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The Ivens legacy

By Geoffrey Bucknall

Geoffrey Bucknall says we should take a fresh look at the stillwater significance of pioneer Tom Ivens.


  • Black & Peacock Spider

    Black & Peacock Spider

    An easy fly to dress on a wet-fly hook of almost any size. I lap the hook with an under-body of any dark floss to make a beetle shape. I wind over this three or four bronze peacock herls twisted together. Two or three turns of a shiny black hen hackle finish it off.

  • Green & Brown Nymph

    Green & Brown Nymph

    I usually dress this on a standard wet fly hook, size 10. Four bronze peacock herls lashed down at bend for a tail, clipped. Body, green and brown ostrich herls together, and then wound up hook-shank, ribbed with narrow gold or flat tinsel. Peacock herls brought over the body to make a back, lashed down, leaving a couple to make a neat head. I don’t use an under-body but I make the body fluffy. Very useful in lakes where alder, damsel and dragon flies abound. All these flies have whipped finish and varnished heads, of course.

  • The Green Nymph variation

    The Green Nymph variation

    Use any wet-fly hook to suit your needs. Lap the hook-shank with fluo green floss, making a carrot-shape towards the head. Wind over this either a fine clear or green nylon monofilament, or clear horsehair which I like, butting up the turns closely to each other. Wind a brown partridge hackle in at the throat, followed by a few turns of a bronze peacock herl for the head. I have substituted orange materials for the body with some success. This is a heavy fly which sinks well. It has also been used for upstream salmon fishing as recommended in Lemon Grey’s splendid book, Torridge Fishery.

  • Jersey Herd

    Jersey Herd

    Long-shank lure hook. Sizes 6 to 10. Six bronze peacock herls lashed down at bend of the hook to make tail, clipped short. Under-body of orange floss to a minnow shape. Lap over this a flat copper tinsel in butted-up turns. Wind in a doubled hot orange cock hackle at the head. Bring the herls over the back of the hook, through the hackle, lash down. Use one or two herls to make a head. This lure is effective when trout are hunting fry in sunlight.

If we look back on the pioneers of our sport we notice omissions and mistakes in their methodology. This may be our fault, for we are comparing their work to our own time. We should be making that comparison to their time. To recognise the significance of Tom Ivens’ book, Still Water Fly Fishing, which was published in the 1960s, we should consider the state of reservoir fly fishing in the post-war era.

What of the man himself? Like many ex-servicemen on low pay he admitted to managing his expenses carefully. He wanted to take advantage of the policy of water authorities to copy the success of Blagdon. Many new reservoirs were stocked with trout. The fishing was made available under a fly-only rule. There was hardly any town or city dweller which did not have access to trout fishing at reasonable cost. This was a revolution, for before the war, in the south and midlands, only a privileged and affluent minority enjoyed trout fishing of that quality.

The reservoir trout fishing in Ivens’ day was far from easy. Management emulated the thrifty pre-war stocking policy of Blagdon.

I fished Weirwood in Sussex from 1959. It opened in 1958 with an initial stocking of 3,300 mixed rainbows and browns in some 200 acres of water. I believe it was not restocked the following year. I fished hard from dawn to dusk to try to catch my limit. Like Ivens, I fished from the bank for ten bob. A boat trip was a rare luxury.

Between the wars the evolution of stillwater fly fishing methodology was testudinarious. Ivens knew he had to solve the problem of throwing a long line for he could see the lake floor of the marginal shallows for about 20 yards. He knew he needed to reach 30 yards or more to catch fish. Reading his book today it is clear that he operated within a narrow discipline. It did not seem so at that time. It was revolutionary. I remember that nearly every reservoir addict would own a copy of his book which truly started the post-war development of tactics. In his time a text book had to be well written to pass muster. Poor writing ability was not disguised by overloading the text with glossy visual aids, like an ageing whore who covers the ravages of time and disease with encrusted layers of paint and powder. A more critical market place demanded a higher standard of literacy by reader, and writer. Publishers did not need to dumb texts to suit today’s semi-literate button-pushers and watchers of the shining screen.

To gain the extra casting distance Ivens adopted a scaled-down version of the tournament caster’s double-haul routine. Unknown beyond the tournament platform, it was an eye-opener. He realised that he had to ‘detune it’ simply because the standard tackle for competition casting was unsuitable for practical fishing. For instance, during my own foray into competition casting I used a fast-tapered ledgering blank for my rod.

