Artificial Fly-Dressing: Tying Trout Flies and Winging
The dressing of simple dry and wet trout flies, flies for sea-trout and tubes for sea-trout and salmon, presents no real difficulties. Time and a little patience are more important here than great manual dexterity. It is easy enough to buy shop flies, but there are two arguments in favour of tying one’s own: (i) it leads the angler’s interest into a new and absorbing field; (ii) it enables flies of the desired sort for any particular water to be produced cheaply and at will.
The beginner will soon be confronted with the mystique of fly-dressing. In the end he may decide to join the coterie, learn its language, and produce mysteries of his own. The cult of the hackle is typical of fly-dressing mysticism, a hackle of course being a small feather usually from the ruff or neck of a domestic fowl. The hackle cult centres on the Andalusian and other breeds of show fowls.
Equipment and materials
A small amount of mechanical equipment is needed. The following will be found adequate: a fly-tying vice with a pointed nose, and fitted with a table clamp; a silk-bobbin holder; hackle pliers; fine scissors; an adjustable lamp of the Anglepoise type; a few hundred hooks of various sizes; Durofix; some cobbler’s wax; silk in various shades; and a selection of tubing for tube-flies. That leaves us with the material to collect.
In amateur fly-dressing, a little goes a long way. A moleskin lasts for ages. A single heron primary will continue to supply blue-grey fibres long after the angler has forgotten where he picked it up. Variety rather than quantity should be the keynote of a collection of materials. The importance of quality — as regards the colour, texture, and soundness of the material — goes without saying.
Once the fly-tying beginner gets behind the magic and mystery he finds that simple materials often make the best flies, and many materials can be picked up by walking through the countryside with one’s eyes open.
Here are some typical items which will start a useful collection:
Red, black, brown, and honey cock and hen hackles
Pheasant feathers (from neck, rump, and tail), cock and hen
Mallard duck and drake feathers (flank and neck)
Jackdaw throat hackles
Partridge (back and breast)
Teal feathers (flank, breast, and neck)
Snipe and moorhen wings
Heron primary feathers
Blackbird, swallow, and thrush feathers (various)
Martin, sandpiper, corncrake, and rook feathers
Furs: rabbit, mole, squirrel tail, water-rat
Tinsels : silver oval and flat; gold oval and flat
Wool: various colours
Silks: red, purple, yellow, brown, and olive shades
Fine gold and silver wire
Many of these materials can be collected during walks in the country.
Tying Trout Flies
A simple trout fly that will catch fish consists of only two parts — body and hackle. Let us suppose that we want to tie half a dozen flies suitable for use in a moorland stream and likely to take fish at more or less any time throughout the season. No attempt is made at imitating any particular insect; we aim here at a general impression which could be any of a dozen species of hatching.
A March Brown Pheasant Tail is a splendid general pattern. Tie it to hooks of size 10, 12, and 14 Redditch scale.
The materials needed are a cock-pheasant long centre-tail feather and a few brown partridge hackles, plus a piece of fine gold wire and a spool of brown silk.
Fit the hook into the vice, eye pointing to the right of the operator. Wrap the silk around the shank opposite the hook-barb and overlap to trap it. Smear a little Durofix, or similar quick-drying cement, on the silk and along the shank. Trim away any waste silk hanging.
Place four cock-pheasant tail fibres against the hook and trap the tips with two turns of silk. Repeat with the end of the fine gold wire. Holding wire and fibres to one side, wind the silk evenly along the shank to within 6 mm a in) of the eye of the fly.
Now wind the fibres as evenly as possible forward over the silk. Tie off near the eye with two turns of silk. Follow up with the gold wire. Tie off.
Now take a partridge hackle. Tie it in at the shoulder of the fly by the tip, stroking the remaining fibres to the rear. Wind the silk forward to the eye. Using the hackle pliers, give the hackle two or three turns around the shank and trap it in position with the silk while holding it taut.
Trim the hackle flush. Secure all material by giving the fly a neat silk head. Make the final tie with a half-hitch and solidify the silk with a little Durofix. Trim.
Very many amateurs could tie such a simple fly in less than a minute.
