Fly Fishing the Hendrickson Hatch
October 16, 2015
A century of fishing the Hendrickson hatch
Theodore Gordon, the father of American dry-fly fishing, has died. He was America's best known, celebrated fly fisher and tier during his lifetime. His writings in the Fishing Gazette and Forest and Stream were catalysts for a fly-fishing revolution that graduated United States anglers from fanciful wet flies, intended to attract trout, into hatch-matching dry flies, intended to imitate specific aquatic insects. Gordon died in 1915, and like the Christian Pentecost, his death precipitated another change from another master.
Though other men, such as Rube Cross, claimed Gordon's tutelage, Roy Steenrod is the only person who unquestionably learned to tie flies directly from Gordon. And two years after his first lesson in the winter of 1914, he was already experimenting with his own fly patterns.
Gordon earned a living selling flies he tied, but in his last year of life, in failing health, he suggested to one of his best customers, Albert Everett Hendrickson, that he find Gordon's protégé to fill his fly orders.
A.E. Hendrickson contacted and befriended Steenrod, and in 1916 the friendship led to the creation of a new fly pattern.
This fly transformed Steenrod into a fly-fishing legend, and further cements the mythical status of the small town near where it was created; the town where the Upper Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek join to form the Lower Beaverkill — Roscoe, New York.
But even if you've never been to Roscoe or fished the hallowed waters of the Beaverkill, if you live anywhere east of the Mississippi River, this fly and its history has changed the way you fly fish and will most likely impact your 2015 trout season. It is the fly known since 1918 as the Hendrickson.
You might be wondering how a fly pattern invented in 1916 and named in 1918 gets to commemorate its 100th anniversary in 2015. But this anniversary is similar to both the Y2K celebration and controversy. Technically, the year 2000 was the 2001st year in the Christian calendar because you have to start counting at year 0. It's the same with the Hendrickson anniversary. This spring, anglers will have been fishing flies inspired by Steenrod's pattern for the 100th season.
Hendricksons are found throughout the East from the southern Appalachians to Maine, and as far west as Michigan. The hatch begins in late March to early April in its southern reaches, and you'll find it in middle to late May in northern climates.
In 2015, anglers who wade into the cold springtime waters of the Beaverkill, Penns Creek, the branches of the Upper Delaware, the Ausable, the Farmington, and hundreds of other great Eastern trout waters to fish hatches of Ephemerella subvaria, will call the mayflies Hendricksons because of the fly Roy Steenrod created in 1916.
Creating a Legend
I don't know what fly anglers called the emergence of Ephemerella subvaria before Steenrod bestowed the Hendrickson moniker on it. Perhaps they just described the insects like some of my non-entomologically inclined friends would today — "I think the fish are eating those pink bugs" — but Steenrod's pattern worked so well that a name was required, and one was given.
In his wonderful book, Trout Fishing in the Catskills, Catskill historian Ed Van Put recounts the Hendrickson creation and naming story as told by Roy Steenrod.
"One day in 1916, while we were fishing the Beaverkill below the Junction Pool at Roscoe, a hatch of flies came on. I caught one of the flies and put it in my box, and after lunch that day at Ferdon's Eddy I tied some patterns of the fly as nearly as I could. Two years after I tied the first pattern, the matter was brought up as to what I would call or name the fly. Looking at A.E. [Hendrickson], the best friend a person could ever wish to have, I said, 'the fly is the Hendrickson.' I saw at once that A.E. was pleased."
Ferdon's Eddy, the stretch of river where the Hendrickson was first tied, flows below the River View Inn, which is long since defunct. The Ferdon family owned the inn and lent their name to the pool below it. The geography of this event is significant because it ties another Catskill legend to the Hendrickson story.
The Ferdons had a daughter who would one day marry a man named Walt Dette. Walt began tying flies in the 1920s by taking apart Rube Cross patterns, after the paranoid Cross refused to teach him, fearing that Dette would become a professional fly-tying competitor. But Dette persisted and began a small fly-tying business in Roscoe that would include his girlfriend, Winnie Ferdon, the daughter of the River View Inn keepers. Walt and Winnie would eventually marry and start a family, transforming Winnie Ferdon into Winnie Dette, and forming the foundation of perhaps America's greatest fly-tying family.
From Gordon, through Steenrod, the Dettes along with the Darbee family (Harry and Elsie) and others would help create and advance what is now known as the Catskill School of fly tying. The Dettes eventually also tied flies for A.E. Hendrickson and, together with their daughter Mary, who would join the couple's fly-tying business around 1954, they created the oldest continually family-owned fly shop in the United States. If you care about the genealogy of such things, you can order a Hendrickson today, tied just like Steenrod's in a 100-year-old unbroken chain, from the Dette Fly Shop, now in the excellent care of Mary's grandson, Joe Fox.
