Archive Posts

Horsehair Casts

Horsehair Fly Casts

A number of years ago I set out to dress a selection of traditional North Country spider patterns in the most authentic manner possible. With a degree of enthusiasm that bordered on insanity, I scoured the internet and fishing tackle auctions for vintage flytying materials, blind hooks and the like. And over a period of a year dressed around forty traditional spider patterns to horsehair droppers and the like.

But of course, this was only the beginning of the obsession. There came a need to experiment with building and fishing traditional horsehair casts as my final step. So, armed with an extensive library of north country books, private manuscripts and fly wallets. I studied the characteristics and construction of horsehair casts, sure in the knowledge that sooner or later, the reality of fishing with them would take place. Turning to these resources, it became clear that that tradition north country horsehair casts were split into three constituent parts: Points, Droppers and Tops. And that the droppers were often securely placed at the junction of the individual point and top sections, to form the now familiar three-fly cast.

Equipped with newly bought mustang tail hair from the US, and a rudimentary idea of how to furl and work with the horsehair. I started to build, and more importantly fish a series of horsehair leaders of my own design and construction. Sadly however, results were inconsistent to say the least. And to be honest, my ability to build quality horsehair casts lacked any form of intuition. Which in turn lead to a gradual wain in my obsession with building and fishing horsehair casts.

Many years later however, this dormant interest in horsehair casts was rekindled again, thanks to a series of conversations with Dr Paul Gaskell from Discover Tenkara. Throughout these conversations, Paul championed the qualities of Japanese horsehair leaders used in Tenkara fishing, and their ease of casting. An opinion that not only I respected, but more importantly an opinion that prompted me to once again return to possibility of fishing traditional horsehair north country spider casts. A process which was greatly aided by my acquisition of the John Hubie Pilkington flytying collection.

This vintage angling collection not only contained a huge number of traditional north country spiders dressed on horsehair droppers. But also, an assortment of traditional horsehair casts made by many north country flydressers of old. Including James Blades, the famous flydresser and riverkeeper of Hawes in Wensleydale. These Blades’ casts date to 1897, and for the first time they allowed me the opportunity to examine at first hand the north country process of making horsehair casts. Whilst at the same time allowing me the chance to directly experience the way in which he attached his dropper flies. As a consequence, I was also able to see the careful selection of different types of hair that Blades preferred to use. Including his preference for dark hair on his dropper flies. Which to my thinking, may have offered more stealth to the angler in the peat tinged rivers of the Yorkshire Dales.
Another aid in my quest to fish traditional horsehair casts, came in the details of a series of horsehair cast formulas, from not only James Blades. But also, Nat Hunt a famous flydresser and riverkeeper from Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Through examining both men’s formulas, it was clear that each had his own preference when it came to length and cast design.

Blades, the elder of the two men. Follows the early example of fishing longer leaders with four and sometimes five spiders on his leader. Hunt however uses a more modern set-up, if you call the 1880’s modern! And trims his leader down, to the by now standard 9ft cast of three flies.

It is interesting to note that Nat Hunt was still tying and supplying clients with horsehair casts right up until his death in 1938. And that in an age when many anglers were using nylon monofilament and eyed hooks, Hunt’s traditional horsehair casts were still sought after by many north country anglers. With Hunt even being mentioned in several fishing publications by W.K. Rollo, as a great supplier of traditional horsehair casts.

“Good strong horsehair being now practically imposible 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-know Yorkshire fisherman.”

So, the Pilkington collect allowed me the prospect of fishing a range of dropper flies from some of the north country’s finest flydressers. Its vast collection of horsehair casts, points and tails, including huge amounts of vintage horsehair. Also offered me the prospect of making my own horsehair casts using the actual materials supplied by these old masters. Aided by an archive of flies and letters from Willie Whitaker of Grassington, covering key instructions on the setting up and manufacture of horsehair casts.

James Blades Horsehair Samples

Now for the first time, I not only had the wherewithal to build horsehair casts to the old master’s specifications, but more importantly was able to fish them on a more constant basis.

I have to say my ability to fish traditional north country horsehair casts, instantly changed my views on the notion that traditional anglers always fished their spiders upstream. Horsehair casts simply don’t give you the ability to cut through a stiff downstream breeze. And so, it became immediately obvious, that wind conditions dictated the direction our angling forefathers presented their flies.

Blades Horsehair Fly Casts

It didn’t take me long for me to form an opinion of the individual pros and cons of fishing horsehair casts. Though these are probably best left to the insightful words of Richard Clapham writing in his 1947 publication Trout Fishing on Hill Streams.

“In the old days, and to a certain extent even now, our north-country flies were tied to horsehair. The advantages of horsehair are that it is far more durable than gut, and it possesses a considerable amount of elasticity. You can immerse it in water for any length of time without injuring its usefulness, and it does not fray like gut should it come in to contact with stones or other objects. Even when soaked it still retains a certain amount of “life,” and thus seldom gets tangled up. Should it do so, a little shaking will generally overcome the trouble. One of its great advantages is that dropper flies tied on it stand clear of the main cast and are less likely to catch up in the latter than when using gut.
The disadvantages of hair are that once it has been stretched to the limit it becomes brittle and useless, and even the best of hair is much inferior to good gut as regards to strength. Nor can a hair cast be driven so far against the wind as one composed of gut. If hair possessed the strength of gut it would be almost perfect for angling use. Hair is also supposed to be less visible that gut.”

Sentiments I can only concur with! A horsehair has an elasticity that certainly takes some getting used to when you have been brought up using modern tippet materials with their percentage of low stretch. However, there is a touch and feel to fishing horsehair casts that you simply do not get when fishing modern leaders. There is also something innately spiritual about using a natural material that has been associated with our sport for many centuries.

Robert Smith fishing a 19th century horsehair cast on the river Wharfe

For my part I could also truly give life to the artistry of a generation of north country flydressers and anglers. Finally fishing their vintage flies and horsehair casts within the very landscapes they knew so well. At times sat on the riverbank or wading through a series of riffles and runs. My mind would peer through the receding gauze of history, and think about the artisans whose combination of flies and horsehair I was casting. And, how over a century later, I was finally releasing their exquisite creations to the fate for which they were intended. The turbulent peat stained rivers, and the mouths of speckled trout.

19th century Waterhen Bloas on twisted hair casts

The Pilkington Flies & Flytying Collection

The Pilkington Flies & Flytying Collection

Providence often takes a hand in the world of collecting vintage fishing tackle and fly-dressing materials. More often that not, valuable collections are split up, and dispersed around the four corners of the globe, without ever coming to form the complete assembly in their entirety. Angling collections, and in particular flytying collections, become scattered fragmentary relics of a sport that is now in a sad decline. Often, items are bid upon, won and lost, in various auction formats, without ever being married up to once again form the original intended collection. Happily, however. In this case, providence did take a hand.

Over many years I have been both diligently building up a significant collection of manuscripts, flytying materials and other paraphernalia relating to the tying and fishing of north country flies. After my latest “blind” purchase of a vintage flytying collection, I was struck to find that it contained letters and correspondence that at once seemed familiar. The flytying collection originally belonged to John Hubie Pilkington of Orchard House, St Annes-on-Sea, Lancashire. And upon his death was passed down to his son Thomas Worsley Pilkington.

