In the 1960s and early ‘70s I fished mostly on stillwaters, chiefly at Blagdon, at Grafham after it opened in 1966, and on several southern small stillwaters. There were occasional holidays in Scotland and Ireland, and on rivers in Cumbria, the West Country and the Cotswolds. But my ‘bread-and-butter’ fishing was on lakes and reservoirs in the Midlands and the south of England.
Although dragging a lure through the water on a sinking line caught fish, I found it tedious. Instead, because his philosophy seemed more rational, I became an avid fan of Dr Howard Bell, the Wrington and Blagdon GP and the ‘father of imitative stillwater fishing’. Dr Bell fished Blagdon regularly from 1922 to 1969, studied the lake’s aquatic invertebrates and produced a range of dressings to represent them. Some are used to this day, albeit with minor modifications. They certainly worked for me. I caught at least my share of fish and although my stillwater armoury has been expanded since then, the patterns and their derivatives are no less effective now than when Dr Bell first tied them.
In 1972, my bride and I went on honeymoon to Ireland, to Oughterard on the western shore of Lough Corrib. Daunted by the size of that great lough and lacking pockets deep enough to pay for a boatman, we fished mainly on the smaller loughs, especially on Boliska Lough and on the loughans around Maam Cross.
At first, naive and bursting with imitative zeal, I was quite sure that the patterns that served me well at Blagdon and Grafham would prove similarly deadly in the west of Ireland. They did not. For two long days, I flogged away with fish rising all around me and without a single tug, touch or tweak. Eventually, burying my pride, I sought out a tackle shop, bought a couple of dozen flies recommended by the proprietor, and proceeded to catch a face-saving number of fit, fierce, wild brownies as well as two good sea trout on a dapped Daddy.
Back in England, my commitment to ‘imitative’ fishing was reinforced by the publication in 1975 of Brian Clarke’s, The Pursuit of Stillwater Trout, which describes the author’s ‘road to Damascus’ experience, beginning with a basic lesson in aquatic entomology on a two-day beginners’ course near Draycote Water. If you have not read it, you should.
In 1975, we rented a cottage on Loch Awe for a fortnight. Our Irish experience was repeated almost precisely. Imitative patterns elicited not the slightest interest from the fish. But a quick trip to a tackle shop in Oban produced a selection of traditional Scottish loch patterns – and a succession of beautiful, feisty, wild brownies.
Why locally developed patterns and fishing styles work when apparently more realistic artificials more realistically presented so often fail is a question that has long intrigued me. It probably has to do with a number of factors – the character of the water being fished, the range of food with which it provides the fish, the availability of materials before the advent of fly-tying emporia, and the trout themselves.
It is no coincidence, for example, that the least fertile spate rivers tend to hold smaller, greedier brown trout than do more fertile chalk and limestone rivers, or that they have healthier runs of sea trout – which develop their sea-going habit simply because there is insufficient food in their home rivers to sustain them in substantial numbers. Nor is it a coincidence that trout in infertile rivers and stillwaters are suckers for imitations of terrestrial insects – hawthorn and heather flies, beetles, caterpillars and daddy-long-legs – or that they will most often be found close to the bank, in the up-wind margins, frequently beneath stands of deciduous trees. In fact, artificial terrestrials are really the only group of flies which are consistently reliable throughout the UK and Ireland, provided that the naturals are available to the fish and that they have seen enough of them to recognise them as food.
Where the fish themselves are concerned, I think we must accept that stocked rainbow trout are generally easier to catch than browns, even when they have been given the opportunity to ‘naturalise’ for some time in large stillwaters, and that stocked brown trout tend to be rather less difficult to catch than their wild counterparts, except where wild fish live in acid, infertile water – where they may be the easiest to catch of all.
Obviously, it would be impossible in an article of this sort to explore the complexities of these issues in detail – indeed, to do so would require a door-stop of a book rather than a magazine article, and numerous such books have been written, usually about particular parts of the British Isles. But a brief breakdown of the areas which have their own distinctive flies and fishing styles, and a few thoughts on how and why such variations have developed may provide food for thought, perhaps even for discussion.
