Theodore Gordon

Born 1854, died 1915

f Thaddeus Norris was the father of American fly fishing, then Theodore Gordon must have been his spiritual son. Gordon inherited a British tradition of fly fishing, pondered over it, and then spawned a uniquely American school. Gordon's influence stretches right down to the present day, through such classic American fly tiers as Reub Cross, Roy Steenrod (who created the Hendrickson,) Herman Christian, the Dettes and the Darbees.

Gordon had a comfortable start in life, coming from an upstate New York family, though he was born in Pittsburgh, and he learned to fish a fly at the age of fourteen. His father died of malaria when he was less than four months old, and he was raised by an overprotective mother. Some of his most formative years were spent living with his relatives, the Spencers, who had a summer farm at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a place which was perfect for small boys who wanted to shoot and fish and live outdoors. The winters, however, were hard, and Gordon developed chest trouble which was to dog him for the remainder of his days. After the end of the Civil War, his mother took him back to the South and they lived for over a decade in Savannah, Georgia. Theodore worked in turn as a bookkeeper and as either a securities dealer or a manager in a securities firm, but neither his health, nor his talents favoured his career and the pair of them moved back to New Jersey. He tried his had at brokerage there too, but his heart was never in it and he would get away fishing as often as he could, staying with relatives of his father's in Haverstraw whenever he ran out of money. Around 1900 he moved in permanently with this family, the Pecks, and set up his flytying and living quarters in a building where he be on his own. He visited the Catskills regularly from 1895, often in company of one of the Pecks and in 1905 he moved again, to relocate next to his beloved streams. And that is where he died of TB, in 1915. You won't find the Anson Knight house where he lodged and neither will you find the pools on the Neversink where he fished, because they lie deep under a reservoir which was created in the fifties.

Gordon was an interesting character. Though he was good with children and kept a few firm friends, he was taciturn and reclusive, and despite the many letters he wrote (some of which have been preserved for us by John McDonald in The Complete Fly Fisherman: The Notes and Letters of Theodore Gordon) he was secretive about his fly tying methods, almost to the point of paranoia. He had a nervous energy that was fuelled by hand-twisted cigarettes and he took the odd glass of spirits to bolster up his morale, but his character remains elusive.

In 1890, when Gordon turned 36, American fly fishermen were still wedded to the wet fly. Gordon fished wet too, but unlike many of his fellows, he fished upstream, and he noticed that trout would take the fly avidly in the few moments that it floated at the beginning of a cast. This prompted him to write to F.M. Halford, who responded by sending him a packet of dry flies. Gordon soon discovered that there were two problems with Halford's flies: first, they imitated English insects; and second, they were designed for the smooth currents of English chalk streams, rather than the rush and tumble of the Neversink. He had some help from G.E.M. Skues, who sent him quantities of capes, but in the end Gordon began to design his own patterns, using stiffer hackles than his English models. His most famous pattern was the Quill Gordon, the fly that gave American fly-tiers the confidence to break away from the shadow of the English school. Theodore Gordon also experimented with what may have been the first hairwing fly pattern in the late nineteenth century. His intention was to tie a better pike fly, but he found, incidentally, that the pattern would catch other game fish, including salmon.

You will search in vain for a book written by Gordon, but if you hunt around the dealers you will discover the next best thing, "Quill Gordon," by John McDonald (1972). While you are at it, buy his seminal "Origins of Angling" which The Lyons Press has done us the great favour of keeping  in print. Then put your feet up, pour yourself a whisky and settle in for the evening.


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