Pilkington Fly Tying Chest


After searching through some of my north country collection, I realised I had the same man’s vintage leather fly wallet, which I had bought some years previous. The fly wallet was marked with the unmistakable name of J. Hubie Pilkington, with the address Catterall House, Nr Garstang, scrubbed out and replaced with his business address of 16 Lord Street, Preston. Both addresses were also found within the many items of correspondence within the later purchased flytying collection. It was obvious that both auction lots, bought at different times and from different sources, belonged to the same person. And bringing both auction lots together, in some way has brought Mr John Hubie Pilkington’s and his son’s Thomas’ passion for angling back to life once more. And thanks to a well-known ancestry related website, I was able to contact a descendant of the Pilkingtons, and build a more complete portrait of both men, their families and sporting lives.

John Hubie Pilkington

Born in the Yorkshire town of Goole on the 2nd of February 1868, to parents Richard and Isabella Pilkington (Nee. Crabtree). John Hubie Pilkington was already an iron merchant based in Preston, when he came into further wealth and ownership of T.C. Holden – Iron and Steel Merchants, through the death of Thomas Chaffer Holden, his uncle by marriage. With no children of his own, T.C. Holden’s wealth was distributed amongst the three sons of his wife’s sister. With future Pilkington offspring carrying the name “Holden” in tribute to their distant and benevolent relation.

Following correspondence with the remaining members of the Pilkington family it seems that “Hubie”, as he was more commonly known to his friends, was more interested in the life of an Edwardian “gentleman”, rather than the day to day management of the family business. Frequently hosting grouse shooting parties at Shap and spending much of his time fishing the many rivers of Yorkshire and Lancashire, including the rivers Brock and Wyre, near the family home of Catterall House, Garstang.

Later John Hubie Pilkington would move his household which included his divorced daughter Muriel, two maids and a cook, to the new family home at Orchard House, Lytham St. Annes. And it is here that he died on 19th April 1944.
How his fly wallet and flytying collection made it to auction in East Sussex and Somerset is somewhat of a mystery. But thankfully, after a couple of winning bids these two precious objects made their way into my own collection. Giving me, not only the opportunity to trace their ancestry. But more importantly, to research some of the individual flies and tying materials found within both the fly wallet and the flytying box. With many items having a provenance linked to some of the North Country’s finest flydressers and fishermen.

The Fly Wallet of John Hubie Pilkington

To further prove that providence often takes a hand in the purchase of flyfishing collections. I originally sought to buy the John Hubie Pilkington’s fly wallet simply because it came with a small selection of flytying materials, among which was a small envelope marked water-rat fur, a dubbing material which is now almost impossible to find. Sadly, the envelope contained no trace of any water-rat, but my disappointment was immediately dispelled when the full contents of the fly wallet became obvious.


Immediately upon opening the wallet’s buckle, it became obvious that this rare find wasn’t just any run of the mill fly wallet. But a huge personal collection of fly patterns dressed on horsehair droppers and tails. Traditional north country spider patterns dressed by some of Yorkshire’s finest and most well-known Edwardian flydressers. All in perfect condition, and still contained within their original supplier’s envelopes.

River Keeper Nat Hunt

Imagine my euphoria, when contained within the wallet’s first velum compartments, were an immaculate selection of north country spiders, on single and twisted hair droppers, and dressed by the celebrated Nat Hunt of Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Hunt was the long-serving river-keeper to the Manchester Anglers Association, who’s beats comprise of many miles of the river Ribble. Mentioned by both Richard Clapham in his 1947 publication Trout Fishing on Hill Streams, and also Lieut.-Col. William Keith Rollo in his 1924 publication Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, as one of the best suppliers of traditional horsehair casts. Nat Hunt was a superb flydresser of north country spiders, and his traditional patterns were much sought after by a generation of anglers from far and wide.

As a one-time member of the Manchester Anglers Association myself, it was great to finally unearth several signed envelopes of Nat’s flies, and give testament to Clapham and Rollo’s earlier statements about the quality of Hunt’s horsehair fly casts.

Later, whilst rummaging further through the velum pockets stuffed with both opened and unopened envelopes of flies, I can across a selection of Light Needle’s dressed on hair by Willie Whitaker of Grassington. The grandson of James Whitaker, the distinguished river-keeper on the Bolton Abbey estate waters of the River Wharfe, and a founding member of the Burnsall Angling Club. Willie Whitaker was like his grandfather a renowned flydresser and supplied his beautifully dressed spider patterns to a number of local angling tackle dealers, including Walbran’s of Leeds. He was the “local expert” mentioned in Edmonds & Lee’s Brook and River Trouting and was also featured in Herbert Palmer’s 1933 publication The Roving Angler.
Whitaker’s flies were the perfect images of everything I had read about his exceptional tying skills. Immaculately dressed on twisted and single hair droppers, it is at once clear that Whitaker was expertly schooled in a long tradition of north country flytying. Nearly a century old, his flies easily surpass many of today’s professed “expert” spider-men.

With over 500 immaculately dressed spiders on a range of horsehair casts, droppers and tails. I started the process of cataloguing the multitude of flies contained within the wallet. Individual packets of previously opened flies were carefully examined, and their contents catalogued. Flydressers names were identified and fly patterns were cross-checked against my own ever-growing spreadsheet of manuscripts, flydressers and patterns. Later, with the benefit of the Pilkington flytying collection, and their correspondence with the various flydressers of the time. I was able to accurately build up a picture of the wallet’s contents, and finally piece together the origins of many of its contents.
As my researching came to fruition it became clear that it not only contained patterns dressed by such notables as Hunt and Whitaker. The wallet also held a smattering of patterns dressed by the famous flydressers Thomas Chippendale of Otley, and Jim Blades, son of the great James Blades of Hawes.

Flydresser Jim Blades

Upon the death of John Hubie Pilkington in 1944, the fly wallet, a treasure trove of North Country flies, was passed down to his son John Worsley Pilkington. He not only maintained this valuable collection, but also added his own personally dressed patterns into the flyleaves, with many now dressed on modern nylon casts.

The Flytying Collection of Thomas Worsley Pilkington

Born in Burnley on 31st December 1892. Thomas Worsley Pilkington inherited not only his passion for angling from his father, but also an appetite for tying the traditional north country patterns.
A celebrated and decorated veteran of the First World War, Thomas Worsley Pilkington originally joined the Scots Guards as a ranker at the outbreak of war. He was wounded at the Battle of Loos in 1915, and later granted a commission in the Liverpool Scottish in March 1917. Later in the same year he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation for his Military Cross, published in the London Gazette, reads: –

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer took command when his company commander had been killed and maintained his position against repeated enemy attacks. In a counter attack which he organised, he surrounded and captured ten men and two machine guns. His action undoubtably saved the situation on the left flank.”

For any collector of items related to the tying and fishing of traditional north country spider patterns, Thomas Pilkington’s flytying collection is a unique and prodigious find. At the heart of his collection is a hitherto unseen assortment of north country fly manuscripts. It includes a handmade materials book, comprising of numerous pages carefully folded to form individual material pockets. These pockets hold a variety of typically rare flytying materials dedicated to the dressing of traditional north country flies. Including materials such as Cuckoo, Dotterel, Grey and Golden Plover, Kestrel, Lapwing (Peewit), Merlin (Blue Hawk), Swift (Screamer) and many more other capes, feathers and wings. A vast selection of silk threads is also contained, along with several packets of vintage hooks and old tying tools.

