I follow in the family tradition of collecting rare fly-tying materials. It’s turned into an obsession. Some early collected materials date to the mid-1800s, whilst others date to the inter-war period. Continually adding items of my own, and keeping the focus on the North Country traditional of fly-tying, the collection has continued to grow through the years.
Increasingly, many of the authentic hackles and materials used in traditional fly-dressing are now impossible to get. However, some unique materials show up in old fly-tying collections placed into auctions. And it is in these auctions where my keen eye often lingers, in the hope of picking up a rare material. In respect, my specialisation in the world of North Country fly-dressing traditions mirrors that of some classic salmon fly-dressers. We both strive passionately to find authenticity in our flies and illustrate the unimaginable world of the Victorian and Edwardian flydresser.
My own pre-occupation with a fly-dressing school that used hackles and materials no right-minded person would use today. Became fuelled by a quest to compare and catalogue a selection of suitable substitutes to the once prescribed materials. But this use of these substituted materials presented a fundamental question concerning the dressing of fly patterns. For example, a Fieldfare Bloa. If I replace the required wing of Fieldfare rump fibres for say Light Blue Dun fibres, have I not created a different fly. And where does the substitution of an essential and constituent part of a fly pattern render it a different fly? It is a question I have pondered over for decades. The answer is hard to find because alternative hackles have been suggested ever since we imagined the patterns.
However, uncomfortably, I now recognise that there are no real tangible alternatives to some prescribed North Country hackles and materials. The characters of the hackles are so singularly unique, they become irreplaceable. The Tawny Owl over-covert used in the dressing of the Brown Owl pattern is a classic example of a unique hackle that is irreplaceable. We can dye the softest of hen hackles or use an appropriately shaded feather. But we never accurately replicate the quality of the original hackle. Many have tried, and all have failed.
Here the collection of vintage hackles and materials shows its true value. Its extensive nature allows me to dress and fish traditional North Country patterns in their truest form. Giving an opportunity to judge whether commonly stated substitutes carry any validity. The collection has also allowed me to assemble a bound catalogue of North Country hackles to exhibit at fly-tying shows and symposiums around the world.
But my collection doesn’t just contain vintage game and songbird hackles. It also has Old English Game hackles and capes, and many other antique poultry hackles and capes. These allow for comparison with modern mass-produced genetic varieties, and show that we have lost an indefinable quality with the use of modern genetic strains of hackles.
For a confessed “Wet Fly” addict, the number of vintage hen hackles and capes contained within the collection is pleasing. Dressing with theses hackles is a pleasure and shows the rich seam of quality once clear in the choice of traditional wet fly hackles. A quick comparison with today’s supply of hen hackles show modern wet fly hackles are devoid of of that indefinable quality called “life”. And don’t compare favourably with past generation’s capes and hackles. The collection shows that whilst earlier generations of fly-tyers had a greater choice of hackles, they were also more discriminatory in their hackle choices and more adept at searching out variant and unusual hackle shades. Perversely, today’s industrial scale hackle breeders has had the effect of limiting the supply of greater hackle choices.
In many respects, my continually growing historic fly-tying collection holds a mirror to the multi-faceted character of our sport. The direct method of hooking a fish with an artificial fly has diverged and formed other elements of satisfaction. Though intertwined, these elements are likewise somewhat tenuous. The trout I am seeking to fool doesn’t care for history lessons or fly-tying nuance. And yet to me, they have both become inextricably linked. Bringing a quiet joy and appreciation, in fishing age old fly patterns dressed with their historically prescribed materials, on the very rivers of their birth. And thanks to a long held family obsession, my vintage fly-tying collection allows me to fulfil this quiet passion. The collection also so illustrates that the true nature of fly-fishing history is not found in books and index cards. But, is instead found in the very materials used to fashion that most important element of our sport. Namely, the FLY.
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
Hook No.0 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.
As the trout season draws to a close and the riverscape begins to find its autumnal hues, I gradually turn my attention to grayling fishing. There is that wonderful period through late September and into October when the grayling increasingly begins to show throughout the river. Pools and runs where golden bellied trout once held station are now it seems, somehow solely occupied by grayling. It is a glorious time to be out with a fly rod in Upper Wharfedale. The first harsh frosts are hopefully still some many weeks away, and the grayling continue to rise to a delicately cast, minuscule dry fly.
My old “Wheatley” is sparsely populated at this time of year, with only a smattering of patterns contained within its increasingly opaque compartments. Old favourites such as the Red Tag, Smoke Fly and Treacle Parkin hold sway along with an escalating number of Griffith’s Gnats. A diminutive number of Aphid and F-Flies cling on to the increasingly frayed woollen lining of the lid, and my fly box’s increasing spareness matches the onward drift of the seasons.
Though many grayling anglers in Wharfedale head straight to the famous “Loup Scar” in search of their prize. I find it plays well in the early Autumn months to concentrate on the shallower runs below these “Dubs”, as the grayling have yet to seek the shelter of these deep black pools. It’s in these reaches that you can find an excellent sport with brief flurries of surface activity, as small squads of grayling greedily rise to a host of drifting insects.
Grayling are of course monkeys to catch on a dry fly. I have never been convinced about the rapidity of their take of a fly and am now of the belief that missed takes are a symptom of the grayling’s mouth bumping the fly at its point of taking. This gives me the comfort blanket of blaming the grayling rather than my own missed timing! Whatever the reason, I once counted my success rate with grayling rising to the dry fly at around 7 to 1. And whilst some may point to my lack of success as a symptom of poor angling skills, I prefer to look on these odds as an indication of my fondness for the art of fishing, rather than a compulsion to be catching.
Family tradition dictates that the Hare’s Lug and Plover always gets a few casts for October grayling, and nevertheless even after all these years, I am still surprised when the old pattern raises a grayling to the take. Twenty years ago, shortly after the death of my father. I fished a long-time favourite beat of ours on the Wharfe, and fittingly had tremendous sport with the Hare’s Lug. During intermittent bursts of sunshine, a few sedges fluttered along the bankside and my singularly and delicately cast spider did the trick with unerring regularity. So much so, that a fellow angler fishing downstream of me wandered up to ask what fly I was fishing. His face was a picture of incredulity when I informed him of the pattern, “what a wet fly fished upstream?” was his astonished reply. I could almost sense both my father and W.C. Stewart turning over in their respective graves.