That breakdown is necessarily arbitrary but seems to me to be reasonably rational. Working (roughly) from north to south, I have selected ‘Scotland’; ‘the north of England’ (those counties that straddle the northern Pennines – Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Yorkshire); the Midlands, in which I have included Derbyshire, Staffordshire and the Marches – Shropshire and mid-Wales); Ireland; south Wales and the West Country; and the south of England. With (far) more than enough material on trout flies and trout fishing styles, I am – for the purposes of this piece – ignoring salmon and sea trout completely, and I am excluding the often excellent North American and continental European flies adopted by so many British fly fishers.
There are, of course, literally hundreds of patterns from each region. Obviously, I have had to limit myself to a very few of them – far too few, really – but I hope that, in each case, those few illustrate the thinking behind trout fly design in each area.
Scottish fly fishers have focused mainly on salmon and sea trout. Wild brown trout in most Scottish waters are small. Overshadowed by their migratory siblings and cousins, they have not received much serious attention except in the relatively few places where they grow large – in lochs on the limestone outcrops around Caithness and Durness, for example, and in fertile rivers. The picture has been complicated by the stocking of Highland lochs and of stillwaters in the Lowlands with both rainbows and browns, which often take the same sorts of ‘impressionist’ flies as their counterparts elsewhere in Britain.
As a generalisation, though, brown trout in Scottish lochs and rivers tend to take ‘traditional’ Scottish patterns – many of them sparsely tied and either black or with tinsel bodies, ‘beard’ hackles and dark or barred wings. This is not simply down to tradition; such flies are used because they work better than patterns designed more specifically to represent nymphs, pupae or winged adult flies. There are several theories as to why this should be. One is that in relatively acid, infertile waters, such invertebrates as there are tend to be small, providing valuable foraging for fry, minnows and other small fish, but too small to sustain sizeable trout – which therefore become piscivorous, feeding on small fish whenever they can. Take another look at flies such as the Butcher, the Dunkeld and many others like them – classic Scottish loch flies, all of them quite strongly suggestive of fry.
The exception is to be found in the non-biting midges, which are plentiful even in infertile lochs. When they are hatching, sparse, black patterns like the Black Pennell come into their own.
The north of England
Although my fishing in the north-east has been confined to occasional forays to the Wharfe and the Ure, I have fished a great deal in Cumbria, on the Eden around Langwathby, Appleby and Warcop, and on the equally lovely River Eamont, and am therefore familiar with the remarkable effectiveness of the very distinctive North Country flies. They tend to have been designed to be quick and easy to tie with readily available materials, durable and, above all, to be effective in tumbling, turbulent North Country rivers. Pretty and delicate, most of them serve to represent all things to all fish – ascending nymphs, and drowned duns and spinners – especially on waters which would wreak havoc with southern dry flies and emergers in no time.
The up-stream wet-fly tactic used by North Country fly fishers is as skilful a technique as I know. In the right hands, it is deadly, and it can be just as productive on any fast-water as in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria.
‘The Midlands’ is a deceptively arbitrary classification. Had I sufficient space, I would have made two sections of it – the Peak District which, if Charles Cotton was the ‘father of fly fishing literature’, as I believe he was, is arguably the spiritual home of fly fishing; and the Border region, Shropshire and mid-Wales, with its own pragmatic flies and fishing styles developed by Canon Eagles, Dai Lewis and Edward Powell and by their determination not to be overwhelmed by chalkstream ‘correctness’. (I was privileged to know The Rev. Michael Powell, Edward Powell’s son, and to have taken over his rod on the Ebble when he retired. He gave me an original Orange Otter, tied by his father, which tragically I mislaid during a hiatus in the late 1980s.)
Although Cotton fished mainly on the Dove, the Wye is by far the best and best known of the Peak District rivers today, a limestone river, stuffed with wild brown trout and rainbows, and with remarkable and remarkably varied fly hatches. It has drawn to it some of the brightest and most innovative minds in fly fishing, which makes selecting a representative group of patterns very difficult. The Blue Dun and its variants date back to Cotton. The Treacle Parkin is an ancient pattern as effective for grayling as for trout, a variation of the Red Tag, a mid-19th century Yorkshire fly. The Orange Otter is Edward Powell’s ‘signature’ pattern for both grayling and trout.
