Adult Willow Fly/Needle Fly (Stone F-Fly)
Hook: Tiemco 200, size 20 and 22. (Body length – 6mm Needle Fly – 8mm Willow Fly.)
Thread: Black (Moser Powersilk or similar).
Body: Micro Vernille chenille.
Wing: Three small natural dark grey CdC feathers.
Tails: As wing.
The tying sequence for the Stone F-Fly is detailed in the September 2002 issue of FF&FT. One small hint: when you tie in the vernille chenille, ensure that your thread is spun to open up the fibres to give a flat – not round – profile to the thread as you tie in the body. This will help to prevent the thread cutting in to the outer layer of the body material.
Adult Willow Fly/Needle Fly (right)
With mid-month bringing the close of trout fishing, October is somtimes seen as the time of year that signifies the end of fly-fishing for another season? Not a bit of it. Whilst the trout season may close across the country, as the month progresses that most wonderful and worthy quarry species – the grayling – reaches both its peak of condition and attractiveness to fly fishers.
Well, to most fly fishers that is. Sadly there seems to remain a hard core of diehards – ‘dinosaurs’ who continue to believe that the only good grayling is a dead grayling. That this attitude continues, thankfully among fewer and fewer anglers, in spite of the vast amount of good work by the Grayling Society is a sad reflection on those who fail to accord this native species its rightful and proper status amongst the very best of our freshwater game fish.
That the species continues to thrive in a wide variety of rivers despite the frequent and dubious ministrations of fish farmers and habitual stockers of fish is surely one of nature’s master strokes, and one for which we and the vast majority of thinking anglers are, or should be, profoundly grateful.
What better reason to be at the river bank on a late autumn or winter’s day than top class grayling fishing? Equal perhaps to flighting wild duck at dawn and dusk; perhaps the perfect sporting day would be a combination of the two.
However this series is about the food forms of resident fish in our rivers and streams, and the flies to represent them, so enough eulogising about grayling and sporting wild birds.
Special flies for grayling?
Before looking in more detail at the creatures to figure on this month’s menu we will share with you one of life’s little mysteries. Why do we need special patterns, so-called ‘grayling flies’, in order to fly-fish for this species? This issue comes up in the majority of fly-fishing books and many magazine articles on autumn and winter fly-fishing. Grayling are, after all, a hungry predator of the smaller fauna in their habitat and as such can and will feed only on the species that are both available and vulnerable to their predations. Our approach to river fishing is to seek to represent with an artificial fly those food forms that appear on the seasonal menu of our resident fish. To have a new set of flies paraded as the ‘must have’ patterns essential to catch grayling simply makes no sense at all.
Now, we are neither saying that so-called grayling flies don’t work, nor that those who wish to do so should not fish with those patterns. But to confuse fly selection at the river-side by having a range of artificials that have no easily discernable connection with the observed giss of the resident insects is a complication which is unhelpful and which clashes with three of the keys to success which we set out in the introduction to this series back in the March issue.
For reference those three keys were to carry a selection of flies that would:
1. assist in the river-side selection of an artificial fly of sufficiently good representation of natural food to fool the fish;
2. be firmly based on easily identifiable food items as they come onto the fish’s menu through the year; and
3. be based on a limited range of fly tying styles each of which cover a number of food items.
So, no ‘grayling specials’ for us, but if they are your own preference and you have found circumstances in which you can fish them with confidence and predictable success, then enjoy them and have fun.
In the upland rivers and streams of these latitudes we are blessed with a wide variety of aquatic food forms that, with some reliability, come on to the menu as the year progresses. For river fishers the insect feast at this time of year centres on a few major players.
The selections for September (and, to a lesser extent, August) are likely to continue to hold good for at least part of this month. And with the additions of the two autumn species of small stoneflies (the needle and willow flies), together with the autumn hatch of the large dark olives, both we and the fish can look forward to a bounteous harvest as autumn progresses. Not that everything stops once the calendar clicks over into November and beyond. Good water conditions will see us out on the river right through the winter. Dry-fly fishing does, of course, tend to tail off once mid-November has passed, but we have caught fish on dry fly every month of the year.
