Fishing with Style



Yorkshire Post - Country Week

2005 Fly Fishing Monthly Articles

Since April 2005 Roger Beck and Stephen Cheetham produce a fly fishing column in the Country Week section of the Yorkshire Post once a month.

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Here are the articles in 2005 which we trust you will enjoy reading:

North Country Spiders    Hawthorn Fly      Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph.    John Storey

Sturdy's Fancy           Klinkhamer      Tups Indispensable     Kate McLaren

Christmas Special - The Christmas Tree and The Breathalyser.

April 2005

North Country Spiders.     Click here to see more

Artificial trout flies – Spider Patterns

These flies do not represent spiders!

It is a name given to a group of flies that have a very soft, mobile feather wound around the head. This is called the hackle and undulates in the current, suggesting the movements of water borne creatures. Spider patterns are intended to fish below the surface of the water. For this reason they are members of the “wet fly” family. The body of the fly is often made of one or two layers of coloured thread. A spider pattern is, therefore, frequently named simply by referring to the colour of the body and the bird that donated the feather.  So, some of the best known spider patterns are partridge and orange, partridge and yellow, snipe and purple and woodcock and green. Just for extra fun, some of the spider patterns are called “Bloas”. Bloa is an old northern word that describes a slate - blue colour. Bloa patterns usually have a dull grey hackle, often found on the wing of a coot, waterhen or starling.

Many of the spider-type flies were devised in the Yorkshire Dales, mainly for fishing rivers and are frequently referred to as “North Country” patterns. The examples that we feature this month were all mentioned in a list, written by an angler called Sylvester Lister. In 1873 Sylvester was a founder member of what is now called the Appletreewick, Barden and Burnsall Angling club. He is buried at Bolton Abbey. 

We have chosen three flies that will feature in many successful catches on our Dales rivers during April. Lister recommended all three and we are not intending to argue. They are the partridge and orange, snipe and purple and the waterhen bloa. They are usually dressed on hook, sizes 14 and 16. The partridge and orange is sometimes dressed at size 12. There is a whole tradition around the method of fishing with these, and other similar flies. Anyone interested in learning more about these methods, should read “Fly Fishing, The North Country Tradition” by Leslie Magee.

We could spend, and perhaps waste, an awful lot of time discussing what the flies represent. Some say that the partridge and orange is taken for an adult stone fly or the aquatic nymph of this and other species such as the up-wings. Others assert that the orange colour mimics a developing midge pupa. Snipe and purple is frequently reported to imitate the nymph or adult of a fly called the iron blue. Sadly, the iron blue is in serious decline; we rarely see it on our northern streams today. The snipe and purple, however continues to catch fish wherever it is employed. When the waterhen bloa is awash in the surface film, its straggly body and soft hackle writhe gently. It’s colour, size and behaviour suggest a member of the olive family struggling to hatch or indeed drowning in the process. It still takes fish when not a single fly is to be seen on the water.

After many years of careful research, scientific experimentation and empirical research we can however reveal the truth. Trout and grayling mistake these artificial flies for – FOOD. Frankly, that’s good enough for us; the anorak is becoming a bit tight these days.

        Partridge and Orange click to enlarge     Snipe and Purple  click to enlarge  Waterhen Bloa  click to enlarge Click here to see more

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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May 2005

Hawthorn Fly

Last month we discussed spiders that aren’t; this month it is the hawthorn fly that definitely is.

The hawthorn fly, posh name Bibio marci is also sometimes called St. Marks’s fly because it traditionally makes an appearance around April 25, St. Mark’s day.  Until then, the larvae have lived underground feeding upon rotting vegetation. Once emerged, the adult flies spend their time hovering and around hedgerows in which hawthorn bushes and trees are very common. This is why Bibio marci has its common name. The natural fly is 10-14 mm. long, black and has long dangling hairy legs. It is sluggish in flight and is quite unmistakable. The adult fly is usually in evidence for just a couple of weeks and then disappears.

Our waterways are often overhung by bushes and trees from which Hawthorn flies frequently fall into the water. Trout find these hairy offerings too much to resist and eat them with great enthusiasm.

