During his service in the R.A.F. the well-known angler and author T.K. Wilson planned the idea of a book dedicated to the subject of “Fancy Flies”. Unfortunately, Wilson’s intended publication never came to fruition, with the intending author having instead to settle on producing a series of articles in the Angling Magazine based around his original idea and notes. At the recent British Fly Fair International, I was given two of Wilson’s preparatory notebooks by the renowned author and grayling angler John Roberts, as well as an envelope containing several drafts of Wilson’s intended forward for the proposed book.
Upon reading through Wilson’s notebooks and jottings, I was surprised to find how much the contents of Wilson’s original notes changed when eventually coming to print. A prime example being the story behind Blades’ Purple Dun which is given a fuller rendition in his notebooks, but shortened by over a page in his published magazine article. In his notes, Wilson also mentions that it was F.M. Halford who accompanied Walbran on his visit to fish with James Blades on the River Ure. Whereas, in his published article omits the Halford reference and simply refers to a “south-country fisherman of national repute.” In writing about Blade’s signature pattern, Wilson mentions that the Purple Dun had been a popular Yorkshire grayling fly for over half a century, and quotes Blades as saying, “best for trout from July onwards, then whole of the season for grayling.”
Blade’s Purple Dun
Hook: No.1 Body: Purple silk dubbed with peacock herl, ribbed over with purple silk. Hackle: From a blue andalusian cock or hen.
Born in 1902, Wilson moved from Westmorland to become the Ticket Master at Barnoldswick railway station. Writing under the nom de plume of “Broughton Point”, Wilson contributed many fishing articles for a varied range of magazines and newspapers, including The Angling Times, Dalesman, Trout and Salmon and the Yorkshire Post. His final book Trout By All Means completed shortly before his death and published posthumously contains still relevant sections on wet and dry fly-fishing for trout and grayling on Yorkshire’s rivers.
Amongst the patterns listed by Wilson for insertion in his projected book were the Ridsdale’s Special and Ridsdale’s Favourite. Two dry fly patterns invented by Austin Ridsdale from the small village of Mickley which lies beside the River Ure just above West Tanfield. And it is Wilson’s inclusion of these two patterns that shows how serendipity often takes a hand. For in my collection of north country fly manuscripts, I also have Austin Ridsdale’s own fly manuscript contained within a Boots “Home Diary” for 1931. Thus, allowing me the opportunity to cross-reference Wilson’s notes with Ridsdale’s original manuscript dressings and therefore spot Wilson’s mistake in setting down both Ridsdale’s dressings.
Sadly, for his legion of readers, T.K. Wilson in his notes confuses the title of both of Ridsdale’s fly patterns, by attaching the wrong dressing to each fly. The fly called the “Ridsdale’s Favourite” should in fact be called “Ridsdale’s Fancy”, and the recipes for both fly patterns should be swapped over.
For many trout fishermen, the emergence of the large dark olive– traditionally known as the Spring Olive – signals the arrival of a new season. Though sparse hatches of duns do emerge throughout the winter, it is the significant ones in March and April that bring up the trout. Indeed, so important is the large dark olive to my early fishing that I start to dress my imitations over Christmas, coincidentally the same time as the nymphs start to put on a growth spurt ready for their peak emergence. During January and February, as my stockpile of patterns grows, so does the gradual emergence of naturals from the Dales rivers increase. And by March 15 I’m beside my favourite river, hoping for at least a few shafts of afternoon sun to bring on the first hatch of the season. I reach the river just before lunch, and, sipping a cup of tea, survey my likely starting point from the warmth of the car. Thankfully the raw north-easterly that usually accompanies opening day has disappeared. The river looks cold and drab; the morning frost that covered the surrounding pastures has now given way to a dreary dampness, the silhouettes of leaf less trees adding to the starkness of the scene. And yet this is not a scene of decay but of renewed hope, for I know there is a rich bounty contained within, and that the first hatches of spring olives will reveal it to me.
Like many other Yorkshire anglers, I would usually put up the obligatory three-fly cast of Spiders, but to fish them today would be pointless, as the trout have yet to look up towards the surface of the river. For now, my cast of Spiders will be kept firmly wrapped around an old beer mat and tucked into a pocket. It is a team of two nymphs that I shall begin with. I have for the past few seasons been playing with their design, trying to keep a slim body profile while also adding the required weight. At first, I played with, and tweaked, my fellow Yorkshireman Oliver Edwards’s Baetis nymph pattern but still didn’t acquire the right balance of profile and weight. Finally, I decided to abandon Ollie’s foundation and design my own. For the runs and streamy pocket-water I use a simple nymph pattern dressed with soft goose herl. It is unweighted, relying only on the heavy hook to sink it. My second nymph is a more robust creation formed with an underbody of tungsten thread, thus allowing me to maintain a slim body profile while obtaining the necessary weight. I like this weighted pattern as a dropper, allowing the unweighted nymph a kind of checked drift, which gives me greater control over the flies.
