Sunday Classic / The Flies of Our Fathers

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A Classic Wet Fly Photo by Louis Cahill

I recently visited my home town in Virginia for a funeral. Although the occasion was a sad one it was the largest gathering of my family in some time and as you would expect there was a good deal of nostalgia and sharing of family stories. This got me thinking about my Grandfather. W.S. (Pete) Cahill, “Dad” to his Grandchildren, was the man who taught me to fly fish when I was eight years old. He was an icon in our family. In our community really. He was an inventor. Honest to God, that was his job. He held dozens of patents. He was a skilled machinist and, in spite of limited education, the most brilliant and creative person I have ever known. He passed away a long time ago but his home has remained in the family and my brother moved in there a few months back. I knew that he had found a box of Dad’s flies. I couldn’t resist photographing them and like most encounters with my Grandfather, I learned a few things.

I’m not suggesting that Dad was a great tyer. Fishing was a hobby and he was a workaholic. He loved to fish but seldom got the chance. His flies were utilitarian but effective and some great examples of the common wisdom of his time. My guess is that most of these were tied in the 1950s or 1960s. There are some classic wet patterns like the Royal Coachman. There are classical streamers. Maybe most interesting are stone fly nymphs that foreshadow today’s more realistic aesthetic while holding on to the art deco influences of the 1940s with their long sweeping tails and streamline design. Some are so simple you might feel silly fishing them but I feel sure they will still produce.

The materials are very different from what we use today. Hackles are much coarser. Thread is of a heavier weight. The materials all seem stiffer than what I use. There are, of coarse, no synthetics. Swiss straw is fairly common and floss ribs the bodies where you would expect wire. The colors are mostly earth tone. Browns and greens with bright flashes of red. The huge Green Drake patterns stand out as garish with bright yellow wings and hackle. All of the flies are large by modern standards. I find this interesting because I know he fished the Smith River, known today for picky trout and #22 no hackle flies. I wonder if pressure has conditioned those fish to be more selective or if the insect life has changed that dramatically. It could as easily be explained by an old man’s failing eye sight.

As interesting as what I learned about the flies is what I learned about my Grandfather. He taught me to fish but I didn’t get to do much fishing with him. It was wonderful to look thru those flies, as an adult, and see what he was thinking. To get a sense of how he fished. I couldn’t help but smile seeing that the bulk of his flies were streamers. I’m a hopeless streamer junkie and the evidence suggests that he was too. He never showed me that style of fishing. I discovered it long after he had passed. It makes me wonder if there is a streamer gene. It makes me happy to imagine that he and I think alike but I may be flattering myself.

I’m going to tie some of these patterns myself and fish them. I think it will be interesting to see how well they work these days. Maybe the fish have forgotten. Either way I expect to learn more about the fisherman who taught me to fish and I know it will make me feel closer to him.



Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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11 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / The Flies of Our Fathers

  1. Awesome post! I have always wondered if you from the Cahills as in “light Cahill.” Is this true? Those flies are great. The irresistable looking thing is cool! I wonder how they did their extended bodies back then. I bet those flies would catch fish all day!

    • Thanks Mark! I’m sure those flys would catch fish. Donald Cahill originated the Light Cahill and the original Dark Cahill as brook trout flies in the Catskills. He was responsible for stocking the first rainbow trout in the Catskills. He worked on a train that was carrying a load of brood stock for a hatchery. The train broke down and rather than let the fish die he dumped them in a near by stream. It’s a kind of dubious distinction as it lead to the native fish being decimated. I am related, or so I’m told, but it’s distant.

  2. Great story and great peeks into your family archives. BTW, both points are true about the Smiff. My personal torture chamber. Insect diversity has gone down and yes, they are picky and spooky.

  3. Pingback: The Streamer Gene, Healing a River, Mantabot Sea Exploration, Outdoor Retailer Show Report | MidCurrent

  4. Awesome piece! Antique flies have always fascinated me. Its really nice to have a fly fishing legacy and something real like dads flies to anchor yourself to your ancestors passions.

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