But even despite their fondness for the Hare’s Lug & Plover, dry fly fishing for autumnal grayling is one of my season’s magic periods. At this time of year, the dales landscape and rivers look at their majestic best with the fish seemingly to be more obliging. I don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the trout season, by overthinking my fly selection. The grayling are unapologetic in their fly preference, and readily accept most of my offerings as long as they are small and dumpy. Which is the main reason why many of my fly patterns at this time of year resemble aphid, beetle and terrestrial. Two of my favourite and little known grayling patterns are Carter Platts’ dressings of Brunton’s Fancy and Walbran’s Gold Tag both of which have nice dumpy peacock herl bodies, and just the right amount of flash in the dressings to seduce inquisitive grayling.
Hook: Size 16 Partridge SUD2 Body: Green peacock herl Tag: Three turns of fine gold braid Hackle: Badger Tail: Scarlet Wool
Hook: Size 16 Partridge SUD2 Body: Bright green peacock herl Hackle: Blood red Tag: Gold Tinsel
As October drifts into November, my opportunities for a full day sport with the dry fly will start to recede with the onset of higher water levels and frequent frosts. And although grayling still rise to the odd flurry of surface activity, the window of opportunity has diminished for the use of the dry fly. Instead I turn to nymph and wet fly fishing if the river levels allow, but increasingly find the process of chucking weighted teams of nymphs to be a tedious chore. There is a grace to be found in fly casting, its rhythm is the very heartbeat of our sport. Once you take away that rhythm of the fly cast, you take away its heart.
I am in a fortunate position to have a few close friends and associates who are, shall we say, high up in the fishing tackle food chain. And as a consequence of their generosity, I am privileged to be given some of the most modern and innovative trout rods with which to fish. Indeed, most of my spider fishing for the past few years has been exclusively carried out with some of the most advanced and lightweight graphite rods imaginable. However, in the past decade or so, I have started to turn away from these modern manifestations and have increasingly become captivated by the soul and elegance that is split cane. It is hard to put my finger on just why I have started to turn towards cane. It’s not a simple yearning for the past, as I grew up in the seventies when the golden age of British bamboo rod making was supposedly at an end. Mass-produced glass fibre rods had already saturated the market, and the evolution of carbon fibre was beginning. Anglers, and especially young anglers like myself, became hypnotised by modernity and the brave new world of the modern fly rod. It seemed then that there was always some new rod with new magical powers on the market. And today, it seems no different.
In concert with the new religion of the tungsten bead, it appears that new “Nymphing” rods are beginning to saturate the market, just like the powerful dry fly rods of the late eighties and early nineties. But in truth, I no longer follow the latest angling trend. I have reached a comfort level in my angling and casting abilities, and I am happy with both my successes and failures as an angler. The allure of casting a fly into the far distance, or the ability to lob a heavy bead of tungsten at short range, are two presentation techniques that fail utterly to catch my imagination. I suppose a few years of working for a well-known American retailer and tackle manufacturer have made me plain cynical. But the truth is, I just do not believe anything I read regarding rod reviews or professional angler’s endorsements. I know how the system works, and how product reviews are linked to advertising budgets. When was the last time you read a really bad review of a fly rod?
So, with this world-weary view, I began about ten years ago to turn much of my fishing over to the use of cane rods. For me, there is an integrity and purity to the casting of a split cane rod that is lacking in modern glass or graphite rods. There is also the fact that I can speak directly to a cane rod builder and discuss a range of variables that go into the making of my ideal rod.
However, we now live in a disposable society. Where increasingly nothing is valued, especially craftmanship. Graphite rods fit comfortably within this disposable ideology and are purposely built around a mass-production model where profitability is the primary concern. They are by their very incarnation, mass-produced, disposable and utilitarian add-ons to our sport. For me though split cane rods cut across this depreciation of our sport and speak directly to the soul of the owner. They are handled with a reverence that is bound out of an appreciation not only of its casting quality but also its origin and heritage. The purchase of a split cane rod is an investment in a craftsman’s philosophy and time. And these rods take us back to a time when artisan craftsmen were revered for their skill and dedication, and when we valued their craftmanship over glossy advertisements and profit margins.
For me, there is an almost elusive spirit within a split cane rod. The taper is quite simply everything, and it gives the rod a serenity that allows it to stand out from all others, and dare I say it, even above build quality. There is no Computer-Aided Design or modern production values, cane rods are where a sympathy of design and harmony of materials combine. Living materials blended with a vision and craftmanship into a living process. And it is this living process that gives every rod an individual character and personality of its own, an undefinable quality that is absent in modern graphite rods. But let’s make no mistake here, the building of a split cane rod is an incredibly labour intensive process. And the high prices quoted for many of these wonderfully crafted rods in no way adequately reflects the level of dedication and skill that goes into making them. And it’s because of these labour-intensive processes that I would argue that a hand-planed split cane fly rod offers more value for money than any of today’s modern graphite rods.
Over time I have slowly built up a small but fine collection of rods that cover most of my fishing opportunities. One of my first purchases was a vintage 8ft Hardy Phantom dated to the 1960s. Even for its age it still has a nice crisp feel to its casting action, and regularly accompanies me on fishing trips.
However, my first commissioned rod was a beautiful 7ft 4-weight designed and made by Gary Marshall. And it is the commissioning and building of this rod that shows the true difference in philosophies between a split cane rod maker and modern rod factories. For a couple of months, emails were exchanged between Gary and myself about the rod finish, I prefer blonde rods. We discussed the design and feel of the cork handle, the reel seat fixtures and fittings, as well as an inscription on the rod to commemorate the birth of my son. And all this was even before we got to discuss tapers and fishing!
A visit to Gary was planned, where I would see a few examples of his work, cast a few rods and discuss where and how the rod would be fished. I explained that it would be a rod for the upland becks that I occasionally fish and that it would need to perform at short ranges and have the backbone required to flick out a short roll cast. Gary’s adaption of the Cattanach “Sir D” taper was cast over the garden lawn and the choice of rod picked straight away. “JJ” as the rod is called, is perfect for fishing the many small becks in the Yorkshire Dales and is a testament to Gary’s craft as a cane rod maker. The first fish taken on the rod was a beautiful 2½lb grayling that rose to a diminutive size 16 Red Tag.
In the intervening years since my first custom rod purchase, I have become more and more enchanted with the world of split cane rod building. And have been extremely fortunate to have met and spoken to some of the world’s finest rod makers around including Per Brandlin, Bob Colson, Jeff Wagner and many others. Their dedication to the craft and reverence to those rod makers that came before them, is a testament to the fine traditions of our sport. But it is also a living, breathing and evolving tradition. They are not only constantly pushing the boundaries in designing and perfecting new tapers, but by necessity have embraced the new digital world by building websites and social media profiles in between the sanding down and straightening of nodes. A living and breathing example of this blend of modernity and tradition can be found in the work of Luke Bannister. Luke’s evocative “fishing interludes” on YouTube are as wonderful as the rods he builds. Having spoken to Luke a couple of times over the years, I was delighted to try out an 8ft version of his renowned Superfast rod. Its hollow build coupled with its fast and smooth responsive action makes it perfect for an angler brought up on fast modern graphite rods. And as you would expect from a master of his craft, the rod’s finish was sublime. It was and is a magnificent rod, but not quite right for shall we say, my languid style of casting.
