These little flies are real gems, with their soft hackle and sparse body they epitomise the simplicity of fly-fishing. The origin of North Country spider patterns, as with all flies, is a little cloudy. Some of the first descriptions were discovered in an 1807 document written by a Yorkshire farmer named John Swarbrick. Due to the winged flies popularity at the time Swarbrick's selections were bounced around for many years and as a result never really made their mark. It was only during the late nineteenth century, 1886 to be precise, that the spider pattern really took of with the publishing of Mr T.E. Pritt's classic book, 'Yorkshire trout flies'. There were other exponents of the spider pattern writing at the time but it was Pritt's book that really hit home.
Pritt's argument for the spider pattern was based around something so simple and obvious that it must have been immensely infuriating to hear arguments against it. Life! Pritt saw that it was nigh impossible to imitate an insect perfectly from an aesthetic point of view, but not from that of an impressionistic one. The theory goes that it is far more difficult to create a perfect imitation and to impart life afterwards, than it is to produce an impressionistic resemblance of an imperfectly developed insect struggling in the current. Basically saying that rather than having a solid body and somewhat rigid wing needing direct manipulation from the angler, you would have a slim, translucent body with a sparse, webby and very mobile hackle capable of moving naturally with the action of the current. It is a wonderfully simple idea that never has and never will fail to catch.
From 1886 onwards the spider patterns popularity gradually spread until 1916 when H. H. Edmonds and N. N. Lee's 'brook and river trouting' gave it an additional shove, causing the spider patterns popularity to soar higher than ever. Both Pritt, and Edmonds and Lee's books are considered to be *the* classics on the tying and fishing of North Country spiders and are well worth looking for.
Imperfectly Developed Insect?
As you'll see above the spider pattern can be a rather odd looking affair, the legs look way too long and the body way to short. But look closer, are they? Or is it just that they're presented in a different style to that of their perfect 10 counterparts. We are used to dry fly hackle being wound as a stiff collar to sit on or in the surface film and nymph legs to stick out from the side or underneath and backwards. Either way they are archetypical visions of the way in which nymphs, emergers and duns (baby mayflies) present themselves. Perfect world scenarios if you like.
In reality it is not nymphs, emergers and duns, but rather, nymphs, stillborns, cripples, duns and blown over duns. During any hatch at any time all will be present, give or take the wind strength in the case of the latter. The positions these poor little things get themselves into would make any self respecting contortionist jealous as hell, which is why I like to think the spider patterns primary port of call is to imitate the stillborn, cripple and blown over dun. I have no doubt that they are taken for general nymphs as well but the others outline the point a little better in my opinion. Nymphs have more of a vivid out line than a mangled dun. But, as you will know there is no real answer as to why spiders work so well, we can't be totally positive, it just seems logical some how.
Stillborns and cripples - To elaborate further, a stillborn is a nymph that lacks the energy to fully emerge from its nymphal skin (shuck). Why some make it and some don't is relatively unknown. Are some fitter than others? Do they just get shit scared when their skin begins to split and die of the shock? I know I would. A stillborn can occur at any stage of the emergence process, some get to having just exposed the thorax, some to the extent of pushing out a wing or two and some to fully extending them. From this point onwards our poor little dead bug remains trapped in the surface film, left to the mercy of the current.
The crippled dun appears in much the same manner, although their reason for being is just plain "unlucky as hell!" Imagine a dun emerging from its shuck, he's just about to withdraw his final leg when, "oh bugger its stuck", what to do? A small struggle ensues until the leg is free, if it doesn't the dun falls over resulting in its very fragile wing touching the water, becoming softer still and crumpling into a useless mess. Once this happens there is no hope of flight, the dun is left struggling in the surface film until a, it dies or b, it's taken by a big hungry trout.
But still, there is more awaiting the emerging dun. This time he actually get out, sitting pretty with a smug look his face Ha, "poof!" a gust of wind hits that newly emerged wing and "flop", down he goes to join his crippled cousins. Stillborns, cripples and blown over duns going through this process are battered about like there's no tomorrow, they get tumbled through fast water, bounced off rocks, stuck in weed and generally mashed about. At the end of this, if untaken by a trout, the fly no longer has the distinct uniform appearance of a dun or the crisp outline of a nymph, but appears as rather more of a contorted mess and from the point of view of a trout, a rather effortless meal.
Look at it this way, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and ended up with my legs pointing backwards and my head up my arse, I'd still be recognisable, just not quite as I should be. People wouldn't ignore and walk past me, completely the opposite in fact, pretty nurses would come running with ice cream and loosely buttoned tops. Trout are creatures of habit; they don't like expending any more energy than is necessary to fill their bellies. The ever-present stillborn/cripple therefore provides an excellent opportunity for an easy meal. Ever wondered why the scruffiest of flies often prove more fulfilling than their prim and proper counterparts? Well this I like to think is why: they conform to the trout's view of normality rather than our own.