Like his fathers’ fly wallet, Thomas’ flytying collection features numerous packets of traditional flies dressed by some of the north country’s finest flydressers and anglers. The flies of James Blades, William Brumfitt, Thomas Chippendale, Maskell Mitchell and Willie Whitaker, are all represented in their signed individual envelopes and small packets. And there are many letters of correspondence between Thomas Pilkington and many of these famous flydressers of the day. Including several letters of instruction by Willie Whitaker on how to successfully attach dropper flies to horsehair casts and also Nat Hunt’s personal instructions on how to dress north country spiders.

Letter from Willie Whitaker

Thomas Pilkington’s angling club memberships is also in evidence, with many letters from some of the north’s most exclusive angling clubs and associations present in the collection. Including several memberships cards from the Manchester Anglers Association amongst others.
However, it is a small brown notebook of fly patterns that is the real treasure of this collection. This notebook has several lists of fly patterns in different handwriting and appears to have been started around the mid-ninetieth century. The first source of patterns is from James Whitaker, the famed 19th century Bolton Abbey river-keeper, and the book contains a full list of Whitaker’s flies for trout and grayling. Another source of flies contained within the book is from an as yet unknown list of Wharfedale flies and contains numerous hitherto unknown patterns. The third and last source of flies come from the famous Manchester Anglers Association river-keeper Nat Hunt. Here in his distinctive handwriting Hunt details dressings for a range of trout and salmon flies, including a healthy list of tradition north country spider patterns.

As a seasoned collector and devotee of all things related to the tying and fishing of north country spiders. I am blessed that providence took a hand in the purchase of the Pilkington flytying collection. It is a treasure-trove of patterns, materials and manuscripts. And shows not only the Pilkington family’s knowledge and skill in tying and fishing the traditional north country flies. But serves as an inspiration to this modern scholar of the north country tradition.

©The Sliding Stream

George Morrell North Country Angler & Schoolmaster

George Morrell North Country Angler & Schoolmaster

Arthur Ransome remarked that “Anglers, make fine old men”, and George Morrell, angler and schoolmaster comfortably fits into Ransome’s characterisation of a “fine old man”.

A native of Darlington, and a leading light in the Congregational Church. George Morrell first taught at Darlington’s British Board School where his work came to the attention of fellow Congregationalist and philanthropist Sir Titus Salt. Moving to Saltaire in 1880, Morrell took up the post of an assistant teacher in Salt’s newly formed Saltaire Factory School prior to completing his Certificate in Teaching in 1887. Morrell was eventually appointed headmaster at the school, now renamed as the Shipley Central Boys School, (which later became Salt’s Grammar School), and he continued in this post until his retirement in 1905.

A Shipley Times and Express newspaper article of October 22nd, 1920, celebrated Morrell’s many years of service to Shipley and its community. The newspaper estimated that he had personally taught many thousands of pupils, with many going on to become noted local businessmen, sportsmen and teachers. The article also pointed to Morrell’s work in the foundation of the Shipley Temperance Movement, before going on to mention Morrell’s interest in football and cricket, as well as his passion for fishing.

From reading many angling articles in the local Victorian press, it becomes evident that the keen angler George Morrell fished many of the dale’s rivers. With the river Wharfe at Burnsall having a special place in his heart. So much so, that he joined the fledgling Burnsall Angling Club now known as the Appletreewick, Barden and Burnsall Angling Club in 1877. A club member for a total of 52 years and serving as club secretary for 25 years. Morrell was one of the most influential figures at the centre of the Burnsall club’s formative years. So much so, that upon his death in January 1930, at the age of 89, Morrell was commemorated with a plaque in the Burnsall Village Hall, for his outstanding service to the angling club and the village which he loved so much.

©Alison Fort, Burnsall Village Hall.

At the memorial ceremony the chairman of the club Mr E. R. Firth stated that

“They had met to honour the memory of a good man – good in every sense of the word. He knew that Mr Morrell loved Burnsall village and the surrounding district, and well remembers his efforts in raising £50 for the Building Fund of that hall. Mr Morrell left a wonderful record as teacher and a moulder of character, and a splendid record of public service.
His records as secretary of the fishing club were unique, and full of interest, in years to come they would be read with interest, for they were full of literary merit”.

Angling Connections

All fascinating no doubt. But what makes George Morrell a stimulating subject for a flyfishing blog?
Well, his passion for teaching and angling come together in an extraordinary way, not appreciable, until one does some exploration around his pupils at Saltaire. Three of whom would become passionate anglers and famous north country angling authors. Namely, Harold Richardson Jukes, author of Loved River. And both Harfield Henry Edmonds and Norman Nellist Lee authors of Brook and River Trouting, who were all educated at Morrell’s School.


H.R. Jukes

In his 1935 publication Loved River, H.R. Jukes paints a delightful portrait of the River Nidd and the many characters who helped him recreate his idealised vision of the river of his boyhood. In his chapter – Guests, Jukes reminisces about a visit from his old schoolmaster, and a days fishing with the now elderly Morrell.

“He came to see me; a dry and wizened little figure, looking at me speculatively through thick-lensed glasses. The boy he had remembered had grown up. I think that then, for the first time, he came to realize that no longer could he claim to stand in loco parentis.
But he still did. He always will. Dear old Morrell.”

Later in the chapter Jukes goes on to detail his days fishing with his old schoolmaster, and gives us a glimpse into Morrell the flydresser, with a portrait of his old mentor’s flies

“His flybook came out; an old, worn, pigskin case, mellowed and darkened by the years to almost the colour of mahogany. He handed it to me to look through. “I cannot make my own flies now.” He went on, in that quite voice of his, “though there are many there that I did make. That is the best of hair, is it not? It never perishes.
I looked at the page of flies; little, tiny, feathered things, exquisite in shade and workmanship; every one a labour of love, undoubtedly. I passed on understandingly. March Browns – Dark Snipe – Woodcocks – a little host of patterns; all beautifully made: all neatly arranged in rows; tail-flies and droppers; and on fly-leaves between the felt pages, each name was written in that wonderful copperplate hand which now, with so many of the old things, seems to have completely passed away. “Light Needle; Dark ditto; Dotterel & Yellow.”

Edwardian north country spiders on twisted horsehair.

To finish of his chapter on Morrell, Jukes recollects an image of this most gifted of flyfishers, casting his team of north country flies effortlessly upon the river’s surface. His commentary of Morrell fishing the Nidd around Middlesmoor, not only serves as a veneration to his old schoolmaster. But moreover, to a lost generation of exceptional north country anglers.

“His long, fine line, with its cast of hair and tiny hackled flies, curved gently out and fell, as softly as its own shadow, just where the rougher water ended and the ripples began. He might have been fishing with a cobweb. The three flies just seemed to float down. One sensed the mater, the indisputable master, at once.
He dropped his flies exactly where he wanted, to an inch; curving them around obstacles, dodging them between boulders. It was a remarkable demonstration.”