A lifetime of fishing “teams” of north country spiders with short open casting loops has given me a sort of “hybrid” style of casting which means I often can’t get on with many rods. But no matter, for this, is where the true art and precision of a rod maker comes into its own. After a few months of researching tapers and deliberating on performance, I had a particular taper in mind that might complement my casting style as well as the size of my home river. My new rod needed that length to control the line on the water coupled with a “progressive feel”, together with the ability to cast a variety of different loop shapes over a distance of 6 to 15 yards, which is for me the sweet spot for dry fly fishing. I eventually choose the classic Garrison 206 taper which though originally designed around the casting of silk lines, would nevertheless suit my casting and fishing style down to the ground. Especially if the taper was tweaked to a longer 8ft rod. After several email conversations with Luke, it was agreed that Mr Garrison’s classic rod taper could be tweaked sufficiently with a slightly swelled butt section to build a rod to my liking. As with Gary years before, Luke was insistent that the rod should look and feel how I envisioned it. And so, I choose another blonde rod build “Afterall, gentlemen prefer blondes”. Clear whippings tipped with Pearsall’s green gossamer silk were specified, along with a chunky western-style grip. I also expressed a wish that the rod should have that distinct “Bannister” quality to it. As this rod should not be viewed as a Garrison copy, but instead be an embodiment of Luke’s personality and craft as a rod maker.
On my first day with the rod, I could not hide the smile on my face as the rod progressively loaded its first cast! It is simply a joy to cast and covers a range of distances with equal comfort. Loops both wide and narrow are formed with consummate ease and there is a reserve of power for when tighter loops and greater distances are needed. Within such a short space of time, the “206” has become my new rod of choice and has accompanied me on recent fishing days. The first fish to be landed was a typically beautiful golden bellied Wharfdale brownie of about 1lb. The serenity of the rod’s casting action being perfectly in tune with the splendour of that late summer day.
For those wishing to learn more about these two wonderful split cane rod makers please follow the links below.
This classic spider found in numerous north country manuscripts and publications has been one of my favourite patterns to dress for many years. And features as one of a small group of flies that I regularly come back to when doing flytying presentations. Like many other tyers who regularly demonstrate at flytying shows. My list of demonstrative patterns has expanded and shrunk with an equal measure over the years, and yet there still remains the same small cluster of familiar patterns at its centrepiece. And it is here that the Brown Owl with its judicious use of hackle, silk and herl, frequently comes to the fore during these flytying presentations.
This preference for showcasing the tying of the Brown Owl never really dawned on me until a trip to the USA. Here I demonstrated the tying of this simple and effective north country pattern to an audience of knowledgeable tyers and anglers. And in an intervening moment after the show, I was asked how I came to choose the list of patterns which formed my earlier demonstration. My answer was one that I had given many times, about showcasing a range of tying techniques and some remarks about the pattern’s history. But the more I later thought about it, the more apparent it became that this rather glib answer did not fit with my demonstrating the tying of the Brown Owl. The reason for its inclusion was more deep-seated than just showcasing techniques. And on reflection, it became obvious that my need to showcase this pattern was born out of my love for the owl’s hackle and its delicate nature.
Now it is important that I first put on record that the Brown Owl or Tawny Owl to give it its proper name is rightly a protected species. And that I in no way condone the killing of any species of raptor. However, I am in the fortunate position of having several large vintage collections of flytying materials in which owl hackles and wings are a prominent feature. Through good fortune (though sadly not for the owl) I have also been able to pick up a few roadkill skins on my travels throughout the dales. So, I am somewhat privileged and individual in my ability to use these hackles. So, what makes the owl feathers so endearing, and such a pleasure to tie with? Well, simply put. The overcovert feather from the owl has a soft delicate quality all of its own. And even in the large list of delicate hackles used in tying north country flies, the owl hackle stands alone with regards to softness and movement.
These super-soft hackles are unforgiving to the flytyer, and often make a mockery of lapses in technique and handling. Removing these delicate overcoverts from a wing has to be a delicate and thoughtful process, gently teasing each hackle from the wing. The modern tyers often-quoted remark about stripping hackles holds no relevance here and shows a mirror to their unfamiliarity with the subtleties of delicate natural materials. These hackles have a fragility that requires a deftness of touch, particularly when wrapping a turn of hackle. Hackle pliers have to be gripped gently, and each hackle turn is taken with an indefinable mixture of steadiness and delicacy. For me these hackles bring out the gracefulness in flytying, and exhibit richness that and make them nigh on impossible to imitate or substitute.
But it is not just this delicacy that makes them so inspiring to work with. Their subtle rich combination of dark oak and chestnut brown shading is distinctive with a mottling somewhat similar to the Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) moth. Even within the large catalogue of north country materials, the brown owl’s hackle colouration remains distinctive, with a quality set apart from the rest. Of course, from a trout’s point of view, many will argue that these characteristics make no difference and that the trout cannot tell the distinction between an owl and a woodcock’s hackle. But this belief simply ignores the philosophy of flytying, and the artistry contained within the precise selection and usage of different materials. To the trout, it may make no difference, but to the flytyer, it makes all the difference in the world, and often defines us as artisans.
Of course, woe betides anyone who without the benefit of a vintage collection of materials seeks to dress flies with owl feathers. The bygone days of raptor persecution should be a thing of the past and as modern flytyers, we must seek to find more ethically sourced materials for the dressing of our trout flies. So for the sake of completeness, it is only right that I should offer some thoughts on a suitable alternative to the owl overcovert needed to dress this traditional north country fly pattern. The first real characteristic to be met in any substitution is softness. The owl overcovert feather is the epitome of the term “soft-hackle”, and so any substitute hackle needs to exhibit this required softness. In this regard, it is worth looking towards rump feathers for this distinctive trait, for they are often some of the softest hackles on a bird plumage. Next is the matter of colour and mottling which is so distinctive in the brown owl hackle. Dying hackles simply does not produce the right mellow tones and combinations, so again we have to look towards nature. For my part, the closest I have come to find a suitable substitution for owl is the rump feather taken from a Reeves hen pheasant. These feathers have the right mixture of a dark oak & chestnut brown colouration, though sadly have a slight barred rather than mottled complexion. That said, it is probably the best and most readily available alternative to this most charming and delicate hackle problems.
