Invariably, when the trout season opens in Yorkshire, many a river angler will be seen fishing a team of north country wet flies through the cold and often low and clear rivers of March and April. Armed with a handsome selection of spiders bought or dressed in the winter months, fly-boxes will brim with customary dressings and personal favourites.
Like me, many will also be prepared with hand tied, two dropper leaders. And the possibility of early season insect hatches will be mulled over before the first three-fly cast of the season is tied up. For many anglers’ patterns such as the Waterhen Bloa and Dark Snipe & Purple will form the backbone of these early season casts, often complemented with a Spring Black, Greenwell or even a March Brown to form the first three fly cast of the season.
But in this list of early season spider patterns, one traditionally essential fly pattern for early season success is often overlooked. The pattern being the Winter Brown, which was in times past, was often the first fly added to an early season cast. In times past, any cursory delve into a Yorkshire fly-fishing wallet would turn up examples of the Winter Brown in its many guises and incarnations, showing it to be a staple of early season trout fishing and winter grayling fishing.
However, the modern angler has overlooked this most valuable of early season patterns. Often being blindsided by “expert” magazine articles and social media posts which focus solely on early season “Spring Olive” hatches. Thankfully, after over forty years of tying and fishing north country spiders, I still firmly class myself as an enthusiast rather than an expert!
The Winter Brown is part of canon of traditional Needle Fly patterns which feature a finished head of either peacock or magpie herl. Invented to represent the earliest hatching species of stonefly commonly found on the freestone rivers of the Dales. Variations of the dressing can be found in countless north country publications, including Michael Theakston’s A List of Natural Flies published in 1853. Here, Theakston classes the adult stonefly under the umbrella of “Browns” and then breaks them down into individual species which include: The Needle Brown, Early Brown (winter brown), Little Early, Red Brown, Royal Charlie, Light Brown, Mottled Brown, Stonefly, Blo Brown, Yellow Brown and Orange Brown.
Theakston’s stated dressing of the Early Brown (Winter Brown) is similar to the more recognised “Wharfedale” version of the fly but omits the familiar peacock herl head and features the use of a Woodcock undercover feather bunched and split as a wing rather than a hackle. Quite where on the cast Theakston positioned this fly is unknown, but I have found it to be an excellent fly for the top dropper. In the often low and clear water of early season, it gives me that “sighter” during the flies drift through broken water.
The more familiar hackled version of the Winter Brown sticks to the more typical idea of a traditional stonefly dressing. Typically, a dressing of orange silk body, hackled with a woodcock’s undercovert and finished with peacock herl head. This dressing is found in many publications and private manuscripts, clearly showing us how effective it was in the early season, and how highly it was thought of by our north country angling forefathers.
However, for the past few of seasons I have fished more and more with Sylvester Lister’s version of the Winter Brown, which features a dressing of brown body silk. It’s a pattern that has increasingly found its way on to the point fly position of my three-fly cast and regularly picks up a healthy share of early season trout. Unlike many of my spider patterns, I’ve taken to following Lister’s example and wax the silk heavily but have added a little trick of my own by polishing the tying silk with greaseproof paper in an attempt to replicate the sheen of the natural insect’s body. Quite what old Sylvester would have thought about my attempts, I dread to think. But he would no doubt of approved of my choice of a winter brown for an early season cast.