The Northwest Revolution in Steelhead Flies by Dave McNeese

orange heron fly fishing tying

Syd’s most famous fishing fly, the Orange Heron first fished in 1959. This photograph dates to 1977.

How revolutionary Washingtonian Syd Glasso re-established the beauty of traditional Atlantic salmon flies and tying in Western steelhead flies

There is a rich history of west coast steelhead fly fishing reaching back over 130 years. 

Early anglers purchased both domestic and imported tackle and flies from English firms like Hardy Brothers and Farlow.  Back in the 1890’s John Benn was the first commercial tier of steelhead flies on the west coast and most of the flies offered were simply eastern brook trout wet fly patterns dressed on larger hooks to catch steelhead.  Feather-wing flies for steelhead would later surrender to hair-wing patterns easier to tie and much more durable.  Fly tying materials had to either be ordered from the east coast or English tackle houses.

There was no interstate highway system, jet airplanes, or ordering on-line. 

Imagine how long it took an order to be received by an east coast or English firm, prepared, and shipped back to California via steamship!

Needless to say, the bonanza of locally harvested bucktail, fur, and other locally harvested materials was far less expensive and much easier for western anglers to obtain, making the new hair-wing style fly very attractive and helping contribute to the development of a unique style of fly tying. 

In the early 1900’s this transition from feathers to hair occurred about the same time on both coasts of the United States, and by the end of World War II, simple hair-wing flies completely eclipsed the complex Victorian patterns  once used exclusively on European and Canadian Atlantic salmon rivers—but to the angler they were simply not as satisfying to view, however steelhead and salmon seemed to like them just as much if not more.

In 1950 Don Gapen designed an odd-looking fly called the Muddler Minnow. 

Although originally developed on the Nipigon River in Ontario, Canada for trophy brook trout, within a decade it would become one of the most popular steelhead flies and was available at nearly every fly shop the world over.  In the 1970’s and 80’s the Muddler was tied in a variety of colors and materials for both surface and subsurface angling.

In years past, on rivers such as Oregon’s North Umpqua, it was not uncommon for seasoned anglers to swing slim, long-shanked Muddlers and nothing else.  Even now this remains a truly killer “confidence” fly that newer generations of steelheaders would do well to get acquainted with and knot onto their leader. 

Decades later the long rod would hit west coast anglers, making it suddenly possible for anglers of average ability to cover lies formerly reserved for elite casters. Along with this came a move away from the tried and true #4 or #6 Green Butt Skunk toward the much larger action-packed intruder style of fly, with all the flash and other bells attached that whistled past your ear when fishing for winter steelhead.

4 historical patterns fly tying fishing

These 4 patterns are among the earliest photo’s Syd took back in the 1940’s. He recorded hundreds of his flies this way during his lifetime and kept large photo albums that he passed on to Dick Wentworth and over 200 photo’s recently scanned by Jon Harrang.

Amateur tiers have perhaps developed the most effective flies no matter the species of fish and this is evident in the many new pattern books. 

The list of anglers that designed fish-catching steelhead flies over the years is long, yet in the deep woods of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula one angler would change the way we tie steelhead flies here in the Pacific Northwest, truly elevating this pursuit from a craft to an art form.  Over time his influence would be felt the world over.

In August 1948 Syd Glasso and his new wife Evelyn set sail to the west of their home near Tacoma, WA and dropped anchor in the small, remote town of Forks, WA.  Syd taught middle school there for the next 20 years (1948-1968).

Syd labored alone in developing an entirely new steelhead fly design, quite unlike anything else seen before. 

His only companion was a copy of Eric Taverner’s Salmon Fishing (1931).  This important and comprehensive book led Syd back to the bygone era of classic Atlantic salmon and Spey flies.  He carefully studied what had been done in Britain in the past and then adapted what he had learned to suit his own very different fishing conditions and unique style of fly tying.  In the next few decades Syd would become a legend, both for his out-of-the-box approach to fishing and fly design and for his constant pursuit of perfection. 

The cheap, bright and gaudy street walkers of the day as well as the chunky, uninspired chenille-bodied hair-wing flies popular at that time would soon be outshined by Mr. Glasso’s elegantly gowned Courtesans.  Syd’s flies immediately made a big splash when they were first published in Trey Combs’ first two books—The Steelhead Trout (1971) and Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies (1976). 

Upon retirement in 1968, Syd and Evelyn moved back to Seattle, WA.  It was there that Syd began in earnest his pursuit to tie fully-dressed salmon flies and improve his remarkable steelhead flies.  The two went hand-in-hand and for the next decade Syd was at the pinnacle as a fly tier.

Syd soon met the well-known but reclusive angler Pat Crane, who instructed him on how to select the best materials and hooks. 

Pat reportedly examined Syd’s materials and told him that if he wanted to tie the finest flies he needed to toss his materials and start over. 

He showed Syd the right colors and qualities to look for in hackles, feathers, and hooks and provided information on where to obtain them.  The two formed an angling relationship and friendship that would last until Syd’s passing in 1983.

Word had spread before, but far more so after Trey Combs’ books were published, and a few prominent anglers/collectors received a salmon or steelhead Spey-type fly from Syd as a gift. 

Two such collectors were Bill Hunter, inventor of the HMH fly tying vise and proprietor of Hunter’s Angling Supplies in New Boston, NH and Thomas Capstick, Jr., editor of the newsletter published by the Angler’s Club of New York.  I knew both men and when Joe Bates, Jr. was looking for tiers for his upcoming book The Art of the Atlantic Salmon Fly, Syd’s name came up as one of the finest tiers of salmon flies.

fly tying syd orange black steelhead salmon

A Black Dog tied and photographed by Syd in the late 1970’s. One of his favorites to give to prominent anglers and friends. This example is one of his Black Dog’s at its best, “perfection“.

In 1981 Joe Bates wrote to Syd asking if he would tie a set of complex patterns from Blacker’s Art of Fly Making, one of the early books on dressing flies for Atlantic salmon first published in England in 1843.  Bates wanted to feature the flies in a forthcoming book and agreed to send Syd the finest materials needed to dress the 14 patterns.  Syd wrote to Bates: “Thanks for your faith in my ability to do the Blacker flies.  They make Kelson’s patterns (Book: The Salmon Fly, 1895-ed.) look like child’s play.  Blacker was an expert in thinking up torture tactics.”

After Bates received the set of Blacker flies he again asked Syd for more fully-dressed salmon flies, in exchange for more than enough rare feathers and antique blind-eye hooks.  “I have a pathetic weakness for Indian Crow, it’s good for my soul just to look at these feathers,” wrote Glasso. 

Fishing Atlantic Salmon: The Flies and the Patterns by the late Joseph Bates, Jr. and his daughter Pamela Bates-Richards provides readers with examples of Syd’s remarkable skills just before his passing in 1983.  This book is a testament to the skills tiers struggled for years to develop. 

It serves as a real tribute to all those who came before Glasso and those that followed in the decades after his passing, and remains an inspiration to those that keep the old traditions alive today.

- Written by Dave McNeese

1 comment

  • it was my extreme pleasure watching you create flies in your shop in Salem, OR. i don’t think i can ever come close to matching your skills and abilities but your techniques have definitely changed how i approach tying. thank you so much for your genius and sharing so freely what you do and what you have learned.

    greg thomas

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published