Horse pee and salmon fishing

Published on March 29, 2014

The sun has finally reached the equator on its late winter northward journey, and spring has finally arrived. It’s been a long cold winter, even for those of us who play in the snow.  We commonly refer to the spring equinox as the sun crossing the line, and it did so on March 20, at 2:27 p.m. Newfoundland Daylight Time. Summer and salmon fishing are just around the corner. I’m busy just about every night now, trying to get my quota of bombers and wet flies tied up before salmon angling 2014 begins on June 1.

Actually, I’ll be casting for salmon a week before the season opens in Newfoundland. Matt Brazil and I are flying to Fredericton, N.B., on May 22, and then driving to the Quebec town of Matapedia to angle in both the Restigouche River and the Matapedia itself. We’re meeting up with some British Columbia buddies of mine for a few days of chasing very fat silvers when they first taste their natal freshwater, all bright, shiny, and laden with sea lice. I did the trip last year and landed a rotund 20-pound salmon on the evening of my second fishing day. It was fantastic and I’m hooked on the rush of big early run fish. Folks aren’t permitted to retain salmon until June 1 in Quebec, so in May only hook and release is allowed. This makes for plenty of casting space, and a grand opportunity to tangle with deep bellied fresh-run fish.

Fly fishing has been constantly in my thoughts of late. Last weekend I went snowshoeing with a friend of mine from France, Denis Abrard.

Denis is an avid fly angler and fly tyer, now living in Pouch Cove. He’s also an amazing wood carver, expressing his art in the context of fish and angling. If you have a few minutes to spare, check out his blog at

Anyway, Denis and I got to talking about salmon and seatrout flies while we sat atop a rocky, snow-covered hill overlooking Conception Bay. We were yarning about fishing in Ireland when I remembered a fly that I discovered in Ireland but haven’t fished in quite a while. This week I’m going to tie myself a few copies of Rogan’s Fiery Brown on those sweet No. 6 Partridge irons that I’ve been saving for a special occasion.

A fishing guide on River Blackwater, near the town of Fermoy, in County Cork introduced me to Rogan’s fly in June of 2006. I used it that summer in Labrador, but then kind of just forgot about the time-honoured offering, although I had hooked several salmon on it.

The Fiery Brown is both a designated-colour and a particular-fly pattern. The sort I tied were just hair-wing conversions of married-wing classic salmon flies that were dressed traditionally by master tyers. The dubbed body of fiery brown is the essence of the pattern and what I think gave the fly its fishy reputation.

I bought dye labelled fiery brown and used it to create my body material in the correct hue from seal fur. It turns out that the shade of brown referred to as fiery in fly fishing circles is steeped in quite an interesting history. I’m not at all sure if the modern version could possibly be entirely accurate in shade, and true to the original.

On the banks of the majestic River Erne, in the northwest of Ireland, Ballyshannon is one of the oldest and earliest settled towns on the entire Emerald Isle. It is also home to one of the oldest, and longest enduring fly-tying establishments on planet Earth. For about 170 years the firm of Rogan designed and dressed flies for the most distinguished and accomplished anglers in the world. The Rogans started tying flies in 1833 and quickly established a solid reputation, built on tradition, quality, innovation and most, importantly, attention to detail. The art of tying salmon flies evolved and blossomed through five generations of the family, male and female alike.

It was Michael Rogan who brought world acclaim to Rogan flies, and is why I’m writing about one of their original patterns in 2014. Michael was born in 1833, the year the business started and he naturally learned how to tie flies and fish from his father, James, who had started the fly-tying business with a young family to support.

Michael demonstrated an amazing aptitude for salmon fly dressing and continued on in the business. At the tender age of 12 years he was creating salmon flies, which were so magical that many anglers of the time would use offerings tied by no one else. Now we get to the part that tweaked my interest.

I was told in Ireland, and later confirmed by reading, that to achieve the brilliant and long lasting colour and translucence of his flies, Michael Rogan used ass’s urine to degrease materials before dyeing them. I use sunlight dish liquid for degreasing and vinegar to set the dye. I need to get with the program.

I understand that urine from a stallion is the absolute best to aid the dying process. Rogan kept a barrel at the rear of his premises at Bridge End in Ballyshannon.

As you might imagine, particularly in the heat of summer, there were complaints from neighbours. I can only imagine the smell. There were many visits from inspectors who were kindly sent away with a box of flies in their pockets.

Some things never change.

It’s said that Michael Rogan considered stale and odorous urine the pinnacle of pee-dyeing technology, a super-detergent for preparation of his fur and feather before dyeing. That’s why fiery brown is so darn difficult to get just right.

While I’m writing about these grand masters of the fly-tying art, I’d be remiss not to point out to us wannabes that the Rogan clan tied without the aid of vise or bobbin.

This absolutely blows my mind. It’s difficult and challenging enough to tie up a batch of decent salmon flies when you have all the right gear sitting on your bench. I have a room full of gadgets to make life easier.

All the Rogan tyers had need of were a small pair of scissors and a needle stuck in a cork. Michael is famously quoted as saying that nature had provided the ideal tools for his trade, a pair of fingers.

He considered a naked finger the perfect implement to achieve the correct amount of tension on silk, the hackle and the wings, and to eliminate any stress on the hook.

Fingers, he said, were far more sensitive to the pressures and strains than any steel contrivance, no matter how well designed.

I guess it’s something like fingers before forks but I, for one, would tie pretty ugly flies without my tools. I’m not sure how the salmon would react, but I would not feel good casting them, an insult of sorts to the salmon gods.

I depend on those whimsical deities for that elusive and critical ingredient called luck. I cannot risk insulting and peeing them off.

Sometime in the mid-19th century, the great English angler and writer Francis Francis visited Ireland on one of his grand fishing tours.

He naturally fished the River Erne, one of the most famous in Ireland, and became acquainted with Michael Rogan’s work.

He described his salmon flies as akin to a piece of jewelry.  

I wonder, did Rogan most fascinate salmon or salmon fishers?

I’ve always thought this way about salmon flies. There may have, indeed, been something to that horse piss business, because colour can certainly make a big difference to a salmon.

However, I think that absolute technical perfection in tying appeals more to the caster of flies than the creatures cast to.

After all, plenty of salmon have bitten my scruffy old ties of moose, floss, seal and silver. Then again, if beauty in the fly instills confidence in the angler, and pleases the gods, then that might just be the crux of the age old mysterious business between man, or woman, and fish.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted

at  or follow him on Twitter at @flyfishtherock.