Although the hawthorn is quite a bulky fly, it floats. To tie an artificial fly that imitates the natural requires a pattern that also floats. Such buoyant flies are called “dry flies” because anglers cover them with a thin film of oil, which keeps it dry. Since it does not become waterlogged, the fly floats. So, we introduced you to “wet flies” last month, which sink. This month the dry fly makes an appearance in our column.

The most obvious feature of a real hawthorn fly is the long dangling legs. It is very likely that these also attract the attention of the trout. Steve has represented these appendages by creating legs from pheasant tail feather fibres, dyed black. To make them all the more authentic, he has knotted the fibres to represent he joints in the legs. Tying knots in such flimsy, short filaments places great demands upon the fly-dresser’s dexterity. This is why Steve ties the flies and I just write about them!

During late April and early May, when the hawthorn is “on the wing” anglers look for signs of trout feasting upon the black bonanza and will choose such a pattern with confidence. Needless to say, however, things are never straightforward. Remember that the hawthorn fly often falls upon the water from overhanging bushes and trees. Trout wait beneath the canopy, waiting for lunch to drop upon their nose ends. The fly fisher must place the imitation amongst the naturals, beneath those branches that are perfectly positioned to ensnare a wayward cast. Should you see an angler, line and fly firmly attached to a bush or tree, you are witnessing a failed attempt to cast a fly beneath said bush or tree. Cover your ears and escort young children away from the area. It is highly likely that you will hear “words of wisdom” being uttered.

Apologies to non-angling readers, we’re going to get technical, just briefly.

Fellow anglers, let us ask you a question; can you consistently produce a tight, horizontal, accurate forward loop that travels parallel to the water and slides gently beneath those beckoning branches?  Of course you can! Just on the off chance that consistency eludes you, may we suggest a bit of practice in the park? If you can position your cast accurately beneath a park bench from a distance of ten metres, then you can do the same under a hawthorn bush. We are quite confident that the non-anglers will not extract the Michael, honest! You never know, they may like to try it themselves.

Foam Hawthorne click to enlarge   Hackled Hawthorne click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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June 2005

Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph.

There is an old Yorkshire verb “to fossick”; it means to look for hidden things. You can (if the mood takes you) fossick about amongst the stones in the bed of a stream, river or lake. If you do so, you will find lots of small beasties that bear a very strong resemblance to our fly for this month.

These creatures will be the aquatic stage of the life cycle of various insects and are called nymphs; they are the water-borne equivalent of caterpillars. Many flies lay their eggs in water and when the nymphs hatch, they spend their time either crawling or darting around under stones and weed. Their intention is to feed, grow and eventually make their way to the surface and turn into adult flies. However, their cunning plan is frequently thwarted by hungry fish, which eat them by the hundred. The gold ribbed hare’s ear is tied to represent one of these nymphs. Generally speaking the real nymphs are very small, often less than eight millimetres long. The artificial nymphs that Steve has created are much bigger, at around half an inch. Now, you will be asking yourself, “why make the artificial so much bigger than the real thing”?  Let me answer that with another question. When was the last time that you chose the smallest slice of cake on the plate?  Just to carry the analogy a step further, those slices of cake will all be the same shape. This fly’s success is partly due to the fact that it has the same profile as a real nymph. It does not imitate anything specifically; it just looks like lots of the creatures that live in water.

The origins of this fly are not easy to trace. It has probably been around for at least two centuries. One of its most remarkable attributes is the fact that it will catch fish just about anywhere, in still or flowing water, in Britain or abroad.  We do not know many successful anglers who do not carry gold ribbed hare’s ear nymphs in their fly boxes. It is so well established that it universally abbreviated to the GRHE. (I’m quite pleased about that because I can now save time in typing!) It is the creation of a very observant mind. The subtle olive and brown colours of the imitation mimic the real-life version. It is a fine example of choosing nature to represent itself. Another very effective nymph can be created from the tail feather fibres of a cock pheasant. Surprisingly, it is called the Pheasant tail Nymph (PTN for short) and once again, the burnished brown of the feathers recalls many colours seen in nature.

