Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Currently Reading: 'Fly Tying with Harold Howarth' by Donald Townsend

I am a avid reader of fly fishing books. Their collection and reading is one of the many aspects that I love about this great sport. Indeed, I thought I maybe make a regular feature of the blog and share with you what I am currently reading and my thoughts on the book. I think we all know we are forunate to have a historical and contemporary rich body of work to experience. You could spend a small fortunate very quickly on Amazon, for example, amassing a tidy collection or spend your days hunting down the classics in second hand bookstores.

The first book is Fly Tying with Harold Howarth by Donald Townsend (1980) Published by A & C Black.  Before I begin,  as with nearly everything in this blog, these are only my impressions, opinions and insights. I first came across Harold Howorth's name in Malcom Greenhalgh's and Jason Smalley's 'Trout Flies' where he was attributed as the inventor of a number of spider patterns, and more significantly, where he was accredited to pioneer a style of soft hackle in the 1940s and 1950s along with Frederick Mold. This style was inclusion of a thorax to mostly standard patterns of usually peacock herl before the hackle to enhance the insect profile of the fly and its movement in the water. I was eager to learn a little more about Howorth and his fly dressings.

Townsend provides a brief introduction to Howorth before describing his fly dressings for 30 trout and salmon flies. Harold Howorth was born in a small Lancashire town, Haslingden in 1898.

In this short book of 96 pages the author illustrates Howorth's flies, why they were invented and his experience with them in practice.

Many of the flies presented are standard or established flies - the waterhen bloa, the greenwell and the black gnat, for example. Yet, for many of the established patterns, Howorth modified the pattern in terms of design and materials. For example in his Waterhen Bloa, Howorth dressed a slim section of yellow silk as one part of the body followed with mole fur built up for the second part. Townsend writes "This is then followed by a rather sparse hackle. This causes the hackle to stand more erect and allow better  movement when the fly is finished" (p,69). 

In terms of another established pattern in the North Country grouping - the Snipe and Purple, Howorth replaced the soft snipe hackle with durable lesser coverts of a duck wing. Again he added a few turns of peacock herl behind the hackle to give better fibre movement. This is known as the Henthorn Purple. So this style of a herl thorax before a sparse hackle on spider dressings is a trademark of Howorth's tyings. And from reading Roger Rogg's 'Handbook of North Country Flies' we realise this addition of a short thorax before the hackle constitutes one dressing style for North Country soft hackles.

So the book contains some really interesting dressings - some modified versisions of the established and some new. Additionally, there is some useful advice. For example, the tying of a collar hackle after the wing enables the fly to fish well, prevents twisting in the water. Yet, this is not the conventional recipe book or instructional book you commonly see nowadays. Luckily, I never held this expectation. This is a short personal book of one man's experiences with flies he was using, modifying and creating over his extensive fishing life. More than this, I suspect this book is an important slice of the rich history surrounding North Country wet fly fishing. Indeed, for me, it tells something about soft hackles and North Country flies -  their development and limits of use. The inclusion of a thorax to provide extra movement to the hackle reconciles with the argument that some standard soft hackles are not as effective in fast water, especially when fished downstream.  Maybe more surely, the book is a reminder of how some tradtional patterns were modified by creative anglers, and yet preserved by others. Indeed, I suspect there have been many Howorth types in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Borders that took certain classic soft hackle dressings and modified them to suit their own intution, rivers and insect hatches. Maybe this is nothing new?  So for myself, who aspiring to learn more about North Country flies and fishing, the book was valuable, a nice addition to the collection.



  1. Inspired by your last post, I tied some spider soft-hackles last night. I'm becoming obsessed with them. Thank you!

  2. I have to agree, one of the nice things about fly fishing is the super abundance of literature both old and new. After only about 4 years I have a collection of 100+, including a 1897 reprint of Walton's "The Compleat Angler" 5th edition, 1676.Bought In Cockermouth, last year. I can't pass a second hand book store without looking for fly fishing or tying books.

  3. Erin, that's great and not surprised at your emerging obession. There is something magical about them. Thanks.

    Phillip - that is an amazing collection you have already. Well done!