Friday, March 11

The Royal Family.

The Royal Coachman, tied for dry use.
The Royal Coachman, tied for wet use.

From rags to riches: The humble beginnings of the Royal Line of trout flies.

No fly better represents this freewheeling era [late 19th century] in fly tying than the Royal Coachman, which among the general public may be the world's best-known fly. Its name has the right combination of romance and class to appeal even to people who don't fish, and the fly has such a commanding appearance that few fly fisherman can resist having some permutation of the pattern in their fly boxes, even if they never use it. Most of them don't know it, but the Royal Coachman is the first great American fly pattern. - Paul Schullery, Lore and Legends of Fly Fishing.
Is there any more iconic fly in the fly fishers' arsenal than the aptly named Royal Coachman? It would seem anytime a casual display of fly fishing is mentioned, one can often find the tell tale scarlet band of the Royal Coachman in evidence. Wether it be displayed, or its classic lines drawn in any number of impressionistic displays, the Royal Coachman stands tall, a symbol and ambassador of the sport of fly fishing to the masses seemingly since its inception in 1878.

As one of the crown jewels of fly fishing patterns, the Royal Coachman's beginnings are even more interesting. The story of the pattern can be traced to its originator, Tom Bosworth, thanks to the writing of David Foster in his 1815 text, Scientific Angler:

The Coachman.
"A thorough command of the rod and line is as essential and important as the wielding of the whip in the case of the tandem or four-in-hand drive. We are reminded of this analogy that the most skillful cast we ever knew wielded the whip. We refer to the famous royal coachman, Tom Bosworth. Old Tom had, in the early part of his life, driven three successive British sovereigns…"

So now we have the genesis of the Royal Coachman in the Coachman, and its original name. Its somewhat ironic that the coachman in question drove British royalty, as we will soon find out this did not factor in the naming of its most famous derivative. Mary Orvis Marbury goes on to say in her seminal work Favorite Flies and their Histories, that both the Redtip Coachman and Leadwing Coachman were variations of the original version, traditionally tied with the white quill wings.

Further reading in Marbury's work provides us with the next development, the evolution of the Coachman to its next phase:
"The Royal Coachman was first made in 1878 by John Haily, a professional fly-dresser living in New York City. In writing of other matters, he inclosed [sic] a sample of this fly for us to see, saying: "A gentleman wanted me to tie some Coachmen for him to take up into the north woods, and to make them extra strong, so I have tied them with a little band of silk in the middle, to prevent the peacock bodies from fraying out. I have also added a tail of the barred feathers of the wood-duck, and I think it makes a very handsome fly." A few evenings later, a circle of us were together "disputing the fly question," one of the party claiming that numbers were "quite as suitable to designate the flies as so many nonsensical names." The others did not agree with him, but he said: "What can you do? Here is a fly intended to be a Coachman, yet it is not the true Coachman; it is quite unlike it, and what can you call it?" Mr. L. C. Orvis, brother of Mr. Charles Orvis, who was present, said: "Oh, that is easy enough; call it the Royal Coachman, it is so finely dressed!" And this name in time came to be known and used by all who are familiar with the fly."
So, now we have an unlikely homage to Tom Bosworth, the original coach driver of royalty, who has been inadvertently honored by the newly christened variation of his signature fly. Its also the Haily variation of the scarlet silk that sets defining feature of the fly pattern.

From this point, any number of variations has sprung forth, but special note should be paid to the most infamous of them all, the Royal Wulff. Clearly, the herl and silk body are quite evident here, but what truly sets this fly apart is the hair (originally bucktail, now most often calftail) wings in place of the traditional quill slips. Popular history, and the name, gives the invention of this fly to the inimitable Lee Wulff, but historians seem to suggest a different truth.
The Royal Wulff.
While Wulff did create the Grey (or Ausable) Wulff and the White Wulff during his time in the Adriondacks in 1929, many people state that the Hairwing Royal Coachman got its start from the Beaverkill Trout Club, located in the Catskills, in 1930. A member, L.Q. Quackenbush, had asked a fly dresser, Reuben Cross of Neversink, NY, to tie a Royal Coachman using a substitute for the white Mandarian duck fan wings. Cross, in turn, asked his supplier for any part of an animal white stuff, kinky, white hair. What turned up was impala tails, and thus the Quack Coachman was born. One of the major distinctions we can take from these stories is that while the hairwing development may have come from the Quack, it was the Wulff that gave us the hair tail comes from the Wulff side, as the Quack variant still tied using tippet for tailing, and wasn't as suitable for floating the hooks for as long as the Wulff version. Lee Wulff has stated that his personal preference is to a single, undivided wing, in lieu of split wings his his book Lee Wulff on Flies.

So, nearly 200 years after the first description of the Coachman in Fosters' Scientific Angler we have this wonderful fly, modified by so many to fit their personal styles. The Royal Coachman has run the gamut of patterns, fished wet or dry, actively as a streamer, dead drifted, swung, skated any any way in which one can utilize an artificial fly. A look through pattern guides will find any number of variations, all sworn to be killing flies, and all of which are highly mutable for use. No one is quite sure what a fish takes the Royal Coachman and its attendant variations for, as clearly there's no living insect that it could imitate. The most notable of all goes to Lee Wulff, who declared it to be "strawberries and cream," likening it to one of his favourite desserts. Wulff comments that he throughly enjoys fresh strawberries and cream, but clearly when its out of season he can't get it, but it doesn't lessen his appeal for it. By presenting a big, meaty fly pattern that invokes strong reactions from fish, they see it as their strawberries and cream, and strike at it regardless of how outlandish it may look to us.

One of the very interesting things about the Internet is the ability to bring so many people together, and exchange ideas and information. As a tremendous fan of the Royal Wulff, I wanted for sometime to run a fly swap on this pattern. I finally did, and in turn had ten additional tiers join this swap, and present many different variations of the Royal Coachman for their use.

I'd like to present them, now:

RC Wet, Biot Wing Var.
Royal Heritage Nymph.
Light Spruce.
Royal Elk Hair Caddis.
Royal Wet, Variant.
Royal Renegade.
Royal Coachman Parachute.

Royal Soft Hackle.
Partridge and Royal.
Royal Usual.
Royal Coachman Wet, Hen Wing.
Royal Coachman, Arctic Fox Var.
Royal Coachman Streamer, all herl var.
Royal Coachman Streamer, marabou var.

Royal Humpy "Humphrey."

A special thanks to the fellow members of PAFLYFISH.COM, specifically those who joined the swap thread I started here. All of the above flies came from the various members of this thread, with the exceptions of the ones in the main body of the post above.


  1. This post sucks really bad. Those ties look like pure Kenya ties. Nice wal-mart flies.

  2. No way, that's, not I know, geography is tough and all, but I promise you they're no the same.