As the name implies, the original GRHE was dressed using the fur from around the base of a hare’s ear, today the material is often sourced from various parts of the pelt. The gold ribbing  may represent the segmentation of genuine nymphs; it may also create a little flash of colour in the water that will attract the attention of a passing trout.

During recent years, incorporating a gold coloured metal bead into the head has frequently enhanced the basic pattern. This then becomes the Gold Head Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph. What a mouthful (the trout and grayling certainly agree) so this is often referred to simply as a Gold Head. This version tends to be even more effective as a fish catcher. Some say that the extra flash of colour does the trick, others suggest that the extra weight of the brass bead sinks better. Whatever the reason, it works! In fact, it works so well that some anglers now frown upon this version and consider it rather vulgar. Some fisheries have even sought to discourage its use. It is a sure sign of an effective artificial fly when someone tries to ban its use.

So, anglers and non-anglers alike, have a fossick, they can’t touch you for it! 

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

Gold Head Hare Ear click to enlarge    Gold Ribbed Hares Ear click to enlarge

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July 2005

John Storey

Not many people are remembered for over a hundred years because of their flies.

John Storey was a river keeper on the river Rye in North Yorkshire. He devised an artificial fly that has remained popular in this part of North Yorkshire since he first invented it in the 1900’s. It is such a popular fly in Ryedale that it is simply known as “The John Storey”

John made the body of  his fly from peacock herl. Herl is the name given by fly dressers to feathers fibres. These particular fibres are found around the “eye” feathers in the spectacular plumage of a peacock’s tail. If you happen to have a peacock to hand, you will see that these fibres have a particularly interesting iridescence; they appear as either a green or bronze colour. Viewed in natural light, they have a real “insecty” kind of hue about them. If you happen not to have a peacock, fear not, many shops now sell peacock feathers as decoration; you could pop into the nearest furnishings department and have a sly look. You may prefer simply to take our word for it.

The use of peacock herl for the bodies of artificial flies was common at the time when our July fly first adorned the waters of the Rye. I would like to think that John Storey obtained his peacock feathers from the nearby Castle Howard Estate.

Spending so much time by the river gave John the opportunity to observe the behaviour of lots of different flies in the process of hatching. He particularly watched a family of flies called the “upwings”. He noticed that they had the habit of floating down the river, wings held aloft, a convincing imitation of a small sailboat. He also noticed that the trout and grayling population of the river ate these newly hatched morsels with great enthusiasm. So, Mr. Storey added a pretend wing to the herl body; he chose to use the tip of a feather taken from the breast of a mallard duck. This species of duck is very common on the rivers on North Yorkshire. It is not difficult to imagine our river keeper picking up moulted feathers and seeing their potential for dressing his trout flies. The first wings were sloped back over the body of the fly. Later on, however, in 1935 John’s grandson modified the wing so that it was made to slope forward over the front of the fly. This is the version that is almost universally used today and Steve has produced it here. To finish his creation, our hero wound around the front of his fly, the feather from the neck of a Rhode Island Red cock. This is called the hackle and helps the fly to float. Some of the angling elders of Ryedale will tell you that the John Storey will not catch fish unless it sports a genuine Rhode Island Red hackle. Well, I’m not so sure about that, but it’s a good story (sorry!).

The John Storey is a dry fly; it is smeared with oil to make it float. When it is cast upon the waters and when it bobs along the surface, the most obvious feature is that little wing. On a sunny day, that spoon shaped appendage also reflects the sunlight and becomes even more prominent. If the fish are looking for a wing to announce the arrival of lunch, that is exactly what they see first. This forward facing wing may well be what makes this fly so effective. Whatever it is, it features very regularly in the successful fly list of many Yorkshire rivers. It has also had a few trips down to the hallowed chalkstreams of Hampshire. I just wish that John Storey were alive today so that I could tell him that it fooled those trout hand over fist too.

John Storey click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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August 2005

Sturdy's Fancy

I’m not sure whether you believe in coincidences, but here is one anyway.

