The Other Fly-Tying Legend
Grayling's Clarence Roberts
By Ross Boissoneau | July 4, 2020
Most every Northern angler knows the tale of the Adams fly and its creator, Leonard Halladay of Mayfield. The dry fly Halladay crafted in 1922 to imitate an adult mayfly and lure many a Boardman River trout is still celebrated annually in Kingsley, at the Adams Fly Festival. But the Adams fly — named in honor of Halladay’s friend Charles Adams, for whom Halladay created it — is not the only renowned fly with local history behind it.
The Roberts Yellow Drake — more commonly known as the yellow drake — was the brainchild of Clarence Roberts of Onaway, who created it sometime between 1957 and 1959. As legend goes, his brother Cliff, an avid fisherman, left home to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, and before heading out, passed Clarence his treasured fly-tying equipment. Clarence Roberts, who was working as a game warden in Grayling at the time, began tying flies.
He incorporated animal products into his flies, raising his own roosters for hackle (the long, narrow feathers on the neck), while his job as a game warden (now more commonly known as conservation officer) gave him ready access to other fly materials, such as the fur of deer and other animals.
Living in a place that was home to what was even then one of the most hallowed trout streams in Northern Michigan, the AuSable River, Roberts had the perfect lab to test his experiments.
He became obsessed with his newfound passion for tying flies. Within seven years, Roberts was selling his flies all over town — to bait shops, gas stations, hardware stores and canoe liveries. At the peak of his enterprise, he was tying — by hand, mind you — more 5,000 flies for commercial sales every year.
Roberts tied both dry flies (those that land on the surface of the water) and wet flies (which resemble insects that grow and live underwater before hatching and floating to the surface) and is rightly considered something of an innovator, Yellow Drake notwithstanding; he was one of the first people to tie dry flies with deer hair parallel to the hook, a technique that adds buoyancy and helps the fly ride more better atop the water, and is credited with creating around 50 different flies still finding favor with anglers today.
The Yellow Drake, however, came about somewhat by accident — literally. Legend has it that sometime between 1957 and 1959, Roberts was fishing with his good friend George Griffith (who would become one of the founders of the now-international Trout Unlimited organization) when Griffith hooked a log with a streamer fly pattern and tugged his line so hard, it rocketed loose and permanently damaged one of his eyes.
After that, Roberts added a large white “parachute post” to a pattern so that Griffith, forever after suffering vision issues, could more easily see the fly on the water. That pattern became known as The Roberts’ Drake, the Golden Drake, the Au Sable Parachute Hex and more.
Mike Walker, a fly-fishing enthusiast in Glen Arbor, said he uses yellow drakes during mayfly hex hatches. “When hatches occur, it gets fish excited. You hear big fish slurp up the mayflies. It’s free food,” he said.
“The fly is beautiful. It has a yellow body, forked tail, and big wings. It fools the fish.”
Roberts’ Drake incorporates pheasant tail fibers, white deer belly hair for the wing, ginger hackle, and light tan deer hair for the body; it’s tied parallel to the hook shank and flared at the tail.
It mimics the golden mayfly, a large mayfly that hatches in trout streams in the East and Midwest, including local rivers such as the Boardman and Au Sable. Unlike other mayflies in the Ephemera family, which hatch from the water in a flurry over a week, the yellow drake takes its time. Its nearly month-long hatching season provides plenty of time for anglers to get out on the water and cast away.
The staff at fly fishing stores are typically among the most well-versed in what flies will work best and when. Walker said he relies on the people at Old AuSable Fly Shop in Grayling. Indeed, the store’s website lists nearly three dozen different flies in stock, offers guide service and lodging, information on the rivers and the fish you’ll find there, and — if you’re lucky enough to visit in person — a host of other knowledge and undoubtedly some fish tales.
If you are so inclined, you can even tie your own yellow drakes, following directions easily available online. The Old AuSable website itself showcases two different experts guiding you through the steps: “Fly Tying Robert's Yellow Drake with Jim Misiura” and “Tying Steps for a Roberts Drake with Jamie Clous” both of which are available on YouTube.
Roberts died in 1984 at age 68. Though he’s been gone for more than three decades, he lives on in his fly. No doubt he’d be pleased.
Trout Unlimited, the international organization dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds, was “hatched” during a chance meeting of George Griffith, a hosiery salesman, and George Mason, president of American Motors, as both men were waiting to launch their Au Sable riverboats at Burton’s Landing in 1950. Mason was a member of Ducks Unlimited member and suggested Griffith consider a similar organization for trout.
Some information and portions of this story courtesy of Ryan Soulard, Michigan Department of Resources. Photo above courtesy of Michigan Department of Resources.