Lyn Davies turns to some old favourites for inspiration on Llandegfedd Reservoir, South Wales.
A newbie fly fisher once asked me, “Do the old fly patterns, still catch fish?” He was referring to the ‘classics’ of yesteryear. Patterns such as the Ace of Spades, Appetiser, Baby Doll, Jersey Herd, The Undertaker, The Christmas Tree, The Viva, The Worm Fly – the list goes on… He was interested to know why no one seems to use what used to be ‘killer’ lures anymore.
In fact, anglers still fish with these patterns (many of which are commercially available) but fly fishing, like any other past time or sport is influenced by trends. Anglers fish with patterns which give them confidence and confidence is ultimately provided in the form of catching fish. Influences such as the internet, magazines, books, and other angler’s tales affect fly choice. Fly tyers strive to create that next talked about pattern, one which no one has seen – especially the trout!
Ask any angler to show you their lure box and 9 times out of 10 you will see a Viva in its various guises. This timeless black and green lure still fills more fly boxes than any other ‘old’ pattern, but many other modern lures are based on the old favourites. For example, it’s said that the heavily hackled Oakham Orange was the original Blob pattern. Of course, competition anglers have a huge influence on fly design. These anglers are at the top of their game and every year new patterns emerge from the competition scene. Competition rules restrict the overall length of flies – hence why many of our lures today have become smaller being tied on short shank hooks. Whereas looking at the old patterns, they were generally tied on size 10, 8 and even 6 long-shank hooks. Many were tied in the same style, which is to resemble the profile of a small fish. More contemporary patterns like Blobs are seen as attractor patterns being very brightly coloured and making a big disturbance through the water.
Interestingly, more imitative traditional patterns such as the Pheasant Tail Nymph and other classic wet flies have stood the test of time. I think lures open the door for more creativity and modern synthetic materials have influenced their design. The old or pre-marabou flies use squirrel hair, coloured wool for bodies, hackle tips for wings and some use the classic ‘Matuka’ style dressing. The introduction of marabou (turkey plumage) back in the 1970’s was probably THE biggest development we’ve seen. I’d go as far to say that 80% of modern lures use marabou in their dressing. This cheap, versatile material instantly adds vital movement which was missing from the old patterns. Of late, materials such as fritz style chenille (in its various forms), bead-heads, epoxy and flashy winging materials like flashabou have allowed innovative tiers to experiment with movement and colour like never before.
I decided to set myself a challenge. I wanted to fish head-to-head with other anglers and put these old favourites to the test. We would fish with the same setup, use the same techniques but I would have the restriction of only fishing with the old patterns. Not surprisingly, I didn’t possess many of these old school patterns and I needed to get my hands on some quickly. My saving grace was a close friend of mine – Terry Clease. Terry owns Dragon Tackle, one of the largest fly manufacturing companies in Great Britain. He began selling flies during the marabou revolution when flies like Dog Nobblers and Tadpoles were all the rage. He has a theory… If a pattern is talked about enough and anglers THINK it’s doing the business – then everyone will be fishing with it. The pattern may not be any better than any other but it’s just a numbers game. The more anglers that fish it, the more fish will be caught using the pattern and before you know it, we have the next ‘killer’ pattern on our hands. These trends are taken on board by fly manufactures like Terry, who adapt a supply on demand approach to their business. Following a quick e-mail, I received a package of old flies from Terry, and he also wanted to join me for the challenge. Terry and his work colleague Ian wanted to take part in the challenge using what he called ‘developmental’ flies – in other words, the most up to date patterns that were yet to be produced commercially.
We were to fish Llandegfedd Reservoir, near Newport in South Wales. At over 400 acres, it’s an internationally recognised water regularly fished by competition anglers. These are top anglers, anglers who flog the water with the latest lure patterns such as Blobs, Booby’s and Sparklers.
On the day, I was shared a boat with my mate Rob Evans while Terry and Ian shared another. We met at 8.30am just outside Newport for a ‘Tesco special’ breakfast. Following an hour’s banter, we eventually arrived at the reservoir and making our way towards the dam wall we caught our first glance of the water. The wind was wild, and the forecast was bad – very bad! The sun was breaking through the heavy clouds at times, but we knew what was destined for us, so were keen to get out on the water as quickly as possible.
Pulling into the car park we noticed a distinct lack of cars, especially for a Saturday – obviously the weather had put off the majority. As ever, the first port of call was the ranger’s office for a chat and to pay our dues. I noticed the catch report hanging from the portacabin. As expected, one of the flies mentioned was a Booby, with the North Shore and Bill Smith’s Bay being the most consistent areas. According to the ranger, the fish had just switched onto the fry, but they had ‘gone off the boil’, possibly due to an increase in the water temperature following the recent hot spell. Great!
