Life’s too short to tie your own flies for fly fishing,” pronounced my friend as we pored over our choices for a morning on a little local chalkstream. He was partly right. Some patterns are fiddly and flies are cheap. Why spend half an hour straining your eyes when they cost half the price of a posh coffee? But I think he, and many other fishermen, miss out if they don’t “roll their own”.
Home-tied fly fishing flies are scruffier than shop-bought ones. At least mine are. A commercially tied fly’s main job is to catch the customer, then the fish. My flies exist only to hook fish. As such, I dress them so they look either sleek and aquatic, like a nymph or buzzer, or distressed, askew and floundering – exactly like an airborne insect that’s hit the drink.
Before tying a batch of a particular pattern, I whip up one and pop it into a glass of water and inspect from below, to see the trout’s eye view. It has to look like a lump of hapless protein that will provide a predator with an effortless snack.
Real insects are at their most vulnerable at two moments: when they are trying to force their way through the water’s surface film, in their metamorphosis from water nymph to airborne fly; and when their flight has terminated in a crash landing. My favourite “dry” fly patterns replicate these two scenarios for the trout and, strictly speaking, are not truly dry flies, since they always have very wet bottoms. My ruder friends refer to one pattern as “the Barely Legal” – and always ask me to tie half-a-dozen for them. As well as the dry flies, I dress five nymph patterns: the hare’s ear, the pheasant tail, the Zulu, a deer hair sedge and a nasty fluorescent thing christened, by another friend, “Young’s Killer”.
FULL SUNDAY ROAST
Many fly fishermen think that pattern is the key to a take but often size is just as critical. My flies usually come in two portions: either they’re the full Sunday roast, with Yorkshire pudding, roast spuds, parsnips and plum crumble to follow; or they’re the finny equivalent of the waaafer-thin miiint, that undid Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. One size appeals to the hungry, the other to the greedy.
Sometimes, of course, trout, like humans, can be both. Last July I was fly fishing on the Upper Itchen and caught three browns in less than 15 minutes on a “full Sunday roast” fly, a size 12 Klinkhamer. I’d hardly moved 20yd from the fishing hut, where my host and hostess were drinking Sancerre and beaming encouragement. A likely lad was rising 15yd up-stream and he, too, zoomed over to the fly with the enthusiasm of a small child offered a large ice-cream.
I saw him open his mouth – and then brake hard. I tried the same fly for another 10 minutes but might as well have offered Earl Grey to a Yorkshireman. So, out with the Barely Legal, my own variation of a cul-de-canard shuttlecock. Cul-de-canard (CDC) describes the fluffy feathers surrounding a duck’s preening gland. They are naturally oiled, and can be quickly dried with a couple of false casts. They’re pricy in tackle shops but a visit to the local game-dealer will provide enough for hundreds of flies.
Simple to tie, the Barely Legal looks like a bad Mohican haircut and mimics a hatching insect, particularly a mosquito, attempting to break through the surface tension. The top half is above the surface (so you can honestly tell the water bailiff you’re using a dry fly). It’s appallingly effective on southern chalkstreams and stillwaters and perfect for connecting youngsters with fish; once they’ve finally managed to throw a decent line on to a lake, the Barely Legal just sits there waiting for the next patrolling rainbow to swallow it. My trouty chum also seemed partial, scooted over and again slammed both fins on the pedals just before taking.
Next out of the box was the F Fly, invented by the Slovenian, Marjan Fratnik. Little more than a scrap of seal’s fur as the body and a slip of CDC, it can be tied in less than five minutes, even down to the small size 18. It sits flush with the water, giving maximum visual impact when seen from below. It also looks so nondescript it could pass for many species of wind-blown insect. Used with a 12ft de-greased leader, it can con the wariest wild browns; last summer I had a dozen out of the Upper Itchen in less than two hours.
Stages of tying an F Fly for fly fishing:
Tying the thread to the shank
Matching the CDC feathers
Tying them in to the top of the shank
Feathers trimmed to size
So, I had little doubt that this reluctant matey would fall foul of a size 18, clipping down the current. And, indeed, he came over, stopped within a centimetre, then returned to his station and to the feed, constantly snaking from side to side and occasionally rising. My host returned from fishing the upper half of the beat. “You still trying for that fish? Give him up. They’re rising all the way up the river.” Like every good fly fisherman, he knew I wouldn’t. Unless you’re bent on landing a leash for the frying pan, why give up the challenge of catching a hard fish for the certainty of hooking an easy one? We just had to break his menu code.