As a flytyer, I am always drawn to vintage auction lots that contain healthy proportions of tying materials and associated ephemera. More so if the auction lot is north country related or of Yorkshire origin. I like to buy “working” items rather than simple collection pieces or curios. To my mind, there is something inherently fascinating about collecting vintage capes, hackles and tying materials that were once diligently collected and used by a fellow flytyer, decades if not centuries before my birth. There is also the intrinsic pleasure of bringing these age-old materials back to life and fulfilling their original intended purpose – which was to create a fly pattern worthy of fooling a trout.
Some items bought seem at first to be mundane, another envelope of fur or hackle, a moth-eaten wing or bundle of herl. Yet, a handwritten name and address lift these contents into another realm. They are no longer routine tying materials but have instead become living and breathing aspects of social history. Faded envelopes show that surnames remain but addresses change, possible examples of the social ladder being both climbed and slipped. Wider correspondences bring more materials and letters from like-minded anglers, family members and fly-dressers of the past. Slowly a veil on a long-forgotten angling time is lifted, and an angling life gradually comes into focus. I am now no-longer sat alone in front of my tying desk but am instead in the company of angling ghosts. Their long expired club memberships and permits, have me imagining the slow cast of cane rods on pristine streams. Faded receipts from vanished fishing hotels allow me to visualise scenic journeys on sparsely populated roads.
These age-old material collections also shed light on the changing fashions of our sport and reflect the skill and fastidious nature of flytying before the age of pro-team endorsement and social media. The most striking example of these changing fashions is the varied amount of Old English Game capes and dry fly hackles found in my antique collections. The old poultry breeds and their hackles have largely disappeared from the modern flytyer’s catalogue. And once highly sort after hackles with their different shades and characteristics have now sadly become misinterpreted as sub-standard.
Today, the over-reliance on stiffness and barb count, has confused the modern flytyer as to what constitutes a quality hackle. The result being that delicacy and nuance of colour once prised by flyers of old, has now largely been discarded in favour of stiffness and uniformity. And whilst it is true that the flytyers of old did seek stiffer hackles, today’s hackles go way beyond what they originally envisaged. But it is not just the need for hackle stiffness that has been misinterpreted, it is also these vintage hackle colours which also been somewhat misinterpreted by modern retailers and flytyers. Today we disregard what would once have been cherished fifty years ago as a fine and suitable dry fly cape. It is today more likely to be cast aside or dyed a garish colour to facilitate its use. The process of flicking through the contents of an old flytying collection and opening envelopes of vintage materials is a fascinating and often a thought-provoking process. It allows a first-hand examination of the modern flytying landscape, through the retrospect of its most fundamental materials. And also holds a mirror to modern changes and our diminishing pallet of materials and natural colours.
It is safe to say that for the past century a certain brand of silk thread has become synonymous with the tying of traditional north country spiders. I am of course referring to Pearsall’s Gossamer which after two centuries of production, ceased to exist when the company ended the manufacture of its various embroidery silks in 2012. A decision which had the knock-on effect of sending flytyers all over the world into a tailspin, with the last remaining spools being highly sort after by flytyers seeking to dress their north country spider patterns with the supposedly correct colour shades.
However, as with all things related to flytying, things don’t appear to be what they at first seem.
The concept of Pearsall’s silk being the traditional silk to dress north country spider patterns is exaggerated, to say the least. A cursory browse through the pages of the early north country publications shows no mention of this silk brand, let alone any identification of specific numeric colour shades in relation to fly patterns. The early works of such north country authors as Kirkbride, Jackson and Theakston, and even onwards to the seminal publications of Pritt, shows that they were less than circumspect about the silk threads they used. Even the fly patterns contained within locally held fly lists from which these great publications arise show no mention of the Pearsall’s name. And the preference for precise colour shades simply did not exist, no doubt due the traditional technique of waxing the threads, which had the knock-on effect of subtly altering the silk’s colour.
The March Brown Spider (John Kirkbride)
Let the body be made of hare’s ear, mixed with dusky olive mohair: it must be ribbed with gold-coloured silk, and a fine mottled hackle from the back of the partridge, near the shoulders, must be wrapt round hook – hook, No.7 or 8.
No.12 Water Spaniel (John Jackson)
Made by wrapping a Pewet’s topping, or Tom Tit’s (Wren’s) tail feather, on a body of orange and lead-coloured silk, snipping part of the fibre off again.
Light Browns (Michael Theakston)
Legged and winged with a feather from outside of a woodcock’s wing; and orange silk for body; and a few fibres of mohair of squirrel’s fur, for legs.
It is a simple fact that regarding north country spider patterns, the local flytyers used whatever appropriate material they could find. Locally thriving silk and textile mills, like the fields from which they sourced their hackles, provided ample room to garner supplies for the experimentation of tying trout flies without the need to obtain materials from distant counties. From early times Jaggermen crisscrossed the northern dales bringing goods to remote communities including silk, cotton and a host of other exotic items, all no doubt finding their way into various fly patterns of one sort or another. However, it would be foolish to think that these salesmen only carried Pearsall’s silks and no others. So, where does this modern fetish for Pearsall’s Gossamer silk come from? Well even by north country standards; it is a relatively circuitous journey. In 1836 the seminal publication The Fly Fisher’s Entomology by Alfred Ronalds hit the printing press and became a hugely influential book amongst anglers of the Victorian period. And in Chapter 5 of his book, Ronalds gives us one of the first mentions of the Pearsall’s silk brand in relation to fly dressing.
“Now for the silk; ’tis “fine glovers’ silk,” the best you can use for all purposes of whipping flies, &c. &c. Give me fawn or straw colour. The next best sort is white “wig-makers’,” — very fine and strong, but more harsh, and not so easily waxed. I buy all that I use at Pearsall’s, in Cheapside, the general resort for fishermen and “Amateurs,” and professional” fly or tackle-makers.”
Given his influence amongst a generation of Victorian anglers the cult of “Pearsall’s” could easily have started with Ronalds’ publication. However, the business of flyfishing and flytying is no different to other sports or businesses. And for certain brands to gain traction, advertisement in the leading publications of the day needs to take place, and distribution links formed. Something which Pearsall’s were aware of, with their close links to Farlows & Co, and adverts for eighteen shades “Gossamer” fly tying silks being regularly placed in the Fishing Gazette of the 1880s. However, given Pearsall’s vast catalogue of available silk shades, why only offer eighteen to a nation of flytyers? Well, the answer could well be found in Pearsall’s close links to Farlow’s & Co. And it is interesting to speculate that Farlow’s may have had a hand in formulating the precise number and shades of silk offered to flytyers.
