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March 2007 – Fly-tying, train spotting and the complete angler

I’m tying flies tonight. Some people enjoy fly-tying. I associate it with going to the gym: worthy but tedious. Maybe there will come a day when I will enjoy the fiddly work of pinching bits of feather and fur on to a tiny hook with strands of cotton. There is still time.

I offered to host a new fly-tying group at my home. That was before I discovered that my dining room table was too thick to accommodate a tying vice. So everyone has to huddle around the kitchen table instead. Just now that’s not going to be easy since the kitchen is strewn with dirty dishes and spilled breakfast cereal.

My wife is ill in bed in a house with four lazy men, each of whom is congenitally incapable of taking something out of a cupboard and putting it back. Tonight it is parents’ evening at my youngest son’s school. I feel overwhelmed. The fly-tyers might just have to fend for themselves.

I appreciate that there is something extremely satisfying about catching a fish on an imitation fly that you have created yourself. For some the tying can become an obsession and an end in itself, producing nothing less than small works of art.

But I do wonder, and I hesitate to suggest this, since I have plenty of fly-tying friends, whether fly-tyers share a similar genetic code to that of train spotters. While it’s nowhere near as nerdish as standing on the end of a platform with a duffle bag and a notebook – in fact a tying class is quite social, almost therapeutic – tying flies alone can transport the enthusiast far in to the extremities of introversion.

Straying even further in to this minefield of my own making, I can’t help thinking that fly-tying doesn’t seem very manly either. It’s difficult to equate the raw-in-tooth-and-claw struggle between hunter and beast with discussions at the weekly fly-tying circle ranging from the quality of your floss to the length and consistency of a pheasant feather.

Yet, and this is the paradox of fly-tying, if you never spend time making your own flies how can you possibly regard yourself as the complete angler? You might be confident enough to dismiss this question as bunkum. But I can’t be alone in feeling somewhat diminished by the triumphant gift of a beautifully tied fly, expertly selected from his neatly organised fly-box by a fellow angler in commiseration at my lack of success.

If you are that angler, I’m the chap you met who had been fishing all morning with what looked like a dead slug on the end of his line. Thank you for your generosity. I hate your guts.

If, on the other hand, you can empathise with the dead slug experience, you just might be interested in a piece of equipment that shocked me to the base of my waders when I discovered it on the web the other week.

It is a device called the Spinhead, developed and marketed by a Scottish fishing fly business called Grays of Kilsyth* run by John Gray. The Spinhead has an oval blade, not unlike that used in a Mepps lure, attached to a rubber sheath that can be rolled over your salmon fishing fly. At one gram it is lighter than the Mepps and, unlike the Mepps, it is designed to be used with a fly rod.

One look at the device raised my hackles to the extent that I went straight to my blog and dashed off a quick and condemnatory note, all sound and fury. What followed was a thrust-and-parry-style exchange of views with Mr Gray on my blog**. Once upon a time the dispute might only have been settled by pistols at dawn but, thanks to the wonder of email, I would like to think it ended reasonably amicably.

In fact I think he has done us all a service because his device reopens a long-running debate on flies and lures. As early as 1931 Eric Taverner was writing in his book, Salmon Fishing, of the “fiction” of the salmon fly.

In Salmon Fishing, A Practical Guide, Hugh Falkus wrote: “In the sense that an artifical ‘fly’ is a simulated insect, there is almost no such thing in Britain as fly-fishing for salmon.”

He went on to say: “Does this mean that salmon fishing should be a free-for-all; that anglers should be able to fish any method they wish on any water at any time? Most certainly not!”

The Spinhead is designed to be cast on a fly rod and line. I have no objection to its use on waters where spinning is allowed. But what about those waters that have been designated as fly only? Mr Gray says: “River owners could change the terms from fly only to “fly rod only”. That would be the sensible approach.”

I leave the last word with my fishing friend, Drew Short: “To me the issue is simple. One lure has a flashing blade the other hasn't; one spins, the other doesn't; therefore one is spinning and the other is not. A fly is a lure which does not spin, a spinner is a lure which spins. The rest is semantics.”


**You can view the debate Lies, damned lies, and so-called fishing flies in my blog.

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