I’m afraid January was another difficult month for us, mainly warm and wet, and with the rivers consequently too high to fish. One high pressure spell of dry weather gave some marginal opportunities during the first week and there was another brief dry spell around the 20th. The rest of the time it always seemed to be raining, and if not actually raining hard, that sort of indeterminate weather which might be described as low wet cloud or good old-fashioned drizzle. I managed to get out trotting several times, but it would have been nice to have seen some more of the sun.

Going to the results, on the 4th January MH from Llandrindod Wells had another decent day on the GPAIAC water at Builth Wells, taking 13 grayling with the trotting rod. He noted a number of his fish were cormorant damaged. On the previous day at the Severn Arms Ithon water, MJ from Hereford recorded just one grayling despite feeding enormous quantities of maggots into the water. He was concerned to count no less than 23 cormorants on the stretch he was fishing, which is a very large number for so small a stream. The waters rose again as the rains returned and it was around the 20th before another period of high pressure began to reduce the levels once more.  We also experienced clear skies and one of the frosts which have been so rare this winter. Several of our more determined anglers turned out to try the grayling fisheries. On the 21st BS from Llantrisant found himself fishing Cefnllysgwynne in a freezing fog (minus 5 degrees) and managed 4 grayling. MH of Llandrindod Wells also had 4 grayling on the following day while trotting the GPAIAC water. MB from Cwmbran had 4 more fishing nymphs upstream at Doldowlod. The Irfon by the 23rd was just about right, or even perhaps too clear for ideal trotting at Cefnllysgwynne, while the Wye was clear and dropping steadily. However, rain soon came back and spoiled it all again and few more grayling were caught. The coarse fishermen were still able to manage some barbel, chub and pike from the lower river.

Irfon grayling colours
The Irfon in winter, high cold and clear
January grayling

A winter of floods such as we have been experiencing is bound to produce anxious thoughts about the spawning season. 2019 was not much of a year for the salmon run on either of our rivers, any more than the drought year preceding it was. On one hand and trying to be optimistic, the high water of the last months of 2019 must surely have ensured that any salmon within the system could travel pretty well as far as it wanted to? On the other hand, the first part of the winter was remarkably warm and usually it is the advent of cold frosty weather which finally provokes the red cutting and spawning. In warm weather does the spawning go ahead after a few days, or does it delay further until a real frost comes?

Many creatures were confused by the mild weather this year. At Epiphany I watched a bumble bee come cruising through our garden, searching for nectar in a few winter pansies flowering on the terrace. That is a sight I would expect to see on a sunny afternoon at the end of March. Rooks were already noisy around their nests. Large dark olives were hatching from the rivers on most afternoons as they usually do in January, but what was going on under the racing brown waters? Were many redds cut and were they subsequently washed out by floods? This is always a period of uncertainty; with the river in flood, we are largely reduced to guess-work as to what is happening. Bearing all this in mind, it was something of a relief while grayling fishing on the upper Wye during the first week of January, still in relatively high water, to find the big fish still busy on that section of river. A couple of hens were sloshing regularly on a pool tail and the corpse of a spawned out male kelt lay on a nearby beach. Similar sights were recorded from the Gromaine beat downstream.

Winter day in the Irfon valley
End of the cycle - remains of upper Wye cock kelt

When there’s no fishing to be had in winter, there’s always fly-dressing ready for next season. I always feel slightly sorry for anglers who buy their flies, on the basis that they seem to be missing out on half the pleasure of the sport. Of course it’s great to catch a fish, but even better to catch one on a fly you made yourself. I don’t claim to be particularly good at dressing flies, but I have been doing it for a long time and I would like to share a few ideas on the subject. 

Now this next statement may be bucking a popular conception, but over the years I have been blessed with nice mothers-in-law. It was the first of these ladies who still possessed a hat which must have been fashionable when she was a very young woman, even as long ago as the time Mrs Simpson was Stealing Our King. The main feature of this vintage hat was a mass of golden pheasant feathers, most of the bird’s body plumage in fact, attached to a lining and arranged to curl around the head. Deciding that there was very little chance that this hat would ever becoming fashionable again, and taking pity on a son-in-law in the early stages of learning to dress flies, she donated it. The thing kept me going for years until it was finally pulled to pieces; I still have Bann Specials and other Irish shrimp patterns made from it and I never managed to buy a better skin, despite its age. I also got another 1930s black hat, made of feathers from some unknown bird. I seem to remember that there was a mink stole I had my eye on as well – an opportunity to have invented Minkies years before their time - but I don’t think the good lady could bear the idea of that being cut up. And the second mother-in-law, bless her, who had been a seamstress in an earlier life, used to run me up such useful items as reel pouches and rod bags. When I’m trotting for grayling I still use a bait pouch she made for me.