George Morrell died at his home in Saltaire on the 30th January 1930. And with his passing, a practical link between the traditions of the Victorian anglers, and the modernist Edwardian north country anglers was slowly coming to a close. A link that would firmly end in the 1950’s, with the passing of his pupils Harold Jukes, Harfield Edmonds and Norman Lee.

Brown Owl with Tinsel north country spiders

The Roving Angler

The Roving Angler

I have a secret passion for angling books. Not the well-known classics of the chalk streams, or even the collectable masterpieces of the North Country. But moreover, angling literature of the interbellum period of the 1920’s and 30’s. When, it seems to me, the respective authors were often more human because of their experiences in the Great War. When a generation of privileged, Late Victorian anglers were arguing in their gentlemen’s clubs, about the perceived ethicacy of nymph fishing. Some lesser known, but nevertheless great angling authors, were experiencing the hell and slaughter of the worlds first industrial scale world war. And these horrendous experiences often left an indelible mark on their angling works. The Victorian stuffiness was blown away, and a new period of both reflection and inventiveness came to the fore.

One such publication is The Roving Angler, written by the English lyric and narrative poet Herbert Palmer. In The Roving Angler, Palmer reveals himself as a lifelong fisherman, and provides us with a book which has a wider scope than just a simple fishing book. He provides us with a book steeped in the countryside, land and water. And appropriately dedicates his book to “all true fishers and good hikers”. The Roving Angler is anecdotal, informative, descriptive, at times technical, but never too technical. On first reading the book is camouflaged with simple observations on fishing, but later reading uncovers a text containing many thought-provoking insights on the sport and its place within the wider landscape. Many of the chapters focus on his fishing experiences prior the Great War. And contain not-so sympathetic comparisons between England’s pre-war and post-war landscapes.

Herbert Palmer

Herbert Palmer was born in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire on 10 February 1880. His father a Wesleyan Methodist Minister was often posted to different parishes throughout the country, which lead the family to move to the dales village of Grassington when Palmer was fourteen years old. And it is here in Grassington that the fishing bug firmly takes hold of the young Herbert Palmer, with his first contact with a trout coming on the river Wharfe.
Sent away to the Wesleyan boarding school of Woodhouse Grove outside Bradford, Palmer rejoiced in opportunity to fish the river Wharfe and its tributaries during his school holidays. His chapter on “The Wharfe in the Nineties and Now”, recounts his three informative years spent fishing the river and the many characters and changes to the dale in the intervening years.


The Wharfe in the Nineties and Now

In the chapter “The Wharfe in the Nineties and Now”, Palmer paints a delightful portrait of Upper Wharfedale with its sleepy villages, untarmacked roads and quiet rivers and becks. It is here in this chapter dedicated to the Wharfe that Palmer first introduces the reader to a familiar range of local north country spider patterns, that have been used since time immemorial. Palmer also writes about some of the angling fraternity based in and around Grassington at this time, including local flymaker Willie Whitaker and Kettlewell Schoolmaster William Carradice, who he recounts was the “swiftest fisherman in the dale”.


Grassington Village

Swaledale and its Trout

“What I have noticed is that the typical Swaledale trout has a rather snouty head, more of a snout than other brown trout, and is remarkably hard in the mouth and nose. Also, even when he is in season, he is, though fat and broad across the back, inclined to be narrower than other north-country river-trout. The spots on him are large and clearly defined, particularly the red ones, but his back and sides sometime incline towards green rather than brown of yellow.”

As an infrequent visitor to Swaledale, I can’t qualify Palmer’s description of its native trout. However, I can testify to his statement on Swaledale’s trout being shy and ferocious fighters when hooked.
Sadly, in this part of The Roving Angler, Palmer’s inclination to see the modern landscape as abhorrent, cataloguing the worst changes in the landscape, particularly the invention of the tarmacked road. However, if the reader can push through his obsession, they will find an enchanting fishing book.

There are thankfully, no chapters on “How to Fish”, though even the most skilled anglers will nevertheless find useful observations on fishing.  As well as the chapters on the Wharfe and the Swale. There are also some delightful chapters on fishing Exmoor, the German river Ahr, Days in Ireland and Cornish Fishing. In many of the chapters there is a smattering of useful information on local fly patterns and flydressing.

Hebert Palmer

It has been said that Palmer had led an itinerant life in teaching, tutoring and lecturing, spending a significant period in France and Germany before retuning to teach English at St. Alban’s School. In 1921, he relinquished his post at St. Alban’s to devote himself to a full-time literary career. publishing several volumes of poetry. His Collected Poems were published in 1933, and a later volume of autobiography, The Mistletoe Child, published in 1935.
Five editions of The Roving Angler were published between 1933 and 1947, with later editions containing slight revisions and an appendix on flies. Herbert Palmer died on 17 May 1961 in St Albans.

Wood engraving by Robert Gibbings

North Country Bric-à-brac ?

North Country Bric-à-brac

Like many flytyers, I am a collector of vintage flytying materials. And as someone who has an appetite for all thing related to the history and tying of traditional North Country spider patterns. I generally collect flytying items and flytying material collections related to this passion. However, a few weeks ago whilst rummaging through various boxes that hide much of my North Country collection, I came across an unusual vintage leather fly wallet/box which seems to date to the 1940’s. I had long forgotten of its existence, and only came upon it when searching for a copy of copy of D.R.H. Williams’ excellent little book “Memories of Moor, Stream and Woodland”. I have quite a few vintage leather fly wallets in my collection, but the design of this one took my eye when it came up at auction. Whether it was manufactured with flyfishing in mind, is unknown. As it is too large to easily fit in one’s pocket when out fishing and has more of a coarse fisherman’s look to it. Nevertheless, the wallet contained many old north country flies stuck within a few of its woollen page leaves as well as a healthy selection of vintage horsehair fly casts. But what really took my eye was the selection of flytying materials housed within the bottom section of box. As a flytyer who specialises in the field of North Country spider patterns, any opportunity to increase my knowledge and stock of traditional materials is always greatly appreciated. And any opportunity to purchase items such as Water-rat fur, Kestrel hackles and Wren tail feathers is always a bonus.

North Country Flytying Materials Collection.

Sadly, there isn’t an owner’s name inscribed within the box or wallet to give me an opportunity research the origins of the wallet/box. However, given the nature of the fly wallet contents and the flytying materials contained within the box, it’s clear that at one time it belonged to North Country angler.

On close inspection of the flies, it seems the wallet-box was originally used during a period when north country flyfishers were moving from traditional gut and horsehair leaders with their patterns dressed on blind hooks. To a period when north country flies were dressed modern eyed hooks as well as nylon leaders. Some of the fly patterns such as the Brown Owl’s and Crimson Waterhen’s are unmistakable, though the identification of the others is ambiguous to say the least.

Traditional North Country Fly Casts

When the box is fully opened, and its fly wallet expanded. A selection of flytying materials are exposed in used Pilot Gut packets and Glassine envelopes, with the usual north country components present throughout. I remember at the original auction where the box-wallet was purchased, the contents of this part of the box were my primary reason for it purchase. Although why the original owner would keep a selection of flytying materials and flies within the box is somewhat of a mystery.