The Hendrickson that Steenrod first designed on the banks of Ferdon's Eddy is similar, but different, to what current fly fishers expect from the fly. Its body was made from fawn-colored fox fur. Many anglers believe that Steenrod used the urine-stained underbelly from a vixen red fox, because that amazingly descriptive material is so memorable. But it was Art Flick who later suggested this material in his writings, not Steenrod.
Steenrod's original Hendrickson had wood duck flank feather fibers for its tail. But this wouldn't last long. He replaced the wood duck with hackle fibers, which are now standard on Catskill flies because they improve the fly's balance, aiding floatation. The wing was also made from wood duck, which is common in Catskill flies today, but the wing was not divided. It was tied in one clump, probably to imitate the way mayflies hold their wings together when at rest. This was not Steenrod's idea. Theodore Gordon tied many of his flies with a solid clump of wood duck. To finish the fly, Steenrod used medium dun-colored hackle, tied sparsely, with the stiffest fibers possible.
But the materials that Steenrod used to tie his fly beg many questions. The fawn (tannish) colored fur for the body was clearly intended to imitate only female Hendricksons, not males. Hendricksons are among a handful of mayflies that have striking physical differences between males and females. Females have small blackish-olive mottled eyes with creamy pale legs and bodies that ranges from near-yellow (like a Sulphur) to tan, highlighted with shades of pinks and olives, depending upon their genetics and what they ate as nymphs. Males are colored much more vividly. They have reddish bodies, creamy legs, and large bright red eyes that look like two miniature cherry tomatoes perched on their foreheads.
This is part of the reason this one mayfly species has been given so many common names: Light Hendrickson, Dark Hendrickson, Big Sulphur, and Red Quill. Contrast those names with another common mayfly, the Blue-winged Olive. Most people call them BWOs and sometimes BWO spinners for their final life stage. Two common names. That's it.
So why did Steenrod create a fly that only answers half of the hatch? Did he not notice the male Hendricksons? Surely, he had to see them. Did he think they were a separate species rather than just a gender variation? This seems very unlikely today, but it's important to remember we have 100 years of aquatic insect books and articles at our disposal. Steenrod had very little. In 1916, aquatic entomology for fly-fishing purposes was a relatively unexplored field.
Did Steenrod determine that it was unnecessary to imitate both males and females, that just one fly would suffice for both? I find this most likely. I usually use one pink-body fly to imitate the hatch, and generally find that fish eat it whether they're eating males or females. Both genders often emerge simultaneously, so fish are seldom choosey for one over the other, though it does happen occasionally.
Okay, but what about that wood duck wing? It is reasonable to imitate mayflies resting on the water with one solid wing rather than a divided one. But it is not reasonable to imitate Ephemerella subvaria wings with barred, lemon-colored wood duck feathers. Real Hendricksons have medium gray wings without prominent venations. So why didn't Steenrod use a gray feather to imitate the wings?
When I presented these questions to Catskill historian Mike Valla, whose book, Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2013), is the seminal work on the topic, he suggested that I was overthinking things. He said the truth is probably much simpler. Perhaps Steenrod coincidentally had a bunch of fawn-colored fox fur, and that's why he chose it for the body.
When it comes to the wing, Valla thinks that he was most likely just mimicking Gordon's use of wood duck winging material. (Who knows why Gordon did it?) We tend to give these historical anglers more credit than they would give themselves. Steenrod wasn't trying to tie a fly that would immortalize him for the ages; he just wanted to catch the trout that were rising in the eddy in front of him.
When I persisted in asking more questions about the flies and why they are tied the way they are, Valla laughingly quipped, "As long as Gordon and Steenrod remain dead, we may never know." And though Valla's comment, made in jest, made us laugh, he is right. Legends create questions that remain unanswerable; it's those questions that keep the person and their work alive through time, as others debate the theories of why. And after 100 years, Theodore Gordon, Roy Steenrod, and the Hendrickson, Roscoe New York, the Beaverkill, and the Dette Fly Shop continue to live and to be discussed by new generations of fly anglers. They truly are American fly-fishing legends. Here's to another 100 years.
Beginning in April 2015 and continuing until May 2016, the center is commemorating "The Year of the Hendrickson: Celebrating 100 years of Roy Steenrod's influence on Catskill dry-fly fishing." It will feature fly displays, blogs, and articles dedicated to this important event in American fly-fishing history. The center is requesting tiers from around the world join the celebration by submitting their own Hendrickson fly patterns — nymphs, emergers, duns, and spinners — to be displayed at the center as part of the centennial. Details are on their website at their web site at: cffcm.com. You can also share photos of your submission at Fly Fisherman's Photos & Flies gallery at flyfisherman.com/photos.
Paul Weamer lives in Livingston, Montana, where he writes and works at Sweetwater Fly Shop.