Those who know me would be aware that I was born in England a long time ago. The countryside of Cornwall and Devon is where I spent the first eight years of my life. In Cornwall I lived in a house that bordered the banks of the River Hale, which is a typical south country chalk stream. In those days it was alive with trout and I can still remember standing on the bridge near our home watching them swimming about down below.
The streams of Devon and Cornwall have always been of interest to me, simply because of my heritage. Just as captivating are the flies from that region. One of the most famous of all trout flies is the Tup’s Indispensable created by the late R.S. Austin sometime around 1890, and there are those who will argue over this date.
The actual formula for the pattern was kept a very close secret by its originator and was known by only a couple of acquaintances outside the immediate family; those people being G.E.M Skues and another fly-dresser, Mr C.A. Hassam. This secret was not revealed until well after Austin’s death in 1911.
R.S. Austin was a tobacconist at Tiverton and was also a part time professional fly tier. The development of the Tups was his landmark pattern and even before his death in 1911 it had gained a very impressive reputation throughout England and many parts of the flyfishing world. In America the great Theodore Gordon, as early as 1906, was praising the pattern, which had been sent to him I guess by Skues, as they often corresponded.
It became so popular that the story goes that he became sick of tying it. The great G.E.M Skues, in writing to A. Courtney Williams said, “The fly became so popular that Austin became utterly sick of tying it, and one of his customers said that the Dorsetshire Frome stank of Tups Indispensables from Maiden Newton to the sea.”
Because Austin was a professional fly tier it was reasonable to expect he wanted to keep the pattern to himself. After his death his daughter took over the fly tying side of the business and continued to uphold the original pattern with just a few minor changes like changing the use of mohair and replacing it with seal’s fur.
On her retirement Miss Austin gave G.E.M. Skues permission to publish the correct dressing in 1934. The secret of the Tup’s Indispensable was published in the Flyfisher’s Club Journal, part of which is as follows:
Skues writes: 'Here is the true and authentic pattern. It is too much to hope that at last we may now see the true patterns on sale in the tackle shops?
'I have always had it in my mind that the prescription was so valuable to anglers at large that it ought not to be lost, and it was my intention, if it were not disclosed in my lifetime, to leave a record of it to be made public when the time for its disclosure came.
'That time has now arrived, and I have been generously released from the moral obligation which so long bound me to keep it a secret, while fuming at the many absurd abortions which tackle dealers were selling as the real thing.
'I believe I was the first angler to use the magic dubbing. I was, at the time, in constant correspondence with Mr. R. S. Austin. The date I do not exactly recall, but, from a note in Mr. Austin’s handwriting describing its first use, I judge the date to have been June, 1900. He sent me a sample on a broken Limerick eyed hook, telling me that with it (the actual fly) he had killed at the mouth of the Loman, where it debouches into the Exe at Tiverton, in two or three successive evenings a number of big trout which the natives there counted uncatchable, one of them exceeding 5lb. another 3lb. ½ oz. another 2½lb. and another about 2lb. Being naturally very much interested I asked Mr. Austin (in returning him the pattern) what was the nature of the dubbing, and he very generously not only gave me the prescription, but also sent me enough of the made-up material to dress a number of examples of the fly.
'I told Mr. Austin that I thought the fly deserved a title, and in his reply he asked what I suggested. I replied that there was “So and So’s Infallible”, So and So’s Irresistible”, and so on – “Why not ‘Tup’s Indispensable’?" He said he did not care to name it and for the moment the matter dropped.
'The essential part of this dubbing is the highly translucent wool from the indispensable part of a Tup, thoroughly washed and cleansed of the natural oil of the animal. This wool would by itself be, like seal’s fur, somewhat intractable and difficult to spin on the tying silk, but an admixture of the pale pinkish and very filmy fur from an English hare’s poll had the effect of rendering it easy to work. There was also in the original pattern an admixture of cream coloured seal’s fur and combings from a lemon yellow spaniel, and the desired dominating colour was obtained by working in a small admixture of red mohair. For the mohair I generally substituted seal’s fur, and I believe Mr. Austin did so himself. When wet the Tup’s wool becomes somehow illuminated throughout by the colour of the seal’s fur or mohair, and the entire effect of the body is extraordinarily filmy and insect-like.
'In an unpublished volume of his favourite dressings Mr. Austin described the pattern in the following terms:
No. 28 - The Red Spinner
'This is a hackled fly tied with yellow silk on a N. 00 Sneck bend hook. It is made with a body sparsely dressed, of a mixture of white ram’s wool and lemon coloured Spaniel’s fur in equal parts, and a little fur from a hare’s poll, and sufficient red mohair to give the mixture a pinkish shade. It is hackled with a yellow spangled lightish blue cock’s hackle and has whisks of the same colour.'
Sometime around 1890 Austin put together a manuscript of dry fly fishing on the Exe and other North Devon streams, which unfortunately was never published. However W.H. Lawrie, in his classic work, “A Reference Book of English Trout Flies”, 1967, does in fact give a list of the flies from that manuscript but failed to give further information of its contents.
Interestingly, the pattern given for the Tups is called, simply, the Red Spinner, for it was to be quite a few years later that the fly became know as the Tup’s Indispensable.
If by chance you are a little confused by the hook size system used back in those days, a No. 00 is today’s size 16 and if you can still buy Sneck model fly hooks anywhere, please let me know. As we go though this story you will see that there are many changes or amendments to the pattern as it evolved. In later letters to Skues, Austin talked of using a couple of turns of yellow silk at the base of the fly. Although he did not mention it, many regard those turns to represent an egg sac. By the way, for those who are without a dictionary, Tups means a ram or ramming head.