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Choice of fly

Legendary Favourites - A Fisherman's Fetish - The Black Gnat - Adventure with an Alexandra.
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What is there they will not choose?
If only you will but oppose their choice. (Byron.)

Remembering in the early days of fly fishing how exercised I was over this subject, I had intended tabulating month by month a list of flies recommended for use. This however seems to me quite unnecessary and probably confusing.

In the first place such a list could not but read as an evident crib from other far better books, as well as from the excellent coloured catalogues of Messrs. Hardy Brothers and other first rate tackle makers. Nor has my experience of rivers been sufficiently diverse to attempt to lay down any law upon so wide a subject.

With some men a particular fly is a fetish. They have found it prove a charm on days when their catch headed the list of Hotel takings; so that no amount of subsequent failure can displace the memory of those triumphs. With other men a fly is a legend. They have been told by friends that it is the fly to use in certain months. They therefore continue year after year to ' put it up,' assuring themselves that if the fish will not take this they will take no other.

There is all the vexed controversy of colour, of size, of wings or hackle, of gut flies or eyed flies, of turned up eyes and turned down eyes, of patterns which are best fished wet or fished dry; so that the subject becomes altogether too involved to be useful to a beginner. He should listen very little to anything dogmatic; which, even if correct, may be applicable to other rivers, and not to the one he is fishing. After his very first season the beginner must learn by experience; not being in the least ashamed to try any fly which he thinks may tempt either trout or grayling.

Then again it is impossible, when mentioning a particular fly by name, to convey much idea of its appearance unless dressed in the same way all over the country. If different dressings of certain flies bear the same relation to the parent type that the varieties of pigeons do to the wild Rock pigeon, then t is no wonder that anglers understand something quite different from each other, when they recommend a particular species of artificial fly for use on a certain river. However, I must not drift into a Darwinian theory on the evolution of fly tying: but will quote a paragraph from a friend's letter to whom I applied for assistance.

He replied, ' to speak of Silver Twist or Blue Upright conveys no meaning to the angling mind, elementary or advanced, because flies called by these names are dressed in such different ways. The Dun which the ' blue upright ' is supposed to imitate, is very dark in February; so the so called scientific ones dress the artificial lure with a dark, almost black, hackle. Towards March and April the same natural insect gets paler and browner, and is eventually imitated by the fly we know as the 'Red Upright'; and so on. Therefore, unless the dressings of each pattern are carefully given, the scientific fisher is not enlightened any more than the ignorant novice.'

From another letter I quote the following: ' my plan about advising beginners on the question of flies, is to tell them to go to a reliable local tackle maker, in the absence of a competent friend on the spot to advise them, and to take his selections. Thus for Devonshire streams, such as the Exe, Dart., Teign, Otter, Axe, Taw and Torridge, good flies, suitable for the different months, may be had from any of the leading tackle shops in Exeter, Barnstaple, or Torrington; if he is not satisfied with the coloured catalogues. I always advise hackle flies for wet fishing in the early months, February, March or April; and will name as my favourites February Red: Blue Upright (male and female), Half Stone, Hare's Flax, Middle Blue, Silver Twist, and of course March Brown, without which no beginner thinks he is complete.'

' I think the sizes of the patterns should be according to the weather and water: on a coarse windy day with heavy water a large pattern; for a fine day with low and clear water, a small pattern. This ought to be quite enough for a beginner to start with. One can only give the 'lies which you found to be ' good medicine ' when you were a tyro.'

In wet fly fishing it is important to choose a hackle fly which does not resolve itself into the shape of a wet camel's hair paint brush - unless you find that it ' takes ' in that form. The hackle of a fly is of course intended to imitate the legs of the real insect, especially those of a drowned one. It is advisable therefore to look at your fly as it lies in the water and see the kind of resemblance it bears to what it is posing as a counterpart. You will not trouble to do this if it is attracting fish. So long as the fly is successful, pay no attention to its shape - not even if part of the dressing has come away. As to a winged sedge fly, or an alder, it is frequently most killing when half the wing is hanging off or half the hackle so untwisted that it presents the appearance of two flies. Even a badly rusted iron is no drawback, provided the point and barb are effective.

