Lyn Davies turns to some old favourites for some inspiration…
I know a novice angler. He’s been fly fishing for just over a year and he’s still asking me questions – all the time! On this occasion, he asked, “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 magazines, books, the Internet 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. Many popular lures have become smaller in size. Competition rules restrict the overall length of flies – hence why many of our lures today are tied on short shank hooks. Whereas looking at the old patterns – they were generally tied on size 8 and 10 long-shank hooks. Many were tied in the same ‘style’; that is to resemble a small fish profile. More contemporary patterns like Blobs are seen as ‘attractor’ patterns – they are very brightly coloured and make 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. It’s because lures open the door for 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 ever seen. I’d go as far as to say that 99% 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 it’s 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 exactly the same setup, use the same techniques – but I would only use the old patterns. I must admit; I’m a lazy fly-tier. 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. Then, before you know it, we have the next ‘killer’ pattern in our hands. These trends are then taken on board by fly manufactures like Terry, who adapt a ‘supply on demand’ approach to their business. Well it makes sense to me – he should know, he’s been selling flies for over 25 years! Following a quick e-mail, I received a package of old flies from Terry. He also wanted to join me for my challenge. Him and his work colleague Ian wanted to fish with me using what he called ‘developmental’ flies – in other words, the most up to date patterns that were yet to be produced commercially.
I chose to fish Llandegfedd Reservoir near Newport in South Wales. At over 400 acres, it’s recognised as an ‘international water’, which is regularly fished by a large number of competition anglers. In other words, good anglers – anglers who flog the water with the latest lure patterns such as Blobs, Bobby’s and Sparklers.
On the day, I was to share a boat with my mate Rob, while Terry and Ian shared another. They were all to fish with the latest, most popular patterns – except me. We met at 8.30am just outside Newport for a ‘Tesco special’ breakfast. Following an hour’s banter, we eventually descended on the reservoir. Making our way towards the dam wall, we caught our first glance of the water. God it looked windy, and the forecast was bad – very bad! Although the sun was breaking through at times, we new what was destined for us – so I was 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 Porto cabin. As expected, one of the mentioned flies was a Booby – with the North Shore and Bill Smith’s Bay being the most consistent area. 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 colourful fly boxes, tying on blobs the size of Christmas tree’s and minimalist Diawl Bach’s and Cormorants – while I knew I was to be restricted to a dozen or so old favourites! It felt like an ‘intermediate’ sort of day, so I reached for my trusty Cortland Blue. Watching the wind, I kept my leader short – around 12ft. I didn’t fancy a day of untangling bird nests. I opted for a three-fly setup. The Peach Baby Doll seemed an obvious choice for the top dropper – a sort of Blob substitute if you like, while in the middle went the pretty Alexandra – acting as the flashy attractor. Finally, 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 him, 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 with 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 infamous ‘Bill Smith’s Bay’. The Gabions, is a popular spot for bank angers, but on this occasion there was no one to be seen so we could drift tight to the wall. A simple, ‘Loch Style’ approach to the fishing was the order of the day. 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 nothing solid was felt. Nevertheless, it provided me with that vital bit of confidence – my flies WERE working.
Towards the end of the drift, entering Bill Smith’s Bay 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 on such an old pattern when two other boats around me were struggling on Blobs! I was off the duck and my confidence was riding 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 picked up, so we decided to head for some shelter back at Bill Smith’s Bay. 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 hard day’s fishing. The ranger’s are rarely wrong – and they did warn me 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 lure – 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. 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. 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.