Exploring Around the Next Bend

This section is meant to encourage those who are searching for better methods to fool their favorite prey. It may be on flies, presentation, obtaining impossible drifts, casting methods, or rigging lines and leaders for special uses. As we come across articles and stories of special interest we will present them here. If you have a 'special' method which works for you, please feel free to send it to the publisher@flyanglersonline.com

July 10th, 2006

The Spiders Patterns of Northern England
By Philip Bailey, UK
Flies & photos by Donald Nicolson, Scotland

I have a season ticket on the wonderful Wharfe River at Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire which is only 20 minutes from home and one of the best rivers in that county. Over the past couple of years this has been my home for fishing.

Just recently I was fishing a particular section of the Wharfe and I remember a rather special fish. I had just made a perfect cast to my right which I knew would allow the flies to sink in the water before swinging upwards through the current. Making sure that my rod did not get in front of my line I concentrated on the feel of the line as it begun to swing across and upwards through the current.

Was that a touch? Did I perceive a small slowing of the line? I pulled firmly, but not too hard, against the line and felt the weight of something on the end. A fish exploded through the surface. I had him. A 3lb brown trout.

I had seen this fish taking emerging Baetis mayflies some 20 minutes before. I had noted where he was laying and had worked my way slowly down the run picking up a couple of smaller fish on the way before I prepared to 'trap' him with my flies.

The small 'spider' patterns that I had been fishing had done their job again. Just as they had on the other dozen or so fish I had caught that day. And there was still a lot more fishing to be had yet. Why had I not used them at home in Australia?

This season I have been concentrating on learning and using the 'spider' patterns of northern England. The season has now been open for 3 months and I have already fished more than I would in a normal season. Due mainly to the fact that work commitments have not been as intensive as normal.

What is a 'spider pattern'? A 'spider' fly is defined as 'a soft hackled pattern, rarely with wings'. These flies are not intended to represent a natural spider. The term 'spider' was probably inherited from Scotland and was a tradition made famous by W. C. Stewart (more about Stewart later).

'Spider' patterns were used exclusively by the fly fishermen of the northern parts of England for some time before venturing further afield. Indeed, you do not see them very often in tackle shops or featuring in fishing articles. These mediums of fly fishing seem to dispense with the old traditional flies and concentrate of the more modern fly patterns and their myriad of variations.

Do 'spider patterns' work? When fished properly they are deadly and if the weather conditions are right it is not unusual to catch many fish in an outing. In a four-day period recently where I was able to get out fishing each day and I had been able to catch and release over 100 fish in a five-mile stretch of Wharfe.

Soft hackled flies first appeared in the Compleat Angler when Charles Cotton wrote his famous book in 1676. Indeed, it is likely that they were around for some time before Charles Cotton as the patterns and materials used at that time probably meant that 'soft hackled' flies were in use even in the Roman occupation period.

Apart from some writings by James Chetham in 1681, new works on angling were almost non-existent for two centuries. Soft hackled flies were again introduced to anglers in 1816 when G. C. Bainbridge wrote The Fly-fishers Guide. Another 60 years were to pass before three more valuable works featured soft hackled flies.

W. C. Stewart wrote The Practical Angler; W. H. Aldham A Quaint Treatise on Flees and the Art of Artyfichall Flee Making in 1876; T. E. Pritt Yorkshire Trout Flies in 1886 (which was re-titled North-Country Flies in a later edition). All these books featured extensive writings on soft hackled flies. But in 1857 the greatest influence on using these patterns in England occurred. W. C. Stewart was a renowned fly fisherman from the Scottish Border area and it was Stewart that put 'spider' patterns in the fly box of all the north of England fly fishers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was to be another 80 years before a major writing on the use of soft hackles was to emerge. During that time there were many references to these patterns. Macintosh, Ronalds, Skues and others all reference the use of these patterns and the characteristics of soft hackles.

In 1949, the great American angler James E Leisering wrote The Art of Tying the Wet Fly which was added to by his long time fishing friend, Vernon Hidy, and released as The Art of Tying the Wet Fly and Fishing the Flymph.

The soft hackled fly, aka the 'spider' or 'flymph' had arrived into the modern era of fly fishing. A synopsis on the soft hackled flies can be read in The Art of the Wet Fly by W. S. Roger Fogg (1975).