By the late 1880s, Pearsall’s place within the flytying consciousness seems to have been firmly cemented with Frederick Halford’s endorsement of their silks in the fourth chapter of his Floating Flies and How To Dress Them published in 1886. With a further enhancement coming with H.G. McClelland’s endorsement in his 1898 publication The Trout Fly Dresser’s Cabinet of Devices or How To Tie Flies For Trout and Grayling Fishing.
“The first material we shall require is tying silk, and Pearsall’s “gossamer” tying silk, which is now widely known and used, is the best with which I am acquainted. It is sold in a very convenient form, viz., on box-wood reels of small height and relatively large diameter. The silk itself is very fine, smooth, hard and strong, in fact just as it ought to be.”
However, it is not until 1916 with Edmonds & Lee’s publication Brook and River Trouting that we find the first real tangible mention of Pearsall’s silk in relation to dressing the north country spider patterns. In their striving to create a modern approach to the dressing and fishing of largely traditional north country patterns, the two authors built upon earlier publications but with the inclusion of a more systematic approach to the dressing of the flies, based around available shades of Pearsall’s silk. And it is from the two authors statement of using various silk shade numbers, and the inclusion of a Pearsall’s silk shade card within their publication, that the modern connection between the north country spider and Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk comes.
Later, a succession of modern-day authors and flytyers would take Edmonds and Lee’s preference and indelibly place Pearsall’s Gossamer silk at the heart of north country flytying practice, through a failure to research earlier publications and fly lists. Coupled with a lack of knowledge regarding both historical and modern alternative flytying silks. However, a cursory glance at earlier literature and angling publications show that other silk brands were available and used in flytying, with a tantalizing clue coming in the form of Skues’ article under the synonym of Val Colson on Aldham’s A Quaint Treatise on Flees, in the Fishing Gazette of Jan 28th 1899. And later replied to by George Davenport.
“It was illustrated by means of sunk panels, in which were mounted, side by side, the artificial flies described, and specimens of the material employed in their manufacture. It was published at £4 4s., and was, and is, of great interest, not only on account of the text, but on account of the exquisite colours of the floss and tying silks employed by Mr Aldam in the work of fly dressing. It is a pity that Messrs. Pearsall or some energetic trade rival do not procure and imitate the colours.” Val Colson.
“Dear Sir. – In last week’s publication of the Fishing Gazette, where “Val Colson” has under review the past works on angling, he alludes to a very valuable book, published by the late Mr W.H. Aldam in 1876. It was a very large and elaborate work, the price being four guineas. One feature of the book was the standard makes of the best-known killing flies – these flies lying in small sunken recesses in cardboard. “Val Colson” deplores the fact that Pearsalls and others do not produce to-day these beautiful imitations of colours. We, however, beg to mention that Mr Aldam was a life-long friend of our late Mr Geo. Davenport, who supplied Mr Aldam with all the silk he required for dressing flies, Mr Davenport himself being an expert angler and fly dresser for upwards of half a century. These excellent silks we are supplying to-day, and whether for fineness, strength, or colour cannot be excelled.” Yours truly George Davenport and Co Hope Silk Mills, Leek.
And as if to emphasize their reputation as manufacturers of fly tying silks. George Davenport and Co would later exhibit their range of fly tying silks alongside Charles Farlow & Co at the British and Irish Silk Industry Section of the Women’s International Exhibition of 1900.
Closer to home companies such as Bell Busk and Lister’s also produced some of the finest embroidery silks available, all of which were used by local flytyers from time to time. Local tackle shops such as J.E.M. Miller, Maskell Mitchell’s and Francis Walbran also sold their own brands of tying silks all of which were bulk purchased and re-branded from their own individual suppliers, one of which being Lister’s Manningham Mills of Bradford who supplied J.E.M. Miller with his range of tying silks.
So, with a little digging, numerous other brands of tying silks emerge, all of which may have been used at one time or another in the tying of north country patterns. And that the often-quoted traditional pre-requisite for the use of Pearsall’s Gossamer silk regarding the dressing of north country spider patterns, much like a waxed thread, holds no water!
In his 1924 publication Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, Lieut-Col William Keith Rollo made no bones about being a “Wet Fly” fisherman in an age of “dry Fly” supremacy. And in this now largely forgotten slim volume, he reprints some of his earlier Fishing Gazette articles, together with wider thoughts on suitable tackle and techniques for wet fly fishing the rivers and streams of northern England and Scotland. Very much the product of empire, William Keith Rollo was born on October 10th, 1879 on the Ingurgalle Estate in Ceylon. His Scottish parents originally emigrating from Aberdeenshire to become affluent tea planters. And it is here in the empire’s wider reaches that Rollo informs us through his introductory chapter that he first took up the sport of bait fishing in Ceylon. Before later turning to traditional wet fly fishing at the age of eleven, when the family returned to Scotland.
“On arrival in Scotland from Ceylon in 1891, my father took a house for the season in the Forest of Birse, near Banchory, in Aberdeenshire, and gave me my first lessons in fly-fishing for trout.”
And it is here in the introductory chapter to Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, that Rollo clearly states what defines him as a “Wet Fly” man, whilst at the same time conceding that “dry fly fishing is more artistic and more difficult than the chuck and chance it method of downstream wet fly fishing. But moreover, it is the nature and beauty of the northern rivers and landscape that has made him the confirmed wet fly angler.
“The fat sleek chalk stream of the South of England do not appeal to me, but give me instead, the rushing, rocky streams of the north, flowing through a country of grassy slopes, stone walls and heather, with here and there snug grey stone villages. One’s only companions, perhaps, are the black-faced mountain sheep, or the curlew, who hovers above you with his weird and desolate cry. How one longs to hear it again after an absence, perhaps of years, in foreign climes.”
After leaving Ceylon Rollo was educated at Cheltenham College, where he would follow the school’s proud military tradition and later attend the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, becoming a “career” soldier. He first joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment in 1899 and saw action in the Second Boer War, becoming a Lieutenant in 1901. Later he served in the Indian Army from 1903 to 1909 before eventually joining the 2nd Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) being made up to the rank of Captain and company commander of D Company during the First World War. And it is in his chapter entitled Fishing at Warcop that Rollo evokes memories of his time in the trenches and the ultimate sacrifice of his generation.
