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CLAY HENRY: The Knowles midges have hit the world market

Getting a fly in worldwide catalog carries the legacy of a famous fly fisherman’s creation forward for everyone.



Dr. David Knowles with a rainbow trout in the Missouri River

A few months before Dr. David Knowles passed away last summer, there was one last, great lunch at our favorite fried chicken eatery in Springdale.

My fly tying mentor loved AQ Chicken. There were dozens of wonderful lunches together. We traded flies, stories and caught up with family.

There was one lunch that he flattered me beyond words. I had tied a box of midges from his recipe and wanted a critique. He opened the box, said they were nice and stuck them in his pocket.

I really intended to fish them. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. He usually did. I never met someone smarter or classier. It was better than the first peanut butter and jelly sandwich my mom gave me.

Our lunches were better than peanut butter and jelly and I’m not talking about the over-the-coals fried chicken. They were rich with wonderful fellowship.

Sometimes we pushed photos across the table. There were updates on family or our out-of-state fishing trips. His trips to fish the Missouri River in Montana were my favorites. He’d go for three weeks and live out of a tent near the river.

I often pinched myself. Was I really hanging out with a fly fishing legend? Knowles, the retired University of Arkansas engineering professor, was fly fishing royalty in our state.

Dr. Knowles' son John caught a Missouri River brown trout July 2 on a Knowles midge

Dr. Knowles’ son John caught a Missouri River brown trout July 2 on a Knowles midge.

There were hardly any bad days with Knowles. Of course, we did cover the horrible turns of his health, the woes of a cancer patient. He fished as parts were removed. He never complained. And fishing days became sweeter. He caught fish, but it didn’t matter if he didn’t.

I’d ask and he’d give me the matter-of-fact answers on the cancer I needed. It wasn’t good. Eventually, he’d change the subject with a smile and an assurance he’d lived a wonderful life.

“Clay, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ve done everything I’ve wanted in my life. Few have had it so good. We all have to go. Now, lets talk about midges.”

And, we did. We could have talked into the night. Our regular waitress kept us in water and dinner rolls.

There was news that day on his project to get Umpqua Feather Merchants to produce his midges, the three staples on our Arkansas tailwaters. Actually, David and I have field tested tailwaters in many other states. They worked everywhere.

I’m talking about his ruby, rootbeer and diamond midges, most notably on sized 18 dry fly hooks. I was first introduced to the diamond midge about 25 years ago, then the ruby 5 years later. The rootbeer is the newbie, only about 10 years old.

I was one of the first to fish the rootbeer. I wrote a column in the first weeks David began to make them available at Fayetteville fly shop McLellans. They took off. I would guess David tied nearly 1 million rootbeer midges.

There was a bit of sadness from both of us that Umpqua didn’t want his midges. We both understood. As long as he was supplying them to his main shops, what kind of market would there be? David was worried about what would happen when he passed.

“I know I’m not going to be here forever,” David said. “So I wanted Umpqua to pick them up like they did the Y2k bug. But I got a letter last week and they declined.”


Knowles could see the problem in advance of his passing. He was tying 50,000 midges a year for 11 different fly shops in three states (Arkansas, Georgia and Montana). He and I had already talked that I was only going to tie for Two Rivers Fly Shop where I volunteer one day a week in Norfork.

Neither of us really had a solution. That changed six months ago. I got an email from Daniel Roberts, Umpqua’s field rep for Arkansas and several other Midwest states. Could I take a phone call?

The short version of the discussion, would I tie David’s midges and supply Umpqua with the recipe, finished flies in three sizes for all three midges? Could I send sample materials? There were no promises if Umpqua would take them.

I readied everything in a matter of hours and drove them to McLellans to be picked up later by Roberts. I prayed.

The Umpqua Feather Merchants catalog displays the David Knowles midges

The Umpqua Feather Merchants catalog displays the David Knowles midges.

What had happened was fly shops began to search for an alternative source, just as Knowles suspected. Umpqua got the message.

So about two months ago an email came from Roberts. He sent a picture of the Umpqua catalog with a picture of my samples on a page. Umpqua was offering them to the fly shops that bought midges from Knowles.


I thanked the Lord. It was wonderful. The royalties will go to Nan Knowles, David’s widow and my friend.

A not so strange thing happened. Umpqua’s first order from its supplier sold out immediately. More are on the way. How many they have sold is proprietary in nature, but it’s hundreds of dozens.

The first order was only available to a few shops. But that is now changed. All shops can order them. I hope Umpqua has plenty in their second shipment. They will sell out, too.

I asked Roberts for a statement. He made me proud.

“The Knowles Midge,” he said, “will be available in all fly shops beginning July 2024, in the most popular 3 colors: ruby, rootbeer and diamond.

“With David’s passing in July 2023, the supply of one of Arkansas’ most influential fly patterns came to a screeching halt. Through the work of Umpqua Feather Merchants and Clay Henry, the midge is now available once again, on a larger scale than ever before and an exact replica of the original recipe.”

Roberts knows the story.

“We know that David was tying thousands of dozens of his midges for shops around the country every year, so we are excited to see the fly now reach not only new fly shops nationally, but also globally,” he said. “His impact on the sport of fly fishing will truly be lasting.”

Goodness gracious. This is a dream come true for David, me and thousands of fly fishers. I need to celebrate. A plate full of fried chicken has never sounded better.