Although many vintage flytying materials are readily available for those with enough curiosity and desire to search them out. This combination of fly wallet and box, is an interesting curio that still intrigues…

Spreading The Word

Spreading The Word

It is a pretty safe bet to say that I am somewhat of an evangelist when it comes to North Country spider patterns. Over the past few years since the publication of my book The North Country Fly, I have had the pleasure of being asked to give numerous presentations and flytying demonstrations throughout the world. And I must admit, it never ceases to me amaze at the number of people who turn up, through their genuine interest in the topic of north country flies.
Recently, I gave a presentation to the Grayling Society at the annual symposium and AGM in County Durham. And was astonished by the number of people present at my presentation, and the number of informed questions I received immediately after my talk. Insightful questions that continued further into the wee small hours, as Grayling Society members congregated in the bar after the day’s events. It is a humbling experience to have your angling peers ask for your opinion. And I, for myself view these questions more in the manner of gifts. As they allow me not only to impart some information, but moreover, to infuse my own enthusiasm for the subject into someone else with the hope that they will take up a similar journey to my own.

Giving a presentation at the 2018 Grayling Society AGM.

Throughout all my presentations, engagements and blog posts, I have studiously avoided any relationship with the term “Expert” regarding the history and tying of the traditional North Country fly patterns. And have rather tried to label myself as nothing more than a “Enthusiast” on a continual hunt for more information and building on the past achievements of earlier author’s works. To quote Isaac Newton “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. And for me this metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants is quite apt, as it expresses the meaning of discovering a truth by building on previous discoveries. And without the previous works of various North Country anglers, authors, flydressers and river-keepers, I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now regarding being asked to speak and give presentations about my own angling passion, and more importantly being offered the opportunity to be listened to!

Flytying demonstration at the 2017 International Fly Tying Symposium

Last year I was invited to give a couple of presentations and take part in a Featured Tyer slot at the International Fly-Tying Symposium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And like the Grayling Symposium a year later I was overwhelmed by the curiosity exhibited by the audience, and the hospitality offered to me as I spoke about the history of my native Yorkshire spider patterns. During my “Featured-Tyer” slot, I purposely demonstrated a range of flytying techniques needed to produce a variety of traditional spider patterns. As I feel it is important that when undertaking any form of flytying demonstration, it is the teaching of individual tying techniques that is important, and not the individual fly pattern itself. This distinction is for me important, as if I only showcase the tying of an individual pattern, the audience will only be able to tie that particular pattern. Whereas, if I showcase a technique, the audience will be able to utilise the technique when tying a range of patterns.

Flytying demonstration at the 2012 BFFI

Likewise, I feel it is important to showcase not only traditional materials, but also modern alternatives. Which gives the audience a chance to see traditional north country hackles with what are often misquoted alternatives. Giving me an opportunity to expand sections of any tying demo into a thorough explanation of the diverse qualities that numerous north country materials provide.

Of course, this philosophy is somewhat easier to achieve when presenting a flytying demo rather than a visual presentation on the history of the patterns themselves. Where often as a presenter you are constricted by an imposed time limit, and the need to get across a historic narrative is such a short time. With flytying demos, you have the opportunity even though the audience is often large, to nevertheless achieve some form of one-to-one relationship we the audience.

North Country Spiders – A Philosophy

North Country Spiders – A Philosophy

I am a distant relative of a famous North Country angler/author. And this simple quirk of fate has in many respects dictated my views in regards to the tying of the traditional North Country Spiders. (Best not mention number of hackle wraps!). And though know recognised in my own right as a flydresser and author, my philosophy in regard to the North Country patterns is very much rooted within the traditions and landscape of the Yorkshire Dales.

T.E. Pritt, Jerome Emmott, J.W. Reffitt and friends outside the Falcon Inn, Arncliffe.

North Country Spider Materials

For the most part, it is the beauty of the materials we use in dressing north country spiders that has always driven me. I revel in using hackles from antique and obscure sources from the likes of Fieldfare, Owl and Wren. Each hackle has its own individual quality, both from a tying point of view and an aesthetic point of view. As you change individual hackles, the individual barb count changes, and as a result your tying technique changes to compliment these barb counts. (One of the reason why I don’t prescribe to the two turns of hackle mantra!) On some of the denser hackles I strip on side off, on others I wrap with a full hackle. Stripping one side of the hackle allows me more control of the barb count and also produces a neater fly, providing you strip the leading edge of course!

Brown Owl overcovert feather.

The subtle colouration and shading found in many of the birds we use in dressing spiders is to me at times breath-taking. Simple things such as a Magpie tail or Starling skin, shimmer and radiate an amazing spectrum of colours. Others such as the brown speckle of a Partridge hackle, just seems born to compliment orange silk and bright gold wire! Last year, a friend sent me a Lapwing that he picked up from the field. I was stunned at the beauty of the plumage when I opened the Tupperware box, so much so, that even now utilising its hackles within a simple fly has become a reverential act. The bird and plumage was beautiful, and to my mind, it is only right that the fly I fashion matches this. For me, there is something spiritual about using a fly constructed in some part, from materials obtained from the very landscape that surrounds me.

Illustration from Brook and River Trouting & the same pool a century later.

Though dubbings are often rather overlooked when discussing spiders, I love using old standards such as Fox ear and yes Water-rat. Though modern synthetics have their place, and we have to give Davy Wotton a big thank you in regards to the quality of modern synthetic dubbings. Nothing beats natural dubbings. Years ago after buying a collection of tying materials, I came across an old dried small tin of Crawshaw’s Red Spinner dye, the same used in the dressing of Edmonds & Lee’s March Brown. I’m not afraid to admit that I had tears rolling down my face, as mixed up enough to dye a rabbit skin so I could follow the original tying recipe. And even more so when the fly landed a 12” brownie from the same pool illustrated in their book.

Waterhen Bloa.

North Country Spiders & Fly Dressing

Though the techniques involved in dressing spiders is somewhat simple compared to the complexity of other fly types. They are nevertheless, in many ways harder to master. Simply put, when dressing spiders, you have nowhere to hide! Each wrap of silk has to be deliberate and precise, because a poorly placed wrap of silk has a habit of becoming obvious on a finished fly. The hackle fibres that slant backwards because the first binding wrap of silk is crouching in and collapsing the desired umbrella spread. Peacock herl heads that show tying silk in front. All these things are easy to avoid, but surprisingly often go unnoticed until we hold up the finished fly.

Unlike other fly types, tradition dictates that when dressing north country spiders I can’t even hide my deficiencies under a bulky fur coat of dubbing. Because I’ve taken the words of Pritt, Jackson, Theakston, Walbran and Edmonds & Lee to heart, and cover my silks with only a sparse misting of dubbing.

To sum up, there is a quiet confidence exhibited in a well tied spider or soft-hackled fly. They don’t need to scream out with the use of modern materials or convoluted tying techniques. They simply need to be dressed neatly and proportionally, and with a sympathetic understanding of the materials involved.