So apart from the northern rivers of England, why do we not see or use them? Tony Brothers is the only person I know who uses some of the patterns in Australia. I never see them in tackle shops, nor in fishing articles or in the fly boxes of other anglers yet they are tremendously successful. Some fly fishermen in England never use any other pattern, preferring to change spider patterns depending on the time in the season, water conditions and temperatures.

They can be a complete fly representing an emerging insect, a drowned dun or a nymph (depending on where the fish sees it), or an emerging caddis and they are very deadly in the hands of an experienced 'spider' fisherman, yet they are an extremely simple fly to tie. Is it that we anglers are always trying to seek something very special - a fly that we can call our own and one which, if all other fly fishers used it, would make us famous? Is it that we simply want to experiment and create our own patterns and enjoy their successes and failures (probably more of the latter)? Are we not confident enough in our own fishing ability and are led by others who we believe are better; therefore we use or make many patterns that they use in order to be successful? Or is it that something so simple is difficult to believe it will catch a fish?

It is interesting to note that we do trust some of the traditional patterns. Who would not be without a 'Red Tag' in Tasmania; a Brown nymph on the lakes around Ballarat; or many of the other patterns that are successful on specific waters? So why is it that flies designed thousands of years ago, fished extensively on rivers similar to those in Australia, are the favourites of world class fly fishermen and which are very deadly, are excluded from our fly boxes?

I do not have ready answers these but I can let you know how to tie and fish them successfully. I can tell you that I am now a convert to 'spider' fishing.

The dressing of Spider patterns is very simple. The only two difficulties are (a) making sure that you don't use too much body material and (b) tying soft hackles onto the hook.

These flies are sparse and I mean very minimalist in appearance. So you will need to conquer a few natural tendencies to overdress the patterns. They only work well when tied correctly.

Hooks are generally very small and in sizes 16 - 18 of normal length. You can use either light or heavy gauge hooks. I use both as sometimes I want the fly to drift in the surface and get this effect with a lighter hook.

You can go up in size but no bigger than a size 12. I use these sizes when I see large duns or caddis emerging. I believe that we use too large a hook anyway. If you want evidence of this then you only need to cast out a size 12 dry fly on the lakes in Tasmania when duns are hatching. You will easily see your imitation mixed in with the naturals.

If you think the hooks are small, then the body is even smaller. In these patterns the body commences in line with the point of the hook never longer, and the thickness of the body is kept slim for translucency. If you want to read about translucency on flies then you should read J. W. Dunne's (1924) Sunshine and the Dry Fly. There is definitely something to learn from these old masters.

The materials used can vary from just tying thread, dubbing or feathers. The thread used must be a close resemblance to the underside or abdomen of the insect that you are trying to imitate. For a dun it would be a pale yellow/green or pale brown. For a caddis it would be more yellow. Now is the time to get out your insect catching materials or look under rocks to determine the right colour. They do vary between insects and waters or even within waters. The thread is taken down to the hook to immediately above the hook point. If you are simply using tying thread to form the body, then you take it back up the hook to the point where you would tie in a hackle. In this case neat turns are required.

If the pattern calls for dubbing then the tying thread is dubbed before it is returned to the hackle location. Now this is the first challenge. Make the dubbing very sparse. You must be able to see the thread through the dubbing. If you think it is about right, then it's a good bet that you have too much. I cannot stress enough the need to use only a very small amount of dubbing. On my flies (and those of the traditional patterns) a dubbed pattern is only marginally thicker than a pattern where tying thread has been used. Dub the material up to the point where you will tie in a hackle. Some of the dubbing commonly used is Hare's Ear (used in the March Brown Spider), Mole (used in the Waterhen Bloa) & Seal's Fur. Recently I have been using the under fur of a possum skin over a 'Greenwells' coloured thread (obtained by pulling the thread through beeswax).

If you are to use feathers, be frugal in the amount you use. Common feathers used for a body are Peacock, Pheasant Tail and Heron. Recently I have also used CDC feathers which can provide a very buoyant body.

