North Country Wet Flies
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Add these quintessential Engligh patterns to your fly box and catch more trout.

I’m not sure about status of the soft-hackled wet fly in America; on recent trips, I haven’t seen much evidence of these patterns in fly shops. But the United States is a huge place, so maybe I haven’t looked in the right fly shops. Nevertheless, with such a large number of fly fishers in the States—far more than in the United Kingdom—it’s probably safe to say that the Soft Hackle has quite a following, with many confirmed addicts.

My understanding of things is that James Leisenring introduced the Soft Hackle to American fly fishers, or at least he popularized it; there were others, but not many, who followed. But, was there anyone before Leisenring?

James Leisenring was a Pennsylvania German, and he tackled American streams, as I have done, with European flies and fishing techniques. It’s instinct: “They work at home, so why shouldn’t they work here?” But, if Leisenring was the first to open the eyes of many American anglers to Soft Hackles, it inspires the question, Is wet-fly fishing a European thing? Surely fishing with wet flies for trout was practiced in the United States before Leisenring, or was it?

The English Connection

The history of the soft-hackled wet fly on our side of the pond is very well recorded. We have two names for Soft Hackles in the United Kingdom: if they have wings, we call them North Country wet flies; if they are not winged, they are called North Country Spiders, often shortened to just Spiders. Records of these flies go back more than 300 years; if you include the descriptions of wet flies contained in diaries and notebooks, the record extends back almost 350 years.

James Chetham wrote one of the first books on North Country wet flies in 1681. In The Angler’s Vade Mecum, Chetham listed flies for each month of the year, which was a common practice in those days, and the recipes are, as you’d expect, quaint. Here’s a sample of a fly he recommended for fishing in May:

Made of the down of an otter
cub, wrapt about with the Herle
of a Peacock, and Dub'd with
Black silk, wings of the light
grey feather of Mallard.

Obviously, conservation was not an issue in those days. By the mid- 1800s, many books on the subject had been published and there were many established patterns.

Americans share some misconceptions regarding river fishing in the United Kingdom. The popular view is that we Brits live on a small island awash with lush, gin-clear chalk streams teeming with lunker trout, and that you have to have a fat wallet to fish the best rivers. The first assumption is false: chalk streams represent less than 10 percent of all the river and stream trout fishing in the U.K. The vast majority of our rivers are limestone and sandstone freestoners, with some water coming from rock strata known as greensand.

The second assumption is partly true. If you want to fish the River Test during prime green drake season—reserve a well-known beat for yourself and a friend, have the services of a gillie, and enjoy lunch with wine in a fishing hut—then, yes, it’s expensive. But there is an alternative.

If you go north, the rivers won’t be gin clear; they will be slightly stained and stony. There’s also much less fishing pressure, and less stocking with big fish. The trout and grayling are smaller, but more often they are wild fish, which is much more to my liking. There are no trimmed banks or fishing huts, but you will be able to hire a gillie. Several stretches do require purchasing day tickets, but the cost is a fraction of top chalk-stream prices.

In the days of Halford, Skues, Lunn, and Plunket-Greene, the better-known chalk streams of Southern England were tremendous fisheries, and the trout were plentiful and big. By all accounts, the fly hatches were reliable and often heavy. It must have been paradise, and the books they wrote still make us drool. Oh, to have been there in the late 1800s—with the right connections and ample money, of course.

At about the time the Southern chalk-stream anglers were fishing and recording their discoveries, fly fishers in the northern counties of England and the Scottish Lowlands were also busy writing. The period from 1840 to 1900 was a golden age for fly-fishing books, and many became very important, especially those that describe wet flies.

There is a distinct difference between northern and southern trout streams, and regional fishing techniques and fly patterns have developed. Northern freestone rivers rise and fall with the rain, and the water clatters over riffles, gouges under tight banks, gushes around boulders, and cascades through narrow necks. On these rivers, the North Country wet fly is king.

Few, if any, of the Northern fly-fishing authors enjoyed large international reputations, especially when compared to someone such as Halford. The dry fly was being revolutionized as high art, and the southern chalk streams were getting all the attention. Today, however, everyone travels, and that British North–South divide is less obvious; the river types, however, will forever be different. I’ve visited the chalk streams many times, and have even conducted fishing schools on them. I always enjoy them, yet I wouldn’t swap them for my rough Northern freestoners and favorite North Country wet flies.

Types of Wet Flies

There are several forms of North Country wet flies. The hackle on a classic North Country Spider is always tied in by the tip and wrapped twice. The hackle barbs should be slightly longer than the full length of the hook, including the eye. The body is always tied with silk thread; Pearsall’s Gossamer is the preferred brand. The body should end opposite the hook point or no farther than halfway between the points of the hook and barb. If the body is dubbing, you should use natural fur and make it so sparse that you can see the tying thread underneath; forget using your tacky wax. Sometimes the body is ribbed with the finest gold wire.

Some North Country Spiders have tails, and a few have heads made of peacock or magpie tail herl. I believe the heads on these patterns are unique among trout flies.

