Saturday, 21 January 2012

Getting to know needle flies!

I have returned to this blog and to the world of fly tying after a long spell away. I can only say a huge thank you for your patience and to those new readers for joining the site. Flies, Flies, Flies! Where does one start? North country and spider wet flies, that's where! 

With NC wet flies, I am continually learning about the dressings and feathers. Over the last year or so, I have been reading much of the rich and fascinating literature on North Country flies, tying and fishing with them. I feel I am beginning to learn a little more, albeit slowly, about the various patterns, their dressings, history and fishing use. It is a lovely learning curve and I am no rush to go down it, nor should I.

Spiders are very enoyable to fish and to tie. When you are on a river in the Dales, you usually set up a team of spiders with a lot of confidence. There are moments, however, when you ponder the possibility - 'these fish must have seen these flies so many times, they could tell you who tied the fly. Would I be better off using something else?' Then you get a tug on the line and all confidence is restored, sometimes. I suppose you further remind yourself it is how you fish them that what really counts. Anyway, there is a point to this pre-ample, I think...

I have been tying spider imitations for needle flies, recently. Needle flies (Leuctra fusca or Lectra Hippopus) are the smallest of British stoneflies. They are dark brown and very thin. As John Goddard in 'Trout Fly Recognition' writes:

These two species are the smallest of our stoneflies are exactly alike in appearance. Although they prefer rivers or streams with stony beds, they are widespread over the whole country, including the faster stretches of many chalkstreams. The male is between 5-8mm, and the female between 6 and 9mm. As their name implies, they are exceptionally narrow flies of a dark brown colour, and although simialr in shape and appearance to the willow fly, are much smaller. L Fusca is mainly a late season species, the adult winged fly appearing between August and October, while L.Hippopus is an earl season species most common from February to April (p.127).  

 I believe Pritt's 'Dark Spanish Needle' is one pattern used to imitate them - as described in his Yorkshire Trout Flies (1885). However, for the same pattern, I have tied an Edmonds and Lee dressing:

Dark Needle (Edmonds and Lee):
Hook: Partridge, The Wet, Size 14-18
Thread: Pearsalls Gossamar 6b
Hackle: Starling underwing feather
Head: Magpie Herl


Edmonds and Lee (1916) in their excellent Brook and River Trouting use magpie tail herl for the head, starling for the wing and Pearsalls Gossamar 6b sillk for the body. Oliver Edwards perfers this Edmonds and Lee dressing with 6b thread (see inserted image on the pearsalls silk chart taken from Edmonds and Lee - below- click to enlarge). Edwards points out that 6b (as originally produced) is obviously rare to find nowadays and very tenatively suggest you could resort to a 6A - coloured with a pen if you are stuck. 

Phil Holding of the 'Fly Tying Boutique' has a version of 6b. He says this is good for the needle fly and was chatting to him about it. Phil has worked with Langley threads of Cardiff to bring back many of the shades that have been discontinued for around 35 years.

So where does the name Spanish Needle come from? Leslie Magee in his 'Fly Fishing: The North Country Tradition (1994)' tells us that it can be traced back to the early 19th century in Nidderdale and Wharfedale. He suggests it is derived from the dark steely blue colour of the fly and its elongated appearance (p.79). The colour is akin to the unpolished sewing needles which were formerly imported from Spain in large volumes. So much praise exists for this pattern both for trout and grayling. Williams (1948) in the Dictionary of trout Flies' states this is a deadly pattern up to December and likewise Oliver Edwards in his DVD series has remarked how this is very effective for the late season, especially September and October.

My research has revealed a number of addtional needle dressings that I would like to share. I apologise to the average Northern angler who no doubt will know these flies as well as the day of Christmas!  However, for a few readers, this may be new ground - so to speak. Roger Wooley in his text 'Modern Trout Fly Dressing (1950, 3rd edition) states a dressing for the Needle which can incorporate claret waxed tying silk for the body, or orange (p.137). Roger Fogg in his superb book ' A Handbook of North Country Trout Flies' (1980), has an interesting dressing which I like. His Needle Brown is a modification of a winged pattern used in the 19th century by Micheal Theakston. He states "The Needle Brown is the fly to use when any of the darker stoneflies are in evidence" (p.143). Here it is:

Needle Brown (R Fogg)
Tying thread: Well waxed orange silk
Hackle: A small and dark snipe feather from the marginal coverts. The hackle should be wound sparsely.
Body: Waxed orange silk - which should assume almost  a brown shade, with a thorax of grizzled hare's ear. Pick a few fibres cut to merge with the hackle.

Here is another suitable dressing: the winter brown.

                                                                       Winter Brown
Hook:Patridge L2A 12-16
Thread: orange waxed so it become dark
Hackle: Woodwock underwing covert
Head: Peacock herl

So I am really looking forward to trying patterns these out next season.

If you are relatively new to fly tying and wish to tie spiders I think the above bird wing feather illustration (to the left) will be useful. It helps you identify where to locate the specific feathers on the wing. Thank you for reading this post!


  1. Lovely looking flies! I've also been down that lane and a suggestion I read, when it comes to the hooks used (I think it was from Jeremy Lucas), was to use TMC 2499SP-BL for NC wet flies. I've tied some and they look as good (to me) enough to give them a try the coming season.

    Have fun trying out the NC wets,

    PS Yorkshire Trout Flies by Pritt 1885 is a good reference to NC wets DS

  2. Thank you Jassid Man for the kind comments. I will enjoy tying and reading about them - very rich history. I must check out the TMC 2499 SP-BL hook then. Thanks also for keeping me right with the reference on Pritt. I will rectify this.

    pS You have a great site, keep up the good work.

  3. Very intersting, the site is looking a real treat.

  4. Thank you for the kind comment, Richard.