On September 23rd 2004 I gratefully accepted a friend’s invitation to fish the river Ure at West Tanfield. This is a fabulous piece of water and has an extremely healthy population of grayling. Grayling are my favourite fish and, for weeks, I looked forward to the opportunity of targeting this species amidst glorious surroundings.

Now, usually when I have the opportunity to go fishing, conditions conspire against me. It usually blows a gale, rains, snows or sleets, frequently all four. The river is invariably too high and too coloured or alternatively too low and too clear. I’m not being an old misery; it’s just that this is what happens. Low and behold, a few days before my planned visit to West Tanfield, the heavens opened and it rained. In fact it poured. Up came the water level in the Ure, accompanied by that all too familiar sludgy brown coloration. “Here we go again” I thought, “what a pity” or words to that effect. So when the telephone rang on the evening of September 22nd, I assumed that it would be Sheelagh to tell me that fishing was “off”.  I could scarcely believe my ears when she informed me that the keeper was confident that the river would be in good condition for us on the following day. It is easy to forget how quickly our Dales rivers run off after a flood; sadly this is often associated with the volume of water that is abstracted from them. On this occasion, however, it was the best news available.

The following morning I arrived early, most unusual for me. I parked the car and ran (almost unknown) to the road bridge. As soon as I looked at the river, upstream from the road bridge, I knew that the day held great promise. The water had the colour of very weak tea before you add the milk; the level had fallen back to “just right”.

As Sheelagh and I made our way along the river, everything that I saw confirmed my growing expectations. Trout were busy feeding hungrily in the slack water and the pools; they were compensating for a couple of days when feeding would have been difficult in the fast, dirty water. They were also building strength for the rapidly approaching breeding season. They were doing what trout do during September.  Even more enticingly though, wherever the river gained a little pace and ran over gravel banks and bars, I could see the tell-tale gentle surface sips of greedy grayling.

The best thing was that I knew exactly what fly I was going to use in order to tempt the Lady of the Stream, as the grayling is known. Sturdy’s Fancy is well known in Yorkshire, it is especially well known as a catcher of grayling. There are all sorts of versions and modifications of this fly but all derive from a simple pattern created by Tom Sturdy. Tom designed his fly especially to catch the grayling of the river Ure. It’s simple really; when in Rome … So I did. I set off along the river, carefully avoiding the splashy, devil-may-care, rather vulgar rises of the trout. Instead, I chose to cast my fly over the much more sedate, less obvious disturbances created by those coveted grayling. As usual, Sturdy’s fancy worked its magic. The grayling rose to it eagerly, as did a few trout that I hadn’t noticed. After netting and carefully returning a dozen or so fish, I was happy to sit on the riverbank for a while and watch the kingfishers working in the golden, early autumn light. I re-confirmed my view that they were far more adept at seeing fish than are mere humans. By mid afternoon, I had briefly inspected about a score of beautiful healthy grayling. I truly lost count.

The coincidence? Tom Sturdy was the first river keeper to be employed on the West Tanfield beat of the river Ure.

Thank you Tom, thank you Sheelagh.

Sturdy's Fancy click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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September 2005


What do you call a fly with a dry head and a wet bottom? Answer - a Klinkhamer special. 

This is one of those flies that all anglers wish that they had thought of. In fact, a Dutch angler called Hans van Klinken devised it in 1985. He created the fly to imitate the larvae of huge sedges that hatch in Norwegian rivers and that are the favourite food of the grayling that live there. There is, however, also a Yorkshire connection because Hans came over here to fish the river Ure in 1987. He brought his new fly with him and discovered that the Yorkshire grayling appreciated it as keenly as their Nordic cousins did.