Baetis Nymph 1 Hook Size 14-18 Thread Spiderweb coloured with a suitable marker pen Body Soft olive goose herl Rib Fine gold wire Tail Three Coq de Leon fibres Wing-case Olive flexi-body darkened on the underside with a black marker pen Thorax Dark olive-brown seal’s fur with fibres picked out to resemble legs
Baetis Nymph 2 Hook Size 14-18 Thread Spiderweb coloured with a marker pen Underbody Tungsten thread (from Flytying Boutique, tel: 01535 630 113) sometimes doubled and trebled under the thorax Body Hends body quill Tail Olive micro fibbets Wing-case Olive flexi-body darkened on the underside with a black marker pen Thorax Dark olive-brown seal’s fur with fibres picked out to resemble legs
My first few casts are often rusty, but nevertheless they are placed a short distance upstream of my position as I methodically fish my way up through the first run. Each cast is studiously followed for any sign of a gentle take. The welded loop and last six inches of my fly-line have been indelibly marked with the brightest red marker I could find, to give any indication of a take. And yet cast after cast is nothing more than a barren drift. Finally, after an hour’s toil, the point of my fly-line jabs underwater. As I raise my rod-tip, I tighten into the first trout of the season.
Within half an hour I have progressed steadily up the first run. One further trout has been netted among a series of plucks and pulls that signal my rustiness in detecting the subtle takes. The warming sun signifies the approach of the first substantial spring olive hatch of the season. Slowly but surely trout begin to reveal their presence just below the fast, broken water. Perfect Spider water! I always roll my eyes somewhat when the merits of the upstream Spider are discussed. Though some anglers slavishly adopt this method of fishing Spiders, my experience is that upstream Spider fishing is only really an advantage when the trout are looking up and actively feeding on emergers and adult duns. Now as a steady emergence of spring olives tumbles down the broken water of the pool’s tail I snip off the two nymphs and change to my Spider cast. I leave my small unweighted Baetis nymph on the point and put two old stalwarts – Waterhen Bloa and Greenwell’s Glory – on the droppers. My Greenwell’s are always tied with upright wings of starling slips, as in fast, broken water, where trout have to make up their minds quickly, the upright wings of the Greenwell add the necessary impetus. I favour the Greenwell on the top dropper, but in reality, its position is interchangeable with that of the Waterhen Bloa.
Waterhen Bloa Hook: Size 14 Body: Yellow silk very sparsely dubbed with mole furHackle: Waterhen under-covert
Greenwll’s Glory Hook: Size 14 Body:Yellow silk waxed to a suitable shade of olive and ribbed with fine gold wire Wings: Starling wing quill eaither rolled and split or tied in as two slips. Hackle: Furnace hen
It always amazes me how quickly an early-season trickle of large dark olives can turn a torpid section of river into a frenzy of feeding activity. With the warmth of the spring sunshine on my back, I fan a series of short casts to actively feeding trout. It becomes almost hypnotic, as both the feeding trout and I become fixated on the uniformly drifting Spiders. My 10 ft rod is held high as every short cast is almost led through each drift. The 12 ft leader ensures that trout aren’t spooked by a drifting fly-line – indeed there is less than 4 ft of f ly-line through the top ring. Today it is the Greenwell that is getting all the plaudits, as trout after trout seem transfixed by its allure. Five trout are brought to the net in quick succession, all to the Greenwell. The nymph that played its part earlier in the day has gone untouched and the Waterhen Bloa is hooking only the odd trout.
As I wade out of the tail, I half wonder whether I should double back on myself and fish through this section again. However, my shoulder aches from the constant high angle of the rod and my continuously outstretched arm. When fishing Spiders the rod should always be held high so as to keep in touch with the flies, almost to the point where you are leading them through the drag-free drift. And my often-aching right arm and shoulder show the zeal with which I follow this maxim.
