Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?


By Alan Shepherd, Australia
Tied and photographed by Hans Weilenmann, Netherlands

In Dick Wigrams 1951 book, The Uncertain Trout there is a whole chapter devoted to this fly, I quote:

"Anglers, on the whole, are a generous crowd. There are some who may be a little secretive regarding their pet places, but when they learn something new they are nearly always all eager to pass on the information to their brethren. This is as it should be. If, for some instance, Mr Skues had kept his great knowledge to himself how much poorer would be the fly tiers and the fly-fishermen all over the world. Not all anglers are so anxious to give away some special fly which they find very acceptable to the trout. I shall always be grateful to the man who introduced me to the Cocky-Spinner. He told me it was a good fly in Tasmanian streams. It was his own tying, beautifully done, and it has been one of the most killing flies I have ever tied onto the end of a cast. Tasmanian streams are poor in variety of fly, the hatch is sometimes enormous but alas, most unreliable. There seems to be no set time for the hatch which is almost entirely governed by weather: hot days often produce a really good show of fly: cold days very little.

This is in direct contrast to the Northern Hemisphere. The Australian streams have even less Ephemera and the adventitious insects, represented by beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and assorted land moths make up most of the surface food.

To return to the Cocky-Spinner. I had the dressing and one battered specimen for two years before I tied it on my cast. For those two years I caught trout well enough on other patterns, but there were days that were blank when they should have been productive and fish that refused when they should (or so it seemed to me) have taken the offering. Now I think I am too old a hand to become over-confident with some fly that has given me a good basket of trout, that has killed fish well for a whole season, that has tricked some difficult leviathan or well-known refuser of artificial flies. Ten years with the Cocky-Spinner has proved its worth to me. It has killed fish on nearly all the inland waters of Tasmania, on the Great Lake, Lake Leake, the Penstock, and on the Shannon River during the moth hatch (twelve fish in one day). Anyhow here is the dressing, use it or not as you like. The trout you catch will prove its worth.

My own dressing is not quite the same as that of the very good angler who gave it to me. I do not say that I have improved it, but as the Andalusian hackles which go towards the making are almost impossible to obtain I have substituted another and it seems to make no difference to its killing power.

Dick Wigrams Cocky-Spinner

The hook may be size 1,2, or even 3. I find 2 the best.
The tying silk is hot orange, well waxed.
Tail, three strands of Red Cock.
Body, two strands of Red Macaw wound round the shank.
Rib, gold twist.
Wings and Legs a greyish poorly marked barred rock hackle and a Rhode Island cock hackle mixed one through the other.
The method of tying at first is just the same as any ordinary hackle fly, but after two hackles are tied in and the silk is waiting at the back of the hackles the fly is placed upside down in the vice. The silk is then made to separate the hackles in the form of a 'V' by passing it backwards and forwards from the body to the eye in a figure eight. This builds up a thorax and by separating the hackle causes the fly to float on its body when placed in the water. The tie off is made as usual in front of the hackle against the eye.

A fly tied in this manner is exceptionally strong and will stand up to any amount of work. Well, there it is, and as I would just as soon go shooting without any cartridges as leave my Cocky-Spinner at home when visiting the streams in this part of the world.

The inventor of this fly, Major B. W. Powlett, has tied a number of patterns of similar type but this one is his masterpiece. His patterns were made with one or two hackles of medium length to represent the wings of the fly and a very short hackle of suitable colour for the legs. I find that mixing the hackles has the same effect. The little thorax built up with silk is most important, viewed from underneath (and this is the trouts view) it is a succulent body with wings spread and legs at the side, which is where they should be.

My first experience with the fly was on the St. Patrick's River. A very difficult day. The fish were rising well but only the small ones would accept the assorted ammunition fired at them. This consisted of Black Spinner (showing in thousands), Olive Dun and a Coch-y-bondhu in case their diet should be beetles. Weary of refusals I searched for something that would interest the better fish and so by chance put up the Cocky-Spinner. As a result I spent the remaining hours on the pool and caught the limit of keepable trout besides returning a number of smaller ones.

This was alright, but it didn't prove anything. It suited the fish that day, but would it kill as well another time, or on another stream. That night I made a dozen, and a day or so later stole an afternoon and took myself to the Meander, it being only ten miles away and holding some decent trout that knew a thing or two. It was a warm day, but wind developed as I drove out and I was not too confident of finding fish on which to try the new fly. The first pool was blank, and so was the ripple above it: not a rise.

I wandered up and at last in a sheltered corner spotted a ring. He was tucked well under the bank with some awkward grass hanging over him. My cast was a bit wide of the mark but I left the fly on the water and let it ride down some two feet from the bank. The fish moved out and took it at once, but alas, I was too eager; pricked hard he lashed the water once and was gone. After that there was another half hour without a sign. The wind died away and a fish put up beside a dense bed of weed and rubbish. He took the fly at once, and led into safe water was duly netted out; 2 lb. 4 ozs. And then the fish rose quickly everywhere but they would not take the Cocky-Spinner. I felt sure they were taking Ceanis, as after many refusals I changed to a .00 Pale Watery and caught two undersized fish. An hour later the Olives came down, thinly at first, but very soon a fair sprinkling. You could almost see the switch over, it was a different kind of rise, more eager, no longer the soft sip that trout make to a small fly that is almost in the skin of the water. My change to the Cocky-Spinner was made as quickly as possible as the light soon goes in this part of the world and already the sun had buried itself behind the hills. There was plenty of choice but the fish looked mostly small: I wanted to test the fly on better than a ten-inch trout. Something heavier rose in a narrow stickle between the weeds. He took at the first offer and dived for cover to jerk and burrow until he came unstuck. Across under the far bank a trout was sucking down the fly with that cheerful gulp that is such music to the anglers ear. He also took the fly and was eventually knocked on the head; two more followed quickly and another was pricked before it was over. The water took on the cold, deserted look of an empty street. I packed up. I felt rather jubilant.