Hackles are rarely taken from domestic poultry; the usual sources are game birds such as partridge, red grouse, snipe, woodcock, plover, and vermin species such as jackdaw and starling. Neck, flank, rump, and thigh feathers, and underand outer-wing covert feathers make the best hackles.

A few classic North Country wet flies have wings, but they are not as popular today because the wings make wakes when fished down and across. Few tiers understand the time-honored technique for mounting these wings. Described as bunched and split, the wings look nice but slightly scruffy. This is okay; they look like the ragged wings of drowning duns. This tying method is a very interesting but tricky little technique.

Cut a slip from a good primary or secondary wing quill; starling was often used. The slip should be four times as wide as the finished wing. Square up the slip, fold it in half lengthwise, and then fold it again. Tie the folded slip to the hook, and bend it up to near vertical. Next, pass the thread through the very center of the bunched fibers, wrapping from behind to the front of the fibers. The thread splits the fibers to create the wings. The wings will split in two even more when fishing, but the trout don’t seem to care. These flies are lethal when dead-drifted during or after a good hatch.

The Stewart Spider is another famous North Country wet fly you’ll want to add to your fishing kit. W. C. Stewart was a Scot who fished the rivers and streams of the Scottish Lowlands, primarily those near Edinburgh. It is believed that Stewart coined the term Spider. He thought only three Spiders were necessary: the Black, the Red, and the Dun. Stewart said he would never take the Black Spider off his leader; it was his go-to pattern. I agree with him: the Black Spider is a tremendous fish-fooler, especially when the trout are feeding on black gnats, reed smuts, and other small black forage.

The classic Stewart Black Spider should really be called Baillie’s Black Spider. James Baillie first showed this effective fly to Stewart. Baillie, we are told, was a professional fly fisherman— professional in the truest sense—who supplied flyrod- caught trout to local hotels and restaurants. He apparently supported himself and his family on the trout he caught and sold from March to November. He was some fly fisherman, and the Black Spider is some fly!

Stewart tied the Black Spider using a very unusual technique. (And remember, he tied flies with just his fingers; he had no vise, hackle pliers, or bobbin.) He started the waxed brown thread in the middle of the hook shank, and wrapped to the front end of the hook, where he made a small thread head. Next, Stewart tied in a hackle by the butt end—this was usually a glossy black cock starling feather—and trimmed the waste. Now here’s the unique part: Stewart twisted the thread and hackle into a single unit, and wrapped the two toward the center of the hook shank. He then separated the thread from the feather, tied off and clipped the hackle tip, and tied off and snipped the thread. Stewart said this method of tying doesn’t make a neat fly, but the finished pattern is quite natural looking and very durable.

The Scots have two more distinct regional North Country wet flies. The Clyde style, created to fish the Clyde River, is still used by a few traditionalists. The Clyde runs through Glasgow, then out through the Firth of Clyde and into the sea. After much environmental work, Atlantic salmon once again return to this fine river. The Clyde’s middle and upper sections have some excellent trout and grayling fishing, with plenty of ticket water available for visitors.

The Clyde style of tying usually refers to a winged pattern, and is similar to a winged wet fly tied for fishing a Yorkshire river. A Clyde pattern, however, is more sparsely dressed. The body is shorter and finer, the wings are slightly narrower, and there is less hackle than on a Yorkshire equivalent.

The Tummel style is the final Scottish North Country wet fly we will examine. The Tummel is a large full-blown salmon river, and is the major tributary of the mighty Tay. The Tummel is also a renowned trout river with a reputation for big hard-to-catch browns. A Tummel pattern is ultra sparse—almost anorexic. The body is a mere five or six wraps of thread, the hackle is a meager one wrap, and there are two very narrow, pricked-up wings. I am not sure of its present status among Tummel regulars, but it did have a great reputation for deceiving picky trout that had seen many fly boxes’ worth of patterns.

Let’s conclude with a few notes about how to fish North Country wet flies. Very few anglers fish wet flies using the classic upstream method. Today, most fishermen cast the flies across and downstream, and allow the trout to hook themselves. It’s usual—and traditional—to fish with three flies at one time: a top dropper, a middle dropper, and a point or “tail” fly. My leader (called a “cast” in the old days) is usually about 11 feet long. I place the droppers about three feet apart and attach them to the leader using four- to five-inch-long pieces of 2- to 3-pound-test tippet material. I prefer using a 4-weight, double-tapered floating line and a 9- foot-long rod, but I’m currently on a quest for a 10-footer weighing no more than three ounces; the anglers who first tied North Country wet flies used 10- to 12-foot-long rods.

Wherever you fish in North America, from the great brawling rivers of the Rockies to the smallest creeks in the East, these flies work very well. I know they do!

Oliver Edwards has a great reputation for creating realistic patterns for real-world fishing conditions, but he’s an expert at tying all forms of flies. He also stars in a series of terrific flytying and fishing videos and DVDs titled Essential Skills with Oliver Edwards. In case you haven’t caught on yet, Oliver hails from England.

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