I've outlined the emerging dun primarily as it is the most widely thought of reason for fishing spiders. However, any insect is quite capable of finding itself in this situation, anything emerging can die mid way or trip on its coat tails. Terrestrial insects such as ants, beetles and daddy longlegs are frequently blown over the water and subsequently become crippled. The list is endless, spent spinners etc as well. At any time, in any place, there is something being blown over, on, getting stuck in and unable to get out of, the water. I don't use spiders as much now as I think I'm going to in the coming season, writing this is making me wonder why I haven't tried the dozen or so creations bouncing round the inside of my head right now. What have I been missing out on?
Excited yet? I would be.
What you'll need for a general spider
- Hook - 14 to 20, YL2A captain Hamilton wet, Kamazan B-170 etc. You don't necessarily need a specific wet fly hook, any fine wire hook will do. Dry fly hooks such as the partridge YL3A or Tiemco 103BL will do nicely.
- Thread - The traditionally used spider pattern thread is Pearsall's gossamer silk; the colours of all traditional spiders refer to this thread. Its thickness provides a great ribbed effect and acquires tasty looking translucence when wet. It's lovely stuff and for next weeks flies I will be using it. To be honest though, any thread will do, Pearsall's is the tradition and is indeed very nice, but it is just that, a tradition. There is an extraordinary array of threads on the market today in every colour and size imaginable, none of them have fish repelling properties, so it's therefore reasonable to assume that they will work just fine and won't result in a haunting by Edmonds and Lee. For what I will be dealing with you will need yellow, orange and purple.
- Body - For tradition, Natural furs. Only one of the three old favourites I am going to deal with has a dubbed body, Mole to be precise, although any greyish natural fur will do. For small spiders however I am partial to a bit of pure silk in grey, no other material can match the sparseness or translucence silk provides, but as I am dealing in tradition this time I will stick with mole.
- Hackle - Hackle feathers for traditional spider patterns never failed to confuse me. Well to be honest it wasn't the feathers themselves, just the explanations given on their behalf. It is useful to know though so I'll go through it as painlessly as possible. A bird's body can be separated into roughly 8 sections: the neck, throat, breast, back, rump, flank, belly and tail (as shown in fig 1.0). The body is a simple matter, it *can* be made more complicated, but I'm not going to pursue this as I feel it to be largely unnecessary for most tiers.
The wing is a little trickier; looking at the upper side of a wing (fig 1.1) we must first separate it into two sections, the primary section and the secondary section, as shown by the red line division in the picture. Starting with the secondary section we have the lowermost row of feathers known as secondaries, above which are three more rows of feathers known as the upper coverts. The lowermost layer of which are known as upper greater coverts, followed by upper lesser and finally upper marginal coverts right at the top. The opposite side of the wing (the primary section) works in much the same manner, with the lower most feathers being known as primaries followed by the three rows of coverts, the only difference here is that due to them being located upon the primary side they are known as primary greater and primary lesser coverts.
Lastly, upon the upper side of the wing we have the Alula or bastard wing, I don't know why they are called that or what it's for, so make of it what you will. Now flip the feather over (yes there's more), all we need remember here is that the feathers follow the same pattern as the upper side, but our three sections of coverts are now known as under coverts. This can get a little confusing, but if you go here (http://www.ups.edu/biology/museum/wingphotos.html) there are hundreds of nicely set out upper and under wing pictures clearly showing everything discussed.
Each section has its own feather type that is applicable to a specific fly (or flies). If you want to follow every traditional pattern you will need to know your under greater covets from your upper marginal coverts. I am not going to go through the uses of every feather type, the extent to which some feathers and birds are used annoys me a little so I don't really want to go overboard on this. All I want to convey for now is where upon the bird we find certain feathers and what they are called, I'll get more specific when the tying comes around, but for now I just want to ensure that when faced with tying instructions suggesting the under lesser primary covert of a moorhen you'll have an idea what the hell he is talking about. Fortunately most instructions simply mention spoon shaped feathers from the underside of certain wings but it's a good piece of knowledge to have all the same.
And that's pretty much it. Feathers are easy to come by with wings from many species being available for less than £2.00 from most outlets. Quality and size, as with everything will vary so if you're very particular take a look before you buy. Unfortunately it gets a little bit crappy where body feathers are concerned. Usually there will be a choice between a pack of hackles and an actual skin itself (or part of). Buying feathers in packs can be problematic; you may require feathers for size 18 flies but end up with those more suited to 12's. Buying packs mail order is therefore a risky business, if you must it's a good idea to get a look at what you're buying first. When it comes to things like this I usually buy a whole skin (or section of) so as to allow myself to pick and choose any size feather I require. Prices are dependant on the type of bird and do vary considerably, as does quality. How much you spend, whether it be on skin or in packet is dependant on how deeply you want to delve into the subject. If you're really into it the investment will repay itself, if not go for packets, you'll lose nothing.
If you're still with me, next time you'll need a pair of moorhen and snipe wings, some partridge back hackles, plus some very fine gold or copper wire and all else mentioned earlier.
Hmmmm, unusually traditional this week, what can it all mean?