Given the abundance and variety of trout fishing in Ireland, on both loughs and rivers, it is scarcely surprising that the Irish have spawned huge numbers of their own patterns – far too many from which to select a truly representative sample in so limited an article as this. So, I am confining myself to ‘genres’. If they have a single characteristic, it is that Irish flies tend to be a little larger than their British counterparts.
Alongside the Murrough, I could have included any number of caddis patterns like the equally popular Green Peter. The respected Irish barrister, Supreme Court judge and author of A Man May Fish, TC Kingsmill Moore, had a remarkable influence on Irish lough fishing, not least with his series of Bumbles. Stuart McTeare’s Silver Dabbler is amongst the best of a fine group of fry-suggesting patterns. And there more than enough Irish Mayfly patterns to fill a book, most of them more or less successful. In my view, the Gosling takes poll position amongst them.
Because the limestone fertility of so many Irish waters is so closely replicated in lakes and reservoirs in the south of England, many Irish flies work well here. Although there are notable exceptions, stillwater patterns from the Midlands and the south of England are rarely as effective in Ireland as they are here. I wonder whether that might be explained by differences between stocked and wild fish.
South Wales and the West Country
Once again, for reasons purely of space, the south Wales and the West Country grouping is a bit of a fudge. Having had a long-standing love affair with the lakes and rivers of the West Country, especially with Blagdon, with the rivers of east Devon and with the Torridge and the Taw, I know the area rather better than south Wales. My own experience suggests, though, that there is a similarity between the types of water, especially of rivers, their fly life and their fish that make it not unreasonable to group them together, and that flies that work in Devon and Cornwall tend to work equally well in south Wales.
The West Country, in particular, has produced a number of fine fly dressers who have designed and tied some of the most universally popular trout flies, widely used on lakes and rivers in the south of England, Wales, the Midlands, north-east England and Ireland – patterns like the Invicta, invented James Ogden of Cheltenham in 1879, one of the most consistently effective ‘hatching sedge pupa’ patterns; the ubiquitous Tup’s Indispensible, a convincing representation of the pale watery dun, devised by RS Austin of Tiverton in 1900 and subsequently popularised by GEM Skues; Austin’s almost equally ubiquitous Blue Upright, as deadly as a dry fly as in its original form as a wet fly; and the Pheasant Tail (not to be confused with the Pheasant Tail Nymph), invented in 1901 by another West Country fly tyer, Payne Collier.
For comparison, I have tied the Greenwell’s Glory with the prescribed starling quill-slip wing and the Blue Upright with a cul-de-canard wing, which I prefer – partly because it is quicker and easier to tie, but mainly because I believe it to be more realistically ethereal.
It is an unhappy coincidence that trout fishing in the south of England, by far the most populous part of the British Isles, and the driest, is largely restricted to the chalkstreams and to a modest number of reservoirs and small stillwaters. True, the chalkstreams (which stretch as far north as south-east Yorkshire) are almost unique in the world, Normandy being the only other place in which they are found. Clear, fertile and running at reasonably constant heights and temperatures, they are perfect trout rivers. But the demand for fishing on them has led to heavy stocking. As a result, there are very few stretches in which wild trout populations thrive. And the picture has been further complicated by a catastrophic decline in chalkstream fly life since the Second World War.
It is a pity, too, that chalkstream fly fishing writers dominated the game angling media for much of the past century and a half. Their publicising of the sport’s development on the chalkstreams has caused those developments to be much copied on other river systems throughout Britain, stifling the continuing evolution of regional flies and fishing styles and tending to homogenise the flies we use and the ways in which we fish them.
Nevertheless, the chalkstreams have produced some thoughtful, imaginative and innovative fly fishers. The challenges of taking well-fed trout from clear, slow-flowing waters should not be underestimated, and many of the most carefully designed fly patterns owe their origins to rivers like the Hampshire Avon, the Test, the Itchen, the Wylye and the Kennet.