The North Country Spiders

The wet fly patterns known as “North Country Spiders” came to prominence in Englandolde flies new flies around 1885 with the publication of Yorkshire Trout Flies written by T. E. Pritt.  But some of the patterns had been around for a long while prior to the 19th century. Say, three to four centuries before! They rank among the first recorded patterns in British fly-fishing history and they remain popular in many parts of Europe and North America.

North Country spiders are elegant, simple, and effective. They actually have very little to do with arachnids. Their generic name stems from the hackles that are wound around the upper hook. The hackles are soft feathers taken from a grouse or partridge and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwrapped once or twice around a thin, short body. The hackle may resemble the legs of spiders, but even more so, they represent the legs and wings of insects hatching just below the surface of water. On the one hand, the flies may imitate emerging bugs while, on the other, they could be mistaken for dead or dying adults.

The success of these patterns is largely due to the movement of hackle in each push or pull of water current. Soft hackle responds like the movement of natural body parts. The imitations are sparsely dressed. They are generally fished near the surface where the “legs” lie tightly at the body’s side, moving forward when the drift begins to slow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m not sure what inspired me to suddenly tie some spiders, but I think it had to do with the Vernal Equinox. It was the first day of spring but the weather looked anything but spring-like. A driving snow kept me near the wood stove in the afternoon. Minutes passed and the snow gave way to a burst of golden sunlight and a dearth of wind. I went outside and walked with a very different weather. But the sun didn’t last long. Wind and snow returned, and I went back to the tying vise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted to produce something that was spare and simple, something to give me hope on the trout streams in the weeks to come. I needed something made by my own average hands, something with a link to a season that was all too slow in getting here.

I said, “North Country Spiders” and I thought of the various northern districts of England  giving slow birth to the fly patterns that survive today. There was music in the wrapping of silken threads around a wet fly hook. There was music in the search for an adequate hackle to wind in front of a dubbed thorax.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I thought of Brian Eno’s song called “Spider and I.” It’s an easy song to hum to. The lyrics are deceptively simple. Spider and I/ sit watching the sky/ on a world without sound,/ Knitting a web/ to catch one tiny fly/ for a world without sound./ We sleep in the morning./ We dream of a ship/ that sails away/ a thousand miles away….

If you check out the tune on You Tube music (type in “Brian Eno, Spider and I”), you might note comments like, “The best song about a spider ever written,” or “one of the most beautiful songs in the history of rock.” It’s hard for me to argue such sentiments. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWritten in 1977, amidst the welter of a very different punk rock universe, “Spider and I,” like other songs from Eno albums of the mid-1970s, proves that beautiful, expansive music can last for years to come.

I held the new spiders in my hand. They looked a bit ratty, overdressed, perhaps, but the hint of elegance was there. They held new connections for a fine spring day with trout. They were small flies, old ties to early chapters of fly fishing history in England …like a ship that sails away… (not quite) …a thousand miles away.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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21 Responses to The North Country Spiders

  1. More evidence that I’m probably not smart or patient enough to be a good fly fisherman. Great read, Walt.

    • Jim, One thing I’ve learned in more than 30 years at this game is that there’s always more to learn (which makes it fun!) but there’s even more that you can leave alone (ignore) and still have fun! Like in many areas, you get out what you want to put in. A kid with his first poor cast of a fly line may have as much fun as an expert going after salmon with a dry fly. I’m proof you don’t have to be real “smart” at this! Thanks for the reading and comment!


      • Bob Stanton says:

        Love the soft hackle! It is the original “low-tech, high-concept” fly. I’ve often thought that if I were a brave man, I’d dedicate a season to fishing nothing but soft- hackled spiders. I’d bet that my fish catching wouldn’t suffer much at all.

      • There it is, Bob, the “low-tech, high-concept” fly, the soft-hackle. Well stated. I think I’ve entertained the same fantasy a few times, in the wonderful name of simplicity. I’m not that brave yet, either, fearing I would miss my other favorites. But sometimes… when I’m trying to decide which fly boxes to leave behind (currently I try to limit myself to carrying no more than four)… I wonder if I could do it, carry just a box of really old patterns.


  2. Brian Young says:

    Doc, good call on Spider and I. Also the song By This River might be appropriate.
    Really enjoy your blog, despite having only fished once in my life, my good man.

  3. Steve Culton says:

    Pritt used more than grouse and partridge hackles on his North-Country flies, among them woodcock, snipe, cock, hen pheasant and water-hen. I don’t have his book, but I have Sylvester Nemes’ Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies, and those are just some of the materials in the fly patterns listed. Many Yorkshire flies also have a head of peacock herl, which only adds to their sex appeal. Love, love, love North-Country Spiders. Always glad to see others with the same affliction.

  4. Very nice flies and read.
    Seems like everyone right now is getting the fly fishing bug.

  5. Dear Doc Young,
    Thanks for loving “Spider” and the album Before & After Science! “By This River” would also be appropriate to the theme, wouldn’t it? Always appreciate your input and musical knowledge, buddy!

  6. Steve,
    Thank you for adding to the general knowledge here. Yes, there were other birds that contributed and still contribute to the North Country flies, a fact that I was aware of but neglected to mention (for better or worse), in the name of keeping a general introduction fairly simple. The Nemes books are the go-to reference on the subject for people getting interested in the use of soft-hackle flies. Thanks, too, for suggesting peacock herl for the head. I’ll use it for the next ties that I make.

  7. stevegalea6953 says:

    Very nicely done Walt. I’ve been tying a lot of soft-hackles myself and I plan on dedicating most of this season to using them.

  8. Ken G says:

    I’m starting to think that you and I are the only ones that ever put references to Eno in posts about fishing. Since he pretty much invented punk years earlier, he had already moved on by 1977. I have similar flies in my collection of flies with no names. No names cause I don’t pay that close attention. But they are killer on those Illinois bluegills.

    • Ken, Not surprised that you have Eno references in your blog, but I don’t recall one, as yet. Maybe you can steer me toward one; I’d be interested. Yeah, those soft-hackles are so spare that they could easily be nameless. It’s part of their beauty. Illinois bluegills, NY bluegills love them too.


  9. Steve Culton says:

    Look up the Grey Partridge (AKA Grey Watchet) and the Winter Brown. Two fine examples of Yorkshire flies with peacock herl heads. The GP is a fine choice when Light Cahills are out and about.

    And thanks for letting me play.

    • Thanks Steve. Will look up these old patterns. This could be a stupid question but, is the herl stripped or natural? I presume you mean the latter.


  10. Steve Culton says:

    No such thing as a stupid question here. Your instincts are correct. I use just a couple-three turns.

    • Steve, Thanks again. I checked some photos of these interesting critters and have to admit the herl-head is distinctive on an otherwise lean body. Have materials, will tie.


  11. Sometimes sifting through the annuls of history, we find common things that need more attention. My soft hackle eyes are open sir.

    • Thanks, Mr. Backcountry! And the truth of your statement certainly applies to flyfishing which, more than any other so-called sport, has a history that is deep and very colorful.


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