A Covert Operation
"Well oiled" is not the word, notice how I intuitively knew Paul was going to do north country wets in the flow, it's a gift, what can I say. So now that you're fully brainwashed and convinced of the unparalleled fish luring abilities of the spider pattern, it would seem appropriate that this week we actually found out what one looks like.
It was a big decision for this piece, I wasn't too sure about doing these three; in fact I'm still making the decision right now. The three old favourites, the flies everyone does, the traditional *big* three. Oh stuff it, Sure there are others, but some things are just meant to be.
This is by far my favourite spider pattern of all. It was during a holiday on the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, Yaaarkshire, to the locals, that I first came across this pattern, it proved responsible for 20 of the 30 fish I caught that week and as a result became a permanent fixture in my box from then on. It is generally thought to imitate the Large Dark Olive, which it does very well, but my experiences of this fly showed it working to an incredible level during a hatch of practically anything, or nothing. Like many other flies you could argue that they're not colour specific, but they don't have to be, they just work, all the ingredients that prove attractive to fish are there. We have bugginess and translucence with the rough, sparse, dark over light body and exceptional mobility with that long, soft hackle. Perfect! I love them. They contradict every ounce of flexi body I've ever owned.
What you'll need
Hook - Any shortish shank wet or dry fly hook, sizes 18 to 14 (I'm using the partridge captain Hamilton YL2A, size 14)
Body - Fine grey dubbing. Now we have a couple of choices this week, I know I said I'd be sticking with tradition i.e. mole fur, but after tying a few with grey silk I remembered how great it looked. Mole is a little trickier to dub and gives off more of a spiky appearance, whilst silk is easier to work with and provides a finer, slightly smoother effect. As of yet I haven't noticed any distinct differences in the fly's effectiveness with either body type, so I doubt it really matters. I like the option of having both rough and smooth variations to hand. The translucence of a sparsely dressed silk body is unmatched, put that on top of a silk thread and you've got something really tasty. On the other hand however you lose bugginess, enter the mole. I tie both in all sizes, although the more manageable silk is generally better for smaller flies.
And no, enter the mole is not the sequel to enter the dragon.
Hackle - Waterhen (Moorhen), technically the under marginal or under lesser covert. You don't have to be too specific with your feather type, ideally you just want a pale grey, webby feather of broad, soft barbs that when tied in are long enough to stretch from the back of the eye to just past the bend.
Step one - with the hook placed firmly in the vice start the thread and wind on to roughly opposite either the point of the hook or just in between the point and the barb. On a short wet fly hook such as the one I'm using today it pretty much means stop a couple of mm short of the bend. Some tiers prefer shorter bodies than this but I don't see as it really makes any difference to the fly's fish catching abilities (he confidently mutters:-).
Step two - Take some mole fur or silk and apply it to the thread as sparsely as possible, you should be able to see the thread through the fur at all times, Pritt compared it to three days of stubble! Now wind on the body to about 2mm short of the eye. The reason for such sparseness is down to translucence. Many insects at varying stages of their lifecycle are not present in solid colours, what we see is the blend between the semi translucent outer skin and the paler internal body. This can be over emphasized in the tying of an artificial fly by simply dubbing a thin darkish body over a light thread. When wet the two layers of light and dark will blend perfectly. Fish like this, in fact, if insects only came in dulux colours they would still like it, see through tops, need I say more.
Step three - take the hackle feather, hold it by the tip and stroke the fibres backwards. The fibres should be long enough to extend just past the bend when tied in. Barbs at the tip of the feather probably won't be, so go backwards from the tip until you arrive at the appropriate length. Tie it down, tip facing forward, at this spot. The feather should be tied in with the upper, more vividly coloured side facing upwards. The reason for this is purely aesthetic; the nicer side of the feather facing forwards provides a better looking fly, simple as that. It's satisfying to produce good looking flies, fish don't care, but if it takes no extra hassle then go for it and enjoy the moment.
Step 4 - Now take hold of the hackle butt with either hackle pliers or your fingers and wind on up to two and half touching turns towards the eye. Now tie down with two to three wraps of thread and snip off the waste. Due to dealing with such a short feather having been tied down by its relatively thin and fragile quill, you will have to be quite gentle whilst winding on the first turn, a slight jerk and the feather may come away. It will take a couple of goes to get used to how much pressure is needed but after that it's plain sailing. Some tiers don't trim the waste until after the hackle has been fully wound; so as to prevent it from pulling all the way out if a slip of the wrist should ensue. I don't bother doing this, it only takes two minutes to get used to how much pressure to use anyway so I don't see the point, but try it all same, you may prefer it.