Of course, bug fishing is the mainstay of our winter forays but it pays to be alert to the possibility of a rising fish and ready for a quick change to a dry fly
Hors-d’oeuvres – willow and needle fly nymph
Our choice starter for October is the nymph of the needle and willow stoneflies. Stoneflies as a biological order require top-notch water quality and specialised habitat in order to thrive, so not all stretches of river where trout and grayling are present will be able to support stoneflies. Where they do occur they are usually present in big numbers. Both the needle fly (Leuctra fusca) and the willow fly (L. geniculata) have life cycles that make them available and vulnerable to the fish.
As their name suggests, stoneflies are generally found in the stony reaches, and the presence of the nymphs can easily be confirmed by some judicious stone-turning. They are easy to separate from other stone-dwelling nymphs (principally the Ephemeroptera) with a giss which to us sets them apart as the catwalk models of the nymph world – slim, elegant and graceful in movement, complete with two hat plumes and a graceful train of twin tails. Not only glamorous to look at but good enough to eat – to fish at least! They pass our other test of occurring regularly in stomach samples with flying colours, so our fly boxes are never without some representations of these.
So, if we arrive at the river and can’t spot some rising fish then our opening tactics at this season will certainly involve Stonefly Nymphs.
Main course – adult willow and needle fly
The main course on this month’s menu are the adults of two species of Leuctridae stoneflies. The willow fly is the larger of the two with a body length of 8mm or so, while the slightly smaller needle fly measures in at 6mm or so. We need to bear these dimensions in mind when we get to the tying bench.
As to giss, these small stonefly species are the World War 1 bi-planes of the insect world. Once they get airborne, expect to see their squadrons patrolling about in laboured flight above their chosen bit of river. Both are a dull, dark, browny-grey in colour.
The adults emerge after the ripe nymphs have crawled out on to emergent vegetation or rocks. These nymphs often lose their footing as the perilous journey is made from fast water to land which can sometimes result in them struggling seductively in the shallows. When ripe nymphs make it from river to land and emerge, they are still in mortal danger. Freshly emerged adult needle and willow flies not only fall prey to every kind of river-side bird but also on windy days they often get blown back onto the river just moments after leaving their shucks.
Consequently recently emerged adults are frequently seen struggling and skittering on the surface, just as if they have emerged through the surface film. The fish, as ever, don’t mind how they got there and take them with gusto.
When it comes to laying eggs, the adult females lay at or just above the surface; fish quickly become keyed in to this stage as a reliable food source. Unlike upwinged insects, female stoneflies can make several egg-laying forays before they die; so the fish have even more chances of an easy meal. It’s as if sooner or later all these stoneflies are destined to be fish food.
Provided the weather is half-way decent, this is one of the great times of year for dry-fly fishing so the chances are that we can, at some point in the day, expect the fish to be looking up for floating food. The precise species to satisfy that demand will vary from day to day and year to year.
For example, on our local river autumn 2001 was a terrific stonefly time, whilst autumn 2002 was less good. Not that there were no stonefly just that they were less dominant as a proportion of the total food available and vulnerable to the fish. The really important point out of all this is to make and be led by our own observations rather than by some predetermined notions gleaned the experience or writings of others. Anglers have said that stoneflies and sedge can be hard to tell apart. Compared to sedge, stoneflies are much more delicate in flight; at rest the wings of stoneflies are not tent-like but are either laid flat across their backs or slightly rounded and the wings also tend to have a shiny hard look about them.
When circumstances are right, with good numbers of naturals around in a spell of settled weather, fish can get really keyed in to these species. During the autumn of 2002 with our stonefly adult pattern, when the natural adults were attracting a lot of attention – we landed 206 fish – an average of 15 fish per trip. Stomach samples are frequently crammed with these insects, so again a trusted representation is a permanent member of our fly team.
Dessert – large dark olive
The other new entry on the menu for this month is not exactly a newcomer, more the return of an old favourite in the form of the ubiquitous large dark olive. Unlike the stoneflies, this is a species that is wholly unfussy about where it lives; so much so that it does not feature as an indicator species in the Environment Agency’s species list for water quality calculations. Nonetheless, it is one we anglers are delighted to see; the fish love it so it has a permanent place in our fly boxes.