Dr William Baigent

Dr William Baigent

I was introduced to the work of Dr William Baigent, by the author Nicholas Fitton, who sparked my interest in Baigent’s “Variant” flies and at the same time rekindled my love of flyfishing. After a brief hiatus away from the sport in the 1980’s, my enthusiasm was regained through a combination of both Fitton’s and Baigent’s writing. It was his little-known book “In Search of Wild Trout: Flyfishing for Wild Trout in Rivers” and his accompanying two-part series of video tapes “In Pursuit of Wild Brown Trout” and “In Pursuit of Yorkshire Trout” that Nicholas Fitton not only rekindled my passion for flyfishing but also ignited my interest in the work of Dr William Baigent, a Northallerton based G.P. who, at the turn of the last century, held radical ideas on both fly design and presentation.
For a time after Fitton’s publication, Baigent’s most famous fly pattern the “Baigent’s Brown” became my dry fly of choice, and accountable for some remarkable catches before the pernicious drought of 1994. Even to this day, it still holds a residence in my dry fly-box and regularly gets a cast on the fast runs and pool tails which are a feature of the dales freestone rivers. Indeed, so much of an impression did Baigent and Fitton make on me, I even undertook several fishing trips up to the River Don in Aberdeenshire to pay homage to my two great influencers.

Dr William Baigent the Angler

From a young age it appears William Baigent was a dedicated and thoughtful angler. For as early as 1878 at the age of fourteen, he was keeping a detailed notebook on aquatic flies and their relationship to trout fishing. Contained within these juvenilia was an essay on “The Trout” complete with detailed hand-coloured illustrations of the various insects alongside artificial flies tied to represent the natural. Whether it was this early curiosity in the relationship between trout and their food source that ignited Baigent’s radical thinking on hackle selection and fly design, it is impossible to tell. However, what is without question is that this son of County Durham became one of the most radical thinkers in flyfishing, with a legacy and influence that is still felt to this day.

Born on the 18th December 1862, in the large market town of Darlington, the son of Thomas George Baigent, a druggist and grocer. Young William’s early tutelage as an angler seems to have come from his Uncle George, who was a well-known and highly regarded angler on the river Tees. In an article contained within a 1976 edition The American Fly Fisher Magazine, Baigent’s daughter Shona Lodge, also recounts that his early holidays as a young boy were spent shooting and fishing the Border rivers – Tweed, Till, Coquet and Ettrick Water.
Baigent went on to study medicine at the University of Durham’s College of Medicine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Graduating with a M.B. in 1885, before obtaining his M.D. five years later in 1890, with the award of a gold medal as the most distinguished graduate of the year, and with a highly regarded thesis on Multiple Peripheral Neuritis.
After his marriage to Jane Thornton Garbutt in 1894, he and his wife settled in the North Yorkshire market town of Northallerton, where Baigent went into General Practice for many years until his death on April 12th, 1935. During this time the good doctor regularly fished many of the northern dales rivers such as the Swale and Ure, but more especially the Tees, where a relative held the riparian rights between Middleton and Cotherstone.
But it is the Castle Forbes water on the Aberdeenshire Don where he is most associated, and it is here where his most famous pattern, the Baigent’s Brown, is said to have been invented. On this most majestic of highland rivers Baigent mastered the art of fishing two dry flies placed 24 inches apart, and later used the “wry fly” method. An interesting and effective fishing technique, where a wet fly is fished on the point, and a dry fly on the dropper. A technique that, in many ways, precedes today’s Klink and Dink obsession.

Dr William Baigent and the Genetic Hackle

Also, whilst living in Northallerton, Baigent started to experiment in his search for the perfect dry fly hackle. Breeding his own strain of Old English Game Cocks, and then crossing them with Andalusian hens which added a blue hew to the various hackle colours his roosters produced. And in turn, he became one of only a small handful of Victorian anglers specifically developing their own genetic stock of cock hackles for flytying. These gently tapering, long glassy hackles featured a surprisingly high barb count, and would come to be utilised first in his “Variant” and the later his “Refractra” series of patterns, whilst also becoming instrumental in the invention of his most famous fly pattern the Baigent’s Brown. Sadly however, Baigent left us no information regarding his experimental breeding programs, though it is known that his personal hackle preferences were for hackles he termed “Blue-reds”, a subtle combination of the glassy red sheen of the English Game cocks and the dark blue gained from his Andalusian hens. From his experimental breeding program, he would also produce a range of “Rusty Blue Dun” hackles which he utilised in several of his distinctive Refractra dry fly patterns which were later marketed and sold by Hardys.

                    Fly patterns dressed by Dr William Baigent

An important and distinctive feature of all Baigent’s dry fly patterns was the use of his homebred Old English Game Cock Feathers, either wrapped singularly or intermixed with differing shades. His style of dressing with long hackle fibres produced a very buoyant fly, which stands proud on the water’s surface. Thus, allowing light rays to be refracted through the steely iridescent hackle fibres provide a better imitation of fluttering wings than a conventional fly, thereby produce a more attractive silhouette to the waiting trout.
In an area of the country where the soft-hackled wet fly ruled supreme, William Baigent, was in every sense a lone practitioner and experimenter with the dry fly. And, we can see from his many letters published in the Fishing Gazette that he was pretty much alone in fishing what can be termed the modern dry fly on the North Yorkshire and County Durham rivers and streams of the 1890’s. In a letter to W. K. Rollo, Baigent remarks about the qualities of the Baigent Brown and the trout response to it.

“It may be of interest to you to know that the Baigent’s Brown was built up after many years of trial, fully twenty, and is based entirely on what the trout think themselves, that it is something that will interest them, and cause them to rise when there is no rise on the water, but more particularly so when fishing “blind,” and not covering rising fish. It was made by finding out what combination of dry fly hackles would easily stimulate what Pavlov calls the trout’s “investigating reflex,” and what amount of each in the make-up of a floater when fished by my method, will so excite this curiosity or light up this desire to investigate, that the trout may be tempted to the surface where there is no actual rise, and at the same time to be equally useful during a rise of fly, and so doing away with the necessity of changing your flies when perhaps the rise is a fitful one, and so save valuable minutes.
This fly will start such ocular reflexes when properly presented, which will more often than not get the other reflexes in motion, and so the fly is taken in lamb-like fashion without suspicion and fuss.”

Hook: 10 –12
Body: thick yellow floss silk
Wings: woodcock or hen pheasant tail, tied forward of the hackle
Hackle: large dark furnace
Whisk: optional, as hackle

Although, in the intervening years since his death, Baigent’s fly patterns have become unfashionable and forgotten by a generation of modern flyfishers, his influence and legacy are far more reaching than first expected. And this son of County Durham’s thoughts on hackle selection, dry fly design and light refraction gained a wider and somewhat unexpected audience overseas.

Dr William Baigent and the Catskill tradition of fly-tying

Before his death in 1935, Baigent corresponded with two of American’s most influential anglers, George La Branch author of The Dry Fly and Fast Water, and Preston Jennings, author of A Book of Trout Flies.
Both La Branch and Jennings had become fascinated with Baigent’s theory on light refraction and had fished his pattern with a huge degree of success on their native Catskill rivers. No doubt influenced by the fact that Baigent’s close friend L.R. Hardy had been distributing his fly patterns to the leading fishing tackle shops in North America. And where his Dark Blue Dun Variant, Red Variant and Baigent’s Brown had been best sellers. In his publication Nymphs, The Mayflies: The Major Species (Volume I). Ernest Schwiebert attests to the fact that La Branch Had a handsome cedar chest, which measured approximately twelve by ten inches, and eight inches deep, with stacking trays of cedar that were stuffed with Baigent’s variants, although one finds no mention of them in The Dry Fly and Fast Water.”