“I remember fishing one day at the end of April 1915 at Warcop, on the Westmorland Eden. I happened to be on sick leave from France after having stopped a bullet at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. I was not likely to forget it, as it was my first day’s fishing after the horrible Flanders mud, the squalor of the trenches and the nauseating smell from the unburied dead lying there in no-man’s land on the other side of the barbed wire. It was a glorious spring day, just after some rain; the sun was out, and the birds were singing. What a relief it was to get away for a short time from the dreadful turmoil that was going on incessantly not 24 hours distant from where I was standing on the river bank that morning. I remember the lines of Herrick and felt cheered:- “Let the world slide, let the world go, A fig for a care, a fig for a woe.” Well on that particular day the fish took a fancy to my point fly, which was a blue dun hackle tied to hair.”
It is through his brave actions at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle that Rollo was mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir John French. Later being assigned the Military Cross in King George V, 1915 birthday honours list “for an act of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy”. Leaving the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Rollo became a more frequent contributor to the Fishing Gazette. And with his 1931 publication, The Art of Fly Fishing, Rollo cemented his reputation as one of the country’s leading fly anglers of the inter-war period. His writings and popularity leading to a commission from Hardy Brothers for the design of a split cane rod, which went into production in 1932, and continued in production until its discontinuation by the company in 1957.
In his Prefatory Note to Fishing in Northern Streams, his good friend and famed editor of the Fishing Gazette R. B. Marston pays tribute to Rollo and his written articles. As well as Rollo’s keenness for hair casts over the gut which Marston himself favoured. And even though in the book’s first chapter Rollo goes on to describe the ideal length and taper of the gut cast. He unequivocally stands on the side of the more traditional material, even to the extent of using the now rarer horsehair for his points and droppers when fishing gut casts. Despite in later years turning over his preference entirely to gut, he nevertheless still extolled the virtues of horsehair, and even mentioned his old sources for this rarefied material in his later book The Art of Fly Fishing.
Good strong horsehair being now practically impossible to obtain, I have recently, much to my regret, given up using it. When I used to get it fairly regularly in the past, I used to keep my source of supply secret, as otherwise, it would very soon become exhausted. However, one can still get some very fair horsehair in some of the villages of Yorkshire, and as I have now given up using it, I do not mind giving one address: Mr Nat Hunt, River Keeper, Horton-in-Ribblesdale. He is getting an old man but still ties a beautiful fly – for killing and not for show purposes. I used also to get some very nice hair and beautifully tied flies from the late Mr William Brumfitt, of Otley, a well-known Yorkshire fisherman.
The Upstream Wet Fly
When reading his many publications and angling articles, it becomes immediately clear when the discussion turns to wet fly fishing, that Rollo was a strict disciple of Stewart, and that he favours the upstream presentation above all others.
“Taking all things equal, I don’t think there is any doubt that upstream fishing is the most profitable form of wet-fly angling.” Later in a piece published in the Fishing Gazette of August 1930. Rollo not only extolled the virtues of the upstream wet fly but also paid tribute to its practitioners, with a thorough and thoughtful consideration of the merits of the upstream technique.
“There is no doubt that upstream wet-fly fishing is a natural gift, and unless one is born with it one can never be really expert. Anyone with practice and a little observation can become a good dry fly fisherman or an “across and down”, wet fly man, but the hallmark of efficiency is the up-stream genius. He can hold down his own in any water.” My favourite wet-fly streams are in the north of England and in Scotland. All these streams flow swiftly through delightful country, peopled by black-faced sheep where one Is thrilled by the notes of the curlew and oyster catcher. Apart from their skill, upstreamers are strong and active men who fish hard for ten or twelve hours a day and make big catches. Men who complain of their non-success when fishing down impart drag to their flies by casting too much upstream. One disadvantage of the across and down method is that one can only search one bank, and in consequence, a longer length of stream is required, whereas the upstreamer searches both banks and every hole and corner. To sum up, if one wished to take up wet-fly fishing seriously one should try to master the upstream method.”
Wet Fly Patterns
Throughout most of his books, Rollo sticks to the traditional tried and tested north country patterns, and lists only seven, which includes one of his own modern dressings. Even in Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, he went to the extent of saying that for wet-fly fishing, seven hackled patterns are all that is required, with the exception of the Greenwell Glory. And with one glance at his fly list, it becomes obvious to any reader that Rollo had that intrinsic feel for fishing the northern rivers. His fly selection is stripped of the superfluous, a testament to a skilled and practised angler, one who had served his apprenticeship and distilled the economy of experience.
1. My particular fly, which for a name we will call the “Blue dun hackle,” which is somewhat like the “blue upright.” Mr H.J. Thomas, 19 New Station Street, Leeds, usually strikes the right shade for me. Hackle – Grizzly blue dun hen, with a nice sheen on it. Body – Peacock quill. Tail – Three whisks of blue dun cock hackle.
2. Dark partridge and orange, ribbed with gold wire. 3. Light snipe and yellow 4. Dark snipe and purple 5. Waterhen bloa 6. Brown owl 7. Greenwell glory
The Northern Rivers
Although as a well-known writer and angler, Rollo inevitably received numerous invitations to fish far and wide. He nevertheless kept returning to the swiftly flowing northern rivers that had clearly captured his heart, with his principle rivers being the Eamont, Eden, Swale, Wharfe, Don, Whiteadder and Lossie. He was a member of the Yorkshire Fly-Fishers’ Club and also for a brief period a member of the Kilnsey Angling Club. He also fished extensively on the Appletreewick, Barden and Burnsall Angling Club waters of the River Wharfe. And it is on the lower beat at Barden, that the main photograph showing Rollo fishing the Wharfe in Fly Fishing in Northern Streams was taken. Known famously as the Colonel’s Pool, this enchanting and productive spot has captivated many anglers, with its background of high wooded hills and Gamsworth Farm nestled in rolling pastures.
Though for many modern anglers Rollo’s opinions on fishing, coupled with his military rank, will smack of the pomposity of a bygone age. He is nevertheless as relevant today as he was in the 1930s. For he was very much the precursor of today’s modern celebrity angler, with frequent articles in the leading publications of the day, numerous books, and insights on tackle and rod design. Thankfully, unlike today’s celebrity anglers, he kept his integrity intact by steering clear of opportunist product placements and transient endorsements. In his writings, Rollo also pointed to the fishing technique that would come to in many ways dominate modern river fly-fishing. Like Dr William Baigent of Northallerton, Rollo saw the merits of fishing two dry flies of the same cast. However, he took Baigent’s fishing method one step further by initiating the “Duo Method” of fishing a sunken nymph or wet fly below a dry fly acting as an indicator.