Golden pheasant
Sporting game birds still supply much of the fly dresser's needs

Back in the sixties and seventies we did have a much more limited range of fly dressing materials, although I was already buying from mail order catalogues. Veniards of Caterham were the big supplier in those days, although they later restricted themselves to wholesale business, and later again Sue Burgess was the company to buy from. All the tying thread which everybody used was Pearsall’s Gossamer silk. These silk spools are now quite a rarity, which have to be hunted out and then carefully hoarded. Of course there was a reasonable range of hackles, feathers, seal’s fur, and simple gold and silver tinsel, with which most of the regular and well-known patterns could be constructed. (The word “holographic” for tinsel was still unknown, although my father, who was an optical physicist, was already working on something which would become known as a laser-produced hologram, gratings and the science of holographic measurement. The first generally known hologram, I think, appeared on a credit card). I am reminded that in those early days I used to have a small tin of picric acid powder, used for dying capes and fur to an olive yellow colour.

Thankfully that tin has disappeared or been left behind somewhere over the years; in these more safety conscious days it’s known as an explosive growing more unstable with age and I gather that some school chemistry departments have decided to call in the bomb squad to dispose of the stuff! Marabou plumes, actually a substitute from a domestic turkey rather than the original and rare Asian stork, were not then listed in the catalogues, although they were to revolutionise rainbow trout fishing when they arrived.

Meanwhile, most of us were busy raiding the work baskets and knitting bags of elderly female relatives in order to construct the bodies of flies. A redundant sweater of any interesting colour was likely to get snipped. Today you can buy almost any shade or texture of dubbing you could imagine, all ready to be picked out from a plastic container with a dubbing needle and rolled round your waxed tying thread. I am not sure that the market for fly-tying materials in the UK is growing, but it is certainly changing. The likes of Sport Fish and Glasgow Angling are still offering a range of both traditional and modern materials. Fishtec pulled out a few years ago. Cliff Waters had a very fine range, but they have now closed. A few specialists in the north still offer materials for making spider patterns. At the same time we have a number of new firms catering for the modern nymphing specialists with wide ranges of weighted beads of different kinds, specialised hooks and many other items from Eastern Europe.

Waterhen skim
Coot's wings

In the old days we had to be innovative when we wanted to add a bit of flash or colour. The silver paper inside cigarette packets and coloured sweet wrappers were all pressed into service. The Jersey Herd lure was named for a copper-coloured milk bottle top. Do you remember the “Crisp Packet Buzzer” in which wing-bud cheeks were constructed using a particular shade of orange used in Golden Wonder crisp packets? I used to order a pint of strong cider and a pack of cheese and onion crisps in the Rising Sun before a tying session. Nowadays we can buy a very nice range of what I call “bling” – artificial materials which sparkle and reflect the light in different ways. The choice of Angel Hair, Krystal Hair, Glister and the rest is very nice to have, although I don’t think they totally replace peacock herl, plain gold tinsel and some of the older ways of adding a little glitter. I would also argue that it is easy to overdo the glitter and I think fly dressers today need something of an artist’s eye to decide just how much of the new materials is enough to add. This particularly concerns the blending of natural materials with artificial.

For example, there is no doubt that marabou plumes produce a wonderful, sinuous movement for a rainbow trout lure once in the water. But there is a tendency nowadays, particularly in magazine articles, to automatically suggest the addition of strands of glittery material, perhaps pearlescent Crystal Hair, intended to cheer up a long tail of marabou. This certainly looks great in a photograph while the fly is dry and mounted in the vice. But I wouldn’t do it, unless the artificial glitter has the same sinuous movement as the marabou once in the water. In practice it doesn’t; almost all artificial materials are stiffer and thus tend to inhibit the free movement of the marabou. Lately I have been taking the scissors to a number of rainbow trout flies tied a few years ago. (On the subject of movement, do please check your fly in the water before you begin to fish it. I make a point of trailing a salmon fly next to me in the water for a moment to see how it swims. Is it on an even keel; is the hook in line with the nylon leader; is the dressing flickering enticingly in the current? How bright does it look? Is that the effect you intended?

