Carrie Gertrude Wills Stevens (February 22, 1882 - August 3, 1970) was a self-taught fly tier from Upper Dam Maine, Carrie created some of the most beautiful and enduring streamer patterns ever designed. Her husband, Wallace, established himself as a fishing guide as Carrie worked as a milliner. Through contact with her husband's clientele, she was introduced to flies tied in the English style and began to experiment herself. Carrie began tying flies in 1920, after being gifted with some long shank hooks, bucktails, and feathers by Charles E. “Shang” Wheeler, a family friend and fishing guide client of her husband, Wallace. Shang gave Carrie the materials and encouraged her to tie flies. During her fly tying career, Carrie Stevens originated well over 150 patterns that have successfully lured salmon and trout from the Rangeley waters.
Her record catch started her career that was to make her one of the most famous fly tiers in the country and Rangeley a legendary fishing destination. In her hand-written letter recounting how she caught her legendary 6-pound 13-ounce brook trout at Upper Dam Pool on July 1, 1924, she wrote, “I made another cast and gave my fly three or four lively skips when this large trout struck it and dashed away at a terrific speed. I expected any moment it would run out all my line or reach the foaming white water before I succeeded in stopping it.” Her fish, caught with her Thomas fly rod on a fly she tied and of her own design, won second place in the 1924 Field & Stream Fishing Contest.
The publicity she received helped popularize her fly tying designs and resulted in a flood of requests from fly fishermen across the country for her flies. Carrie became not only an astute fly tier, but also entrepreneur and saleswoman. According to Pamela Bates, "Carrie had the ability to know exactly what the sports would bite for - regardless of the preferences of the fish." Her fly tying business peaked after the Second World War, but due to poor health, Carrie became less active and officially retired in 1963. After her death, Maine Governor Kenneth M. Curtis declared August 15, 1970 to be "Carrie Gertrude Stevens Day." Stevens remains the only fly tier to have been recognized by the state in Maine.
Carrie's early fly ties were numbered rather than named, a practice common in the 19th Century. But as her popularity grew, Carrie began to name her patterns as well. Early patterns from the late 1920s and early 1930s included the Rangeley Favorite, the Stevens Favorite, the Pirate, the Green Beauty, and the Wizard. Patterns from the later 1930s include the Shang's special, the Golden Witch, the Blue Devil, the Gray Ghost, the Witch, the Greyhound, the Happy Garrison, the White Devil, and the Don's Delight. During the 1930s, almost half of all record fish taken from the Upper Dam were caught with Stevens' flies. During the 1940s and 1950s, most American fly tiers making streamers attempted to imitate proportions invented by Carrie Stevens. Other flies created by Carrie Stevens include the Colonel Bates, named after her friend Robert D. Bates Jr., the Will Ketch, and the General MacArthur. Stevens' popular Colonel Bates fly was originally named the Captain Bates, its name changing as Bates was promoted in rank during his career in the United States Army. In his series on American streamer Patterns, Colonel Robert Bates included 14 patterns tied by Carrie Stevens.
Following the success of her husband while using her flies for trolling, a rare or unheard-of practice at the time, Stevens' flies became used for trolling throughout North America. Her flies were purchased by fishermen in Alaska, Oregon, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, New Zealand and Patagonia.
For further reading, Carrie Stevens is the subject of a book written by Graydon R. Hilyard and his son, Leslie Hilyard, "Carrie G. Stevens, Maker of the Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies".
The first mention of the Gray Ghost is on one of Carrie’s invoices in 1933 or 1934. Carrie Steven’s Gray Ghost streamer which is an imitation of the Smelt, Osmerus mordax, and her many other flies have received national and international acclaim. Carrie Stevens originated the Gray Ghost, but she also tied other popular patterns originated by other tiers of her time; she added her unique method of construction and banded heads to all these flies as well.
The very popular Gray Ghost fly became one of the classic American streamers. The Gray Ghost remains as popular a fly pattern today as it was during the Depression era of the '30s. The Gray Ghost is ideal for steelhead, salmon, sea trout, and big trout fly fishing. The Gray Ghost is a simple pattern that lends itself nicely to wing material substitution, and is commonly tied with bucktail and marabou. It continues to be in demand and sold in fly shops and fishing stores across the state of Maine and New England, because it catches fish. The Gray Ghost is likely to remain where it is, in its proper place of unchallenged prominence as the most famous streamer fly ever created.
Carrie innovated fly tying design by shortening streamers to extend only slightly beyond hooks, and by using longer hook shanks. She furthermore brought fly profiles closer to those of baitfish by tying materials parallel to the hook, and used fly shoulders to imitate bait fish gill plates. While patterns like the Gray Ghost existed prior to Stevens' work, she pioneered the streamer by using new colors, structure, and less exotic materials, making it more effective and accessible.
Carrie cemented her wing components together; wing hackles, shoulders of various feathers, and jungle cock cheeks, using a type of cement or thick varnish. The modern substitute is Elmer’s rubber cement. She used ribbing counter-clockwise to strengthen the fly. The elongated head shape and banding is a tribute to her pattern design, especially since she used a selection of thread colors for the bands, and they were clearly a color-coordinated component of her patterns. An often-overlooked aspect of Carrie’s tying standards is all the components; underbelly and under wings – peacock herl, silver and golden pheasant crest, and bucktail, are all equal to the wing of the fly.
Carrie Stevens didn’t just put a dab on near the ends of the feathers, she cemented a significant portion of the feather length; and she also cemented the (inside of the) wings to the body at the front of the hook shank, cementing both sides together.
Carrie’s record brook trout says it all. when you see a photo of an angler holding a large trout, realize that in many cases it was caught fly fishing with a streamer. The fall and winter seasons are a great time to pursue larger trout using streamers. Want to catch a big trout, use a streamer! One more time…to catch a big fish…tie on a STREAMER! Two of the most popular eastern-style streamers used to imitate a minnow are the Gray Ghost and the Black Ghost.
Carrie’s Gray Ghost streamer, nearly eighty years after its creation, remains as the pinnacle streamer fly above all others created before or since and remains very popular among anglers that use streamers.