“If trout are nymphing, a nymph or wet fly could be mounted on the point, whilst a dry fly could be mounted on the dropper.”
Lieut-Col William Keith Rollo died 5th October 1939 at the Edenhall Hotel, and is buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edenhall, beside his beloved River Eden.
It goes without saying that to dress the finest of flies, you need the finest of materials. And now thankfully, with the growth of online retailing. An expanded choice of flydressing materials is for many of us but a mouse click away. However, this readily available marketplace means that the choice of materials, or moreover the choice of quality materials has in many ways become more problematic. With many flydressers becoming overwhelmed, simply due to the ever-increasing range of materials, and the exaggeration of retailers in terms of materials and their suitable qualities and usage.
It’s an undeniable fact that North Country anglers and flydressers of the past were more in tune with nature, with many being amateur naturalists as well as anglers. In turn this meant they had an intrinsic feel for the quality of the materials they used. And an understanding of how these materials suggested elements of the natural insect they were seeking to imitate. They also had the benefit of being able to obtain most hackles and dubbing materials direct from the field. With the added advantage of being able to readily select from both juvenile and matured birds at will.
Sadly many of today’s flydressers do not have the same easy access to readily available materials. And with the growth of online retailing and the slow decline in bricks and mortar tackle shops. The habit of handling and selecting suitable flydressing materials, has sadly largely disappeared for many. And so, a trust and over-reliance on the knowledge base of the online retailer has somewhat taken place.
Now it is not my place or inclination, to criticise online retailers of flytying materials. But it would be remiss of me to not to point out that it is very rare to find one with the required knowledge of hackles and feathers to cover all aspects of certain niche schools of flydressing. I myself can only name a scant few!
And so, this little blog post is intended to highlight some of the characteristics found in north country spider materials, and what to especially look out for when choosing and buying materials.
Whilst it is difficult to say who first came up with the label “soft-hackles” when describing the various feathers used in dressing north country wet fly patterns. It is however the most apt of descriptions. As most of the gamebird, raptor and songbird feathers, traditionally used in these patterns, are often the softest of hackles used in flydressing. Qualities which in turn make the finished flies dance and tremble as they drift with the river’s current.
Before going on to describe several factors that come into play when choosing and buying soft hackle feathers. It is as well to take a quick look at the two principle hackle types used in the majority of traditional soft-hackled north country flies. Namely, wing coverts and the contour feathers found on a bird’s back. Along with the individual characteristics found in these two distinct hackle types.
Wing Covert Hackles
These feathers cover the bird’s wings and can visually be broken up into several groups. Which include the lesser, marginal and lesser secondary coverts. These covert hackles grow in neat overlying rows on both the top (overcoverts), and underside (undercoverts) of each wing. With generally the smallest of these, the lesser coverts being used in the dressing of north country fly patterns.
There is a distinct difference in the nature of these covert feathers, which has in itself a direct impact of the dressing of any fly pattern. Overcovert hackle fibres are generally stiffer than those found on undercovert hackles. This is due to these hackles being needed to seal off the wing’s aerofoil, allowing transmissive air to flow over the wing in flight. Whilst, undercoverts are softer, allowing transmissive air to seep through them during flight. Creating a boundary layer of turbulent air which helps in keeping a laminar ﬂow of air over the wings. And since birds ﬂy at a relatively low speed, at which any detachment of this laminar ﬂow would be a serious problem, this boundary layer of turbulent flow aids the bird’s flight. See WERNER MÜLLER & GIANNINO PATONE – Air Transmissivity of Feathers. The Journal of Experimental Biology 201, 2591–2599 (1998)
Species and environment also has a huge factor to play in the formation and number of covert feathers found on a bird’s wing. Evolution has adapted their wings to their environmental and survival needs. Giving us four general wing shapes that are common in birds: Passive soaring, active soaring, elliptical wings, and high-speed wings. In the tying of traditional north country spiders, most patterns call for hackles from birds with elliptical wings, such as Grouse, Partridge and Waterhen.
Back (dorsum) Hackles
The hackles found on the back or dorsum of a bird are Contour feathers, which as well as aiding camouflage, also form a sleek outer covering and provide an aerodynamic tear-drop shape, which assists the bird in flight. These contour feathers have a separate branch known as an aftershaft, or afterfeather, which give the appearance of a second, smaller feather, growing from the base of the first. These soft aftershaft feathers are particularly noticeable in the hackles taken from a partridge back when dressing a Partridge & Orange. These contour feathers are shed and replaced (molted) at least once a year, usually just after the breeding season.
Now with a basic grounding in the principle feathers or hackles used in dressing north country spiders, let us consider the three factors which greatly influence the quality of the hackles we use. And furthermore, what to look out for when choosing and buying game skins and hackles for dressing traditional north country spider patterns.
Sexual Dimorphism, Age & Condition
To many, it may seem strange to think about both the sex and age of a game skin when looking to dress north country spiders. However, sexual dimorphism (the difference between the male and female of a species), coupled with the age of the bird. Is often of paramount importance when seeking to dress traditional north country spiders to a consistently high standard. One only has to read a selection of old north country manuscripts and fly lists, to find examples of our flydressing forefathers paying particular attention to both the sex and age of the particular bird from which they take their hackles.
Thankfully, in some species of bird the differentiation between the sexes is quite obvious. But in others less obvious. An example of this can be seen in the difference between cock and hen Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) which is quite striking, and the grey partridge (Perdix perdix) where sexual dimorphism is much subtler. However, on close inspection it can be seen that male partridge have an orange-buff face, long stripe and throat with a clearly visible reddish bare skin above, behind and below the eye. Female partridge however, typically have an orange-brown face and a white stripe, and others have more of a whitish rather than brown face. The hackles from a hen partridge are also more heavily marked and having a much browner hue than the male partridge which has finer marked hackles. And it is these finely marked hackles taken from the male partridge, that were traditionally used for the Partridge & Orange spider.
The age of the individual bird used for flyting has an enormous effect on the quality of the hackles it produces. Traditionally the shooting of most gamebirds was less intensive than it is today, which allowed a greater number of birds to overwinter, with a lucky few reaching their third season. Today however, most gamebirds are shot in the first winter of their lives. And this leads to problems for us flydressers seeking good quality plumage from mature birds. An example of which can again be seen in the dressing of the Partridge & Orange spider, where great emphasis was traditionally placed on using speckled hackles from a partridge’s back. These particular hackles exhibit no barring and are more readily available from mature birds that have overwintered into their second and third years. Though even this trait is probably more down to the individuality of the bird in some cases.