There was a trout in the Liffey that had refused my offers for two seasons. He was a very big fish, pale in colour, extremely cunning, and rose only at long intervals. I called him George (being at the time unaware of his sex) and also other names not so polite. On most of my visits I would try this fish; never with much confidence, but always in the hope that he might be in a receptive mood. It was an early morning in April when I wandered down to discuss business with George. The usual ritual was to sit down if the grass was dry, or stand if it was wet, and wait until something happened: if after fifteen minutes nothing took place in the very small enclosed pool that was his home, one wandered away and left him. I had found that to cast blindly was no good at all, there had to be some show of feeding before George would even bother to come up and inspect the artificial fly.

I had time to observe that the willows were rapidly shedding their yellowed leaves and to sigh a little because I knew the end of the season was near. My attention wandered from the pool and I ALMOST missed the very small dimple that indicated the epicure at his morning meal. The cast was easy enough providing one kept low to the ground. The Cocky-Spinner dropped above the dimple and from the depths George appeared like a genii from the mists. The usual inspection took place as he fell back with the fly balanced on his nose and then, all of a sudden, his head was down and the Cocky-Spinner wasn't there any more. The shock was almost too much for me, but perhaps it was as well I delayed the strike because the hook was well fixed when we started the battle. Like most big fish George fought slowly and stubbornly. The hazards were on the bottom of the pool and for the first five minutes George was vertical in the stream: smash went the tail against the cast, the tremor came up the line along the rod and into my hand, smash again with that heavy wriggle and thrust towards the bottom. After this came a leisurely cruise up-stream still deep in the water, this was the worst part of the struggle because there were weeds and a deep undercut bank. Somehow the gods that watch over fishermen steered the cast away from the dreadful clawing things that reached out to clasp it. Somehow George rolled up to the top and sat down in the net. We looked at one another, both panting on the grass, and it was then I knew George should have been christened Georgette. She was in fine condition-4 lb. To the ounce.

Here again we have no proof that the fly itself was responsible; Georgette may have been hungry or very careless. I doubt it. Trout do not become careless as they grow older, they become more cunning. There was something about the Cocky-Spinner that made it look real and attractive-there must have been.

The trout that frequent the Shannon Lagoon and feed in the river when the Snowflake Caddis comes up in its millions are notoriously difficult. They are gut shy and fly shy. The water is very clear and not very deep: the drag occasioned by cross currents is hard to combat and the wind is often too strong to allow accurate casting. These trout are also amazingly changeable in their likes and dislikes, on one day they will eat nothing but moth, next they may be picking out spinners or black caddis. Sometimes one fish is taking spinners and another eating moth. In the morning they may rise readily to a Iron Blue Dun and in the afternoon will refuse it and take a Hare's Ear or Greenwell's Glory. One hears the old, old cry from the angler, "If only I could find the fly they are taking." I have uttered the same cry on most of my twenty visits to witness the extraordinary phenomenon known as the Shannon Rise. The answer is still as far distant as ever, in fact, when one sees some of the horrible and badly tied abortions to which the fish fall victim one wonders if there is an answer. One year I took a number of trout from this river on enormous Wickham's Fancies. Another season it was a fly known as the Peveril o'the Peak tied on size 4 or 5 that produced a rise from those SO-CALLED discriminating fish as soon as it hit the water. I remember one evening, and it is in the evening here that the trout are most difficult, when an angler using a very big white moth was successful in killing half a dozen fish when no other rod could get so much as a rise.

It is, of course, a lot of fun besides being a source of inspiration to fly tiers. If there is an answer then it has yet to be found. During the 1945 rise the Cocky-Spinner accounted for a dozen fish on one day but on the next day and the day after that the trout took little notice of it. There was, I feel sure, an explanation for this, for it was a hot day and a fly known locally as the Shannon Spinner was on the water in fair quantity. The fish must have aken the Cocky-Spinner for this fly. The next two days were cold and I saw no Shannon Spinner and caught only two trout on the Cocky-Spinner.

On the Penstock Lagoon this fly was responsible for a heavy bag and was taken no doubt, for the mayfly genus Attalophlebia which hatches there in large quantities. At Lake Leake it was deadly on a calm day when the Red Spinner was present on the water.

All this seems a lot of talk about one fly. I feel it is worth the space. All through the past trout have found adequate means of defence against each new form of attack and against each new type of artificial lure: how else could they survive. They may find a means of detecting the difference between the Cocky-Spinner and the natural fly: until they do I shall continue to use it.

Cocky-Spinner (Major B. W. Powlett)

Hook: #12 up-eye dry fly hook.
Tying silk: Hot orange well waxed.
Tail: Three or a few more natural red cock hackles.
Ribbing: Oval gold tinsel.
Body: Two strands of Red Macaw tail feather or suitable substitute such as dyed goose.
Hackles: One each of natural red and greyish, poorly marked grizzle hackles tied in together.
Head: Black.

Method: Normal wingless tying, but after placing the hackles, a "V" section clear of fibres is formed in the hackles on the bottom side of the hook by using figure "8" turns with the tying silk. It is recommended that the fly be turned upside-down for this procedure. Finish with a well formed black head. ~ Alan Shepherd

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