No other fly is as iconic as the Royal Coachman. The Adams and Hare’s Ear Nymph sell a lot more and are fished more, but no other fly has come to symbolize fly fishing as much as the Coachman. With dark peacock hurl, scarlet cummerbund and white upright wings, the Coachman is the most readily identifiable fly. Its silhouette graces countless headers, logos, and advertising signs. Open any fisher’s fly box and you’re sure to find a couple.
As is true of most of the American flies in the early days, the Coachman originated on British trout streams. The original coachman is credited to one Tom Bosworth, Coachman to British Royalty, who, reportedly, was as adept with a fly rod as he was with a whip! Bosworth wanted a fly he could see in low light presumably because his duties kept him busy during the day. He concocted a simple fly of peacock hurl with upright, white wings to be highly visible. His Coachman was a hit, and its use spread widely. It was recommended in Anglers Guides as early as 1825.
Around 1880, an American tier, John Haily who tied for Charles Orvis, was producing Coachmen. It was Haily who introduced the pinch-waist, scarlet banded body that makes the Royal Coachman so readily identifiable. At the time, the names of flies, or even if flies should have names, was not set. Early Orvis catalogs sold flies by number, but anglers complained of the confusion produced by the number system. One of Orvis’ many innovations was to begin establishing well known names for flies. Upon seeing a well tied Coachman with the red band, he dubbed it the “Royal Coachman” and the name stuck. The Royal Coachman became one of the most popular flies of the time and went on to found an entire dynasty of variants: the hairwing Royal Wulff, the elongated Royal Trude with windswept wings, a Royal Coachman wetfly, a Kinkhammer and a streamer version among others.
But with the ascendance of the strict imitationist school of fly fishing, the Coachman lost favor. “What insect” they asked, “does this fly imitate?” Fans of the coachman tried hard to answer the question but could provide no convincing argument. Ted Gordon originally thought it was an ant! Paul Schullery says: “Fishermen still try to justify the Royal Coachman. They still want to believe it looks like something—a dragonfly, a moth, a crippled hummingbird, a lightning bug; there is desperation in these efforts to label the fly” Art Flick, author of the popular New Streamside Guide, said he didn’t have “the slightest idea what insect the Fan Winged Royal is supposed to imitate.” Ted Leeson dubbed the Royal Coachman “an act of aesthetic vandalism, a grotesque violence perpetrated on my fly box.”
The simple answer is it imitates none, and it doesn’t really matter to anyone but the extreme purist. The fact of the matter is that the fly became so popular because it caught fish. And this is likely the ultimate answer to the strict imitationists. Schullery continues: “The Royal Coachman didn’t make sense to these people because they couldn’t imagine how it made any sense to the trout. That trout took it, often quite greedily, was not reason enough for many fishermen, then or now.”
But why it caught fish was not so easily answered either. Schullery maintains that the legacy of the Coachman imparted a great deal of confidence to those fishing it, and a fly fished confidently catches fish! For most of us, that’s enough.
Based on Paul Schullery, “Royal Coachman and Friends” chapter 7 in Royal Coachman, Lore and Legends of Fly Fishing Simon and Schuster, 1999. All quotes taken from Scullery.