You should do the same with trout wet flies of all kinds and especially spiders, which look very different in a current to sitting in a box or stuck on a fly patch). New glitter materials on salmon flies are generally easier to incorporate. Buck tail and squirrel hair which are intended to be moved through flowing rather than still water have a slight natural stiffness which matches well enough in movement with the artificial materials. You might, however, find a mismatch with some of the softer materials now being used such as arctic fox and Finnish racoon. As you select your materials to add, you need to consider amount, colour blend and match, and also length. Pay some attention to colour and get an idea of the overall effect you want.

Bucktail
Bling

It’s the Irish who care most about colour in their flies. In fact everything about the island of Ireland somehow seems related to colour, particularly green or orange. I have a relative who, in his younger days, taught art at a Belfast college. All went well for several years until, this being the time of the troubles, some of his colleagues began to suggest that he couldn’t keep playing the Englishman, neutral and aloof from local disagreements, for ever. He really should now take a stand and join the Orange Order along with the rest of them. Wisely he chose to decamp across the border to the Republic, where in Connemara he set up a highly successful painting school which exists to this day. And it was in Connemara that he began a most wonderful series of paintings of wild bog plants and sky-reflecting lakes, a series in which vivid colour took precedence over form and which he himself decried as “not really commercial.” They may not have sold so well, but I always thought it was the most attractive work he ever did. The late Rod Tye was another English professionally trained artist who chose to move to Ireland and concerned the rest of his short life with fishing the great loughs of Connemara and designing trout flies in which colours were carefully blended. I still use some of his sedge patterns.

Tying table - never a tidy sight
Genetic capes

Irish anglers are indeed punctilious about colour; once I had a whole batch of Green Peters I had tied up with great pride rejected at a single glance. Wrong shade of green, you see. The Irish recognise at least six shades of olive. What do you imagine is intended by the instruction “claret?” In fact there is a choice of dark claret, light claret, magenta and something I would describe as blood orange. Try to avoid rigid uniformity because I think a random effect looks more natural. I would always have a dubbing blend rather than a flat colour, so that the light will catch on individual fibres to contribute to the overall effect. For example, if black is called for, don’t just dig out a wad of dyed black seal’s fur. Instead, add a few strands of blue and green, possibly claret, then try the result under the light. Go slow.

These days I tend to mix up different colours of seal’s fur in my fingers, dropping them into a white bowl now and then to see what effect has been reached, rather than chopping them all in a coffee mill or similar. Of course you can make up virtually any colour by referring to a chart of primary, secondary and tertiary shades. However, do experiment a bit, depending on what commercially dyed colours you have available. For example, I have just been making up a batch of the brilliant Chocolate Drop dry flies by Dennis Moss. This one is an Irish sedge imitation. Real chocolate, you might consider, is nothing but a dull matt brown. But look close and you might see hints of purple and other colours. I made my Chocolate Drop bodies by mixing black seal’s fur into the main quantity of fiery brown to dull it down, adding a little claret and then a few strands of bright orange, blue and even green. At any rate, the effect gives me confidence. Charles Jardine, perhaps because he is yet another trained artist, is an example of a fly designer who sees a need to spend time on mixing the colours. Just see his formula for mixing seal’s fur to make the body of his Pulse Damsel: 40% medium olive, 40% golden olive, 10% orange, 5% yellow, 5% claret. This on the face of it is influenced by the fact that natural damsel nymphs are usually olive in colour, but can vary all the way through to brick-red. Personally, I think the Pulse Damsel, particularly in its larger sizes and made with a broad rib of pearl Mylar, looks more like a striped perch fry than any insect. Never mind; trout love it.

