The mere mention of a North Country spider brings to mind images of drystone walls, limestone escarpments, lush green meadows and turbulent beer coloured rivers. Iconic dales scenery and legendary North Country flies, flies such as the ubiquitous Orange Partridge, Waterhen Bloa and Snipe and Purple. Patterns that are known to all who follow the North Country school of fly fishing. Sadly, though, despite their interest, many of today’s anglers and fly dressers are oblivious to the rich seam of North Country history which can be told through the lost patterns of the Yorkshire dales.
For the past couple of seasons I have been hard at work writing a book on North Country fly fishing and have in the course of my research come across many of these lost patterns from anglers sadly now long forgotten. A couple of seasons ago I set out to dress and fish some of these old patterns to see if they still held the same appeal. Their story is just as intriguing, as is the way of the trout I intended to deceive with them.
When Edward Ellis Beanlands amalgamated John Swarbrick’s 1817 manuscript with John William Sagar’s 1890 later list of flies and published them in one volume under the title List of Wharfedale Flies in 1907, little did he know that Sagar, his second cousin, would have his list of flies totally overshadowed by Swarbrick’s manuscript flies. Following angling historians and fly dressers have sadly paid scant regards to the flies of Sagar.
Born in Bradford in 1841, John William Sagar was a noted fly fisherman of his day who supplemented his meagre wages as a mill worker by selling items of fishing tackle on the side to his friends and fishing associates. Although many of the patterns in his list are to be found elsewhere in other manuscripts and books, it is his three fancy flies that capture the imagination, particularly Sagar’s first grayling fancy with its use of gold wire for a body.
Although Sagar didn’t mention hook sizes I prefer to dress his patterns on a size 16 straight eyed light wire hooks.
Hook – Size 16
Hackle – A hackle from the back of a golden pheasant hen, or the dark feathers from a partridge’s shoulder:
Body – Bronze peacock herl, ribbed up and tied off with blue silk.
Sagar “This I consider to be the best evening trout fly, and will kill well from the middle of May until the middle of July. It should be fished at the point and after the manner of the dry fly”
Take Sagar’s advice and fish this fly singularly upstream akin to a dry fly, and cast under the bushes and trees that shade the waterside. It is especially useful as an imitation of small black terrestrials.
Sagar’s Grayling Fancy Fly No1.
Hook – Size 16
Hackle – A feather from a Scandinavian Crow (Hooded Crow). Jackdaw throat hackles being a suitable alternative.
Body – Gold wire wrapped as closely as possible.
Even though this fly is listed as a grayling pattern it will serve well throughout the season as a trout fly. The added weight achieved through the body of gold wire assists in sinking the fly that bit further. This fly is perfect as a point fly on a three fly leader when fishing in the upstream manner through shallow rocky pocket water.
Sagar’s Grayling Fancy Fly No2.
Hook – Size 16
Wing: A feather from the wing of a phelper (Fieldfare) Starling quill can be used as a substitute.
Legs: Jack Snipe feather, (Snipe undercovert)
Body: Yellow silk and gold wire.
A terrific late season fly for both trout and grayling. It is best fished on the top dropper, possibly an imitation for the late hatches of the Large Dark Olives.
Nowadays the Dales village of Hawes has become more associated with a famous variety of cheese that is made at its creamery. However, in past times Hawes was home to a thriving angling scene and was visited by some of the sport’s most celebrated names of the day, names that included Walbran, Halford and Skues but to name but a few. Added to these famous names should be the name of James Blades or Jimmy Sproats as he was popularly known to friends. Blades may now only be familiar to a few modern Wensleydale anglers. Nevertheless, Jimmy Sproats was one of the most noted anglers of his day and the founder of a fishing keeping dynasty that still lasts to this day. Befitting his reputation, Blades was mentioned in several important North Country fishing books, most notably Walbran’s Grayling and How to Catch Them, and the 4th addendum edition of Jackson’s Practical Flyfisher more particularly for Grayling or Umber.
