The earliest recorded flashes of brightness appeared in Ireland, where respected professional fly tyer Pat McKay started to use bright natural feathers from Macaws and other exotic birds that he purchased at a local haberdasher. Whether the new, brightly coloured feathers made them more attractive to salmon is a moot point even today, but they certainly caught the eye of his wealthy patrons.
The real explosion in the popularity of the new ‘Irish’ or ‘Gaudy’ style came with McKay’s contemporary William Blacker emigration to London, England. His new shop rapidly became a mecca for English anglers eager to get their hands on the lovely new patterns. With the rapid rise in popularity came an explosion in ideas about colour, materials and design, with avid anglers competing to fill their boxes with unique patterns tied to their own special design by Blacker and his competitors. Where once there were a handful of dull brown flies, by 1850 Blacker’s close friend Edward Fitzgibbon was able to include hundreds in his ‘Book of the Salmon’, including many, like the Dunkeld and the Doctor, that remain in use even today.
As the 19th Century moved into its second half, Angling writing came into its own, with numerous sporting magazines featuring large sections on fishing, and salmon fishing in particular. The age of the Sporting Gentleman had very much arrived and Victoria and Albert’s love of Highland Sports helped ensure that salmon fishing was THE pass-time to pursue. This huge rise in popularity soon threw up its own celebrities, Francis Francis’ fame as regular contributor to The Field magazine was cemented by his 1867 ‘A Book on Angling’. This much-loved fisherman died in 1886, just as the most notorious name in salmon flies, George Mortimer Kelson started his rapid climb up the slippery pole of fame.
Kelson was undoubtedly a great fisherman, and an exceptionally talented tyer, unfortunately he was also an appalling self-publicist and, according to his Editor, The Fishing Gazette’s RB Marston, an outright liar. Nevertheless it is without doubt that Kelson’s journalism and his later book ‘The Salmon Fly’ are largely responsible for the elevation of the simple fishing fly into the pure art form we know and love today.