Seal's fur
Pearsall's silk

By the way, don’t dub fur too neatly onto the thread before winding on the hook. If the result is too tightly compressed, pick out the fur with the dubbing needle so that the rib sinks deeply into it. Fish like hairy and untidy flies much better than neat ones. While you are at it, give some thought to the rib and what it is intended to achieve. In the example of a salmon or sea trout fly, the main purpose of a silver or golden rib may be to add a bit of glitter. In which case, make sure that it can be seen and don’t go on to obscure it by overdressing a cloaking hackle or wing. The other purpose of a rib is the protection of the body material in order to ensure a decent working life for a fly which will be subjected to casting, currents and the teeth of fish. Nylon monofilament used as a rib, being more or less invisible, usually has no other purpose than protection. Seal’s fur, ostrich herl and especially peacock herl are all quite delicate materials. So if tying a Diawl Bach or a Black and Peacock Spider I usually cross-wind a very fine copper rib, for no other purpose than to ensure the easily broken herl body lasts for the capture of more than one fish. On the other hand, tying a Cats Whisker with a Green Highlander seal’s fur body, I sometimes take the opposite approach and deliberately leave the rib out. This results in the vivid green of the body bleeding into the white of the marabou wing and tail as casting goes on. The fly doesn’t last for ever, but the trout seem to like the effect. Tie them up by the dozen and fish each one while takes last or until it falls to pieces.

Davy Wotton's SLF dubbing
Dubbing mixing

Returning for a moment to the subject of tying thread, the old Pearsall’s silk was wonderful stuff and it was remarkable how consistently the producers kept to their colour card over a period of centuries. However, it could never be made as fine and strong as some of the modern threads. Today I generally use Spanish Uni-thread in 8/0 or finer, or occasionally Danville’s Spiderweb in 30 denier if I need a thread so fine that it will not bulk up at all in the head. The exception is when I need to bind down the roots of deer hair or other coarse fibres, in which case I need to get a firmer grip on the materials, for example when making Muddlers or Sedgehogs. In that case, I will choose a thicker 6/0 thread size which allows tighter binding. There is a nip and tuck technique for binding in the roots of deer hair: two gentle turns to get a slight grip and position the hair where you want it on the hook, then pull down harder on the third turn to lock it. I should add a word on the subject of waxing. Modern thread spools are normally marked with a W if they have been pre-waxed. This is not intended to make thread stronger – it doesn’t – but it will improve the grip which thread has on materials. I usually add some soft dubbing wax if I want seal or other fur to adhere to the thread for a body. When you want to make a “noodle” of dubbing on the thread in order to bind it on, remember to roll it several times in one direction to tighten it, not back and forth which will alternatively tighten and loosen.  The other likely reason for waxing thread is to change the colour, especially when the thread is wet. If the pattern calls simply for “waxed thread,” use ordinary pale brown tyer’s wax which is hard, warm it in your hands and pull the thread quickly through the edge of the block a couple of times to friction-melt the wax for a split second. There is a knack to this; if you hesitate in the pull-through, the wax will harden and grip the thread which will break. If the pattern recipe calls for “well-waxed thread,” use black or dark brown cobblers wax. This is typically for patterns like Greenwells and is designed to modify yellow silk into an interesting olive-brown colour.

Waxes
Arctic Fox

I usually don’t, these days, tap the tail or wing fibres on the desk in a hair stacker to have all the tips in line. I sort them out with my fingers to have them at slightly different lengths. While selecting the bling to go on top, try to keep the same random effect. A good tip is to avoid even numbers of strands. When I was at art school many years ago, I don’t think we got much work done. Art school when I arrived impressed me tremendously, seemingly being full of long-haired, mini-skirted girls, nude life models and what is more all the interesting people in British rock music apparently had just come from art school. At last I had joined the liberated sixties, or so I imagined! However, I’m truly sorry for the people who tried to teach me, because while I just wanted to splash lots of vivid oil paint over a canvas in a vaguely impressionist manner, they very wisely wanted to make sure I could draw a bowl of fruit accurately before getting on to that. Meanwhile this was 1968, so when we weren’t holding a sit-in objecting to the art school curriculum, we were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam outside the US Embassy. Happy days of youth in Grosvenor Square; we had reached the age when we had to demonstrate about something! Young people will always choose a demo over classroom work.  However, when we actually did do some art, I remember it being pointed out to me that any skilled landscapist introducing figures, for example in a street scene, will do so in odd numbers. One figure works, as do three, five etc. Two, four, six or eight look plain wrong. No, don’t go off to count the matchstick figures in your favourite Lowry painting. Just take my word for it; when tying your favourite salmon fly and you want a bit of glitter, try three strands of different lengths or maybe five, but go easy with it!