The April 2003 issue of FF&FT gave details of the large dark olive and its habits. There is one big difference between the spring and autumn hatches, we regularly find that autumn large dark olives are smaller than their spring-time cousins. Just why the late hatching insects are smaller is unclear. Perhaps the eggs for these autumn hatchers were laid in the spring and the nymphs have had insufficient time to develop? That seems unlikely since they were growing through the most prolific months of the year. Or do these autumn hatchers come from eggs laid in the autumn of the previous year, in which case they may have suffered from an early check in growth rates due to the onset of winter?
On suitable days expect to see the classic battleship grey sailboats on the surface followed by little grey parachutes lifting from the surface and drifting up and away, generally down-wind. Make the most of these days because the hatch is finite and, in most years, short-lived before the autumn nymph stock has done its stuff for another year and Mother Nature begins to think of closing down for the winter.
The Stonefly Nymph
Being a time of year when the water is warm and all the flies are particularly active, a great variety of presentations will work well. In shallow water one of our favourites techniques is to present a lightly weighted single fly in the classic upstream style. Alternatively, we often fish a Stonefly Nymph as part of a duo rig presented New Zealand dropper-style underneath a dry fly. (This works well with a LDO Nymph – see April 2003 issue). In deeper water a Stonefly works well presented as part of a weighted team in the Czech Nymph style.
Whichever method you choose, you must concentrate hard right through each drift, particularly at the lift and swing stage towards the end of each presentation.
The Adult Stonefly and LDO Dun
Presentation for both has been described in earlier issues but we will repeat some of the notes here, adding a few bits and pieces. Lots of variations are possible, but watching what the naturals are doing on the day is the best starting point.
If the naturals are placidly drifting along prior to the occasional disappearing trick, try a dead drift. If the wind is blowing them about or they are skittering about, try the odd little twitch. As ever we are talking about very small movements here, not dog-knobbler yanks! If your representation is being refused amid a flurry of disappearing naturals think first that your presentation might be at fault. Unwanted drag is the most frequent problem. This can often be remedied by a change of casting position – move carefully of course so as not to spook your quarry. With really nervous fish try a downstream presentation (provided the fishery rules allow) so that the first thing your quarry sees is the fly. And if your fly is still being refused then ‘is the string too thick?’ If you’re using a tippet of around 0.13mm diameter (5/1000inch or 6X) all should be well in that department.
Stealth combined with casting accurately to a marked fish are key factors. It is tempting to conclude that we have covered a fish by simply putting a fly into the general area of activity. However, as often as not the fly has been nowhere near the limits of vision of the target. And that fish has simply not seen the fly – and has no idea that a potential meal has been anywhere nearby! Nevertheless the angler is convinced that his fly was correctly presented and concludes that the fly is lacking in some mystical essential quality; thus it been has been refused due to being the wrong pattern or because the tippet material is lacking in some magical properties.
Magic fly attached to magic string seems to be the mantra of the age in which we live – bah humbug – there is no magic fly and there is no magic monofilament.
Remember, when fish are lying near the surface, a fly which lands six inches off target can easily be too far away. And half a yard away is almost never good enough even when fish are lying deeper.
When we fish together in close company the caster invariably gets a gentle joshing from the observer on the likelihood of a take: first cast – “close, but not close enough”; second cast – “six inches to the left and it’s yours”; third cast – “it’ll take that now”. And that is often just what happens.
Near enough is simply not good enough.Stealth and accuracy are two skills which, with application and practice, are neither difficult to achieve nor particularly difficult to master and which would put a lot more fish on the bank for a lot of anglers . Too much false casting before making a presentation can also be supremely destructive but some folk just don’t seem to be able to cure themselves of that problem. On our local waters we seldom need to cast very far so our ideal is one back-cast followed by an immediate delivery.
October is a really great time to be out on the river, so give it a try. As ever, weather has a profound effect on fishing success so we try to be on the river as often as possible at different times of day. Again, not necessarily fishing on every visit but always observing, recording and sharing information with our fishing pals. None of us can dictate to Mother Nature the terms on which she will allow us to do business, nor can we expect a great result from an unworkable day. Rather it is we who must adapt to nature’s demands and whims, so, as we said last month, going fishing more remains the best approach of all.