insightful - thanks

  6. sorry meant your reference to an unskilled realist

  7. absolutely fascinating read and correlation!