“The Davidson Special”
Photo, fly and article by “Catskill John” Bonasera
“I have always loved flies with “Special” in their name. It seems they get that title from actually being special. During a meeting on-stream with an angler he didn’t know, Theodore Gordon plucked a mayfly from the nearby bushes, tied an imitation, and gave the fly to his new acquaintance. The angler hooked and landed a trout that had refused other offerings, and that fly became known as the Gordon Special.
The Davidson Special may not have a colorful story like that, but this fly certainly is special in its construction—at least the body is.
Mahlon Davidson owned and operated a general store and post office once owned by George Cooper. Located in DeBruce, not far from where George M. L. La Branche first cast his dry fly on what’s now the private water of the DeBruce Fly Fishing Club, Davidson was one of the best tyers in the Roscoe area at the time, raised hackle chickens, and still constructed solid-wooden fly rods when most rod makers had started transitioning to bamboo. He tied and fished this pattern on the Willowemoc and Mongaup Creek. While the actual construction of this fly is much like that of many Catskill dry flies, the distinguishing characteristic that makes it “special” is the body. The dressing reads “Dyed pale green fox fur, from the bark of willows.” I am sure I could have blended up some pale green fox fur and matched this dressing closely enough, but I was curious to see how pale and how green willow bark dyes fox fur.
Fortunately, strong winds recently had taken some willow branches down, and after a short walk through the woods along the stream, I found a shed willow from which I acquired the necessary bark.
There is something primal about dying materials from natural materials. It’s exciting to watch the water turn from clear to a tinted shade, one you are anxious to see transfer to the material in time. I stirred in some light fox belly fur and watched the willow bark work its magic. After a few minutes, I scooped the fur out of the bath, set it on newspaper, then next to the wood stove, and sure enough—it was pale green, just as Mahlon Davidson said.
When dry, it actually has just a hint of green, ghostlike, but when wet, as a fly cast upon the water, it turns into that magical Davidson Special shade of pale green, the color that I like to think attracted trout 100 years ago—DeBruce trout, tethered from a gut leader and silk line to a solid bilberry fly rod.
The dressing for this fly is much like a Light Cahill, and it can be tied with a hackle-fiber tail for better floatability, but I like it with wood duck, the way it was tied originally. If you want to forgo the willow-bark dye bath, a suitable body color can be made with light fox, a pinch of Blue-Winged Olive dubbing, and a pinch of light green caddis dubbing blended together. You’re looking for a creamy tan with just the slightest hint of green.”
The Davidson Special
Hook: Dry fly, size 10 or 12
Wings: Wood duck, upright and divided
Tail: Wood duck fibers
Body: Red fox belly, dyed pale green
Hackle: Light ginger