The first really nice trout I ever caught came to a GreenwelPs Glory. I have its tracing now on two sheets of note paper, thirteen inches, and thirteen ounces. As, before that auspicious evening my record trout was under seven, and was hooked foul, the oy of Ais monster can be imagined. Every enthusiastic angler has felt the same. Those who have yet to experience this pleasure are to be envied also. The successful strike, the dreaded strain on the line and rod, as the fish gets down the stickle on a long line, the terror of his escape, the momentary sinking of heart when you believe he has done so, the clumsy winding up of the reel, the jumping among the stones of the huge form, the breathless dives made at it with the net as it got into another pool, where at last it was dipped out; all these form the links in the chain of intense pleasure which culminates - at that period of one's fishing experience - in the possession of the thick and slippery prize that hitherto had only been seen in other men's baskets.

A fly I have personally never done good with is the March Brown. Indeed I have got to regard it as one of the legendary favourites; though, being when well dressed, a most accurate imitation of the real fly upon the water, there is no doubt as to its efficiency. On early rivers a ' Blue Upright,' rather sparsely dressed with hackle the colour of a Dipper's back, a sooty brown, retains my faith for hours together. I have some with a distinctly yellow body, to which I can get no two anglers to put the same name, that appeal to me, and my favourite runs or pools, better than any other patterns. ' It is a kind of Blue Upright I suppose.' ' It certainly is not a Blue Upright.' ' It looks a likely fly any way.' These are the varying verdicts of its species, or variety, given by different friends on the meadows. Of late years 1 have had it made to pattern, from sheer inability to define it.

As May progresses towards the fifteenth of the month, the Black gnat, in various shapes and sizes, must be in the angler's fly box. The very prettiest form of dry fly fishing is generally enjoyed with this neat little lure. To hook and land a pound-and-a-halfer on a nought-nought black gnat, from a well whipped Club water, brings the same satisfaction as a stroke at billiards, which, under no circumstances, would be regarded as a fluke even by the bitterest opponent. How some of these tiny hooks manage to hold a trout, whose maw- could compass a tangerine orange, is a marvel. Yet they do, most effectively, burying themselves in some tough piece of sinewy or bony- substance often far down the fish's gullet.

Another much vaunted fly - one which is barred on certain waters as being hardly a fair one to use, is the Alexandra. On its silver shanked hook surrounded with peacock's harl it must gain its efficacy from being mistaken for a minnow as it is drawn through the water. One proof of this exists in the fact that large Alexandras are made with a small metal spinner at their head, a pattern which, under no method of sportsmanlike argument, can be fairly reckoned as an artificial fly.

My own success with an Alexandra was confined to one memorable evening fifteen years ago. Having heard it said that ' the fly ought to be barred,' I naturally determined to obtain one. It was all done in such secrecy that I wrote up to Town for the samples; and kept the envelope containing them as carefully as a rouleau of notes, almost next to my skin.

I laid plans not only for the day, but also for the very pool and hour, arranging to sleep at an inn so as to be able to stay out until ten o'clock. The place was known as the Elbow pool, the river making a sharp and deep turn under the red cliff just there. During the evening rise, although the yellow snouts popped up in the broken water of the run above it, I only managed to hook four, none of them being over nine ounce fish.

At 9.30 the rise ceased: so now was the time for the fateful Alexandra. It had already been affixed to a new two yard cast which lay coiled in damp blotting paper, like a deadly snake, ready for action. The pool had a steep stony beach on two sides of it, while against the cliff was an enormous blackberry bush touching the water.

After casting straight down stream three, or four times, in the manner of the ordinary duffer, I was just reeling it up when it was seized. I had wound up the line quite short, so could see that the fish was very close to my feet. I gripped the line firmly to the rod, resisting the most determined tugs. It felt exactly the same as a large pollack on a sea line. The next minute he came to the top, giving a heavy jump that must showed me his full outline in the dusk - quite the largest trout I had ever seen.

The tugs grew so vigorous that I thought I ought to give him a little line to save a break: so doled out a few yards grudgingly, assuming of course that he would use them to take down to the bottom of the pool. Rut no: he did not. To my horror I found that he had just slipped to the side and was well up under the overhanging blackberry bush. Never had 1 dreamed of such treachery. You must guess the rest.

The break occurred, leaving the Alexandra and a foot of strong gut in his bony jaw, and leaving me with the rest of the tackle. How near the whole of that followed him into the pool I will not say. He was the size of a three pound pollack. Nothing will now persuade me that he was less than two and a half.

It is no use piling up the agony of rage and disappointment. I had bungled him grievously. One more halt minute of struggle on that short line would have finished him. I should have dipped out the prize of the season: taken, too, precisely in accordance with the plan. The loss of that trout cast a gloom on my fishing mind for years: partly because I felt no one would realise his size - partly because I did not like to tell the full story of the Alexandra. So I do now, for any beginner it may interest.

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Pictures for Choice of fly

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