Badger cape
Dyed Chinese cock cape

Let’s look again at this matter of untidiness. I don’t claim to be a “neat” fly-dresser and never have done. I’m not so old-fashioned as to tie in the fingers without a vice, as was once almost universally the case, but I do use my hands a lot. I don’t use a bobbin holder, working rather with a pre-cut length of thread, and I half-hitch when I want to pause the operation. I have watched an audience from the Fly Dressers’ Guild catch its collective breath in shock when I have finished off a fly with a couple of half hitches rather than a whip finish. Never mind, with a dab of varnish all will be secure.

After 50 years of doing it, I dress flies not for their own sake or for art’s sake, but for catching fish and I have long learned to have faith in my own flies over most shop-bought ones (although if I am asked to endorse commercial flies, I can usually recommend those from Fulling Mill). I have a theory that any really effective fish-taking pattern is also going to be relatively simple to make and I have developed a suspicion of over-complex designs. The only exception which springs to mind is the Secret Weapon family of sea trout lures, for which the hook mounts take a bit of work to make up in batches. Some things, of course, turn out to be mistakes which may well prejudice your chances with fish. I’m thinking of over-large hackles and over-long wings. Size is important, obviously, as is overall colour, and proportion is very important. Traditional wet flies look easy but are surprisingly difficult to get right, merely because the length and angle of the wing and throat hackle are so important. If in doubt, always dress lightly rather than heavily. If you get the size and proportion of an impressionistic fly right, you don’t need to worry too much about the detail. To give just one example, I wouldn’t dream of allocating two fibres for the tail of a March brown imitation and three for the tail of a mayfly, just because that corresponds accurately to the number of tails on the natural insects. It has been said before, but I don’t believe trout can count. So I select a bunch of fibres to do the job which will continue to support the fly, even after a few have been chewed off. The natural nymphs which Sawyer’s Pheasant Tail Nymph is intended to imitate all have three short tails, slightly longer ones in the case of the blue-winged olive. I usually advise selecting 4-6 cock pheasant tail herls for making this pattern and I prefer 6 herls to 4.

Cock pheasant tail fibres
Common pheasant

We are blessed today with genetically produced hackle capes and saddles of superb quality, although my goodness we have to pay for them. You should still make a close inspection before making your choice. Prise a hackle feather up from the cape and see how stiff the barbs are and how densely ranked on the stalk.  You should be able to get several dry flies from a single hackle plucked from the cape. Watch out in particular for a “hunger trace” which can ruin a whole cape and sometimes slips through the inspection process even in the case of the expensive American capes. This occurs when a bird has been starved or sick for a period, and the normal growth of the feathers is temporarily interrupted. It shows as line of missing barbs right across the feather. Certain colours are still hard to obtain and there is much confusion about what they should actually look like. Blue dun, for instance, needed for some great old patterns, can best be described as a sort of warm grey with just a hint of bluishness about it. Coch y Bonddu hackles go black/red/black, while furnace is just black/red (working from the inside). Greenwell’s is usually red/black/red, but some suppliers interchange them with furnace. I have only once got my hands on a really good honey dun cape.

Hackles also need a careful eye when blending. I am a great fan of patterns which involve two hackles of different colours. Even three different colours can sometimes be used in the case of mayfly imitations. The particular pattern we all know and admire is the Adams or Parachute Adams, which combines a brown or red game hackle with black and white grizzle. Experiment with hackle turns to get the effect which looks right to you. You should find you need twice the number of turns of brown or red game to match the grizzle to get that “pepper and salt” effect. The use of two hackles, one long fibred and one short, can substitute for those multi-coloured hackles like furnace and honey dun which are hard to find. Incidentally many people find parachute and Klinkhammer style flies difficult to make. In fact nearly all of them are quite simple; it’s just that you need a third hand to hold the wing-post up while you wind the hackles round it. If you don’t possess that extra limb, buy a gallows tool which is a perfect solution to this problem – put the looped wing post through the hook in the bottom of the spring and apply a little tension. Then cut the loop out when you are all finished and in the same action cut the wing-post to length.

