David Rice Fishing
Irish Fly Dressing
This article relates to wet flies used for Lough fishing. Generally Irish dry flies would follow the standard formulae used the world over as regards proportion. The same cannot be said for Irish Lough flies.
What I hope to convey in this short article is a sense of proportion and colour used by the Irish for this type of fishing, which is almost unique. I write this as an angler coming from England and now living in Ireland and also as a materials wholesaler and fly manufacturer. Having not been introduced to Irish flies until later in life and also handling the volume of capes and flies that I do, perhaps I bring an almost unique perspective to the discussion. The differences in the national styles, is apparently not obvious. I have seen many articles written and published in magazines by visiting English anglers showing Irish flies, which were dressed by the visitor. In many cases no self respecting Irishman would have tied the fly in the style presented. Firstly it is worth considering what the intention of the fly is and why Irish flies are different. The Irish Loughs (as in the Midland Loughs and the Western Loughs) are great expanses of water with a population of wild fish. Firstly this means that the fish have all the instincts which have enabled them to survive for thousands of years in these waters. It also means that from the moment of birth, the were potential prey to other creatures. Only those with appropriate reactions to a threat survived to maturity. In other words they are wild and wary. Secondly you cannot expect a fishing water that is replenished largely by natural breeding to maintain the stocking density of an artificially stocked small rainbow fishery. Frequently these small fisheries have a stocking density well in excess of 100lb of fish to the acre. This is certainly higher than you will find in a naturally maintained fishery. What does this mean for the angler. Well firstly you cannot expect, having missed a fish, for that same fish to come to your fly a second time - it's long gone. OK so you will get some repeat takes, but not to the same extent as you would with Rainbow trout. Secondly as the fish are not exactly shoulder to shoulder in the lough, you need to cover a lot of water to cover a lot of fish. This means drifting. As an Englishman reared in the Lake District and having subsequently worked and fished in many parts of England, I can state without fear of contradiction the Irish loughs are of a completely different nature to English lakes and reservoirs. So leave your drogue at home, you don't want it in Ireland. When you hear of a nice ripple being a two foot wave, they mean it. I have never seen waves on Windermere, for instance, even in a howling gale like the rollers, that can cross lough Ennel, even in a modest wind. In July of this year ('98) I went to Sheelin to meet someone before a competition. You could see the waves breaking on the shore a mile and a half away and throwing up great walls of surf, earlier in the day there had been a six foot wave on, this is still considered fishable. The drogue in such circumstances becomes downright dangerous. When you start talking about lough Mask with its jagged limestone slabs thrusting up at you as you fall into the trough of big wave, the thought of the drogue suddenly snagging at this instant is the stuff of nightmares. So we've painted a picture of how we're to fish. We'll be drifting along at a rate dictated by the wind. We'll be fishing in a good wave with plenty of broken water in it, what sort of fly do we need. Well you can forget going deep. The boat is moving along at a rate of knots and there's no chance even with a fast sinking line of getting down more than a few feet. The boat is rapidly moving towards where your fly landed, so you've got to start stripping at almost the moment it hit the water just to stay in contact with your team. The water you're fishing may be up to fifteen feet deep on the midland loughs, so we're looking for something that will make the fish think it's worth moving that distance to devour the morsel on offer. This is in my limited experience is less so of the Western loughs where the part of the lough that is actually fished tends to be shallower than this. What is the answer to our prayers? Well fortunately there are several, the mainstay however is the bushy bob fly (usually a bumble). How do you describe such a fly?. Well to Americans with their precise nymph and dry fly imitations on small hooks, I usually say "half a chicken on a shark hook". This is of course a ridiculous exaggeration, but conveys to the uninitiated perhaps some of the effect we're going to try and achieve. Irish top dropper flies often seem to be massive in appearance when compared to the insect life actually flying around, then you hold them up to the light and it suddenly becomes an ephemeral object surrounded by a halo of light. The good examples of flies like the bumbles have well picked seal's fur and contrasting hackles wound down the shank that gives a mixture of light and dark on the fly. Commercial claret bumbles, for instance, are all too often seen with only a single drab claret hackle along their length with a tightly packed body of wool or some other cheap body material. This is done, of course, in the interests of costs. The public in UK/Ireland expects flies at only a fraction of the price paid by Angler's in the USA, Italy, Finland etc. OK you've got a fly in your hand called a "Claret Bumble", but in no way does it compare in visual effect to a properly dressed fly. If I were buying flies, I'd rather pay the little extra it costs for a decent proven fly than a pale imitation of it. One of the most common faults I see in angling magazines when talking of bumbles is the length of the hackle fibre. All too often, the English version of the fly is tied with far too short a hackle. The barb length, when measured from the feathers shaft to the barb tip, should be at least as long and preferably slightly longer than the hook length when measured from the eye to the end of the bend. Such a feather when splayed looks massive, but tie it on and palmer it and it looks right.
