Robert Smith on tying North Country spiders

Since we’re in fly-tying mode, I wanted to share this. It’s written by Robert Smith, a new friend and fellow aficionado of the soft-hackled fly.

“As some of you will may know, I am a descendant of a famous North Country angler/author. And this simple quirk of fate has in many respects dictated my views in regards to tying the patterns. (Best not mention number of hackle wraps!)

But for the most part, it is the beauty of the materials we use in dressing spiders that has always driven me. I revel in using hackles from antique and obscure sources from the likes of Fieldfare, Owl and Wren. Each hackle has its own individual quality, both from a tying point of view and an aesthetic point of view. As you change individual hackles, the individual barb count changes, and as a result your tying technique changes to compliment these barb counts. (One of the reason why I don’t prescribe to the two turns of hackle mantra!) On some of the denser hackles I strip on side off, on others I wrap with a full hackle. Stripping one side of the hackle allows me more control of the barb count and also produces a neater fly, providing you strip the leading edge of course!

The subtle colouration and shading found in many of the birds we use in dressing spiders is to me at times breath-taking. Simple things such as a Magpie tail or Starling skin, shimmer and radiate an amazing spectrum of colours. Others such as the brown speckle of a Partridge hackle, just seems born to compliment orange silk and bright gold wire! Last year, a friend sent me a Lapwing that he picked up from the field. I was stunned at the beauty of the plumage when I opened the Tupperware box, so much so, that even now utilising its hackles within a simple fly has become a reverential act. The bird and plumage was beautiful, and to my mind, it is only right that the fly I fashion matches this. For me, there is something spiritual about using a fly constructed in some part, from materials obtained from the very landscape that surrounds me.

Though dubbings are often rather overlooked when discussing spiders, I love using old standards such as Fox ear and yes Water-rat. Though modern synthetics have their place, and we have to give Davy Wotton a big thank you in regards to the quality of modern synthetic dubbings. Nothing beats natural dubbings. Years ago after buying a collection of tying materials, I came across an old dried small tin of Crawshaw’s Red Spinner dye, the same used in the dressing of Edmonds & Lee’s March Brown. I’m not afraid to admit that I had tears rolling down my face, as mixed up enough to dye a rabbit skin so I could follow the original tying recipe. And even more so when the fly landed a 12” brownie from the same pool illustrated in their book.

Though the techniques involved in dressing spiders is somewhat simple compared to the complexity of other fly types. They are nevertheless, in many ways harder to master. Simply put, when dressing spiders, you have nowhere to hide! Each wrap of silk has to be deliberate and precise, because a poorly placed wrap of silk has a habit of becoming obvious on a finished fly. The hackle fibres that slant backwards because the first binding wrap of silk is crouching in and collapsing the desired umbrella spread. Peacock herl heads that show tying silk in front. All these things are easy to avoid, but surprisingly often go un-noticed until we hold up the finished fly.

Unlike other fly types, tradition dictates that I can’t even hide my deficiencies under a bulky fur coat of dubbing. Because I’ve taken the words of Pritt, Edmonds & Lee, Leisenring and Hidy to heart, and cover my silks with only a sparse misting of dubbing.
To sum up, there is a quiet confidence exhibited in a well tied spider or soft-hackled fly. They don’t need to scream out with the use of modern materials or convoluted tying techniques. They simply need to be dressed neatly and proportionally, and with a sympathetic understanding of the materials involved.”

One of Robert’s lovely ties, the Black Snipe, No. 62 from Pritt’s book.

rsmithblacksnipe

5 comments on “Robert Smith on tying North Country spiders

  1. Stan says:

    Thanks for this post. My son Eric gifted me with Mr Smith’s book at.Christmas. A wonderful read and enough patterns to keep my vise busy.

  2. Alan Petrucci says:

    It is a wonderful book. I’ve enjoyed it for a some time. I love the histories behind flies and this book has so much.

  3. Ray Hamilton says:

    Steve, wonderful information. I will keep a copy of this to read from time to time. Ray

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