James Norton DeWitt

1915 – 1969

Perth-Andover (Victoria), which means “ash tree     stream”, dates back to 1833. It stems from the parish name Andover in Hampshire, England.  Since 1966 the community has been part of Perth-Andover. The twin communities are originally named for locations in the United Kingdom – Perth for the Scottish city; Andover for a town in Hampshire, England.  The joint name was approved on July 6, 1970.

James Norton “Salmon Fly” DeWitt was born on May 1, 1915, in Perth, New Brunswick.  On September 3, 1942 he married Helen Castle “Nellie” McLeod who he met in Scotland while serving with the Canadian Forestry Corps of the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War.  Helen and James moved back to Andover where they raised four children.

While overseas James and a regiment of other New Brunswick men worked at setting up sawmills and cutting lumber for the construction of bridges that were destroyed during the war. When he returned to New Brunswick he did some freelance guiding, but also guided for Arnold DeMerchant.  He then went to work at Fred Tribe’s sawmill in Andover.  Shortly after that he got hired on with the Canadian Pacific Railway where he worked as a Section Man in the Upper Kent area.  A couple of years after he went to work for the railway he had an on-the-job accident that caused severe injury to his spine.  James always believed that if a proper diagnosis of his injury was made right after the accident it might have prevented a deterioration of the condition, which eventually destroyed his health.  The injury caused James terrible pain but, being a fighter and tough as nails he tried never to let his injury get the best of him.    

He opened a cobbler shop in Perth. This was adjacent to his home on Main Street in Andover.  A short while later he connected the cobbler shop to the house.  It was in the same shop that he later opened his fly tying business.

James was an artist.  He was an inventor, very articulate and creative.  He was always experimenting with new ideas. He was fascinated with life and what made things tick.  An example of his creativity was a folding buck saw that James and his friend Robert Wright from the Tobique designed. The saw, which they named “Forest King Buck Saw”, was made of aluminium.  It was designed with a folding blade for easy dismantling; it weighed half a pound and would fit into an 18-inch leather case that could be carried around your waist.  He formed the Forest King Manufacturing Company and sold the saws to the Canadian Armed Forces.  They never got to patent the saw but years later a similar one appeared on the market. The saw that James and Robert designed still exists today.

He also made and framed a large copper salmon that was leaping out of the water.  He was inspired to do this after he seen a picture in a magazine of a salmon leaping from the Miramichi River.  James loved fishing.  He loved the river, the people along the river, fishermen, guides, and fly tiers.   

It was about 1949 when James started tying flies, but his uncle, Ansel DeWitt started around the same time and together they figured out many of the secrets to tying. Ansel tied flies primarily for his own use.  If James got an order that was more than he could handle then Ansel would help James tie the flies, but they had to be tied to James’s specifications. 

In the beginning fly tying for James was a hobby and pastime.  He loved to fish so he began tying flies for his personal use. It didn’t take long for him to accumulate more flies than he could fish with.  It didn’t take him long either to discover that fishermen who couldn’t tie flies were willing to pay for them.  Word soon got around about his fly tying, and so his business was born under the name of “Salmon Flies J. DeWitt”.  This sign paved the way for an unusual nickname for James DeWitt, the fly tyer. When the sign for outside his shop was being made, whomever it was that was making it was supposed to write, “Salmon Flies by J. DeWitt.”  Instead they left out “by” and so James inherited the name of “Salmon Fly DeWitt”. 

By the mid 1950’s fly tying for James became more than just a hobby or pastime. It became a business and source of income. He was now taking orders and tying flies by the hundreds to keep up with the demand. He supplied flies to the locals, outfitters, and the many visiting sportsmen to New Brunswick. He shipped flies by the gross to Hardy Brothers in England.  A lot of his flies were shipped across the border into the State of Maine where they were resold in businesses there. Some of his customers included Fred Tribe, sound producer Glen Glen from Hollywood, California, Ted Williams, and Neil’s Sport Shop in Fredericton and to many members of the Tobique Maliseet First Nations at Indian Point, New Brunswick. The great fisherman and fly tyer Lee Wulff once visited at the fly shop, and he later wrote about James’s fly tying in one of his books that was published in the 1960’s.  

Being on the river a lot and fishing at the mouth of the Tobique River, Upsalquitch, and all along the upper stretches of the Saint John River brought James into contact with any number of fishermen.  They were always looking for the secret weapon that could catch the ‘big one.”  Being with those fishermen gave James the opportunity to share his flies with the anglers.  He also got to learn which patterns were the preferred ones.