False hackles and head hackles. This is going to be a broad generalisation, with many exceptions, but nevertheless is a trait I do not see in English flies and is therefore worth a mention. The Irish fly will quite often have a fully wrapped head hackle where the original dressing may have dictated a beard or false hackle. Furthermore the beard hackle, if one were to follow most tying manuals, would reach the point of the hook. Not so the Irish hackle. Here the hackle will reach the rear of the bend giving a great flowing mass of life to a fly on a rolling wave. This, to my eye, completely changes the appearance of the fly.
Colours - I know I'm going to get lots of disagreement here, especially as a 'blow in', but I'll stick my size nine in my mouth anyway. Firstly it is important to remember that the trout sees in a different spectrum to we humans and therefore the colour we see is certainly not what the trout sees. If we took two dyed hackles from different capes of apparently the same colour, but dyed in different dyes and asked the trout were they the same, the chances are he'd say "no". This is simply because the different chemicals used as dyes for the two hackles have different reflective properties when moved out of the human visible spectrum. Therefore being too pedantic about colour can be somewhat none productive. However here are a few "secrets" of Irish colours.
Golden Olive - beauty is in the eye of the beholder on this one. There are two different colours, both described as golden olive. The first has a predominantly yellow base, with a dash of olive added i.e. it is a yellow olive, this is what you will see all over England sold as golden olive. The same colour also appears in Ireland from dealers importing from English wholesalers. The second version is variously described as "golden olive", "western golden olive" or sometimes "Rogan's golden olive" (after Michael Rogan of Ballyshannon) and is much the preferred colour in Ireland. The big secret is there is absolutely no olive in it whatsoever. It is in fact gold or burnt gold. I recall having a conversation with Tom Schmuecker (head man at Wapsi). I had sent various sample capes to him and asked him to copy the colours. I had written the usual stuff of "well, hold it up to the light and you can see a faint olive hue at the edge of the hackle". This you can certainly convince yourself exists. Tom however, despite his years obviously has better eyes than mine. "I've read your letter ten times" he says "looked at the hackles as many times and I still can't see the olive - it's gold". He then when on to accuse me of seeing the fairies and drinking too much of the rocket fuel available as bottles of "holy water" over here ( when you get caught by the Gardai, the appropriate response is "Sure, 'tis a miracle". Of course in the end I had to agree he was right - at least about the colour. He further proved himself right by dying some beautiful Chinese capes for me.
Claret. Again much argument to be had here. Lots of dressers ask for a really dark claret (nearly black). Certainly this is the preference for the shrimp flies. However, I go with many professional fly dressers in Ireland and use a much lighter shade of claret. The secret is it can't be produced from a claret dye. The colour is actually more a maroon than a claret and the colour is produced using scarlet and purple dyes in the correct proportion. When dyed this way, although the hackle looks claret in reflected light, it positively lights up with transmitted light. The colour being almost a shade of magenta. When used to produce a claret bumble and tied with a good black hackle, the fly suddenly has life. I often use Grizzle dyed this shade to produce a Claret Bumble with only one feather. The reason you don't see the cheaper commercial flies doing the same thing is that good Grizzly cannot be found in any sort of quantity on anything other than genetic hackle. In fact I now produce nearly all my Irish wet flies using genetic hackle.
Sooty Olive - I think almost a consensus could be reached on this. Sooty Olive is simply as much dark olive dye as you can force into the hackle and then it needs a smattering of brown. The American equivalent of this would be sculpin olive, except sculpin olive is not so dark.
Fiery Brown. Again it is likely that a consensus could be reached on this. It is an orange brown. In my experience, the colour is best judged by looking at the back of the feather rather than the front. There should be a distinctive orange tinge to the feather on the back, this is much less pronounced when looking at the front. This actually tells you something about hackles which should be noted when judging colours in future. The back of a hackle, even a near white hackle is rarely the same colour as the front and the dye absorption properties, or at least the resulting apparent colour also appear to be different.
Fluorescence. As mentioned earlier, trout do not see in the same visible spectrum as humans and veer towards the UV end of the scale. What is noticeable from my point of view is the bright vivid colours used by many good flydressers and anglers here. Firstly the dye density used by many is high. By this I mean no wishy washy colours but plenty of dye absorbed by the feather giving a really strong colour. No washed out half hearted dyings. The other aspect is changing from, say a yellow hackle to a fluorescent yellow hackle can really liven a fly up. Certainly I know of a few who claim this as the secret of many of their patterns. Do not be afraid to try it. However we are not talking garish lures here, merely the changing of one component of a fly to brighten it up. The difference can be subtle to the human eye.