I glance at the pool ahead, hoping to see a fish rise. I know that the spring olive hatches are always centred on the fast necks of pools, pocket water and riff les. But experience has taught me that a few stragglers occasionally float down the middle of a pool. I can see the odd silhouette of a handsome dun floating on its calm surface. A single Waterhen Bloa fished up a pool is often a very rewarding exercise, as it picks up trout sipping on trapped emergers and drowned duns. Often during the warm evenings of summer when my fishing pals are struggling with the perceived wisdom of the dry-fly, I fish a single Waterhen Bloa to rising trout, often with remarkable success.
But the opening day of a season is for me a chance to experiment with the wild fancies I tied over the winter. An old friend who fishes the upper Clyde sent me a few Olive Jinglers; he had been raving about them for years and thought I would like to give them a try. This pattern is, of course, not new: it resembles the Howe’s Special, an old pattern used by anglers on the River Eden in the 1920s. First tied by the famous Eden fly-dresser Tommy Howe, it was successfully used on the River Wharfe by the late Norman Roose. Sadly, a rather sporadic winter grayling season had put paid to all the Jinglers my friend had sent me, so I dressed a couple of new ones alongside a few Howe’s Specials to try out on opening day.
Olive Jingler Hook: Size 14 Body: Olibe silk ribbed with fine gold wire Main Hackle: Dark dun cock Front Hackle: Grey neck feather from a partridge, tied sparse.
Howe’s Special Hook: Size 14 Tail: Ginger cockle hackle fibres Thorax: A turn or two of hare’s dubbing directly behind the hackle. Main Hackle: Ginger cock Front Hackle: A feather from a woodcock’s underwing, tied sparse.
As I watched the pool, a trout rose right in the tail. I knew any cast to him would have to be bang on the nose, and even then, the intervening currents would add invisible drag to destroy any reasonable chance I had. Another rising trout in a more favourable position gave me just the “sighter” I needed. Replacing my three-fly cast with a 12ft leader tapered to 8x, I put on the Olive Jingler and prepared to cast it up and across to the rising trout. My first cast landed a couple of feet short, but as it drifted down below its intended target an unseen trout took it firmly. So decisive was the take that there was no need to raise the rod. After a couple of tense minutes, I netted my first trout of the season on a dry-fly. What happened during the next three quarters of an hour was nothing short of astonishing. It appeared, as though every cast was met by the rise of a trout – and not gentle, sipping rises, but proper, solid takes. The hectic sport continued until a long period of cloud cover followed by a marked drop in the temperature put down the fish. I replaced the Olive Jingler with old Tommy Howe’s Special, but the sun was now behind the clouds and the early season north-easterly was beginning to pick up.
With the prospect of a pint and a hot meal in the local pub, I made my way back to the car. As I pulled off my waders I thought about the experiences of the day and the range of patterns and techniques I had used. For many anglers in the North, the start of a new season, coupled with the arrival of the first hatches of large dark olives, is the signal to reach for a cast of three Spiders. Yet our sport is often a matter of adaptability, and never more so than at the start of the season. Success comes from anticipating a hatch of fly and being prepared to change from nymph to emerger and then to dun.
In the Manchester Guardian of the 1920s, and later within his collected fishing essays entitled ‘Rod and Line’. Arthur Ransome demonstrated the perfect temperament needed for a winter evening of fly tying, and in turn gave us ample food for thought whilst we ourselves are sat before the vice during those long dark nights of wintertime. Ransome skilfully points out that the angler dispirited by thoughts of a few further inactive months, finds winter fly tying a substitute to fishing itself, in Ransome’s words “It is the sort of licking of the lips that eases a thirsty man in a desert”. And of course, he is right. Winter evenings spent in front of the vice will indeed bring us nearer to the impression of fishing. As we thumb through capes and scraps of fur, our minds are intuitively drawn to the possibilities of a new season, or are rolling back the mists of the previous one. Illuminated by the lamp’s circle of light, winter creations are already captivating minds. Fishing days are taking shape as our fingers industriously wind silks and hackle. The fly-tyer has moved through time to again become the flyfisher. The stream’s restful ease once again fills the mind, and the weight of the rushing water presses against your knees. Bathed in warm sunshine, mayflies are once more hatching, and in the upstream shallows you see the rise of a good trout. These happy memories or imaginings are indeed, in the mind’s eye, made real through the wrapping of threads and the settings of wings.
