The Museum’s collection is heavily represented by angling Americana. Rods, reels, and flies from America’s best-known fly fishers and celebrities abound. Among the less-celebrated constituents of the collection are the international items.
In the 1970s, the museum acquired one dozen flies from the Sesia River valley in northern Italy. Tied in the traditional style of the region, they were donated by a Mr. Felizatto and were included in a piece for the American Fly Fisher shortly thereafter (vol. 5, no. 3, Summer 1978). “Traditional” is often synonymous with “antiquated,” but not in this case; the flies of northern Italy remained unchanged for hundreds of years, well into the twentieth century. For that matter, fly fishing in general remained largely static in that region at least into the 1970s. Braided lines and 14-foot rods without reels were still in use at that time.
The flies are simple: a floss body with a soft hackle collar from a partridge or similar bird. Blue, red, green, yellow, and black round out the color range for the body, and the collars are more subdued, including light gray, tan, or grizzly. The general practice is to wind the hackle 360 degrees around the hook shank, but gather it toward the top 180 degrees before adding a few turns of floss for the head. The hooks themselves are eyeless and snelled. Eyeless British hooks often had a knurled section at the end of the shank to give the leader better grip. Their Italian counterparts have a smooth shank with a flared tip, giving the appearance of a hook that was flattened at the shank’s tip. This gives the leader adequate purchase.
As for size, the hooks are about the length of a modern size 16 or 18 with a gap approximately one size bigger. They were sold by the dozen, bundled together by their leaders. These flies were used for trout and grayling, with smaller-size hooks preferred for the latter. It is not clear exactly how they were most often fished, but their appearance is identical, more or less, to a modern soft-hackle wet-fly or nymph pattern.
Remarkable for their simplicity, these flies from the Sesia River valley are a refreshing contrast to many modern patterns that incorporate synthetic fibers, molded bodies, and epoxy adhesives. Bigger is not always better; new is not always improved. If that were the case, these flies would not have endured so long.