Tying lens
Gallows tool C
Fly dressing tools

Some of the traditional items have been difficult to find for many years. I do still have a spool of the famous Chadwicks 477 wool, which is coloured a sort of reddish fawn and used for making Frank Sawyer’s Killer Bug nymph. No, I’m not going to sell it, although it does seem to me that the Killer Bug works better on chalk streams than on our free-stone rivers. It also worked for me on the Devonshire Axe, I remember. Another difficulty has been the obtaining of the right sort of copper wire which is an essential ingredient to make Sawyer’s Pheasant Tail Nymph. This needs to be very fine and not too bright in colour. If it is coated with lacquer, the covering should have a dull purple/brown colour to it. Fly-dressers of the fifties and sixties used to raid the transformers on redundant valve radios or those old Bakelite telephone handsets to get it, but I imagine these sources are now used up. More recently, Flybox produced something called a micro-wire (0.09mm) in colours brown and cranberry either of which, if you can find it, will do the job very well.

Cookshill Fly Tying of Staffordshire is probably your best bet for some of the more difficult bird feathers needed to construct traditional spider and similar patterns (Lathkills in Derbyshire are also good at times). Often a substitute is necessary. Some of the herls for making bodies, condor herl for example, can successfully be substituted by dyed goose herl. Golden Plover has been a problem for a long time off and on – this was one bird which in the 19th century was apparently almost wiped out by supplying the fly dressing and millinery trades. You can now buy a Brahma hen cape dyed golden olive which makes a very good substitute. Another ongoing problem over some years now is the need for under-wing covert feathers from the water-hen (or moor-hen) which are used to make the excellent Water-hen Bloa spider. You will probably be offered coot as a substitute, but you will find that these are coarser feathers and the substitution is not altogether satisfactory. If you do use coot to make Water-hen Bloa, select the over-wing coverts rather than those from beneath the wing.

Jungle cock is another traditional feather deserving a specific mention. The expensive capes come from Sri Lanka and southern India, where the bird certainly used to be quite common. I remember being impressed by the numbers of jungle fowl we were seeing in a Sri Lankan game reserve, while the tracker, oddly enough, was more excited by a mallard encountered on one of the tanks. Mallard was a rare sight to him, while I was trying to explain that we have mallards everywhere in the UK. Real jungle cock with its little eye catching burst of colour was and is the most wonderful way to add a sighting point to salmon and sea trout flies, not to mention some of the wet flies used for brown trout on upland lakes. In this case, the plastic substitutes I have tried have not impressed me at all; my advice is to splash out and buy the real feather as a cape

Jungle cock

Over in Eastern Europe, fishermen until more recently were using any material which came readily to hand. Polish and Czech nymphs were originally being constructed from material like salami skin. In my wife’s home town of Mostar, anglers have always fished the rushing green waters of the cold Neretva in its canyon. As I remember it, this was not exactly fly fishing as we know it; the sport was carried out “Austrian-style” with telescopic rods and fixed spool reels loaded with nylon. A pear-shaped lead was attached as a paternoster to the end of the reel line and cast to bump along the rocky bottom many feet below the surface while the angler felt at the rod tip for the pull of a trout. But each of the droppers above the lead carried, not a baited hook, but a kind of artificial fly or grub, reminding me of the old Grasshopper grayling lures from the Teme. They were constructed by winding different colours of wool in various combinations around a hook. Although today they use a wider variety of flies and methods, I am pretty certain that Mostar anglers are not ordering materials from Veniards yet, but still rely on their wife or mother’s sewing baskets or the wider family’s wardrobe for what they need. If fish aren’t biting, they have a saying: “Ako nece na Mujin pulover, hoce na Suljin dzemper.” Which roughly translates as: “If Mustafa’s pullover doesn’t do the trick, try Suleiman’s jumper.”  Or in other words, if this isn’t working out, change the fly for one of another colour. That would be good advice for a grayling or trout angler anywhere, I’m thinking.

Much more recently, I started to eye up another item of head-gear, this time belonging to my daughter. I think I mentioned before that our daughter, a dental nurse, is also a soldier. She mostly works in Belfast now, but her previous posting was to the headquarters company of First Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, which is based at Ternhill up in North Shropshire. It’s a slightly bleak bit of open countryside, but there is the little River Tern, a Severn tributary, creeping around the base of the hill and the camp. Coincidentally enough, one of our students at the staff college a couple of years ago was appointed to command of the battalion, beginning in October. I advised him to take no nonsense from my girl – much to his amusement and her subsequent annoyance! This is an old regiment – they were at Waterloo as the Inniskilling Regiment of Foot – and justifiably proud of their uniform and traditions. They were more recently known for the inspirational speech of a previous commander, Col Tim Collins, before the battalion went into action in Iraq in 2003.

