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.
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.
Hook: Kamasan B525
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.)
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!