Black. Many black dyes do not dye black, they dye dark blue. Even those that appear black, when viewed under a UV lamp are far from Black. This is why many Irish professionals will use only natural black. If you care to read that most readable of all fishing books "A man May Fish" by the late Mr. Justice Kingsmill Moore, he, when creating the Kingsmill found only one material that was black in UV light and that was natural black Ostrich. So, I maintain, it is with black hackle. For the purist only the natural will do.
Green Peter green. I have to mention this as the knowledge has been gained through many an argument. Text books say "Pea Green Seal's fur". I used to sell five different shades of wet Green Peter. I eventually discovered that everyone has a different view on what shade of green that should be and my five shades would not satisfy everyone. In fact, I am firmly convinced, had I the proverbial forty shades of green, I would still get some "expert" telling me I didn't have the right colour. By how much the Peter actually varies in colour from lough to lough, I wouldn't like to say, but equally it is clear that there is some variation. What I do know is the paler shades, tending towards the brightness of insect green are the most popular (in pure selling terms). I sold a dry peter with a really bright green body, and tied with a grizzle hackle rather than a red game, that I know killed a lot of fish, both on the Brosna river and on many a local lough, large and small. I had several reports back that the fly considerably outfished the more traditional dressing. So my answer as to "what colour is Green Peter green?", is "take your pick".
Hook sizes. Here I am to some extent drawing conclusions based on the volume of hooks and flies that I sell. Without any doubt whatsoever size 10 is the most popular size for brown trout. Second would come size 12s for when there is not such a good wave and in third place would come that veritable shark hook of a size eight. Very very rarely do I get asked for hooks larger than an eight in a trout hook (actually the same is also true for Salmon hooks). Demand for fourteens is there, but the three sizes mentioned, I would say account, in percentage terms, in the high nineties. I do get asked for variations in hook styles. The standard wet fly hook which would be the most popular would be a Hayabusa 761 or similar. This is a heavy wire sproat hook with the weight to cut through a wave. If your not familiar with this hook, a Kamasan B175 appears to be identical even down to micrometer measurements. As an alternative to this, some would go for gape. This means buying a larger size hook with a short shank. The theory behind this is that the point is not as obstructed by hackle on a palmered fly, such as a bumble, as the standard shank hook. I wouldn't like to state a preference here. I'm not sure, other than as a confidence measure in the fly, it makes any difference at all. Lake trout are generally speaking not gentle sipping creatures. You either get a good pull or the fly isn't taken at all.
Perhaps surprisingly, in these times of cheap flies, there are still a lot of professional and semi-professional fly dressers in Ireland. I do not see these fly dressers as competition for my own commercial operation, but rather I am happy to sell them materials and encourage their efforts. Here however, I am going to pass opinion that will please some and infuriate others. The best of them are truly great fly dressers in the best traditions of Irish fly dressing. The flies are the same time after time. The colours and proportions are right, the same number of hackle turns is used each time. They use real seal's fur, real bronze mallard (a lot of Irish patterns specify its use) and Golden Pheasant tippet and topping. The flies are also finished properly and won't come apart at the first false cast. In short, quality materials are chosen and put together with experience and care. Flies of this quality tied in Ireland from the best fly dressers are likely to cost you about a pound apiece and rightly so. Unfortunately there's the other end of the scale in evidence also. Flies lashed together for a cut price as bad as some of the cheap foreign flies I sometimes see. Not only are all the materials poor quality substitutes, but the hook is also suspect in such cases. I would run a mile from such offerings. I even know of one company based here, thankfully no longer trading, who were boxing up poor quality Kenyan flies (I mean poor quality by Kenyan standards, there are some good flies that come out of Kenya) they were getting from a big name English tackle dealer and were putting the "Guaranteed Irish" symbol on the box. I was given these flies as Irish flies and asked to comment on them. When I said they looked like bad Kenyan flies (everything sub, rubbish hook, wings tied on at strange angles) I was told where their origin was. I then asked how was it they could put the "GI"(guaranteed Irish) symbol on the box. The answer was because they put the flies into the box and thus the product was considered made in Ireland. This may have been legal, but I would argue somewhat economical with the truth. So you know what to expect. As in all walks of life there are the good guys and there are graspers. If you find a good fly dresser and are prepared to pay the little extra for a quality product, look after him. The good ones usually have plenty of business and don't need you giving them earache. Give them the time to produce the flies for you. You cannot reasonably expect someone to drop everything to lash you up a dozen peters because you forgot to order them and you are going fishing tomorrow. Many of them will, but it gains you an entry into the black book and will be noted for next time.
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