Fly-dressers seldom agree over details and there is no reason why they should. Laying aside the dogmas of fly-dressing — the `principles’ — tying flies really boils down to neatness and security. Neatness pleases the workman in us and makes for more efficient assembly. Security is achieved by correct assembly and the use of cellulose cement. Flies that come apart during fishing are a source of wasted time and annoyance.
To catch a trout a fly needs only a body and a hackle. Indeed, one can dispense with the hackle. The fly is then a fair representation of a nymph and, if fished in the manner suitable for such an impression, will catch fish admirably.
Most of us, however, love to pretend that we can imitate living insects in all their details. We add tails to our flies; sometimes we give them wings. Wings, however, have a rather special use, for by making a more bulky silhouette they enable fish to see the fly in darker water.
Winging a fly such as a March Brown Pheasant Tail takes a certain amount of dexterity. This particular fly is best winged with a brownish feather to suit its dull hue. A hen-pheasant feather does the job very well.
After tying in the hackle but before forming the head of the fly, tie in the wings. Cut two slips of fibres from opposite sides of the feather. Place the slips together and pinch them firmly with the finger and thumb of the left hand.
Place the wings in position and secure by winding the silk very firmly over the butts. The grip must not be relaxed. After about four turns of the silk the wings should be checked for alignment. Complete the head and. Special winging pliers help with this operation but are not essential.
Flies for lake trout, rainbow trout, grayling, and other fish can all be constructed in this way. For fur bodies, the fur is spun around the silk before winding. Tags and tails may be needed according to the pattern used. Other materials such as quill and herl are wound on in the same manner as the pheasant tail fibres.
The tying of built-wing salmon flies is a highly skilled job and one beyond the ability of all but advanced amateurs. It is purely a labour of love — and an expensive one at that. The materials for traditional salmon flies become dearer and harder to obtain each season.
The practical angler who ties his own salmon flies, as I do, has no need to purchase exotic plumages. Hairwing flies and flies made from simple materials such as turkey, swan, and duck will catch fish quite well. In fact, many experts prefer these simple flies.
Although the big salmon ‘irons’ are no longer as popular as they were it is useful to have a few with one for early spring fishing. They sink well and are not hard to release from the jaws of; and there are days when one catches nothing but kelts. Bodies of flat silver tinsel with a low broad wing and a black or brownish hackle do well if sunk deep. There is nothing hard about constructing such flies.
For late spring and summer fishing, tube-flies have quite swept the field, the nylon tube itself being simply a piece of discarded ball-point pen tubing. Self-weighted tubing can be bought. A brass head prevents skating on the surface.
To dress a tube, you press it on to a darning needle of suitable size. The needle is gripped in the vice, so that the tube is firm and has no tendency to turn. The dressing is then assembled around the tube. To mount for fishing, run the brass head up the leader followed by the tube and both are retained by a treble hook tied to the leader end. When a fish is hooked the tube washes up the leader and the dressing is preserved. An important advantage, this, on days when you hook nothing but toothy kelts.
Another advantage of tube-flies is that you can increase or decrease the size of the fly according to conditions. If a 2.5 cm (1 in) tube is in use and conditions suggest that this is too small, you have only to remove the treble and add another tube, and at once you have a 5 cm (2 ins) tube-fly.
Furthermore, by varying the dressings on the tubes you can build up composite flies. Two 2 cm (3/4 in) tubes plus a 1.5 cm (1/2 in) tube, each variously dressed, will give a 5 cm (2 ins) fly to suit whatever the conditions demand.
Almost no useful suggestions can be made about dressings since salmon flies vary from dingy March Browns to concoctions that would shock a rainbow. Dull hues will catch fish when brilliant ones fail. I like silver tinsel for spring work, gold for summer. Hair has a better action than feather.
Many sorts of hair can be used to dress tubes. Squirrel — fine and silky — is good; so is polar-bear, if you can get some. Polar-bear dyes well and has a brilliance all of its own. Moreover, it is pro,red by nature against damp.
Artificial flies still offer a huge field for practical research and development. The last answer is never the final answer. Fish react to subtle environmental changes about which we know little, and this tempers their reaction to flies, real and simulated.
Years of experience lie behind traditional patterns so they should not be lightly discarded. Personally, I use traditional patterns and materials with a leavening of moderns and experimentals.