One other thing that seems to be constantly in debate that I must mention is that of how many turns? Some would argue that only one turn and around eight barbs should be present, whilst others go for a more bulky result. I like to go in between. A fly with only several barbs will most likely be bald after only one fish. A fly with a good two to two and a half turns will last a lot longer, simple as that. Fish enjoy both very much.
Step 5 - Now whip finish and varnish.
The winding of a soft hackle can at times have a certain "oh for god sake" feel about it. Fibres will get trapped, stuck together and end up facing the wrong way, but that's normal, if you're sitting there wondering what I'm going on about then you must simply accept the fact that you are somewhat abnormal and freaky. You'll never stop mishaps completely, but you can limit them.
Firstly, before winding the hackle smooth out the barbs so they stick out at right angles to the quill, somewhat separated from each other, this should (fingers crossed) reduce the chances of a stuck together clump becoming trapped underneath the quill and hook shank when the following wrap comes round. Secondly, upon each turn of hackle smooth the fibres backwards with your finger and thumb ready for the next wrap. If even after this, God forbid, you spot a clump of stuck together barbs refusing to comply then simply stop doing whatever you're doing with your other hand, ease pressure off the hackle and tease out the offending barbs with a dubbing needle. I only do this when I see a significant bunch about to be trapped, anything else I ignore, you will always get the odd fibre facing forward, it's natural. I spent too much time fussing over things like this not so long ago; if I saw anything going against the perfect vision I'd created in my hea d I'd scrap it and start again. Don't be too fussy with it, if you have the odd barb facing forwards after you've finished just hold it back and take a wrap over to fix in place, or alternatively just snip it off.
Now I'm going to go out on a limb here that I know some people won't like. Despite this piece being primarily about the tying of "correct" spider patterns, the most important point I will make and by far the most useful to remember, is that you can take all of the above with a pinch of salt. Any aspects of neatness and correct procedure I have mentioned are purely for what many people would consider to be, "the art of fly tying". If anything we are trying to imitate a smashed up insect, so why be so specific? The simple answer to that is that you don't have to be. The whole point of a spider pattern is that it looks like something that has just been mowed down by a speedboat; symmetry has no part to play here. Anyone telling you otherwise should receive a swift slap with a soggy bath mat, if the hackle sticks out instead of back, or is more dense at the top than the bottom then leave it, you will probably be tying flies that are a hell of a lot more imitative than you really th ink.
All traditional spiders follow the same basic recipe, some may be dubbed a little heavier, whilst some may utilise quill bodies and herl heads, but in general once you can tie one you can tie them all. So try these:
Partridge and Orange
Hook - 14 - 18
Thread - Pearsall's gossamer silk, 6a Orange (waxed), not 19 hot orange! Many of the commercially available P&O's use hot orange and I hate it! I know where they're going with the whole attractor pattern angle, but some things are just meant to be left alone. Not many people wax it now either, I prefer the orangey brown look so I do wax; it is more insecty that way.
Body - as above.
Rib - fine gold or copper wire.
Hackle - mottled brownish feather from a partridges back or neck, preferably the darkest ones.
The partridge and orange is probably the most well known of all North Country spiders, and one of very few whose name is readily known throughout the world. It was originally intended to imitate small stone and willow flies, although the mottled legs are somewhat reminiscent of those found upon Blue winged olive nymphs. I don't know, maybe one summer day back in 1915 a BWO got a little frisky with a local willow fly jut in time for Mr Edmond's morning fish. Who knows? Either way it is a great fish catching pattern in all conditions.
Snipe and Purple
Hook - 16 - 20.
Thread - Pearsall's gossamer silk, 8 purple.
Body - as above.
Hackle - Dark greyish marginal under covert of a Snipe's wing. But again, you don't have to be too specific, barb length, webbiness and the general dark grey colour are more important.
Another of the most famous of spiders, Pritt claimed this to be the best one of all. I fish them in varying sizes to cover a wide range of insects from iron blue's to needle flies and midges. In fact, this fly tied in various sizes will imitate practically any dark insect going. And yes this one works when there's bugger all hatching as well. Spider patterns just seem familiar to trout at all times and represent an easy meal regardless of the situation. They are killers that have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Now find some hungry trout.