The Dark Needle & the Grayling
I have to confess I am somewhat of a latecomer to using the Dark Needle as a grayling fly. For more years than I care to mention I followed the words of Edmonds and Lee, and principally thought of the Dark Needle as an early season trout pattern. For countless seasons I fished this age-old wet fly in April and May, steadfastly ignoring the possibility that it may also have a value as an autumn grayling pattern.
However, it was somewhat a quirk of fate that I came to acknowledge the Dark Needle or Needle Brown as it is sometimes known as an effective autumn grayling fly. In my quest to write a piece about grayling fishing on the Burnsall waters of the River Wharfe, I started to re-read my collection of grayling books in the hope of finding mentions of the Burnsall club and its grayling fishing. Flicking through these books plus a few vintage magazine articles, I did indeed find many references to the club’s fishing preserves, and members and guest’s fishing for grayling. But during these investigations, my attention was caught by the numerous mentions of fishing for grayling with North Country spiders including the Dark Needle. These constant inclusions of traditional spider patterns led me to re-evaluate the fishing of North Country spiders for grayling and to abandon my usual armoury of dry fly and nymph patterns in the autumn months. Increasingly, like my North Country ancestors before me, I seemed also to turn to the Dark Needle with increasing frequency during my autumn fishing days.
The anglers of old knew the benefits of fishing North Country spiders and particularly the Dark Needle for grayling. For in his 1885 publication, The Book of the Grayling, Pritt lists the Dark Needle as the middle fly on his grayling cast.
No. 14 Dark Needle
Wings: Hackled with a feather from the darkest part of a Brown Owl’s wing.
The natural insect is very diminutive.
Later in his 1895 publication Grayling And How To Catch Them and Recollections Of A Sportsman, one-time Burnsall Club member Francis Walbran, would also give the same dressing of the fly and attest to its effectiveness as a grayling pattern although in this instance he calls the fly the Dark Spanish Needle.
No.2 – The Dark Spanish Needle.
Body – Orange silk well waxed; hackled with a small feather from a brown owl, a swift, or the rump of a fieldfare; hook No.0, long shank, Kendal Scale.
Remarks. – This is a splendid grayling fly. In fact, when it is strongly on the water they frequently will take no other. Francis, in his “Book on Angling,” advises a winged pattern, but on our Yorkshire and Derbyshire streams the above dressing will generally be found the best killer.
Later within the text Walbran also gives us details of a day’s grayling fishing, which features the Dark Needle as a dropper on his grayling cast of flies. So, it is clear from these early North Country publications that the Dark Needle was a firm favourite amongst Yorkshire grayling anglers. Indeed, even into the late twentieth century, this traditional fly pattern was included in fly lists and publications by such notable northern anglers as Harry Hamer, William Carter Platts, Reg Righyni, Norman Roose, T.K. Wilson and many others.
The pattern is to all intense purpose a close relation of the Brown Owl and Dark Spanish Needle which are found in countless North Country lists and publications. Though in this instance the fly is dressed with a darker body, and with the omittance of the peacock herl head. The correct body shade being achieved by heavily waxing the silk, to give it the required colouration to match the natural insect. Given the time of the season in which the Dark Needle is fished, it is probably meant as an imitation of the Late Needle Fly Leuctra fusca, which is frequently seen on northern rivers during the autumn months. This pattern, along with many other spider patterns, can be highly effective when grayling are concentrating their feeding activity within the upper inches of the water column. But become inconsistent when the grayling lie close to the riverbed in deep water. So, I concentrate my spider fishing to areas such as where the depth of the river is not too prohibitive. It for that reason that I confine my interest to the head and tail of pools, as well as the margins of any deep runs.
Hook: Size 16 Partridge SUD2
Silk: Orange well waxed
Hackle: Brown Owl Overcovert
Pritt’s famous grayling cast of flies which consists of Crimson Tag, Dark Needle and Fog Black has served me well for the past couple of seasons, though I like to occasionally substitute a Snipe and Purple for the Fog Black. I like the idea of a “fancy” fly such as the Crimson Tag leading the team, and Pritt’s favourite is one of the best fancy grayling patterns I know. But sure enough, it is the Dark Needle that seems to appeal most to the autumn grayling, especially when there is a slight breeze and suitable numbers of the naturals are blown on to the river’s surface. And has as a consequence become one of my favourite grayling flies, even to the extent that I often abandon the notion of fishing it in a team of three flies and often fish it singularly. Its diminutive size and subtle hues makes it a great fly to singularly cast to rising grayling, where it sits trapped in the surface film waiting for the delicate take.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.