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April 8 2017

Andrew McGall, looks at the Wilkinson, a fly that provokes a strong reaction.


The ‘Marmite effect’


I still clearly remember the first time I tasted Marmite, and that was about 30 years ago now! We had visitors staying, and over breakfast they produced a small dark glass jar with a bright yellow label. They spread this thick, dark sticky ‘stuff’ over their toast, and consumed it with great relish. They saw my brother and I eying it up rather suspiciously and asked if we would like to try some. To my considerable surprise I really liked it, my brother on the other hand nearly chocked! And so it is with Marmite, as its marketing slogan goes, you either ‘love it or hate it’.


This ability to polarise and provoke strong opinion has come to enter the English vernacular, and become known as the ‘Marmite effect’. It translates across many boundaries, and in the world of Atlantic salmon angling, the Wilkinson is an excellent example. It is very much an ‘acquired taste’, people either love and swear by it, or dismiss it as a ‘bogie fly’, that sits unused in their fly box from one year to the next.

Yet why is this? Surely there must be some middle ground as both ‘sides’ can’t be wrong, or ‘right’ as the case may be?

The ‘confidence factor’


As with so much inside and indeed outside of fishing, I think confidence is more often than not the key to success. While for many of us angling is about the whole experience, ‘catching’ is still important, and having confidence can make the difference between having a good day and a blank one. It is usually ‘attritional’, with a wide range of factors coming into play. Some like the weather and river conditions we have little or no control over, while others like our casting and set-up we do. When we are confident in our choice of rod, reel and line, and in particular having the right fly at the ‘business end’, we are more likely to fish harder, persist for longer and more often than not we will catch, and catch more.


Every time I tie a Wilkinson onto my leader it gives me that confidence, and this is borne out by the fact that it accounted for over 80% of my salmon last season. One of my friends likes to joke that this is not surprising as he says I use nothing else! There is certainly a ‘self-fulfilling’ element to it, but what gave me this confidence in the first place?


Lets look at the fly in more detail, to try and unravel, and make sense of this question. And lets see if you too can acquire a ‘taste’ for the Wilkinson.

‘The ingredients’


One of the first things that strike you when you see a Wilkinson in a fly box or on a tray of flies in a shop, are its colours. It is pretty unique in Atlantic Salmon flies in featuring magenta and blue, colours more associated with Pacific salmon and steelhead patterns. I think this in itself puts off a lot of people, who will have been brought up on a ‘staple diet’ of Willie Gunns, Ally Shrimps and Stoats. The Wilkinson certainly does not conform to the traditional view of what a salmon fly should look like. This was actually one of the things that first drew me to it, because it stood out from the crowd and caught my eye. This follows the saying that ‘the fly catches the angler and not the fish’, but in this case I think it is true of both. When a salmon has seen an endless progression of orange, yellow and black flies it can pay to show it something totally different. The Wilkinson fits the bill in this respect, and can provoke a positive reaction in the fish as well as the angler.


Another related factor worth considering is human nature, and the fact that many of us are essentially creatures of habit. We stick to what we know, and are not too inclined to try something different or new unless we are desperate, or as a last resort. When things are ‘desperate’ our chances of success will be lower anyway, and combining this with a quick half hearted cast with a different fly is not generally a recipe for success. I think if more people gave the Wilkinson, or other similar ‘bogie patterns’ for that matter, a ‘fair go’ in more normal or prime conditions they may get their eyes opened. Of course this is easier said than done, I have never had a touch on a Red Frances and must endeavour to practice what I preach this season!

History and evolution



So we have established that the Wilkinson has a pretty unique appearance for an Atlantic salmon fly, but were did these colours originate?


Classic Hairwing Wilkinson


As with many classic salmon patterns it’s hard to know exactly how old the Wilkinson is, and who first invented it. The Silver Wilkinson seems to have appeared in literature first, with a reference to a William Henderson from Durham (originator of the ‘Durham Ranger’). In 1843 he commissioned the salmon fly tier James Wright to create a new Wilkinson type pattern. Two years later Canon William Greenwell (of ‘Greenwell’s Glory’ trout fame) and a P S Wilkinson each developed their own version. Both had a silver body, and it is now acknowledged as the first known classic pattern to do so. Other contemporary versions of the Silver Wilkinson were tied but it was P S Wilkinson whose name came to be used. The ‘Wilkinson’ seems to have been a later, local version popularised by Kelson in the late 1890’s. As you can see from this excellent example tied by Ryan Houston, it has the same silver body and magenta and light blue hackles that we recognise in the modern version.


Tying: The Wilkinson (classic)


Tag: Silver twist

Tail: Two toppings, tippet and Indian Crow

Butt: Scarlet wool

Body: Silver tinsel

Ribs: Silver tinsel (oval)

Throat: Magenta and light blue hackle

Wings: Tippet, teal, peacock wing, golden pheasant tail, swan dyed red, yellow and blue, mallard and a topping

Horns: Blue macaw

Sides: Jungle cock

Head: Black herl

Wilkinson Irish Shrimp


The shrimp fly version of the Wilkinson is the pattern that most of us will recognise, and as we have seen its pedigree can be traced from the classic hairwing. It seems to have appeared in the early 20th century and was very similar to today’s version, except that embossed rather than plain silver tinsel was used for the body. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘light’ version, a ‘dark’ version also exists (dark Kingfisher blue middle hackle and dark claret front hackle) but it is less popular. Saying this I personally prefer a darker blue hackle, rather than the lighter Cambridge specified (in the ‘light’) for spate river fishing. While the lighter blue is good for clearer water, I think a darker blue shows up better when there is a bit of colour in the water, and gives more contrast.


