Meet Jack Sutton, artist extraordinary in such exotic materials as toucan, macaw and pheasant feathers. He makes nymphs too, for compleat anglers

ARTHUR LOWE September 15 1939


Meet Jack Sutton, artist extraordinary in such exotic materials as toucan, macaw and pheasant feathers. He makes nymphs too, for compleat anglers

ARTHUR LOWE September 15 1939


Meet Jack Sutton, artist extraordinary in such exotic materials as toucan, macaw and pheasant feathers. He makes nymphs too, for compleat anglers


TAKE THE centre tail feather from a ring neck pheasant, two fathers from a dun game hen and four strands of peacock herl. Take two hairs from the tail of a milk-white horse—”

The man with the fanatical light in his eye continued to mumble on while his companion sat raptly attentive. This other one, I saw. was an angler, for as he listened he toyed with a No. 2 Limerick and worked barrel knots in a length of tapered gut.

Voodoo, I thought to myself. Black magic. Fishermen are always superstitious, and this one is buying a charm to change his luck. I could almost imagine what the rest of the mumbo jumbo would be—“Wait until the third quarter of the moon, then lay the feathers crosswise under a smooth stone overlooking a trout stream. Encircle them with the two horsehairs - Something like that.

But I was wrong, for it turned out that the fanaticallooking man was merely describing a new fly he had created —a deadly lure for trout. Reluctantly he took a sample of the lure from his pocket and handed it to the fisherman.

"Hide behind a tree when you put it on!” he whispered huskily.

The man with the fanatical light in his eye—and his fanaticism is all concerned with fishing was Jack Sutton, Canada’s scientific angler, who has won international fame for his artistry in feathers. Twenty years ago Sutton was an accountant with a yen for fishing— and a host of theories about it. Spurning the soft sentimentalism of friends who urged him not to let s¡x»rt interfere with business, he dropped work altogether and went in for fishing seriously. It’s like receiving a “call,” it seems, when you hold theories about fishing, and there's nothing you can do about it except forsake everything and put your theories to the test. Sutton did that, and he is still testing his theories, but some—already proved—have revolutionized the art of angling in Canada.

Jack Sutton was born in Birmingham, England, around fifty years ago. He has been in Canada since 1906, and he developed his yen for fishing while he was in his teens. 1 le began by impaling a worm on a hook and dunking it in water, but he quickly came to realize that this was kindergarten stuff, requiring neither art nor finesse. Real fishermen, he saw—the men who commanded his admiration and respect—used flies exclusively. Not real flies, but beautiful, iridescent imitations fashioned out of feathers. He began using flies himself and the change affected him. he says, as when he stopped smoking tea leaves wrapped in brown paper and started on real tobacco. It did something to his soul.

The art of fly fishing was developed in Great Britain. When Englishmen brought fly fishing to the New World they also brought their flies, patterned after natural insects found darting over English trout waters. There were modifications, because traditions were not observed as

rigidly jn the New World as in the Old—but, generally speaking, the same lures did duty on both sides of the Atlantic. Surprisingly enough, the North American trout played cricket and accepted them with commendable alacrity, although they had never seen their like before.

Away With Tradition

V\ THEN Jack Sutton began fly fishing he used the * V traditional lures which bore no particular resemblance, entomologically speaking, to anything ever found in Canada. Not being a traditionalist, it occurred to him that he might create something just as good himself—a lure which would prove irresistible to Canadian trout.

He startl'd tying flies in 1916 and pretty soon discovered that he had an unusual knack for the job. At first he went in for colors in a big way, and it is a wonder, he says, that the trout weren’t driven dizzy by the kaleidoscopic lures he offered them. Lack of fishing success with his own flies, however, soon convinced him that he was on the wrong track.

One day as he sat on the bank of a stream pensively watching the trout refuse the flies he kept offering them, an idea began to burgeon in his mind. Why not, he reasoned to himself, study the natural insects which attracted trout and reproduce those insects in such a way that they had vibrancy and life?

In 1926, in partnership with two other ardent fishermen, he rented a trout stream—an ideal stream for the purpose of studying trout habits, because it contained rapids, reaches of still water, deep pools, riffles, waterfalls and lots of debris. The three partners fished competitively, and Jack Sutton started doing serious research.

He began by catching specimens of the insects at which

trout jumped and studying their form, colors and make-up in a laboratory which he had rigged up at home. He started making lures which were almost exact replicas of these insects. The work fascinated him, but strangely enough the trout seemed completely indifferent to his newfangled flies.