Now for the next challenge. The key to the success of these flies is movement. Therefore the hackles will be very soft and longer than those used in common wet flies or dry flies. This should give us a guide on what feathers to use. Traditional flies used Lapwing, Plover, Dotterel (all three now difficult or impossible to obtain) Pheasant, Grouse, Partridge, Starling, Snipe (again difficult to obtain), Woodcock and Waterhen. In addition there is a frequent use of hen and game cock hackles. In earlier times (and when some of these birds were more prolific) the feathers were probably obtained from dead birds located during a days fishing or individual feathers that a live bird has lost. I have yet to discount other types of birds, for example the breast feathers of a 'Shellback' duck, or a longish collar of possum fur.

Correct hackling of a 'spider' pattern is very sparse. One or two turns at the most. The only variation would be when a hen or game cock hackle is used. Feathers are tied in at the tip end and wound around the hook. Again I cannot stress enough the need to be frugal. If you feel that you need to take one extra turn then it's a sure bet you will put too much hackle onto the hook. A trick I use is to strip one side of the feather and then wind two turns for a game bird (e.g. Grouse or Partridge) and three turns for a hen hackle. This works fine.

There are plenty of old books featuring soft hackled flies, you need to read them and try a few. Typical patterns are: Snipe and Purple, Waterhen Bloa, Orange and Partridge (these three patterns are used predominantly by the 'die-hard' spider fishermen of the north country), Greenwell's Spider, Pheasant Tail, March Brown and many more. But you can personalise these by matching the insects. I have been using what I refer to as the 'Possum and Partridge' which is a body of possum with a partridge hackle and 'Greenwell's' coloured tying silk. This pattern has accounted for the 100 plus fish I took over the 4 fishing days.

Fishing 'spider' patterns is almost as simple as the flies themselves when explained briefly - cast across and let them swing back downstream. But in effect it is a real skill and once mastered and used with small sparse flies it is very deadly. Be aware though that the fish tear these flies apart and you will need a few of them, especially those using Partridge or Grouse. Just as well they are a simple and quickly tied fly.

To fish these correctly you must have both the right outfit and approach. Rods must be no shorter that 8'6" and anything over 10' is too long. Lines should be floating and can be either a double taper or weight forward. I prefer a weight forward as it loads my rods faster when casting short lines. Leaders need to be a little longer than normal and be able to hold multiple flies. I use a 10' to 12' leader with a dropper. Some fly fishermen use three flies and I have used both two and three flies but have not noticed any difference between them. Anyway, two flies are enough to control.

When fishing in Australia I have always made my own leaders and still prefer to do so. The trouble here in England is that it is difficult to get the right thickness for butts and next two sections. So I use a 9' tapered leader with a 3lb breaking strain point from which I remove the bottom third. I then attach a 3 foot piece of 8lb leader material of .25mm thickness using a normal knot; in my case a blood knot. To this I attach a further 3 foot piece of 6lb leader material which is about .15mm thick. In other words double strength leader materials. I attach this using a water knot and make sure that at least a 4 - 5 inch piece of 8lb leader protrudes from the lower side of the finished knot. Clip off the tag on the upper side. This enables you to attach two flies to the leader. If you want to try three flies then use a water knot for the first section or attach another section using the same method.

Spiders can be fished upstream or downstream. W. C. Stewart was an advocate of the upstream approach and Leisering of across and down but they are mainly used downstream by modern anglers. I use them in three situations - downstream searching or targeting specific fish, upstream to a rising fish - and they work in all three.

Good water. The prime run is to the right of the picture. To fish this particular stretch you would position yourself in the middle of the stream which would allow you to cover both sides. Four fish were taken in this stretch in one session.

The downstream searching approach is where spiders are deadliest. The method is easy but very specific in technique. Only two rod lengths of fly line are required beyond the rod tip. Any more and you begin to lose contact with the flies. Therefore it is probable that you will be doing some deep wading to reach the right type of water. The use of spiders is not too effective in fast rapids. It is in its element in the strong flows immediately upstream or downstream of a riffle or fast water but is still effective in the slower sections of a stream. So you need to position yourself where the water to be fished is right up against your casting side.

Slow glide below the above fast flowing water. Spiders do work in this type of water but I would probably leave this and move on to faster water. An option is to drift a 'dry' on the point down the far side and leave the 'spider' on the dropper.