Like Ransome, I believe it is foolish to experiment with flies in the winter. For in the upcoming season’s battle, winter’s impertinent experiments are inevitably rejected in favour of familiar and dependable comrades that share the glories of the past. Instead, I prefer and like to perfect, the flies that I know and trust. I have come to think of my winter evenings fly tying as a time for reflection and thought, and believe the patterns dressed during those dark evenings of December and January should carry a hallmark of patience and quality. Bead-head nymphs and other simple creations are expelled, delayed in part to short “in season” sessions, where plain patterns can be efficiently whipped-up in haste. Like Ransome before me, winter evenings are a time to dress old classics. I know for instance that a season of olives will happily be covered with a dozen or so Greenwell’s Glory in various sizes. And so, in spare moments after dark I dress a selection of this most iconic of patterns. The aesthetic delight of this winged pattern is perfect for an evening’s fly tying, and as Ransome notes “a dozen Greenwell’s Glory, and this with its starling wing, dull-waxed yellow silk, gold thread, and coch-y-bondhu hackle, is a fly about which we are not likely to make mistakes, even by the light of a candle.” Whether dressed and fished as a wet fly or winged upright, Greenwell’s age old pattern constantly beguiles both myself and the river’s trout. As Ransome did, I also discard the canon’s prescribed wing of Blackbird slips. And instead favour the primary slips of starling wings, these like blackbird have a degree of transparency and portray nature’s delicacy better than today’s often used mallard primaries. As a dry fly the Greenwell sits as daintily and as proud on the water’s surface, as it does having just fallen from my vice onto the desk’s smooth surface. As a wet, its sleek and slender profile gives imagination to the dressing, and it swims and drifts through the river’s currents enticing trout as it goes.
In his article Ransome also informs us of the usefulness of the Black Spider, and notes “there is always sense in filling up our stock of them, with red, black, orange, or orange and gold bodies, hackled with plain black cock’s hackle or, better, the soft metallic blue-black hackles from the head and neck of a cock pheasant.” Again, Ransome is inescapably correct with his assertion, for there is no more useful a fly than a Black Spider. I have in all honesty, lost count of the number of winter evenings spent tying spiders, and probably like Arthur Ransom a large proportion of them have been variations on the Black Spider theme. However, it wasn’t until re-reading Ransome’s classic work a number of years ago, that I followed Ransome in his use of cock pheasant head and neck feathers on my favourite Black Spider dressing, the Spring Black. I know of no other finer dressing when something small and black is needed to entice wild browns that are selectively feeding on or just below the surface. It is a pattern that has relegated the Snipe & Purple along with Stewart’s Black Spider to the roles of innocent bystanders within my catalogue of patterns. And during the long evenings of December, when next season’s subscription is signed and posted, dozens of this prized little pattern will be falling from the vice at regular intervals.
Spring Black Size: 16 Thread: Purple silk Body: Purple silk ribbed with magpie herl Hackle: Cock pheasant neck feather
Another pattern that absorbs me during these winter evening fly tying sessions, is William Lunn’s Houghton Ruby. It has the uncanny ability to bring to the fore memories of the exalted River Test. Seated before the vice, recollections of summer’s distant hours flood back, and I am once again kneeling before a chalk-stream trout. The departing glories of the dying sun cast a rosy patina on the sliding river’s surface, as the Houghton Ruby was cast over my last trout of early evening. Tight to the near bank and shaded with the margins growth, the trout lazily indulged in a fall of returning spinners, blissfully unaware of my residence behind the veil of unmown grass. With imperceptible ease my fly drifted down to intercept the trout’s lustful stare and was gone. The thoughtful lift of the rod gave purchase to my sinful deceit, and the trout was ensnared by the sharpness of the fly’s smooth point. My rod kicked and bucked as the trout vainly tied to find the sanctuary of the swaying weed. Within moments the plump trout was engulfed by the net and I was once again in the circle of lamplight, balancing tails and aligning wings on this most accomplished dry fly.