 Catskill legends Preston Jennings & Art Flick

Both La Branch and Jennings also took the opportunity to correspond with the affable Baigent before his death, particularly Preston Jennings who’s own 1935 publication A Book of Trout Flies went on to set the standard for American publications on fly-fishing entomology, and in turn influencing a generation of American flyfishers. Along with his systematic identification of the important Catskill aquatic insects, Jennings also included in his 1935 publication, the Blue, Cream, and Grey Fox, which were his own three interpretations of Baigent’s “Variant” flies, with an accreditation to Baigent’s influence. The most famous being the Grey Fox Variant.

Grey Fox Variant (Preston Jennings)
Hook: 10 to 14
Tail: Ginger cock hackle fibres
Body: Flat gold tinsel
Hackle: Ginger cock and grizzly cock

Also, Jennings’ thinking on how light refracts off an insect’s wings and how the trout perceives such light on the water’s surface, can be seen to be heavily influenced by Baigent’s experiments of a few decades earlier and Baigent’s invention of the “Refractra” series of flies, and the philosophy behind them.

“A letter to Dr Baigent telling him of the excellent work do by this pattern, brought forth the following reply. “I am very pleased and much interested to know that the “Baigent” flies kill so well in America. I receive letters from New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, France; in fact, all over the world with nothing but praise as to their killing powers. This is exactly what I anticipated and can quite understand the reason. Thirty years ago or more I commence with the new idea of making flies according to the wishes of trout rather than an bench exact copy of the natural, by practical test to find out what would stimulate.” ~ Preston Jennings 1935

It is also known that for a period before Baigent’s death, Preston Jennings imported several Game Cock eggs from Britain to start his own breeding stock of birds. Given his correspondence with Baigent, and Baigent’s fame as a breeder, it is probable that this part of Jennings’ brood stock originates with William Baigent.

Later, the great entomologist and Catskill flytyer Art Flick would build upon Jennings earlier work. And in his seminal work Streamside Guide to Naturals and their Imitations, Flick presented a selection of variant flies, which were all modifications of earlier Jennings’ patterns. Included within this is his own version of the Grey Fox Variant, which became Flick’s favourite fly pattern. But Flick it seemed, was oblivious to Baigent’s invention of the earlier “Variant” patterns and his correspondence with both La Branch and Jennings. A correspondence which not only brought the idea of the “Variant” style of dry fly, with its combination of two different subtle shades of long hackles, into the fledgling Catskill flytying tradition. But, also an influence into the beginnings of the Catskill and later American genetic hackle tradition.

Grey Fox Variant (Art Flick)
Hook: 10 to 12
Tail: Ginger cock hackle fibres
Body: Light ginger or cream cock hackle quill, stripped, soaked, wound and lacquered.
Hackle: Light ginger, dark ginger and grizzly cock hackles. “Wound over each other and bunched as much as possible.”

A Book on Hackles for Fly Dressing

Long before his death in 1935, family and friends of Baigent had urged him to write a book about his fishing methods and the importance of light refraction in fly design. Unfortunately, William Baigent died before being able to fully collate and publish his ideas. But in 1937 his wife with the help of a few close family friends managed to privately print a limited run of A Book on Hackles for Fly Dressing by William Baigent. This rare publication housed in a blue calf folding box, features 11 cards with 164 mounted hackles complete with an additional slim volume of accompanying text introduced by is friend Lieut-Col W. Keith Rollo. In many ways Rollo was the ideal man to write the introduction and summarise Baigent’s philosophy on both flytying and flyfishing. A keen student of Baigent’s in all things flyfishing, Rollo championed Baigent’s methods of fly design and presentation in several of his own publications during the interbellum years.

Dr William Baigent and the Two Dry Fly Technique

In his excellent 1931 publication The Art of Fly Fishing, Lieut.-Colonel W. Keith Rollo gives us an insight into Baigent’s reasoning and tactical approach to simultaneously fishing two dry flies whilst offering his own conclusions on the merits of Baigent’s presentation technique.

“The writer does not wish to appear too dogmatic or egotistical in extolling the virtues of any particular method to the exclusion of any other.
However, he has recently changed his views regarding the use of one fly, thanks to that skilful and observant angler, Dr W. Baigent, of Northallerton, who first initiated him into the use of two flies for dry fly fishing, placed about twenty-four inches apart.
The advantages of two flies are:
1. It gives the fish a choice of two flies.
2. It minimises drag, as two flies help to balance the cast.
3. If one fly is lost to view when fishing rough water its position can be roughly gauged if the other is visible.
4. The cast falls more lightly on the water, as the two flies, forming miniature parachutes, check to a certain extent the violent striking of the cast against the water.
5. If trout are nymphing, a nymph or wet fly could be mounted on the dropper.”

Like Nicholas Fitton before me, I can attest to the effectiveness of Baigent’s idea of fishing two simultaneous dry flies. It is a method that I myself sometimes employ when fishing through short turbulent pool tails on the freestone rivers of the Yorkshire dales. Often in these situations when fishing a single dry fly takes are often missed due to the commotion of the river’s surface. However, it is quite surprising how the use of two dry flies allows the angler to focus on a small area of the river’s surface and spot takes to either fly. And whilst i’m not entirely convinced by Baigent and Rollo’s rational that the two flies minimise drag, it is nevertheless quite surprising to often see the two flies dead drift independent of each other.


Hook: 10 – 12
Body: black ostrich and peacock herl
Hackle: Black cock or coch-y-bondhu
Whisk: optional, as hackle

Sadly, many of Baigent’s ideas based around light refraction have been largely discounted by a generation of modern anglers and flytyers. And his opinions on fly deign and presentation thought of as little more than an Edwardian curiosity. It can still be seen that Baigent’s influence lives on in the most unexpected of places, namely in the range of Catskill dry flies developed by Preston Jennings and refined by Art Flick. But thanks to Nicholas Fitton and his book, Baigent’s influence lives on in my flybox in the form of the Baigent’s Brown and the two-fly technique. Though his patterns and style of fishing are in many ways limited to boisterous freestone rivers, where the turbulent currents often limit the trout’s ability to prudently inspect the presented fly. They nevertheless merit the modern angler’s attention, particularly his Wryfly and Two Dry Fly presentation methods which at times work unerringly well in the freestone environment. Though there is now little information available to the modern angler in regards to Dr William Baigent and his flies, A good starting point would be Nicholas Fitton’s excellent little-known book In Search of Wild Trout: Flyfishing for Wild Trout in Rivers.

©The Sliding Stream

Waterhen Hackles & Spiders

Waterhen Hackles & North Country Spiders

The Waterhen or Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) is a common sight around the rivers and lakes of the UK. Easily distinguished from its close relative the Coot by its red and yellow beak. The Waterhen is also more secretive and less argumentative than its noisy cousin the Coot.

When seen closer-up, the Waterhen has a bluish-black belly, with white stripes on the flanks and a dark brown sheen to its back and wings. However, a close inspection of the Waterhen’s wings, shows that this brown shading, has in fact a distinct olive hue to it. A subtle colouration which lends itself to many possibilities for those fly-tyers wishing the dress soft-hackles or North Country spiders.

