Tommy Saville- the Crathie Fly and All that Jazz
This summer, I finally got to meet the great Tommy Saville. Tommy has been a regular visitor to the Dee, at Crathie, since the 1960s. I have known Tommy by correspondence for a few years so was eager to meet him on the river. At 90 years old he is as light hearted and enthusiastic as anyone I have met. He has a number of claims to fame, one of which is as a successful jazz musician. He once sat in on the legendary Glen Miller while he recorded at Abbey Road studios in the 1940s! Can you imagine?
It was our common interest in flies and fly tying that first brought us in contact. Tommy, or rather his company, Tom C Saville Ltd, is synonymous with the UK fly tying scene and for many years was one of the major players, introducing new materials and patterns to the nations fly tyers and anglers.
Tommy’s claim to fame so far as the River Dee is concerned, is his wonderful pattern, the Crathie. The Crathie has been a popular choice for Dee anglers for over forty years and remains an important fly in the late spring and summer months when it is fished on the full floater with a long leader in the classic Dee style. Named after the wonderful upper Dee beat, which is close to Tommy’s heart, it has its origins on the other side of the Atlantic. Tommy was fishing for book trout in Pennsylvania, back in 1965, when he was given a long shank single that was meant to be a baitfish imitation.
‘It had a slim black feather wing, silver body and a pale blue beard hackle and was originally intended for steelhead,’ recalls Tommy. ‘I thought it looked okay, but I was fishing nymphs and didn’t use it; so it took up residence in my fly box.’
The following year, Tommy made his first serious attempt at salmon on the Conway at Betws-y-coed. Ever curious, he read up on his quarry and learned of the salmon’s ocean diet of shrimp, krill and small fish. It was at this time he recalled the US fly and on the premise that steelhead also feed at sea, used the fly as the basis for designing his own salmon fly.
Tommy explained, ‘My company Tom C Saville Ltd had pioneered the use of many types of hair at the time when the hairwings were becoming popular among salmon anglers. I liked the fact that hair is more mobile and livelier than feather, so I adapted the pattern by using a grey squirrel wing, dyed black. I kept the silver tinsel body and ribbed it with fine silver wire. The beard hackle of the steelhead fly was a very pale blue; it hugged the shank closely and was as long as the wing.’
Tom C Saville Ltd imported many types of hair back then, among which were full polar bear skins from Alaska. Tommy found the belly hair to be softest and selected it as the ideal choice to replace the beard hackle. ‘I dipped some of the hair in blue dye, just long enough for it to take on a little colour. Polar bear is slightly creamy and the result was a slight greenish tinge to the blue; spot-on for suggesting baitfish. I always thought that a salmon fly should have jungle cock cheeks and they finished the fly off nicely.’
On the Conway Tom christened the fly, under the working title of the ‘Minnow,’ with a 10lb fish and in the following years added several more from the Nith, Awe and Orchy. The story moves to Deeside when Tom secured a May rod at Crathie; ghillied at the time by Sandy MacDonald.
That first May week yielded several fish to the new fly. By midweek, when Tommy took a fish on his first cast in McLarens, his fifth of the week, Sandy could only remark, ‘It had to be sir, it had to be.’ And so, when it came to making the entries into the logbook, Tommmy and Sandy were in agreement: what better name for the new fly than The Crathie?
Today, Tommy is still tweaking the pattern, in cahoots with present ghillie Archie Hay. I have seen it tied with a red head, sometimes on a bare silver hook. Tom has recently been tying the beard hackle with Glo-brite fluorescent blue yarn, which produces that all important translucent sparkle.
It is important to note the correct tying of the Crathie. I have had my versions critiqued by Tommy, and don’t tell anyone, but he was not impressed. It is tempting to think of the Crathie as a Silver Stoat, tied with a blue hackle. Trust me, that is not how it should be tied. First of all the wing and hackle should be tied flat against the hook shank. Secondly the hackle must be pale blue and tied in as long as the wing.
I am looking forward to catching up with Tommy next season and will hopefully get pass marks for my attempts to reproduce his wonderful fly.
Hook: low water doubles
Body: silver tinsel, with a fine silver wire rib
Wing: black hair
Beard: pale blue hair or hackle points