Tying: Wilkinson Shrimp


Tag: Silver oval tinsel

Tail: Golden Pheasant breast feather (natural)

Body: Silver flat tinsel with silver oval tinsel rib

Middle hackle: Magenta cock

Front hackle: Light Cambridge Blue (alternative is a darker Kingfisher Blue)

Wings: Jungle Cock (roofed)

Head: Red

Longtail Wilkinson


While traditional Irish Shrimps patterns are still very popular and effective, they have and indeed are still ‘evolving’. Much of this was driven by influences from Scandinavia and in particular Scottish longtail shrimps such as the Allies Cascade. This got me thinking and I started to experiment with the Wilkinson. I was already a big fan, but I wondered if it too could be given the ‘longtail treatment’. From fishing and observing it in the water I could see it was the magenta hackle that really seemed to ‘light up’, particularly in dark peaty spate water. The obvious choice therefore was to try a magenta bucktail tail. I added some angel hair for added attraction, and sandwiched this with a little softer material (above) for extra movement in slower flows. The fish seemed to approve of my ‘tinkering’ and first time out I landed three grilse in quick succession. It is now my ‘go to’ version in higher and coloured water, and works equally well tied either as a conehead tube (for extra weight) or on a hook.


You can see the tying of the Longtail Wilkinson here –


Tying: Longtail Wilkinson


Tag: Silver oval tinsel

Tail: Magenta bucktail, magenta angel hair, magenta fox tied shorter over top

Body: Silver flat tinsel with silver oval tinsel rib (silver braid used in tube versions)

Middle hackle: Magenta cock

Front hackle: Light Cambridge Blue (alternative is a darker Kingfisher Blue)

Wings: Jungle Cock (roofed)

Head: Holo red floss (or red cone in tube)

Wilkinson Intruder


Following the evolving theme, another influence that has arrived on our shores, this time from North America, are Intruders. They give incredible movement and are starting to make their mark on salmon catches on this side of the Atlantic. I must admit I have not yet tried tying or fishing them myself, but fellow Loop Ireland team member Denis O’Toole tied me this super example to try this season. I have no doubt in bigger water it will take fish, so watch this space!


Tying: Wilkinson Intruder



Tube plastic/intruder shank

Tail: Silver dubbing ball, purple bucktail (all around tube), 4 strands silver Krystal flash, magenta Armherst (all around tube), magenta Rhea (all around tube) purple hackle or magenta hen/schlappen

Body: Silver flat braid

Front wing/hackle: similar to tail with silver dubbing ball, blue bucktail (all around tube), 4 strands silver flash, dyed blue Amherst (all around tube), dyed blue Rhea (all around tube), dyed blue hen/schlappen hackle

Cheeks: jungle cock

Head: cone /dumbbell eyes

The ‘proof is in the eating’ – when to use the Wilkinson


When you read about the Wilkinson on the internet and in literature it usually talks about it being ‘a good fly for bright conditions and for fresh fish’. I have certainly found this to be the case and I think the blue hackle in particular is a very effective colour for fresh run fish. Many marine baitfish have a blue and silver hue, so you can see the logic that imitative patterns will work well for fish that have very recently been feeding in the sea. But I think this only tells part of the story and I have found the Wilkinson to be a very good all round pattern.


A classic ‘all rounder’

I would happily fish a Wilkinson from the first day of the season to the very last. It certainly has a reputation as a good spring fly and in recent years it has accounted for nearly all of my spring salmon. A small Wilkinson single accounted for this fine spring salmon from the River Bann at Carnroe (you can see more here –


It is also well known as a good grilse fly, with typical shinny, bright grilse colours. What is perhaps a little less obvious or expected is that I have found it works well for those harder to tempt resident fish, and works right to the end of the season. This goes against the notion that it just a fly for fresh fish. At this time I think the blue is less important and it is the magenta that comes more into play. Magenta is made of a combination of red and blue, and cock fish in particular become more aggressive and tuned in to red as the season progresses.

At this time of year leaves can often be a problem, not only in terms of catching your fly, but more importantly in creating a ‘leaf soup’ that your fly can blend into and get lost. The bright colours of the Wilkinson however, contrasts and stands out against this background noise, and is more likely to get noticed by the salmon.


We have already touched upon the idea that the Wilkinson is often perceived as a good fly for clear water, and I do agree this can be the case, particularly when a lighter (Cambridge) blue is used. However I have also found that it works very well in peat tinged or slightly coloured water. The silver body and the magenta hackle really do show up well, and gives a real ‘presence’ in the water.


Silver and blue have a wider appeal that just salmon, with the Wilkinson also being a very good pattern for sea trout pattern. Just last season I caught 8 nice sea trout in a morning’s ‘salmon fishing’, a welcome and somewhat unintended bonus.

So have you acquired the taste?


Hopefully you have enjoyed finding out more about the Wilkinson, and it has given you some food for thought along the way. Maybe it’s something totally new for you to try next season, or maybe it’s something that you have eyed up as suspiciously as my brother and I did viewed the jar of marmite all those years ago. This season could be the one you finally decide to give it a proper go, and who knows, you may find that you actually quite like it, and wonder why you didn’t try it a lot sooner!


Tight lines and bon appétit!


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