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The Stories Behind Five Classic Maine Fly Patterns

The “Tom Brady of fishing flies,” an overachieving underdog, and more.

By Ronald Joseph
Illustrations by Jada Fitch

On July 1, 1924, Carrie G. Stevens cast a homemade fishing fly into the outlet of Mooselookmeguntic Lake and netted a 6-pound, 13-ounce brook trout. Her Gray Ghost — featuring white hairs from a deer’s tail and pheasant and jungle cock feathers — catapulted her to acclaim in the sporting world. Today, the Gray Ghost is a global favorite of salmonid fishers. “The Gray Ghost is the Tom Brady of fishing flies,” says Bill Pierce, executive director of the Outdoor Heritage Museum, near Rangeley. “It’s L.L.Bean’s bestselling fly. A Stevens’ original is an exquisite piece of art, commanding $1,000 or more.”

The Nine-Three was born in May 1949, in the Belgrade Lakes region. “My brother Emile and Dr. Herbert Sanborn stayed up half the night designing the fly,” the late Maine outdoors writer (and longtime Down East columnist) Gene Letourneau reported in 1989. “The following day, Dr. Sanborn immediately hooked a hen 9-pound, 3-ounce landlocked salmon on Messalonskee Lake.” The original was made of long, white bucktail hairs, chicken feathers dyed lime green, and topped with black-dyed feathers. Trolled behind an outboard motor, the fly mimics a darting minnow.

The striking Parmachenee Belle is designed to imitate a brook trout’s ivory-edged pelvic fins and reddish underbelly. “It’s the ultimate underdog, an overachiever fly,” Bill Pierce says, dependable for trout and salmon, known to eat smaller fish. Created in 1878 by Henry P. Wells, the original was made of white chicken and duck feathers, with several dipped in scarlet dye. Wells named it after western Maine’s Parmachenee Lake, his favorite salmon-fishing waters.

In 1972, Solon tackle-shop owner Bob Bedell created the Bingham Special, this writer’s favorite trout fly. “Try this, sonny,” an old-timer told me in 1974, watching me cast unsuccessfully at the outlet of the Kennebec’s Wyman Dam. My first cast produced a handsome 14-inch brook trout. The trick, the old angler said, is the striped ruffed-grouse feather, irresistible to trout. My homemade version features a grouse rump feather; Bedell used a breast feather.

At the 1927 Boston Sportsman’s Show, legendary Rangeley Lakes guide Herbie Welch debuted his 1919 prototype Black Ghost fly. Like his friend Carrie Stevens, he lived on Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Welch introduced the use of long-shank hooks for streamers — bigger flies fished underwater, usually meant to imitate baitfish — convinced they more closely resembled smelts. Made of black thread, silver tinsel, and jungle cock feathers, it’s nearly as popular as the Gray Ghost.