The flies are cast at a right angle from where you are standing and directly across the current. This can be reduced to between 45 and 90 in the slower sections. It is important that you mend line to ensure that the rod remains behind the flies. You must keep the rod behind the flies at all times so you need to watch the speed at which the leader travels. Do not mend the line once the cast has been made as this will alter the drift of the flies. You can move the rod to the opposite side of your casting arm if you want to extend the drift.

Hold the rod high. This means that the rod tip will be above a 45 angle to your body and high enough to ensure that only about 2' of fly line sits on the water. You should notice that there is a very large curve in the fly line from the tip of the rod to the water. This curve is the secret to catching fish. The way in which the flies move in the water means that the takes are very soft and if the rod is lower it will result in a lot of short takes and missed fish.

Once the cast has been made, allow the flies to sink 'dead drift' in the current. They should drift for 7 - 10 yards before sweeping across the current. Keeping the rod high and only having a small length on fly line on the water helps this. As the current begins to take control, the flies will swing across and upwards through the current which in turn imparts movement into the fly. Exactly what the flies are designed to do. You must be alert as a take can occur at any point during this latter stage. Concentrate on the point where the leader and fly line join. I keep the fly line in my left hand right through out the cast and more than often can feel the take before I see any change in the leader.

If you think you feel something or observe a change in line speed, then lift. Takes are quite varied, sometimes they are very vigorous and right near the surface, other times it will be a slight pull on the line. Don't strike hard. A steady lift is all that is required and keep the rod high or you risk losing the fish. If there is no take, then repeat the cast and take one step forward. The step forward means you are covering new water and will also help the flies to sink.

The other two situations still require the same technique but differ slightly. For a fish that rises in front of you while you are fishing downstream, then quietly approach the position where the fish was observed and make a cast about 45 across, in front and to the far side of where the fish moved. Where an upstream cast is required you make a cast similar to that made with a dry fly. I also grease the line right up to the fly in these situations.

So there you have the 'spider' patterns of northern England and how to fish them.

Would these flies and fishing technique work down under? I am convinced that they will. The streams that I have fished here in England are very similar to the majority of streams on the Australian mainland and in Tasmania. Freestone Rivers with runs, riffles, deep pools and long flat stretches just like the Mitta Mitta, Goulburn, Swampy Plains and the rivers of Tasmania.

Why not try it? You might be surprised. Oh by the way! Why not try fishing barbless? It is fast becoming the rule in the UK, anyway it is easier to return fish and your catch rate is not affected.

Cheers from the north and if you want to contact me my e-mail address is philipbailey@ozemail.com.au. Or pbailey@rcpglobal.com and my phone number is +44 7811 286652. I might just want a fishing companion if you are over here. ~ PB

About Philip Bailey:

Philip has a managerial and consulting background in Financial Services for over 35 years and works globally with companies to improve their performance.

Philip spent a short period outside of the Financial Services Industry as owner of a small fishing tackle shop and Professional Fishing Guide leading clients on wilderness excursions in Tasmania. During that period Philip acted as a lobbyist on behalf of Recreational Angling and was a key member of the task force which established the Peak Angling body for the Australian State of Victoria. Philip served as an inaugural board member on the body which represented nearly a million recreational fishermen. During this period, effective lobbying removed the devastating effect of Scallop dredging in bays and inlets around that state. Founder and inaugural chairman of the high profile lobby group, The Australian Trout Foundation, Philip was one of a small band who were responsible for the return of a closed season and bag limits for the Victorian Trout Fishery.

Philip was also a key member of the advisory group to the Minister responsible for Fishing in the Australian state of Victoria for the establishment of a Peak Angling body representing 1 million recreational anglers and was an inaugural board member representing 300 thousand trout anglers.

Born in Mildura on the Murray River, Philip began fishing at the age of three and moved into fly fishing nearly 30 years ago. An accomplished fly fisherman Philip has also been President of the Victorian Fly Fishers Association, President of the Council of Victorian Fly Fishing Clubs, a recipient of the Councils award for recreational fishing and the Norm trophy from Greenwells Fly Fishers.

Currently he is working in the United Kingdom as a Management Consultant in the Financial Services industry.

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