The Hackle
Red game or ginger cape
Hare's mask

When they adopted my daughter as one of their own, which they did with great kindness – “that’s the wee dental chick” - they also gave her some of the uniform to wear, including a green beret, which is known as the caubeen, (nothing to do with Jeremy) to replace the previous black one, and surmounted by a marvellous plume of vivid green. The Rangers of the regiment know this plume as the hackle – and what better name? I had to bide my time, but I had been pre-warned that they would all get a shamrock and a new caubeen, hackle and all, on St Patrick’s Day. After the parade the pipes would be playing Killaloe, making everybody’s eyes turn misty, the Rangers would give their shout and march in to a jolly good dinner followed by a party which would go on for most of the night – and I could get after the old hackle with my scissors! I didn’t miss my chance. Take a close look at the photograph. How many Green Highlanders do you think I can make from that?

Following on from this, I’m getting the idea that in the spirit of Buchan’s John MacNab it might be possible to collect more materials from military sources. There is also a red hackle worn in the British Army; do we know anybody serving in the Black Watch? The Royal Welsh Regiment still has a white hackle. Also, I’m pretty sure that those oval tinsels in gold and silver for making ribs originated with the same suppliers who provide military braid for the epaulettes and cap brims worn by the more senior ranks. Would we need to kidnap an admiral or an air marshal in full dress uniform to acquire a life-time supply? That would be a bit risky perhaps, but I have just remembered an opportunity missed. For a while at the staff college we had the company of two colonels from the Italian Carabineri, delightful and sociable fellows, who even during the working day wore the most wonderful uniforms in black with piles of braided silver added to the shoulders. There is nobody like the Italians for designing dashing uniforms. I missed my chance there; I’m sure they would not have noticed the loss of a few yards of tinsel.

Dynaking vice
Indian vice
Gold twist - Royal Canadian Navy

Finally a word about fly-tying vices would not go amiss. You can spend from less than 20 pounds to over 500 pounds on a vice these days. Most of us start out with one of those simple models with the two halves of the jaw pressed into a brass block and opened by a large side lever rotating a cam. These are extremely easy to operate and quite a few of the old professionals used to use them. As a design, it’s probably as good as anything for somebody wanting to try out the craft. Back in the day we used to call them Indian vices and you used to hear stories about some of the very cheapest versions being made by Afghan refugee kids in backstreet workshops in Peshawar. (One could worry about exploitation of juvenile workers in Pakistan; a more dangerous alternative I used to see in Afghanistan involved little boys scooping propellant out of discarded shells so that their uncle could make a profit on the brass casings).

At the other end of the price range, we can find some beautiful pieces of machinery made by the likes of Stonflo, Snowbee’s Waldron-designed vices, HMH, and the Dyna-King vices which are made in California. Most people who enjoy fly-dressing eventually progress to one of these for the sheer pleasure of using them. An important point to remember is that what really matters is the quality of steel used for the jaws. Cheap vices are easy to use at first, but over time the metal of the jaws will start to flatten and spread so that hooks are no longer held securely. The hardened steel of really good vice jaws seems to last a lifetime. The one I have used for many years is a Dyna-King Supreme. My friend Lyn also has a Dyna-King, but in his case he opted for the fully rotary version. This keeps the hook shank exactly in line with the axis of rotation, so that it is possible to rotate the fly and jaws as a unit, rather than winding with the thread. I like to have a material spring, a useful addition which costs almost nothing, ready on the shank of the vice to park threads etc out of the way until needed. Another very personal choice is whether to have your vice mounted on a heavy base plate placed on the table or screw clamped to the edge. I prefer the base plate idea because clamps always seem to come loose sooner or later, although vices with clamps are of course lighter when travelling.

As for February, any opportunity to exploit the last weeks of the grayling season will be entirely dependent on the rain ceasing for a while. Keep your fingers crossed and tight lines!

Oliver Burch 

Wye Valley Fishing