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First, catch your barmaid

By Mike Harding

Mike Harding's quest for the perfect fly-tying material.

"I've had mine waxed for me 'olidays."

In the olden days, before the World Wide Web opened up the Global Emporium to the click of a mouse and the flash of plastic, the fly dressers of these islands had little in the choice of materials other than that garnered from the natural world: wool, feathers and fur, all held together with silk thread.

Even the great Frank Sawyer used little other for most of his flies than pheasant tail fibres and a roll of copper wire he took out of the back of the radio. His most famous fly, the Killer Bug, which looks for all the world like a small grey turd, was dressed simply with darning wool and fuse wire. His wife, understandably was not pleased at sitting in the dark trying to get Round The Horne on a dud radio while her husband walked round with holes in his socks.

Nowadays, we live in more bountiful times, and if I want a spool of Roman Moser Powersilk or a Hungarian pheasant cape, all I have to do is go online and a day or so later the postman will ram them through the letterbox. Recently, though I’ve taken to tying a lot of the old North Country flies: Partridge & Orange, Waterhen Bloa, Woodcock & Red and so on. Some of them, of course, call for the feathers of game birds like the partridge, woodcock and grouse. Since I spend a lot of time in the Yorkshire Dales, I usually have no problem getting my hands on the odd wing or two. The hackles I get from the freshly shot birds are much better than most shop-bought feathers – one packet of woodcock hackle feathers I bought for two quid recently was more bum fluff and stalk than anything else – I got about 30 usable feathers from the packet and many of them fell to pieces while I was working with them.

Some of the materials I need have been harder to get hold of: brown owl feathers are a bit thin on the ground, though I do have a contact who knows somebody who knows somebody else who keeps owls and who will pass on any defunct birds for recycling.

I live in hope.

I caused a small ripple to pass across the face of an otherwise placid North Ribblesdale farmer friend recently when I asked him, in the pub one night, if he had any tups close to hand.

He looked at me warily.


“I was wondering if you could get me some wool?”

“From ‘tup like?”



“From round its testicles.”


By now the barmaid was all ears and the plate of steak and ale pie and chips she should have been delivering was growing cold in her hands.

“Tha wants wool from off ‘tups sack?”

“The soft wool, stained a yellowy pink. It’s for a fly I’m tying: Tups Invincible.”

“Hast thou ever seen t’size o’ yan o’me Swardle tups?”

I nodded; his Swaledale tups were big beasts indeed.

“And tha wants me to rip wool off its knackers?”

“Only when it’s convenient.”

“Ah’ll get thi sum at clippin’ time. Ah’m not goin’ tearing wool of a tups knackers at tuppin’ time. They’re frisky enough as it is.”

I’m still waiting.

I have two cats, Huxley and Reuben, black and white moggies of a certain age. Their fur combings produce a really fine dubbing, just the grey side of black, and their (unused) cat litter, ground down and mixed with water makes a good Fullers Earth substitute. They drew the line however at letting me trim their beards when a recipe for an old North Country fly called for a tail made from “three or four whiskers from a black cat’s beard.” Now whenever they see me with a pair of scissors, the go out looking for fieldmice – even if it’s raining.

The rest of the family have also suffered in the cause of my art. They have all put on pounds after a diet of Tangy Cheese Doritos (the orange on the packet makes great wing buds for buzzers) and my wife is still searching high and low for her clear nail varnish. I have yet to stoop so low as to tread on my grandson’s Scalextric car for the copper wire in the motor (ideal for Pheasant Tail Nymph).

I am tempted though.

I think I have also drawn a blank with the local barmaid. After too many single malts I told her the story of the Hairy Mary fly which was famously dressed by a Scots salmon fisher using pubic hair kindly donated by the barmaid at his local pub.

“No use lookin’ at me, chuck,” she said, waltzing off with a beef lasagne steaming in her hands. “I’ve had mine waxed for me ’olidays.”

Mike Harding's view on fly fishing and fly tying appears every month in Fly Fishing and Fly Fishing magazine.

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