Waterhen Undercovert Hackle

Waterhen Hackles

The undercover feathers of the Waterhen are in many respects one of the most famous of fly-tying materials, with the distinctive gunmetal grey under-coverts providing the hackles for one of flyfishing’s most famous fly patterns, the Waterhen Bloa. However, where the wings of the Waterhen, were once the preserve of northern fly-dressers, the increasing popularity of dressing and fishing North Country spider patterns throughout the world has lead to somewhat of a scarcity of good quality Waterhen wings, often with younger birds providing the hackles. Sadly however, these younger birds sometimes have a white edging to the tips of their under-covert feathers, which is an unwanted characteristic of younger plumages.

The Waterhen Bloa is one of the most popular and famous and of North Country fly patterns, first coming to prominence in James Pickard’s list of Wharfedale spider flies, a simple fly list contained within the flyleaves of an old dales family bible in the late 1700’s.

This deceptively simple fly pattern can be found in many North Country fly publications and private manuscripts, and has in many ways become the one of the most famous North Country spider patterns. Though now universally known as the Waterhen Bloa, this simple pattern is in fact to be found under various guises in many ancient north country fly lists. Coming under such names as Blo Flie, Dark Bloo, Dark Bloa and the Blue Dun but to name a few.
This pattern is more generally used during the early months of the season, where the artificial fly superbly suggests a hatching or trapped Large Dark Olive (Baetis rhodani). Which when hatching during the cold damp days of early season often becomes trapped in the river’s surface film. However, the Waterhen Bloa is much more than just an early season imitation of the Large Dark Olive, and has the ability to suggest a whole host of species which hatch throughout the year. Making this pattern a must for any serious North Country angler.

Waterhen Bloa

Hook: Kamasan B525
Silk: Yellow
Dubbing: Water-rat
Legs: Waterhen under-covert hackle

(R.S. Tying Notes: The fur from a water-rat, has guard hairs and a distinctive brown colouration. Unlike the commonly used substitution of mole fur, which has a darker blue-grey colouration and no guard hairs. If tyers are looking for a more suitable imitation of water-rat dubbing, an alternative can be found in the fur taken from the back of a Pine Squirrel. These Pine Squirrel fur fibres have the right amount of longer staple guard hairs, coupled with the right shade of under-fur to mimic that found on the originally used water-rat fur. Mixed with a small amount of rabbit underfur and you have the best alternative to water-rat. It is well to point out that this longer staple fur is a great benefit when it comes to dubbing the dressing silk, and in many ways negates the use of dubbin wax. As the longer fur fibres adheres and encases the tying silk much easier than the often-used substitute of mole fur.
Though many tyers favour the touch-dub technique when dressing this fly. And can often be found tying the fly with open wraps of silk, to hide a poor dubbing technique. These methods produce a poorly dressed and often short-lived fly, something no-one should want to put on a hook. And a cursory look at any examples of vintage north country spider dressings shows that the traditional Waterhen Bloa, was dressed fuller than many of today’s modern examples. With old-time north country flydressers favouring a more heavily dubbed fly topped off with a with longer and denser hackle.)



Black Drake

Hook: Kamasan B405
Body: Crimson Silk
Hackle: Under-covert feather taken from under a Waterhen’s wing

Michael Theakston’s Black Drake, now more commonly known as the Crimson Waterhen or Waterhen & Red, is to be found in Theakston’s 1853 publication A List of Natural Flies Taken By Trout, Grayling and Smelt In The Streams Of Ripon. Here, Theakston states of the natural fly,

“Length, various, from one-eighth and one-sixteenth to three-eighths. Is the darkest of the drake tribe, altogether of a leady black hue, Commence the middle of this month (May) and continue through June and July. They cast their skins and become the black red drake.
Hackled, for legs and wings, with a dark leady feather from the Coot or Waterhen; body, red or crimson silk”

As with many of Theakston’s patterns it is hard to accurately identify what insect Theakston is trying to imitate, due to his own insect nomenclature being somewhat difficult to decipher. However, generations of North Country anglers have grown up fishing this simple and effective spider pattern as an imitation of the February Red (Brachyptera risi). And for me this pattern certainly excels when these small stoneflies are present during the early months of the season. The pattern’s red silk body darkening nicely as the fly becomes saturated with water.

Little Dark Drake

Hook: Kamasan B525
Body: Orange silk waxed
Hackle: Under-covert feather taken from a Waterhen’s wing

In his list of April flies, Theakston remarks about the natural fly,

“Length, about a quarter; wings, a quarter or better, altogether of the hue of the water-hen’s breast. When held up to the light the middle joints of the body shew lighter, like the iron blue, but the iron blues are a blue grey, and the little dark drake a dim red. Eyes, dark and cockling. She commences hatching about the middle of this month, and continues through the summer; then she cast her skin and becomes the little red drake.
Winged and legged with a small feather from the water-hen or water rail; body orange silk waxed.”

Again, like its cousin the Black Drake or Crimson Waterhen. The Little Dark Drake is a superb stonefly and needle fly imitation. And although Theakston keeps this north country dressing for the month of April, it is nevertheless a great pattern to use during the summer months when a host of stoneflies and needle flies are seen on the water’s surface. It is often during these summer months when we anglers fail to recognise the importance of a good stonefly imitation as we become fixated on hatching olives and yet fail to recognise what the American anglers Dough Swisher and Carl Richards called “The Concealed Hatch”. A situation which arises, when several species are on the river’s surface at the same time, with the angler automatically assuming that fish are taking the largest and most visible of insects. When in fact the visible insects are in fact being outnumbered by less conspicuous insects such as Needle Flies and Stoneflies, in turn making the fish become selective, often exclusively taking resting or egg laying stoneflies, to the exclusion of more visible insects. It is in these “Concealed Hatch” situations where I turn to this most simple of stonefly imitations with an unerring level of success.

Another great fly pattern that utilises a Waterhen hackle, is John Kirkbride’s dressing The Waterhen Hackle, found in his 1837 publication The Northern Angler or Fly-Fisher’s Companion. Here, Kirkbride has created an excellent little midge pattern, with the waterhen hackle resembling the steely grey sheen found on the wings of these tiny insects. It is a pattern that I have used to great effect over many seasons and can wholeheartedly endorse Kirkbride’s recommendation of the fly. In the early crisp months of the trout season, when Dales rivers are often very low and gin clear. Small midge and black flies are often the only insects seen regularly buzzing around the surface of the river, and in Kirkbride’s little spider pattern, I have found a great little imitation that works a treat in these conditions.

The Waterhen Hackle

Hook: Kamasan B525
Body: Black silk ribbed with Veniard’s No.27 fine silver wire.
Hackle: Small under-covert hackle taken from under a Waterhen’s wing
Body: Must be black, and ribbed with silver thread
Legs: From the inside of the wing of the water-hen, must be put on round the bend. This is an excellent trout-fly, particularly when the river is clear. It will kill well during the whole season.

Three simple North Country spider patterns, utilising this most quintessential of soft-hackle materials, and giving us a fine example of how the under-covert feathers taken from a Waterhen’s wing have become synonymous with regional style of flydressing, and in the case of the Waterhen Bloa given us one of our sport’s most famous and enduring fly patterns. However, on close inspection, we can see that the Waterhen’s reach is far more extensive than many fly-dressers give it credit for!

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