Houghton Ruby Hook: 14 or 16 Thread: UNI 8/0 Claret Body: Rhode Island Hackle-stalk dyed with red and crimson Hackle: Bright Rhode Island red hackle Wings: Two light blue dun hen tips from the breast or back, set on flat Tail: Three fibres from white cock’s hackle
Every angler has an affection for certain patterns. I do not merely mean “local” patterns, but standard patterns which he will endorse on any water. Thankfully the dark vigil of winter gives us ample opportunity to stock up on these advocated patterns. I myself, identify this endorsement within the Quill Gordon. It is a pattern that unflinchingly takes trout where ever it lands, and during winters ease reminds me of distant days within the charmed circle of the Catskills. The use of quill bodies on dry flies is nothing new, and dates back to centuries of British fly tying tradition. However, it was not until this body material got the “Catskill” treatment that quill-bodied flies took on such proportions of beauty. This bewitching pattern has become the symbol of American dry-fly fishing thanks to its association with Theodore Gordon. In his small shack on the Neversink River, Gordon severed America’s dependence on British fly pattern design and laid down the foundations for the famous Catskill school of fly tying, and in so doing became the ‘Father of American Dry Fly Fishing’. Gordon’s famous pattern has an elegance and quiet modesty about it, and appeals to my inner sixth sense, even when encased within the restrictive compartments of the fly box. The beauty and uniformity of its slim segmented body and speckled wood duck wings brings out a devotion in the fly tyer. It is a fly that has the power to beguile anglers and trout in equal measure and is the perfect pattern to dress during the sombre evenings of winter, when out of reach the ink blue river slides nonchalant below winter’s nebulous sky. The correct and proportionate formation of its stripped quill body, requires a measured deliberation that enlightens a winters night. The short period of soaking the quills allows the fly tyer to rejoice in the art of fly tying as he busily picks and prepares wood duck feathers for wings. Each stage of the dressing requires a delicacy of thought and touch, and in so doing, becomes the perfect distraction for the fly-tyer on winter evenings.
Quill Gordon Hook: 12,14 & 16 Thread: Uni 8/0 White Tail: Medium Blue Dun fibres Body: Stripped Peacock Eye Quill Wing: Wood Duck Feather Hackle: Medium Blue Dun
So what of Ransome’s winter fly tying endeavours? Well, besides the early article of the 1920s, Ransome left scant information about his own personal fly tying habits until 1959, with the last publication of his lifetime ‘Mainly About Fishing‘. Here in its opening chapter entitled ‘Why Dress Flies‘ Ransome again touches on the joys of fly tying and remarks “unless an angler makes his own flies, half the pleasure of fishing has not been tasted”. Again Ransome is uncannily right, for generations of fly tyers will bear witness to the fact that there is no greater feeling that catching a fish on a fly that you have personally created. But as legions of fly tyers will testify to, there is much, much more to fly tying than that simple fulfilment of a skilful conclusion.
Arthur Ransome only left us with one signature fly from his nights of fly tying, the Elver Fly. It is a pattern from the remarkably titled chapter “Salmon Chew Gum”. Though now fallen foul of the modern hair-wing trend for salmon and sea-trout flies, Ransome’s Elver Fly is nevertheless a great pattern for migratory fish. I am no salmon angler myself, and share Ransome’s thoughts on the futility of designing and tying salmon flies.
“There is just no sense about it. Fishing for salmon is like talking with a lunatic. And, as for the designing of salmon-flies — it may well be thought that the salmon is not the only lunatic concerned. We have a very good word in the north for affairs that depend on pure luck. We say that they are very ‘hitty-missy’. Well, for sheer, unadulterated hitty-missiness, the designing of salmon flies must take a lot of beating.”
However, I do tie-up a small number of Ransome’s classic pattern during the sessions of winter. This pattern is equally adaptable as a streamer, and often has allowed me to tempt those big old trout that lay low and deep in the dark dubs of my native dale’s rivers. An outcome that Ransome himself would no doubt have wholeheartedly approved of. But in the bleakness of winter as I smooth and wrap the flat body floss of this pattern, the Elver Fly conjurers up images of the Cornish coast, and speaks to me of family holidays in the far south-west. The evening high tide swells and breaks its white-water over the windswept jagged rocks, as my fly is cast into the maelstrom of the tides’ confused currents, and intermittently stripped back. The savage jag of the rod tip reveals the take and ensuing fight of a sea bass. These are images that fly tying brings readily to the mind, fly tying has the power to evoke many memories and thoughts, inclinations that are often lacking during the concentration of our actual fishing time. In the dark evenings of winter, fly tying is in many ways like a photograph. It has the power to remind us of our past achievements, and at the same time revitalize our hopes a favourable future. There is no closed season for the fly tyer during a winter’s twilight, his mind is alive with thoughts of fishing, probably more so than during the actual season itself. As Ransome states whilst sat before the vice “he can be far away, seeing smooth water dimpled by a rising fish”
Ransome’s Elver Fly Hook: Size 6 Longshank Streamer Hook Thread: UNI 6/0 Red Body: Black floss ribbed with flat silver tinsel Cheeks: Vulturine Guinea Fowl Hackle: Cobalt Blue Vulturine Guinea Fowl Breast feather