Back in the dim and distant past when I penned The North Country Fly. My purpose was to illuminate lesser known north country fly patterns. Hoping a modern generation of anglers and fly-tyers would embrace these once widely used, but now largely forgotten flies. At the top of this hopefully resurgent fly list were two peculiar fly patterns, the Duel Cruik and the Smoke Fly. And it is, in many respects, the dressing and fishing of the later that I looked to revive. So much so, that the pattern has served as somewhat of a litmus test to the effective message of the book.
Taught to dress North Country patterns at a youthful age, the diminutive and rather dumpy Smoke Fly caught my eye from the outset. It had the benefits of being straightforward to dress and covered endless possibilities on the water’s surface. The ideal partnership for any budding flytyer! As a youth, fishing under the tree-lined reaches of the River Wharfe at Denton, the Smoke Fly was never off my cast. Frequently, it took its fair percentage of trout before the bus took me home. Then, as now, I dressed and fish the Smoke Fly in several incarnations, both as dry fly, and north country spider. And like any fly containing the magical ingredient of peacock herl, it never fails in picking up its fair share of trout and grayling.
Even though the childhood reaches of my river have been long abandoned for more expensive beats, the Smoke Fly still populates my fly box in significant quantities. When dressing this pattern as a dry fly, I replace the regularly used hackle with the finest Light Dun cock hackle I can find. And with a small, neat tail of similar fibres I continue the character of a northern tradition and wrap the hackle sparingly for a dry fly. As rings dimple the rosiness of the reflected sky, and the summer evenings cool, trout eagerly absorb this dry fly’s charms. It seems to cover many bases. The dark iridescent shimmer of the peacock herl can suggest an assortment of terrestrials. And the dumpy nature of the dressing is just of the right proportion to fool the lazily absorbed trout which rise in the growing shadows.
Dry Smoke Fly
Hook: Size 16 Partridge SUD2
Thread: Purple Uni 8/0
Tail: Light Blue Dun fibres
Body: Peacock herl
Hackle: Light Blue Dun cock hackle
Head: Peacock herl
This incarnation of a dry fly accompanies me everywhere these days. Where upland farms appear amidst a concentration of scars, and dilapidated grey walls fall down to a beck’s turbulent surface. This dry fly rules supreme. Its buoyant body of peacock herl, and the clear “sighter” of the hackle makes it an easy target for trout and angler alike. The pattern is remarkably effective as the moorland becks shrink, and skylarks sends up their encouragement to summer.
As a soft hackled wet fly, it first came to prominence in William Robbinson’s list of flies composed in the early 1800s. Here the Smoke Fly features a soft poult feather drawn from a young Moorgame (red grouse). These impossibly hard to find hackles, possess a fine silver lustre, appearing almost transparent. Robinson, like many other Wharfedale anglers, also called the Smoke Fly the Silver Dun, and we encounter it under these two guises in many early Wharfedale manuscripts. Some old timers even included a rib of silver tinsel or wire, with this variation becoming known as the Silver Smoke Fly.
The patriarch of Wharfedale fly-fishers Sylvester Lister, dressed his version of the fly utilising a feather drawn from a Norwegian Crow (Hooded crow). Like the fabled poult grouse feather, these wonderfully soft hackles are also becoming difficult to procure, and an able substitution even more difficult to find.
Smoke Fly (Sylvester Lister)
Hook: 00 (modern size 16)
Body: Peacock all the way down, can be ribbed with gold twist
Legs: Dusky white from Norwegian crow or poult wing
Head: Peacock Herl
(May be fished all through the season, particularly on bright days. When ribbed with silver twist, it is called a Silver Smoke fly. Excellent for grayling.)
As either wet fly or a dry fly, the Smoke Fly is a wonderfully peculiar fly pattern. Its thick coat and bulbus head of peacock herl strikes the most ungainly poses. And yet, it is the most effective of curios. Regularly taking both trout and grayling in the most difficult of circumstances. I heel Lister’s affection for this dressing and the river at Barden. Reflectively, I often follow in his footprints along the river. Here, rough moorlands stride down to pine forest, sombre and austere except in spring. And wading through shadows I cast his diminutive fly dressing to the descendants of his capture.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.