In double-haul casting, timing is critical. Ivens slowed down the routine by designing a powerful, butt-actioned rod in split cane, called the ‘Iron Murderer’. The rod was loaded with a double-taper line, of silk dressed with linseed oil. As a result, the caster could stand comfortably, facing square-on to his target area. He would use ‘feel’ to judge the extension of line behind on the back-cast. He did not need to swivel his shoulders or turn his head. Before the days of universal access to professional tuition, Ivens brought distance casting within the reach of the average bank-fisherman.

When you reach greater distance through extra speed and line shoot it is difficult to achieve a perfect turnover with the extension of line on the forward cast. Ivens hit on the idea of knotting a thicker belly into his leader, about a third of the way down from its butt. This made it a ‘double-taper’. The formulae in his book gave too many knots and short lengths to his leaders, but this is easy to simplify without loss of efficiency. I reduced the number of sections and compensated by doubling their length. An 18-inch section of nylon became 36 inches for example. This works just as well.

He fished with a single fly to avoid the tangles which a traditional team of wet flies would have made into a bird’s nest with such a ‘narrow loop’ and fast turnover. His fly patterns avoided the pedantry of ‘exact imitation’ in favour of being aerodynamic and behaviour-oriented in the water which put him light years ahead of the imitationist purists. This may explain why some of his flies still occupy our fly boxes whilst others failed to stay the course. His successful patterns copied the natural food of the trout in a general sense. His Black & Peacock Spider, for example, could be accepted for water beetles, horse-leeches, snails and tadpoles. Sometimes his patterns failed in a hatch when the fish were really locked-on to a particular food item. If he missed out on buzzers, an important food item, he was not alone. A few years were to pass before we understood how to succeed in the ‘Blagdon Boil’

Two minutes

You need to read his book to learn his tactics, but he insisted on fishing his flies very slowly, timing himself for about two minutes on a 30 yard retrieve. Today’s frenetical lure-strippers should take this to heart.

I was, and I still am an admirer of Tom Ivens. I was a proud owner and user of his Iron Murderer. It was not his fault that I got a duodenal ulcer in 1963 which hurt me when I was using it. I had to find a lighter system for distance casting. Thanks to advice from bass-fishing pals in Alabama I developed a light shooting head system – but that is another story.

I used to carry the full armoury of his flies, but I discovered that some of his patterns did not score for me. I failed with the Pretty-Pretty, the Brown Nymph, and the Green & Yellow Nymph.

I scored consistently with his Jersey Herd, Green & Brown Nymph, as well as with his Green Nymph and the Black & Peacock Spider. I varied his dressings to suit myself. We have to build on the ideas of others, which is fair providing we give credit where it is due.

Before I discuss these flies, I must refer to the rumours that circulated at that time, that he was not the originator of the book or the fly patterns which bore his name. I do not believe them. During my fishing life I have heard similar stories about various angling writers or competitors in matches. Nearly all of them I dismissed; on investigation, they made no sense.

Tom Ivens’ time was before the popular explosion of stillwater fly fishing. Without meaning to be, but simply by being a pioneer, he became controversial. His articles, describing his techniques were savagely attacked by Richard Walker in the Angling Times, as ‘bone-headed athleticism’. It is bizarre, because later, when Grafham opened on his doorstep, Walker adopted the distance-casting tactics which Tom and myself had introduced, without adding anything new to them, nor crediting his sources, Tom for the double-haul, myself for the light shooting head. In my case, happily Barrie Rickards put the record straight in his biography of Walker. But Barrie did not go into bat for Tom Ivens to whom we reservoir addicts owe a great deal. I hope this article will put right this ancient wrong.

Practical notes
Ivens was a practical man. For toughness, really lash down the materials with several turns of thread. Jersey Herd – I wind fine flat copper tinsel down from the throat, then back again, making a double layer. This how I dress all tinsel-bodied flies. Double the hackle by tying feather in at the tip, then strokes the fibres backwards with lots of spit. I dress weighted flies with a distinctive colour of thread so I can identify them in my fly box.

Dubbing: It’s best to mix the dubbings together by hand; the straggly effect is attractive, unlike furs chopped up in mixing machines. Ugh ...

These patterns are simple to dress. They are as effective now as when they were invented. I must have caught hundreds of fish on them. They hold their own against modern inventions. I still bump into them when bumming flies from my friends’ boxes.

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