As Hans was in the process of developing his new fly, he discovered that although he needed a fly that floated, it needed to float very low in the water. In fact, he needed something a bit like an iceberg; most of it submerged but some sticking out of the water. The submerged bit is for the fish to see and the rest is for the angler to see. In order to catch a fish with a floating (dry) fly, it needs to be visible. The angler relies upon being able to watch the fly upon the water and looks out for the fish eating it from the surface. The problem is that a low-floating fly is not easy to see and so it becomes very difficult to know when a fish takes it. Van Klinken’s solution is very clever. Most dry flies are designed to float above the surface of the water, held there with the help of a hackle (feather) wound around the fly, perpendicular to the water. If you have a look at the Sturdy’s Fancy from last month, you will see what I mean. Hans changed the position of the hackle; he wrapped it parallel to the water. In effect, the hackle becomes a parachute that suspends the fly in the surface of the water. Instead of the hackle being wound around the hook, it is attached to the base of a tuft of white yarn that is held above the water and is visible to the angler; this is usually called the wing. The next cunning move was to tie the fly on a curved hook, this means that the body of the fly is held below the surface, easily visible to the fish. The cleverness is not over yet though. Only the hackle and the wing tuft are oiled, the body is allowed to get wet and sink. Finally, the wing is made from polypropylene yarn, which is lighter than water and floats.

Now, if you ever thought that successful fishing is all luck, think again! Believe me, the thought that went into the design of this fly is little short of genius.

As I mentioned, the original was designed to imitate large sedges. Over the years, it has been adapted and is sometimes tied on smaller hooks. The wing tuft is only to aid visibility; the fish do not see it. I tie Klinkhamers with various wing colours, so that they can be seen under all conditions, some are fluorescent orange. (Unfortunately they are never as neat as Steve’s are). In all forms, it represents a fly that is half-in and half-out of the water. This is a very natural state of affairs but also bestows an impression of vulnerability. A vulnerable fly is an easy meal and so requires less energy to catch it. A feeding fish automatically favours it.

The Klinkhamer Special is one of the most effective dry flies that we know of. It can be used with great confidence whenever fish are seen to be feeding at the surface, or even when they are not. If I am not sure what the fish are eating, I will tie on a “Klink” until I work out the answer. Frequently, the answer is to change nothing.

Klinkhamer click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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October 2005

Tup’s Indispensable 

During the late summer and early autumn, large numbers of small upwing flies are frequently encountered on many of our rivers. They are often grouped together under the name of “pale wateries”, characterised by their small size and pale body colouration. September trout and October grayling feed extensively upon theses little flies and the angler is well advised to carry an imitation. There are many candidates for the position but there is one that stands head and shoulders above all others. Not because it is more effective, but it is just more fun. Enter the Tup’s Indispensable.

Before synthetic dyes were widely available, fly dressers relied upon finding natural fibres to replicate the colours of the insects that they imitated.

In 1900, a fly dresser called Mr. R. S. Austin sold flies as a side-line to his tobacconist business in Tiverton, Devon. He devised a dry fly that proved very effective at imitating the pale watery. The body of his pattern was made from a fine fur and was a remarkably accurate imitation of the body colour of the natural flies. No-one could work out what fur Austin had used. Furthermore, allegedly in the interests of retaining the monopoly for selling this fly, he kept its source a secret. It seems that he confided in only two people; one was his daughter and the other was a famous fly fisher by the name of G.E.M. Skues, both were sworn to secrecy. Skues published an article which sang the praises of Austin’s fly, naming it “Tup’s Indispensable”. He did not, however, reveal the secret of its construction. As a consequence of this publicity from a well-known angler, it became such a popular fly that Austin is said to have become “utterly sick” of tying it. In 1914 Mr. Austin passed away but his daughter continued the business. When she retired in 1934, she decided that the secret ingredient of her father’s famous fly should be made public.

Remember, Skues had named this fly the tup’s indispensable. Now, all you good Yorkshire folk out there will be well aware that a tup is the proper name for a male sheep. Those amongst you with a bit of Yorkshire “nous” will also work out what is the “indispensable” bit or even bits of a tup!  It transpired that dear Mr. Austin had discovered that the fur that he required could be found on the scrotum of a tup.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this all starts raising a few questions in my mind. I’m not so sure that the secrecy surrounding Tup’s Indispensable was entirely about retaining a business monopoly. For a start, if I had an intimate knowledge of the colour of the wool on a tup’s nether regions, I would definitely keep very quiet about it. Incidentally, I am interested in finding any information about how our friend actually collected the wool from such an inaccessible place. I have visions of nocturnal exploits, on hands and knees, with a candle, shaving brush and a cut throat razor. I suspect, however, that this would be fraught with danger, because tups are not the most co-operative of creatures at the best of times. I can imagine them becoming a bit tetchy if one tried to shave their indispensables. The other alternative is plucking and I simply do not want to go there.