Trout’s Eye View

DY EXPERIMENTATION he discovered what was wrong. To the human eye his flies looked like the real thing, but what a trout looked for was a suggestion of life rather than anatomical exactitude. And the colors he was using were too sombre. He had been pinning up specimen flies in his laboratory and copying the colors from them, but observation showed him that the colors of an insect fade an hour or two after death. He began taking a box of paints along with him on his fishing trips and making colored sketches of flies as he captured them. From these sketches he built up his lures—making them suggestive rather than exact. The result was astonishing.

“The new flies would catch fish where all other lures failed,” he said. “All my angling friends wanted me to tie flies for them.”

Success with his flies didn’t end Jack Sutton’s researches. He continued to study the habits of trout with increasing zest. As he progressed he saw that his methods of study were haphazard and that in some of his field work he was covering ground which had been covered exhaustively before. It occurred to himthat what he needed was the cooperation of an entomologist—an expert on aquatic insect life. At about the time he got this notion a certain learned entomologist— Professor F. P. Ide of the University of Toronto — decided that what he needed was

the co-operation of an enthusiastic fisherman. The two men met and struck up an informal partnership.

Professor Ide’s knowledge of insect life proved an invaluable help to Sutton. Under his tutelage he built aquariums in which he cultivated mud and gravel from streams, so that the palpitating, crawling insect life could be identified and studied under close observation. Not content with this, the two men enlisted the help of fishermen throughout Canada and the United States, who were requested to send along the contents of trout stomachs with particulars of where the trout were taken. Hundreds of fishermen responded, so that it was possible, after an examination of stomach contents, to tabulate with considerable exactness the food that trout preferred.

The result of this particular investigation was quite a blow to Sutton, for it confirmed—what certain experts had long contended—that ninety-eight per cent of a trout's food is taken at or near the bottom. He had been making flies and the trout had been accepting them—yet investigation proved conclusively that flies formed only an inconsequential part of a trout’s diet.

“Cake!” Jack Sutton said. “The trout were taking the flies just like a small boy takes cake—for the sake of variety. But what interested me was the bread-andbutter—”

A trout’s bread-and-butter, he discovered, consisted of nymphs, crustaceans, flat worms and so on—but chiefly nymphs. Now a nymph is simply a fly in transition, before its wings have developed and before it has started upon its brief but splendid life above water. The fact that trout lived chiefly upon them placed Jack Sutton in a terrible dilemma, but if you would understand that dilemma we must digress for a moment.

The Wet-Dry Feud

rPHE FIRST mention of fly fishing occurs in a book published in 1486 by Wynkyn de Worde and credited to Dame Juliana Berners, said to have been the prioress of an English nunnery. Dame Juliana gave a list of twelve flies which she had found to be particularly effective. Other writers followed her, and gradually there grew' up a great literature on the art of fly fishing.

The lures which the early writers described were all wet flies, which were cast into likely spots and' allowed to sink. A trout, seeing such a fly coming through the water, would turn and strike—and there you were. All that remained was to land him with a rod made of willow, on a line consisting of three horsehairs.

About the middle of the nineteenth century certain inventive anglers evolved a dry lly which would land gently on the water and float, exactly like its living counterpart. The use of the dry fly involved frequent casting, for it was found that fish took the fly immediately it touched the water or not at all. The fly, after each cast, was dried off by whisking it through the air in false casts.

All unknowingly the originators of the dry fly had introduced a snake into Eden —for where before there had been perfect amity among anglers, there now developed a bitter feud. Exponents of dry-fly fishing developed a withering contempt for

dunkers. The wet fly, they claimed, was unsporting, it demanded no skill, it was an anachronism. The users of the wet fly retorted that theirs was the fly of tradition. Maybe it wasn’t natural for flies to submerge themselves and swim under water—but the trout didn’t seem to know that. They took them anyway.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the fight between the two factions in Great Britain became increasingly bitter. Families were split apart, lifelong friends ceased to talk to one another. Matters went from bad to worse until 1886 when Frederic Halford, a leading “dry,” published “Dry-fly Fishing in Theory and Practice.”

Written with evangelical fervor the book established dry-fly fishing as the one and only sport. Thereafter, the users of wet flies took to slinking along back roads and bowing their heads in shame whenever they met a man of the true faith. They were despised dunkers, and the dry-fly fishermen became by popular acclaim “the purists.”

A Purist Recants

JACK SUTTON had been a purist—and now, as a result of his investigations with Professor Ide, he was faced by the fact that although dry-fly fishing might be sporting, it was indisputably illogical.

One of the chief arguments against the wet fly was that real flies didn’t act that way. A dead fly will become waterlogged and sink, but the imitations had vibrancy and life. They looked alive under water.

