Al Cohen

"...A small, neat head as I have already remarked on more than one occasion, is a hall-mark of high-class work..." (T.E. Pryce-Tannatt's How to Dress Salmon Flies; Adam and Charles Black: London, 1977, third edition p. 130)[1]

"...the inevitable result is a large head, the reverse of which is the hall-mark of good workmanship..." (Eric Taverner and Others - Salmon Fishing; Seeley, Service & Co. Ltd.: London, 1931, p. 294)

In the past issues of "The Salmon Flyer" I have seen numerous comments regarding the desirability of small heads. And this started me thinking of conversations held with other salmon fly-tying enthusiasts several years back and how I ultimately concluded that Messrs. Pryce-Tannatt and Taverner were expressing a desideratum rarely observed.

Of course in itself the concept of "small" is difficult, as to understand what a particular person using the word means demands relativity. "Small" to me means Syd Glasso's heads (See Joseph D. Bates, Jr.'s The Art of the Atlantic Salmon Fly; David R. Godine: Boston, 1987, Plate VI, p. 186), but Syd dressed these salmon flies after the Second World War (I do not know precisely when), certainly outside of the time frames of Messrs. Pryce-Tannatt and Taverner.

When looking at the fully-dressed salmon patterns of the nineteenth century, I was able to only conclude that the size of a salmon fly's head was rarely, if ever, a serious consideration.[2] There were heads made of mohair, seals's fur, wool, peacock and ostrich herls and silk chenille, as well as varnished heads. With the exception of the latter, all such materials added bulk; some more, some less. But, back to the twentieth century.

Looking at the plates of fully-dressed salmon flies contained in Pryce-Tannatt (Plates I, III, IV and V) we find an answer, at least insofar as Pryce-Tannattt's heads are concerned. Many of the fully-dressed flies have heads that I would consider "normal-sized" for that type of fly, while the' head of the Canary (Plate IV) -- "...note the smallness of the head" (p. 198) resulted from transferring the wings from one fly to another (pp. 196 - 198).

Again, look at the seven plates of salmon flies included in W. Earl Hodgson's Salmon Fishing (Adam and Charles Black: London, 1906). By now the answer should be obvious - there is spoken authority for small, neat heads, but if the concept of small heads for fully-dressed salmon flies was followed at all by the historic fly dressers, I have yet to find much evidence of any consequence in support, either in the hundreds of antique salmon flies that I have seen or in the angling books and catalogues containing plates of actual salmon flies (not artists' renditions) - that is until a man named Syd Glasso appeared on the scene, and Syd can only be regarded as modern. What are the consequences of the foregoing? Probably not a whole lot, but in the event you dress salmon flies with whatever size heads you deem appropriate, I offer for your consideration that you will likely be either historically correct or artistically correct, and if the head is neat enough and not oversized, probably both.


[1] Pryce-Tannatt was a practical gentleman. After discussing the small, neat head, he continued "...It is quite easy to make a small, neat head [I wonder what he actually meant by this portion of the remark], but not easy to conbine this with firmness and durability [p. 130]..."

[2] Apparently George Kelson wasn't much in favor of small heads as in The Salmon Fly (The Angler's and Shooter's Press: Goshen, 1979, second edition, p. 25) he remarked "...Whilst it is possible to so tightly and finely compact a fly that the very fibres of the wing shall first give way [when twisted], such a degree of compacted strength is by no means requisite in a well-tied fly..."