More Than One Reason To Skin A Cat?
Steffan Jones explains the virtues and applications of a little known product called ‘catgut’.
In an era where we strive for the newest fly-tying products and fishing paraphernalia, with ultra-modern man-made materials blessing our eyes with alarming frequency, it’s nice to take a step back and delve into some of the more eccentric materials that can become applicable on the creative fly-dressers bench, even though they may have been overlooked at the time of their conception. From what you unearth, none compare, compete or jostle for the eccentricity crown more than ‘catgut’. This, to me, is of no surprise, because no material utilised in the fly-tying World, to the best of my knowledge, in the past or present, would raise as many eyebrows as when the construction and make-up of catgut is explained. Indeed, to the extent that some may even find its use within the fly-fishing World as unethical.
Catgut has been in production for centuries. Within this time it has been applied to a plethora of applications; from sutures in the medical trade through to forming strings on musical instruments and tennis rackets – it still has practical applications today within medical fields, by all accounts, and as archaic as this may seem. An application that I would add to the list is as an incorporation into fly-design – an application that it serves admirably, more so than any counterpart, I would boldly state.
So, what is ‘catgut’? I had better explain since neither T&S nor I want to be held responsible for a mass culling of cats under the premise that it was required and justified through and for a fly-tying application! A natural deduction would lead us to the obvious; ‘gut of a cat’ – as bizarre as that may first seem. As stomach churning and perplexing as this may sound to some, especially with its medical applications, this isn’t far off being the case! Catgut is in fact historically made and formed from the intestines of sheep and pigs – I hope this section of the article doesn’t find you mid-meal. A lengthy preparation process ensues prior to the final product being ready for use; the intestines are scraped free of any fat and membrane residue, before being immersed in an alkaline solution, smoked in sulphur fumes, then, finally, twisted into a cord that we know as ‘catgut’ – with this being a shortened rendition of the preparation process, practicing a modicum of remorse towards the weak stomached!
This is all good and well, even of interest to the more ‘scientific’ minds, but what does catgut have to do with fishing? And how has it found its way onto the fly-dressing table? First, let me explain the nature of catgut, which in itself may invoke applications in the creative mind. When dry, catgut is an extremely resilient and strong cord, quite rigid, and almost translucent in hue. It can be found and sourced in various sizes; from less than a millimetre through to 3mm+. However, when immersed in water for a period of time – 5 minutes or so should do – then its nature and texture is transformed. You now have a pliable, slightly swollen material, of spaghetti type texture, with the colour mutating to an off-white, yet, still incredibly strong. If you have been lucky enough to find a small diameter, spherical length of catgut, then you may wind the length straight onto the shank, as it does give a superbly segmented definition, akin to that of the natural pupae and larvae. However, as is readily the case, the catgut will be too thick. Due to its fibrous nature a quick solution is to hand and one that makes a single, thick length of catgut extremely generic. Push your nail into the catgut when it’s in its wet state and you will quite easily split it vertically, from there you can slowly extract varying diameters – as required to the differing applications it may face. Some advocate the use of catgut in its dry state, however, I have found it much easier to use, manipulate, and control when wet – but please do feel free to experiment.
If I’m not mistaken catgut was used at one time to form the eye on what we would now coin traditional, fully-dressed salmon flies. Yet, it never became a product for the masses, and further applications were not explored as an integral material in the construction of a fly. It has been utilised since, to a certain extent, by the ever enterprising Poles, who could see its obvious merits. Even here its applications seem to have been limited, with the material rarely getting the recognition it deserves.
For sedge pupae and caddis larvae patterns I would have to say that from the ‘matching the hatch’ perspective it is unparalleled as a body material. The material in its wet, gummy state gives a natural texture that I firmly believe fish are less likely to reject or eject – rather like the properties and praises bestowed upon jelly worms and jigs.
Catgut is not and should not be limited to sedge larvae and pupae imitations however, since it does have the characteristic of absorbing a degree of colour from what’s placed underneath, thus making the material truly generic, and enabling us to capitalise fully on its unique properties. Take, for example, a general olive nymph imitation; take a thin strip of catgut, wind it over a body of dark-olive thread and you will be left with a milky, mid-olive tone. Wind catgut on quite taught and in slightly overlapping turns, as it does expand when wet, thus enabling all areas to remain covered when it contracts and reverts to its dry state – not that this is a paramount concern, as it’s wet, tying state is the condition that it will return to when being fished. Another tip that will hold you in good stead when tying with catgut is to take the tip of your scissors and narrow off the end of the catgut to be tied in – push the scissors, rather than cut; akin to handling suede chenille – this allows you to taper the body, whilst also giving you a firm tying-in section.
Sadly catgut is not readily available nowadays, but supplies and lengths can be found fairly frequently, and are well worth searching for. Online market places, such as ebay, are one of the best sources for catgut, where lengths appear as old medical supplies (a word of caution though, avoid the ones stored in iodine, their applications are limited and inferior), longcase (clock) weight supports, tennis racket strings etc. Or they may appear as simply catgut lengths. Modern suppliers do exist, but pursuing this route may be expensive. If you do manage to get your hands on some then please experiment with it and give this little piece of history the modern reincarnation it deserves.
Reprinted with permission of Steffan Jones.