At that point, my fish sprung a surprise. He leapt 4in out of the water and nailed a mayfly. A few had hatched round 2pm and were now tacking down the wind and dipping into the river. I don’t tie mayflies – they’re fiddly and have never worked for me – but my host had some shop-bought beauties, true doppelgängers.
It did not fool my finny friend but he was sufficiently well mannered to career over to the fly before returning to his little patch of gravel.
TIME FOR A FAG
There’s a time to stop fly fishing and start smoking. After two cigarettes, I had a clearer picture of the fish. While he’d made the effort to snaffle the flying mayfly, his bread-and-butter was small, dark and just below the surface.
In the early days of the Lottery, when the public had not quite grasped the odds were 13,983,816 to one, the adverts featured a large celestial hand pointing to the winner. The fly was suddenly as obvious. Right at the bottom of the fly box was a manky, dishevelled size 16 deer hair Sedge. One cast and my friend was on. Two minutes later, a very cross brown trout was slipped back into the water.
It had taken 1 hour and 47 minutes to catch him.
Undoubtedly, a top-flight fly fisherman with shop-bought flies could have netted him earlier. But I remain convinced that for the majority of us, the home-tied ones work better. There’s also the satisfaction of fly fishing with your own creation, a pleasure heightened if the raw ingredients for the flies were harvested with your gun.
So, why don’t more people tie their own? Perversely, I suspect it’s due to the image of fly-tying portrayed at country shows. The chaps who do it are generous with their time but they have to concentrate and the atmosphere can make monastical prayer seem riotous. Such experts have made fly-tying a highly skilled craft. At its highest level, the intricate salmon flies built by world
experts such as Ken Sawada, Poul Jorgensen and Paul Schmookler become minor works of arts, commanding hundreds of pounds in presentation form.
The majority of us, though, just want flies to catch fish. So forget about dressing flies nicely, with intricate whip finishes and beautifully lacquered heads. So long as the pattern is approximately correct, a scruffy dry fly, finished with half hitches and a dab of nail varnish, will work as well – and sometimes better.
TOO MUCH DITA VON TEESE
Learning how to tie is easy. I pitched up at an evening class at the local comprehensive. Six lessons later, I had a grasp of the basics and was away. Search for classes on the web or contact The Fly Dressers Guild, which holds courses nationwide.
Expensive gear isn’t necessary. A rotating brass fly-tying vice, such as the excellent Regent, costs less than £20. All the rest – bobbin holder, scissors, hackle pliers – can be bought for under £15. As for hooks, I favour the light sedge-style type.
Even Dita Von Teese, the burlesque icon, would be stunned by the variety of feathers, furs and glitz available to the fly-tyer. It’s best to pick the patterns before buying the materials. (I have a boxful of stuff bought at game fairs that’s only been used by raiding house mice to build nests.)
Much of the best material will be free to the shooting man. As well as CDC feathers from duck, the fly-tyer can use hare and rabbit fur, deer hair and plumage from most gamebirds. The ordinary pheasant tail feather can be used to create dozens of Pheasant Tail nymphs – one of the most effective flies ever created.
As the nights grow longer, hog a table for the vice, set it up in front of a comfortable chair, pour a peaty whisky and find a decent film on television. If you’re not hunting or shooting, it’s one of the finest ways to spend a rainy winter day. And you will catch more trout next summer. Truly.
Bob Church’s Guide to the Champions’ Fly Patterns (The Crowood Press, out of print but can be bought second-hand from Abe Books for c£8).
Tying Flies with CDC – The Fisherman’s Miracle Feather, by Leon Links (Merlin Unwin Books, £20).
Beginner’s Guide to Flytying, by Chris Mann and Terry Griffiths (Merlin Unwin Books, £10).
Where to learn the vice
Visit The Flydresser’s Guild to find your local branch; it is FDG policy to teach newcomers. http://learnflytying.co.uk is an excellent website with step-by-step videos of many of the most effective patterns.