In fact, it seems that Austin may have stolen the thunder of a man called Alexander Mackintosh; in 1806 he published a recipe for an artificial mayfly.

It included the advice “…take a little fine wool from the ram’s testicles, which is a beautiful dusty yellow.” I guess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

By the way, Mr. Mackintosh was the landlord of the Red Lion Inn at Driffield, East Yorkshire. He died in 1829, perhaps trampled by an irate tup.

Before you ask, “yes” the body of Steve’s fly is made of the real stuff, painstakingly harvested with the aid of a hard hat, a head torch and a pair of eyebrow tweezers. 

Tups Indispensable click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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November 2005

Kate McLaren

What did The Queen Mother have in common with Madonna? Not a lot you might think. Think again; the Queen Mother was a fanatical angler, spending many hours fishing on her beloved river Dee in Scotland. Madonna has shown a keen interest in fishing and, rumour has it, even took fly casting lessons.

This month, we are digressing, just a bit; our fly bears a woman’s name and the aim of the column this month though is to focus on women and fishing.

Each year, Steve and I teach a lot of people to fly-fish. A quick calculation suggests that only around 2% of those people are women, yet 50% of the population is female.

The most naturally talented fly-caster that I ever met was a diminutive eleven-year-old girl. I shall call her Jade. She came to one of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s countryside days with her school. After watching me for about ten minutes, she picked up my fly rod and executed a perfectly timed and delivered cast that left me speechless. After a couple of tries, my young friend could deliver twelve metres of fly line in a dead straight line with precision and consummate ease. I suspect that she took careful note of my assertions that successful fly-casting requires timing and finesse; strength plays no part. There were much bigger boys in her class, yet none of them could match her skill. The harder they tried, the worse they became. That’s the crux of it really; fellers seem to resort to brute force and … well you know the rest! Finesse does seem to come easier to women. Our heroine just grinned at her male classmates’ attempts to emulate her own performance. The lady teacher accompanying the youngsters found the episode very satisfactory too. Especially when she proved to be far more adept with the fly rod than the headmaster! I am confident that Jade’s natural talent will never ever be fostered. Had she shown such prowess with a hockey stick, tennis racquet, piano or a violin she would probably have been encouraged. Sadly, our education system seems incapable of recognising skills that fall outside a very narrow band of acceptability. I’ll stop there before I get off on my favourite rant.

So, what two things do Jade and Diana Rigg have in common?  Ms. Rigg is an accomplished fly fisher and both were born in Yorkshire. You can add Faith Brown, entertainer; Fiona Armstrong, newsreader and Jenny Hanley, TV presenter to the list of well-known lady fishers. The sad thing is that I can give you a list as long as your arm of male household-name anglers. A small sample would be Jeremy Paxman, Chris Tarrant, Bernard Cribbins, Ian Botham, Robson Green, Roger Daltry, Eric Clapton and Billy Connolly. This is despite the fact that the first mention of fly-fishing for fun  was by Dame Juliana Berners, an English noblewoman who wrote a book about it in 1496.

I’m not sure why fishing is such a “man thing”, but we have decided to try and address this issue. On May 13, 2006, Steve and myself, with The Salmon and Trout Association, have organised a day of fly-fishing tuition for women only. This will be at Bolton Abbey on the river Wharfe. So, ladies, here is your big chance to join a group of like-minded women for a day in stunning surroundings, learning about the gentle art. Any man who really wants to spoil a girl will undoubtedly arrange this day as a Christmas present, hurry there are only fifteen places available. Application forms are available from Steve, details below.

Before I sign off, yes I do know that the British salmon record is held by a woman. I just didn’t want to upset too many blokes by reminding them.

