Third Thursday Flies

11. Parmachene Belle

with Skip Morris

Third Thursday Fly 11 Parmachene BelleParmachene Belle
(Photo © Carol Ann Morris)

In this realm of existence, on this planet, at this point in aquatic vertebrate/invertebrate evolution, there is surely nothing living in fresh water that remotely resembles the bright and ornate Parmachene Belle wet fly. It'll be genetic engineering run amok if ever anything does. But that just makes the Parmachene an "attractor" pattern, right? One intentionally designed to be unnatural. Fly fishers suffer no shortage of attractor flies.

The Parmachene Belle is arguably as lovely as any of the many traditional wet-fly patterns. ("Belle" meaning "a pretty or the prettiest girl"; "Parmachene" for Parmachene Lake in Maine, odd because the fly has surely been fished mostly in streams.) Its beauty is why it seems a shame the Parmachene gets tied and fished so seldom now. It's colorful—red and white, shining gold and yellow. It's got all the classic wet-fly parts—swept-back hackles, a tail, a body of floss under a rib (though other bodies and no rib are common in wet flies too), and low, cupped wings. And the Parmachene Belle has that effect on the human eye, one of the many varieties of this effect, that makes flies sell. What's the problem?

The problem is, in part, that today the wet fly is seen by many fly fishers in the same way they see the coal-burning steam-driven locomotive: as obsolete. What stubbornly remains almost a secret is that the old wet can be as effective now on our caught, released, and careful trout as it was back when trout missed all the training and went straight to the dinner plate. And the traditional wet can, in fact, serve as a perfectly viable insect imitation. But perception matters, and thus the wet is currently tied, fished, and appreciated by only a relative few. (If you believe the wet fly has outlived its value, watch Davy Wotton's video "Wet Fly Ways," and expect to see the old wet from a very new perspective.)

Wet flies imitate a good number of important mayflies and caddisflies, those mayflies and caddis that spend time, as part of their natural life cycle, underwater as winged adults. Sounds nuts, but is true, and not at all uncommon. (Check your fly-fishers' entomology books if you doubt it.) Then there are the drowned winged adult insects, small stoneflies, mayflies, caddis . . . Wets imitate those too.

That paragraph presents a sound argument for imitative wet flies. But the Parmachene, imitating nothing and needing to imitate nothing, gets its validation from that same wellspring that validates all attractors: it catches fish.

Fly companies seem to avoid wet flies in general and flies like the Parmachene Belle in particular, and they probably avoid the Parmachene in particular because of the fly's married wings. To "marry," join together, sections cut from duck or goose primary feathers takes some fuss. You hold the sections edge to edge, work them gently until their microscopic zipper-like system fully kicks in—the same interlocking system that holds together the whole blade of the feather from which they came. For the Parmachene Belle you marry a white section with a red one, then another white one with the other side of the red so that you have the appearance of a red band down the center of a white wing. This is the twenty-first century—who has time for that? Not most of the fly companies, because they ask, "Who'll pay for the time it takes our tiers to marry feather sections?" And they're right: few fly fishers will pay, especially for a type of fly they consider outdated.

But if you're a tier yourself, maybe you do have the time. Constructed with reasonable skill, the fly you make will reward your investment of fifteen to twenty minutes at the vise with the sight of an elegant Parmachene Belle. Then, if you fish it with reasonable skill, you can watch the fly slip across the current just inches down and see a trout nose appear and snatch it.

Parmachene Belle                Henry Wells

  • HOOK: Heavy wire, standard length (a standard wet-fly hook), sizes 16 to 10. (I prefer a 1X long standard nymph hook, specifically the Daiichi 1560)
  • THREAD: Black 8/0 or 6/0
  • TAIL: White and red (or "scarlet") hackle fibers mixed
  • RIB: Narrow flat silver tinsel
  • BODY: Yellow floss
  • HACKLE: White and red (or "scarlet"), one hackle wound between turns of the other
  • WING: Married goose- or duck-primary sections, white over red over white
  • COMMENTS: Dressings for the Parmachene vary. Most give a body of floss, but some give wool or dubbing; others, wool or floss. A few include a butt of black ostrich herl or chenille. One puts an eyed jungle cock feather outside each wing. The tail is sometimes hackle fibers, sometimes married feather sections, Thread color is black, when it's not white; rib can be silver or gold, round or flat tinsel. The name's not even solid: Mary Orvis in her heavy 1892 volume Favorite Flies and Their Histories spells it "Parmacheene Belle," as though there weren't enough "e"s in there already.

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