Suddenly it dawned upon Jack Sutton that right from the very beginning—from the days, even, of Dame Juliana Berners —the trout had been making a grievous mistake. What anglers had fondly intended to be flies, they had been accepting as living nymphs.

In his aquariums he had studied the habits of nymphs under water—studied them for hours on end. He had watched their movements, their short spasmodic jumps, the way they would shoot up from the mud with antennae fluttering, then sink slowly back. He could readily understand why the trout had been fooled by flies—for the nymphs looked something like them—but he knew that he could create a far more effective lure by imitating the nymphs themselves.

That was his dilemma. Should he, a purist, create something which would deal a body blow to the art of dry-fly fishing? Should he—in short—desert to the enemy?

Well, he deserted. Logic was too much for him, and he set about the task of making nymphs that no self-respecting trout would refuse.

“At first,” he told me, “I concentrated on the stone fly nymph, for that seemed to be the one of which the trout were particularly fond. I examined specimens under the microscope and then I produced an imitation exact in every tiny detail. I copied the cilia, the wing shucks, the antennae, and I even reproduced the leg joints. It was as perfect as human hands could make it and practically indistinguishable from the real thing.”

“And—” I prompted, waiting for him to tell me about his marvellous success with it as a lure.

“It was a complete dud.” he said. “I fished with it in waters that were crowded with trout and it never raised a thing.” He had copied too faithfully, it seemed. The lure looked like a nymph, but it didn’t act like one in the water. It was too rigid in construction. It had exactly those faults which had marred his earlier attempts to produce lifelike flies.

For three years he worked on the stone fly nymph, making slight changes—but it was no good. The fish wouldn’t take it, and although he still maintains that it was a masterpiece of creative fly-tying, he confesses that it was the worst lure ever built onto a hook.

Ilow to Fool Fish

HE STARTED again, still copying nymphs, but doing it now in a futuristic manner. Instead of faithfully reproducing antennae and legs, he used hackle, which is a feather wound round the hook forming a cloudy collar. Under water he saw that this collar suggested the antennae in movement. He made other changes in material and construction, aiming all the time at vibrancy. The lures he finally evolved were like oil paintings: if you looked closely they bore little resemblance to the original nymphs, but if you held them at arm’s length they seemed not only real, but alive and moving.

These new nymphs were a success right from the beginning. Fishermen soon discovered that it required just as much skill in casting to present a nymph to a trout as it had done to present a dry fly. In

addition it was necessary, when using a nymph, to make it simulate the actions of a real nymph under water by manipulation of the rod and line. The arguments which the purists had advanced against wet-fly fishing—that it required neither skill nor finesse—could not now be put forward.

The feud between the “wets” and “drys” was never as bitter on this continent as in the Old Country, and the introduction of realistic nymphs restored harmony. Even the most opinionated of the dry-fly men couldn't resist giving the nymphs a trial—and once they did their stern natures began to soften. There was something to this wet-fly business after all. and so to blazes with Halford ! They were catching fish, weren’t they?

Jack Sutton continued to tie traditional patterns and he also created a number of dry flies specially suited to North Ameri-

can streams. It had been customary for anglers—the dyed-in-the-wool purists particularly—to secure their flies from England and Scotland. Such flies they would show gloatingly to their friends . . . “They’ve got the knack over there, old fellow. It’s an art with them, handed down from father to son. You can’t beat the Old Country tiers!”

Pretty soon even the most hidebound traditionalists admitted that Jack Sutton was beating them. His work was finer, his lures were more suggestive of life, and he had an unerring instinct for selecting the right materials to produce a desired effect.

In creating effects other things besides appearance must be considered. A dry fly, for example, must be light enough to float and it must cock properly on the water after it has been cast. It should be made of materials possessing plenty of spring, it should be strong enough to withstand rough usage—and yet it must be as delicate and fragile-seeming as its living counterpart.

Among the plumages which Sutton uses are jungle cock from India, toucan, macaw, red ibis, paradise bird, spotted argus, Indian crow, pheasant, mallard, swan, European grouse, guinea hen, turkey, starling, jay and—most valuable of all— game cocks and game hens. The tools for tying consist of a tiny vise, two or tnree pairs of very delicate tweezers and a pair of scissors.

Jack Sutton makes his headquarters in Toronto. He ties anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 flies every year, has clients in every Canadian province and each of the United States. Members of Parliament, Senators, and Congressmen plead with him for personal attention—and get it. When he is not making lures he is usually out fishing or teaching others to fish. This summer he travelled 4,000 miles to various fishing clubs, giving lessons. Most of this was in Ontario. Sutton would like to fish far-off waters, once in a great while does manage to fly into the back country; but not often. He’s too busy.