Oh, and by the way a Glasgow fishing tackle dealer called William Robertson devised The Kate McLaren in the 1930’s. He first used it on Loch Maree in Wester Ross. “Maree” sounds a bit like a woman’s name to us, so the circle is complete.

Kate McLaren click to enlarge

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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December 2005

Two for the price of one - The Christmas Tree, The Breathalyser.

Being near to Christmas, we decided to do a special offer, two for the price of one! So for December, we give you The Christmas Tree and the Breathalyser. Since Steve and I are both Yorkshiremen, this seasonal generosity will surprise no one. As well as generosity, we have that other famous Yorkshire trait, honesty. So I suppose I had better proceed to the confession without further ado. This is simply a cunning plan to soften you up, manipulate you with our magnanimity and persuade everyone to eat plenty of turkey this Christmas. Turkey feathers are widely used in dressing artificial flies. So, the more turkey you eat, the more feathers will be available and so prices will be kept low. Did I just hear someone mention Yorkshiremen again?

During the colder months of the year, fishing for rainbow trout is popular. Rainbows can be absolute suckers for bright, colourful flies that move seductively in the water. Fly dressers need a very soft, easily dyed material to create a wing or a tail that pulsates in the water. Marabou feathers are widely used in the creation of such mobile mouthfuls. OK, I’ve changed the subject from turkeys to marabou feathers. Well, not really, stay with me.

Very soft, long feathers have long been in great demand for making the plumes on military helmets and for trimming posh hats for Ascot. Originally, they were sourced from the Marabou Stork; a carnivorous African bird afflicted with the scientific name Leptoptilos crumeniferus. In Latin, Lepto means fine and ptilo translates into feathers. Anglers found that the same feathers were ideal for creating their flies, and so the Marabou Stork’s plumage was in great demand.

It would give me great pleasure to report another creature brought back from the brink of extinction by the determined efforts of dedicated scientists who prevented its exploitation by man. Not so, in fact the Marabou Stork population is healthy and rising. There are more fluffy feathers wandering around in Africa than you could shake a stick at. I think that the harvesting of Marabou feathers stopped for more pragmatic reasons. Allow me to introduce a little avian anatomy as an explanation. Our friend Leptoptilos stands 1.5 metres tall, weighs nine kilograms and, according to the zoological society, “has a beak like a meat cleaver.” It’s not a pretty bird; the head and neck are bald except for a sparse covering of wispy, hair-like feathers. To make itself more attractive in the breeding season, our fine friend develops scabs on its face. Favourite food includes dead elephants and crocodile eggs. Now, any bird prepared to risk pinching eggs from a crocodile has my respect; I am going to think twice before I try and “borrow” some of its feathers. One bird in Kenya swallowed a butcher’s knife and then regurgitated it, spotlessly clean a few days later. So the message is “don’t mess with Mr. Marabou”.  What finally does it for me though is that, to put it bluntly, the required plumage is located on the stork’s bum. I suppose that one could risk creeping up behind a Marabou Stork, avoiding that beak, but timing is vital. Dear old Marabou has the endearing habit of squirting its own excrement onto its legs. Get the picture? I think that gathering the stuff for Tup’s Indispensible is a piece of cake compared to tackling a Marabou’s rear end. If you are the kind of person with military plumes in your hat, you might just risk it. We fly fishers are cowards to the last. Which is where the turkey comes in. The feathers under a turkey’s wing are very similar to those on a Marabou’s bum. It’s no contest really, for fly dressing; turkey feathers have replaced the real thing. So our fly of the month, The Christmas Tree and has a wing made from (turkey) marabou. What of the special offer? Steve has also tied a fly called the Breathalyser. (Yes, it really does exist). This Festive Season, please enjoy your Christmas Tree, tuck in to the turkey but don’t risk the Breathalyser.

Compliments of the season to all of you from both of us.

Christmas Tree click to enlarge     The Breathalyser click to enlarge

The Christmas Tree    The Breathalyser

Flies dressed by Stephen Cheetham.  0113 2507244.

Words by Roger Beck                        01439 788483.

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© Copyright 2009 Stephen Cheetham, Roger Beck, Yorkshire Post Newspapers.