Waterproofs on, we began to tackle up. I enviously watched the others sift through their fly boxes, tying on various Blobs the size of Christmas trees and minimalist Diawl Bach’s and Cormorants – while I knew I was to be restricted to a dozen or so old favourites! I reached for my trusty Cortland Blue 444 intermediate fly line. Watching the wind, I kept my leader short at around 12ft, I didn’t fancy a day of untangling bird nests and losing valuable time, but I did opt for a three-fly setup. The Peach Baby Doll seemed an obvious choice for the top dropper, a kind of Blob substitute, while in the middle went the pretty long shank Alexandra acting as the flashy attractor, and my comfort fly was the ever-faithful Viva on the Point. I was ready for work.
There’s one big advantage about fishing and taking photographs… you have the perfect excuse not to man the motor. Well done, Rob, you know you needed the practice! Fully loaded, I pushed us away from the pontoon and we headed for our first drift just off the dam wall (having seen a two anglers’ boat two fish whist we were loading up!). We positioned ourselves safely away from the nearby boat and settled into some fishing. Well, I did but Rob was clearly having one of those days. Nothing was going right for him and the fact that I forgot the drogue didn’t help matters. The horrible wind was having the better of us and whatever I was saying just wasn’t helping! I decided to keep quiet and concentrate on the task ahead. It felt strange to be limited to the old patterns and I must admit, it felt a little clumsy casting with three large, long shank lures. These days of course we tend to fish with smaller flies, especially when fishing a team of flies.
Although we saw a few fish moving, our first drift proved fruitless, so we cranked the engine and headed to towards the ‘Gabions’ – a stonewall that leads to the famous ‘Bill Smith’s Bay’. The Gabions is a popular spot for bank angers but there was no one to be seen so we could drift tight to the wall. Working my team of lures through the waves, I noticed a fish following my Alexandra only to turn away last minute. A few casts later, it happened again, and again – they obviously liked the look of the flashy pattern but no solid takes. Nevertheless, it provided me with that vital bit of confidence, my flies WERE working.
Towards the end of the drift, entering Bill Smith’s I finally connected with a fish. A lively 2-pounder had fallen for the charms of my Peach Baby Doll – result! It was a great feeling to take a fish when two other boats around me were struggling on Blobs! I was off the duck and my confidence was high. The weather on the other hand had taken a turn for the worse. The light showers had turned into torrential showers, but we stuck with it. We motored over to the cages for one drift towards the North Shore but to no avail. The wind had also picked up, so we decided to head for some shelter back at Bill Smith’s. Our four-horse engine was struggling against the waves but fair play to Rob, he remained calm and steered us a safe path across the lake. The move had proved worthwhile, as within half hour, fish number two was on – it had taken my Viva on the point. Following an aerobatic fight, a similar sized rainbow was dragged into my waiting net.
Dispatching the fish, I could feel my mobile vibrating in my pocket – it was Terry wanting a fishing report. Him and Ian were struggling and not really enjoying the whole experience with the weather. With only one fish between them in the boat (taken by Terry on an Orange Blob) they had phoned for some inspiration. We decided to meet up for chat at the start of the Gabions before trying one last drift into Bill Smiths. Within 5 minutes, as if to order Ian hit into a nice fish just 15 yards behind us – perfect for some pictures! The fish had taken a home-tied Cormorant on the dropper.
Soon the torrential showers had turned into a persistent rain, it was time to call it day. It had turned out to be a day more suited for the sailors and wind surfers. That uncomfortable feeling had set in as I discovered that my waterproofs were no longer waterproof – I was soaked to the skin! It had proved to be a challenging day’s fishing for us all. The rangers are rarely wrong, and they did warn us that the fishing had been difficult. Rob blanked (yes, he caught nothing – zero!), while Ian and Terry took one fish a piece. My old timers had held their own, which was enough to prove my point.
To conclude, lures of today clearly have that extra flash and movement which makes them more effective. But, as proved, the old ones still catch fish, and they always will. If orange is the killing colour on the day, then a traditional Whiskey Fly will take fish like any other orange lures – if it’s fished in the correct way and more importantly at the correct depth. Of course, a bulky Orange Blob will have the added attraction of causing more of a disturbance through the water – which rainbows seem to love. In the same sense, if the fish are taking fry, then the original Polystickle or Appetiser will take fish the same as a modern Epoxy Minnow. It’s all about confidence and how they are fished. The point I’m trying to make is that the flies are basically the same. The colour, size and shape of the patterns are similar. They were originally designed to imitate small fish and they still do, as far as the trout’s concerned. Yes, we may have better-looking flies to catch the angler but to me, it’s the method and the way in which the flies are fished is the key to their success. Things have moved on so much and will continue to do so. We’ve over 30 years of development behind us and let’s not forget the progress with tackle and techniques. All these go hand in hand in creating a more productive, modern, 21st century fly fisherman. No doubt: in another 30 years, anglers like myself will be asking the same questions.