However, it is safe to say that overwintered birds are larger offering a greater feather density. Having gone through several moults, the immature feathers have been replaced with bright, shiny hackles with fully hardened quills. And these mature hackles should be the most sought-after for flydressing purposes.
Having taken into consideration the sex and age of the individual bird we are looking to utilise for flydressing. There is still one overriding factor to take account of when choosing suitable hackles for dressing north country spiders. The actual physical condition of the bird at point of death.
The overall physical condition of the individual bird is the most important trait in guaranteeing the quality of the feathers needed in flydressing. Birds that have lived with injury or disease provide poor hackle specimens for flydressing. Likewise, birds that have undergone an upset or stress at moulting time, often producing inferior hackles with visible stress marks in them. Subtle imperfections that have consequences for us flydressers looking to utilise these hackles.
Traditional North Country Feathers
English Grey Partridge
For many flydressers the hackles from the English Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) are the embodiment of traditional north country spiders. The brown speckled hackles found on the back of the bird a prerequisite for dressing the Partridge & Orange, whilst the grey neck hackles are utilised in the dressing of the Partridge & Yellow. Whilst the freckled tail feathers are commonly exploited for the fashioning of wings and tails in such patterns as the Deul Cruik or March Brown.
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) shoulder and neck hackles are in fact little used in the dressing of traditional north country spiders, other than for the dressing of probably one of the most famous of patterns, the Dark Watchet. These neck and shoulder hackle have a distinctive silver grey often with a faint bluish sheen to them. In his dressing of the Little Dark Watchet, Pritt stipulated the fly should be “Hackled with a feather from a Jackdaw’s neck, or outside a Coot’s wing.”
Grouse Poult Feathers
Grouse (Lagopus lagopus) hackles lead to a great deal of debate regarding the correct selection and shade of a undercovert taken from the underneath a juvenile grouse wing. And unfortunately, there is scant description of the exact shade of hackle used. However, it is generally holds true that the required hackles are taken from a very juvenile or fledgling grouse. With the individual bird less than a month old and having undercovert feathers similar in both size and shade to those found on an adult snipe. Indeed, numerous north country fly lists and manuscripts even describe snipe undercoverts also as “poult” hackles which can lead to some confusion.
However, it is safe to say when searching for grouse poult hackles, the flydresser should be searching for the undercoverts which have a light grey colouration and but without the white feather tips often found in snipe undercoverts.
Snipe Rump, Under & Overcoverts
Traditionally the hackles from the Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) were more commonly utilised in dressing north country patterns, but not to the total exclusion Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Indeed, in Pickard’s manuscript of 1820, one can clearly see the flydressers is carefully choosing a combination of hackles from the two different species of snipe to fashion his flies. There was also the preference to take hackles from the male bird, which tend to have shorter bills and longer outer tail feathers than females.
However, the reality is that it makes no difference to the fish from which species of bird you take your hackles. The overcoverts being used in the dressing of the Dark Snipe and Purple, a clear reference to the use of Jack Snipe which is a darker bird. And the undercoverts, often being used in patterns such as the Snipe Bloa and various needle patterns.
The freckled feathers taken from a Snipe’s rump were also used in a variety of north country patterns most notably the 8b dressing of the March Brown found in Edmonds & Lee’s publication Brook and River Trouting. And Sylvester Lister’s dressing of the Grey Midge.
Starling or Shepster
Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) or Shepster as it is colloquially known in the north, has long been utilised for dressing traditional north country spiders. With patterns such as the Little or Spring Black and Starling Bloa being amongst the most well-known. Generally, it is the hackles and primaries from a mature cock starling that are used though patterns such as the Yellow Legged Bloa call for wings to be made from a young starling’s quill feather.
W.C. Stewart in his famous 1857 publication The Practical Angler or The Art of Trout-Fishing More Particularly Applied to Clear Water. Says “small feather of the cock starling” is required for when dressing the famous Black Spider.
Starling undercovert hackles are also utilised in numerous north country fly patterns, where these hackles are used as substitutes for the hard to obtain poult hackles found in juvenile grouse.
In order to differentiate between the male and female starling a closer inspection is needed. Where it becomes clear that the plumage from the female starling looks less glossy and oily than its male counterpart. But the key difference in determining the two sexes apart, is by the colour found on the base to their lower mandible; blue for the males and pink for the females.
The undercovert feathers from a waterhen or Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), wing are so of the most famous hackles used in flydressing. Yet it is quite remarkable that the rest of the wing hackles are pretty much dismissed, apart from a few fly patterns calling for slip wings made from waterhen primaries.
Edmonds & Lee in their 1916 publication Brook and River Trouting, give the best description of the required waterhen hackle used in the dressing of the Waterhen Bloa. “Hackled with a smoky grey feather from under coverts of a Waterhen’s wing. (The darker side of the feather towards the head of the fly).”
Woodcock Under & Overcoverts
The Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) is one of those quintessential North Country spider hackles, that has due to its scarcity become often overlooked by modern flydressers. However, these secretive and elusive birds offer some of the most distinctive soft-hackles suitable for tying spider patterns, and it is no coincidence that Woodcock hackles feature in many old North Country manuscripts and fly lists.
The marginal over-coverts have a distinct barred chestnut and black pattern which is often preferred for the imitation of March Browns. Whilst, the subtler pale buff-brown barred under-coverts and used for north country patterns such as the Winter Brown.
Buying North Country Hackles
For the vast majority of north country spider patterns, it is as well to buy whole bird skins and avoid the buying of hackles often sold in bags. In reality these bagged feathers are often too large and of an inconsistent quality making them somewhat of a waste of money. Although the buying of whole bird skins might seem expensive at first, it nevertheless allows the flydresser to accurately grade the hackles for size and suitability. Whilst at the same time giving one an overall feel and appreciation of the different hackles found on the bird, and their individual qualities. If buying online, add a note to your order detailing what qualities you are looking for. And importantly, be prepared to send unsuitable skins back until you get the required standard.
Make sure each individual skin you buy is clean and properly presented within the packaging. Don’t be afraid to remove the skin from their packaging to make sure the required hackles are undamaged and clean before purchase. Poorly cleaned birds often have a large amount of residual fat left on the skin, particularly around the rump of the bird. This needs to be thoroughly cleaned, as the remaining fat and grease will get everywhere, and make proper storage of the skin a nightmare. I personally clean every bird skin I purchase in a very weak mixture of warm water and Woolite Hand Wash Detergent, before drying thoroughly and storing.
Finally, it has to be said that I have no affiliations or contracts with any suppliers of flydressing materials. However, I would wholeheartedly recommend the following supplier of traditional north country skins. Cookshill Fly Tying Materials