James tied a durable fly.  His tying wasn’t restricted to the usual hair wing patterns.  He was an artist and he tacked the fully dressed patterns with enthusiasm.  He even made key chains, earrings and other jewellery from his salmon flies.  He was so talented, and his love for the challenge is probably why he excelled at fly tying.

James’s long time friend and fishing companion Fred Tribe, who is now in his 90’s, classed James’s flies as beautiful, well tied, and they caught fish.  Proof of this was in a photograph that hung on the wall of his fly shop.  It showed James with his favourite fishing friend, Wesley Seymour from Andover, holding a 35-pound salmon that he caught on the Saint John River in 1959.  He caught that salmon on a Silver Doctor. 

There was another photo taken of James and his brother Budd holding an even larger salmon.  This salmon was taken by angling.  The salmon that was estimated at between 40 and 50 pounds was caught by hand. Yes, that’s right.  By some stroke of luck for them, bad luck for the salmon, they came upon the huge Salar trapped in a shallow pond of water adjacent to the river. James, who was tall and slender, and as quick as greased lightning with his hands, commenced the attack.  Budd followed with support.  The two of them wrestled that fish onto the shore and dispatched it in short order.  Very few people knew the story behind that photo, and for years folks probably heralded the DeWitt boys as the catchers of the largest salmon in their neck of the woods. The truth being known today about the wrestled salmon shouldn’t make much difference.  There is still the proof of James’s fishing skill in the photo of the 35-pounder.  Although James was in pain most of the time it seldom deterred him from getting out there on the river, or from going after the big one. 

"A couple of fished and battered flies tied by Jimmy Dewitt a long time ago."

Elwood Wright from Perth Andover, who was the personal guide for U.S. industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, traveled to the United States with James DeWitt to compete in fly casting contests.  It is said that James and Wright would stand on the sidewalks and cast flies into teacups just to demonstrate their accuracy with which they could place a fly. Their success as anglers was often attributed to being able to place the salmon fly in the exact location where they saw fish.

One summer in the late 50’s Fred and James took the canoe and went down the Miramichi to fish for salmon.  They fished all day long and tented over night.  By the end of the following day James was in such pain that he had to lie on the flat of his back in the canoe while Fred poled them back upstream. It was difficult for Fred to watch and at times he wondered why the man would put himself through all that. Today he looks back at what James did with admiration. Now he understands just how much it meant for James to be out there.  The hurt would have been greater for James had he not been able to go. Fred is so pleased that he was able to help James live some of the great times fishing for Atlantic salmon and trout in the rivers he loved so well.

Lawrence Green, a Barber in Andover at the time was also a fly tyer. People in Andover couldn’t figure out whether Lawrence liked cutting hair, or tying flies more.  Between haircuts Lawrence would tie flies.  Fred Tribe remembers Lawrence giving him a salmon fly every time he cut his hair.  This was a great deal for the customer, especially if he was a fisherman.  James and Lawrence traded many a fly, and shared their techniques on how to tie them. Lawrence sold his own flies at the barbershop, but he also sold some that James tied just to help his friend.  It may have been Lawrence Green who taught James DeWitt how to tie flies. 

James had other talents, which included fixing and making fishing rods, singing, playing the harmonica and guitar. When James was just a young man he was part of a small musical band. One day he met the famous singer Burl Ives who was doing a travelling road show through the province. Jim loved to tell folks about the time that Burl Ives gave him his first guitar lesson. They sang a couple of songs, strummed their guitars and had a grand old time. 

James tied flies with every piece of material you could imagine.  He even clipped hair of his old dog one time to tie a fly. A lot of the local wild game and domestic animals provided him with the fur, hair and feathers he needed, but for those really special pattern flies he would order his materials through suppliers in the United States. 

James’s favourite fly was the Silver Doctor.  He originated his own version of a fly he named the Orange Blossom Special.  It had a silver body, gray and black hair wing, and an orange collar. He also originated a fly for Wesley Seymour, which he called the “Seymour Special.”  Wesley used it often and caught many fish on it. 

James’s nephew, the late Henry DeWitt, told of a fly that James originated. It was called “Hair of the Dog.” It isn’t hard to figure out the story behind this fly. 

Every person I spoke to regarding James DeWitt classed him as a down to earth guy. He was kind, thoughtful, and generous and he treated everyone with respect.  They can’t recall him every saying a bad word against anyone.  James Norton “Salmon Fly” DeWitt died suddenly on November 7, 1969. 

Orange Blossom Special

Head:                Black

Body:                 Silver tinsel

Wing:                Gray and black hair

Collar:               Orange hackle

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