James Blades was born in Sedbergh in 1848 and from there moved to Hawes at an early age. He worked for several years in the iron foundries of West Hartlepool before returning to Hawes in 1883. According to many of his contemporises Blades was simply the best North Country fisherman of his day. He was both a professional fly-dresser and fly fishing guide, indeed, several noted anglers of the time, including Skues, searched out Blades for his knowledge on fly fishing. Although Blades and many of his patterns are now sadly largely forgotten, he is, to my mind, one of the most important members of the North Country school.
Sand or Brink Fly (Blades)
Hook – Size 14
Body – Orange silk dubbed with dark brown silk,
Wings – Feather from the outside of a landrail’s wing. Dyed Starling or Jay would be a good substitute.
Although the Blades manuscript states this fly as dubbed, like other similar listed dressings he is clearly meaning ribbed. And as a throwback to more ancient north country dressing,s I like to dress this fly using one strand of each silk wrapped together to give a fine segmented look to the fly. Blades no doubt meant this pattern as a sedge imitation and stated this fly was good on showery days from mid-May until mid-June; however, I have fished my variation throughout the season and taken both trout and grayling with it.
Blades Purple Dun (Blades)
Hook – Size 14
Body – Purple silk dubbed with fine peacock herl and over ribbed with purple silk,
Wings – Hackled with an andelusian cock or hen. A suitable alternative is soft fibred hackle of a steely blue shade.
Regarded as Jimmy Blades signature fly pattern and one with which he made prodigious catches on the upper river Yore. Blades dressed and fished this pattern as both a wet and a dry fly and on one noted occasion out fished both Walbran and Halford when they fished the upper Yore with him in 1890s. Blades used this pattern from the end of July through to the end of the season.Having fished this pattern for a couple of seasons I can appreciate why Blades held it in such high regard. As a dry fly it brings up both trout and grayling throughout the hot summer evenings where most patterns fail and, with its highly visible hackle it is a splendid fast water dry fly. Dressed as a wet fly it is one of the most reliable point flies I know, and has for the past few years has relegated my store of Dark Snipes to a rusty corner of my fly box.
Another inhabitant of Hawes and at one time well renowned throughout Wensleydale was Beckwith Thompson. Born in 1834, Thompson was one of village’s most notable characters and one-time secretary of the Hawes and High Abbotside Angling Association. Beckwith was also landlord of the Crown Hotel in Hawes from where he sold day tickets for the Association’s waters and was, more importantly, a friend of James Blades. His pattern, the Thompson’s Choice was at one time one of the most recognisable patterns on the river Yore. Even though this pattern bears Thompson’s name, it was in fact given to him by one of his guests at the Crown Hotel. After successfully trying out the pattern on the nearby river Yore, Thompson was so impressed that he immediately asked Jimmy Blades to dress up a batch of these flies for him. Blades believed the Thompson’s Fancy to be one of the best early season flies, especially when the rivers are fining down after a spate. Indeed Walbran writing in the June 1888 edition of the Fishing Gazette speaks of a lot of fish are being caught with a new fly-Thompson’s Fancy.
Thompson’s Fancy (Beckwith Thompson)
Hook – Size 14,
Body – Slated coloured silk with two twists of black ostrich herl at tail and under shoulder.
Wings – Grey feather from Jackdaws neck.
Having fished this pattern through the fast rocky reaches of both the Yore and Wharfe I can testify to its effectiveness in both early season and late autumn.
So far I have only scratched the surface of the lost flies of the Yorkshire Dales. In the next blog post I will further rummage through the history of Dales fly fishing and open an old fishing manuscript that predates all, and enticingly holds the key to the origins of later works. I will also be placing under the microscope the Flies of Pritt, and shed some light on just where some of the old masters may have acquired their flies…
First published in Fly Fishing & Flytying Magazine
©The Sliding Stream